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Sunday, February 24, 2013

When Jokes Cross the Line

A while back, I heard someone say that rape jokes are important and we should not oppose them, because jokes are how we deal with traumatic situations. That sounded like an interesting argument, so I figured I’d think a bit more about it.

The context of that claim was the story of a comedian show. When the comedian made a rape joke, someone from the audience yelled “rape is not funny.” Into the somewhat embarrassing silence, the comedian joked on, saying something about how that woman likely had been raped by a few people.

The person I heard talk about this went on to claim that first, it was ok for the comedian to make a rape joke in the first place; and second, his reaction was ok because the woman broke the rules of a comedian show by yelling that in the first place, so the reaction was her own fault. Never mind the completely ludicrous victim blaming in the second part. Let’s talk about the first.

Jokes Without Objects of Ridicule

When talking about inacceptable jokes, I have been told that all jokes have an object of ridicule, a victim, and therefore if I oppose jokes that target people, I oppose all humor.

While humor is subjective, and there might be people who don’t find anything funny unless it makes fun of a person, as a general claim this is clearly false. A whole category of jokes, puns, are funny not because they make fun of a person but because they put language in a surprising or unexpected context. Then you have jokes about absurd situations which work by a very similar pattern to puns, by placing known situations into a surprising and funny context. And so on.

All in all, as a great fan of puns, I really pity people who believe that jokes must always have a victim to be funny.

But there are funny jokes which do have a victim.

Jokes With Objects of Ridicule

The person I heard this argument make initially put up a joke as an example:

How many policemen does it take to change a light bulb?

None, they just beat up the room because it’s black.

This can be considered borderline offensive, but it can also be funny. Why? This joke makes fun of policemen in the US and their, sadly all too real (Durose 2007, p.8), bias of targeting black people. The object of ridicule in this joke are the policemen, a group of people who are in power.

Conversely, if you oppose this joke, you either understood it as downplaying the problem of police violence against blacks, that is, it is targeting a group without power. Or, in a completely different angle, you consider police officers to be a group without power being at the whim of the group of blacks who use claims of oppression to discriminate against policemen, so this joke, again, targets a group without power and is thus inacceptable.

Let’s try another one.

Why are black people like sperm?

Only one in a million actually works.

I would consider this joke inacceptable. Not because it targets people, but because it makes fun of a group of people who are generally not in a clear position of power. It’s especially bad because, in addition to making fun of that group, it repeats and reinforces a claim of prejudice that is regularly used to discriminate against this group.

These considerations leave us with a clear rule for when a joke is acceptable and when not:

A joke with an object of ridicule can be acceptable if that object of ridicule is usually in a position of power.

This fits and supports a number of more or less funny jokes targeted at bosses, rich people, politicians and the like. And in those cases, the claim of the person I mentioned initially is perfectly accurate. The joke is used to deal with more or less traumatic incidents and helps people without power to deal with this feeling of impotence.

Of course, this is not an absolutely clear line. As we have seen with the first joke, you can interpret jokes in different ways, and of course whether a target group is in a position of power or not depends greatly on your personal outlook of society. Jokes are inherently subjective. But it’s a good rule of thumb.

Now, how about the original topic—rape jokes?

Rape Jokes

The sad reality of rape jokes is that most of them make fun of the victim. Most of them normalize rape as an acceptable and amusing situation between people. Often, they play into victim blaming by implying that if the victim just hadn’t done something or other, they wouldn’t have caused the rape, and in such a situation, you can’t really blame the rapist. Some of them even imply that the victim had fun, too, after they got past their initial reluctance. They celebrate the rapist and make fun of the victim, thereby reinforcing the whole rape culture where rape is borderline acceptable in the first place.

They do not help the victims to deal with the traumatic situation, and they do not help us ridicule the rapist and make that position of power a less desirable one.

And that’s why they are inacceptable.

Now, there are rape jokes out there that actually do not do any of that. From a comedian show:

So he thought that I thought there were sexual predators running up and down the halls of the resort where I was staying, and that all the management decided to do, instead of springing for some security, was just to run down to the local Kinko’s and run off some shoddy, low-rent sign that just said, ‘No moleste.’1

Haha, that management sure is bad at dealing with sexual harassment! The object of ridicule is the management, not the rape victim, and the management sure is in a position of power. This is an especially good one, actually, because it makes fun of a real issue, where rape incidents and threats are not taken seriously and assumed to be minor misdemeanor.

Again, humor is very subjective, and we should be careful even with this kind of humor in what company we are. There is nothing cool in deliberately upsetting people, so if we get asked to stop that kind of humor, we should do so out of respect for other people.


Yes, jokes help us deal with traumatic situations. Not all jokes do that, though. Some create and reinforce the social situation in which those traumatic situations occur in the first place. Hence the argument I heard is blatantly false. We do not need to accept all forms of humor, and when we make jokes, we should be careful who we are targeting.

I’d also like to add another point especially about rape jokes. During my research (yes, I research stuff like that before making claims, as sickening as it is) I noticed that most rape jokes, both the stupid ones and the good ones, are heavily focusing on the stereotypical outdoor rape situation where a rapist jumps out from behind bushes. This is a blatant misrepresentation, as that kind of incident amounts to as little as 10-25 % of all rape cases.2 The vast majority happens between friends and acquaintances, and a lot of people do not realize that forcing their partner to have sex against their will is also rape, and no less traumatic. No means no, and this is such a huge issue in our current society that we really need to be more careful about the messages we send.