Misogyny in comedy (or why rape jokes are never, ever funny)

By Samantha Butcher | 2/13/12 12:38am

This is my first blog post as editor in chief, and while I will be updating this Editor’s Desk blog weekly to talk about the story behind the stories at GVSU, I have something more important to discuss in this inaugural post.

Like many of my fellow Lakers, I attended the Last Laker Standing semi-finals and Friday night and laughed with my friends as the 10 comedians did their admirable best trying to entertain the crowd and win their votes.

However, I noticed an alarming trend during the competition that didn’t seem to bother my classmates as much as it bothered me. At least two of the 10 comedians made jokes about rape during their sets, and three devoted time in their set to jokes about child molestation and pedophilia.

Just in case the problem with that last sentence isn’t immediately obvious (and it should be), I’ll be clearer: rape and other forms of sexual assault are not funny. Period. The end. There is no “except,” “unless” or “but” that follows that statement. Sexual assault and abuse are not, and never should be, a punch line.

When it comes to humor, I’m not one who’s easily offended. As a general rule, I like comedy that’s vulgar, boundary-pushing and inappropriate. But rape jokes are different.

The FBI defines rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Are you laughing yet?

How about when I tell you that, according to a study done by the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Defense, one in five women are raped in their lifetimes? Or that, according to research from the Medical University of South Carolina, victims of rape are dramatically more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and substance abuse?

Sounds like a laugh riot, right?

As disturbing as it is to me that multiple comics on stage thought rape and molestation were appropriate stand-up fodder, the more disturbing thing is that the crowd laughed. Not in a polite, awkward, I-don’t-really-know-how-to-react kind of way – a serious, knee-slapping, damn-these-jokes-about-assaulting-women-sure-are-hilarious kind of laughter.

Some of these guys (yes, all guys) were voted into the top five. Some weren’t. Regardless, that level of not only tolerance, but encouragement, perpetuates the rape culture that so many of us – regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or political affiliation – are so desperately trying to overcome.

This kind of “humor,” and the endorsement of it, insinuates that rape itself is a joke – that somehow, women are “teases” or “asking for it,” and that the people who rape them are blameless in the matter. It also does male survivors a different injustice – they imply that those survivors don’t exist.

As much as I squirmed in discomfort during the acts, I was preoccupied more with thoughts of all of the survivors in the room who, statistically, were not only present, but also numerous and varied in gender, orientation, race and age. Survivors who went to the Kirkhof Center on a Friday night to hear some stand-up and maybe support their friends, and instead sat and listened to (male) comedians reduce their personal trauma to a routine.

The jokes told by the comics at Last Laker Standing weren’t the first of their kind, nor will they be the last, but every time somebody jokes about buying a “rape kit” when they buy condoms or watching kids through binoculars at parks and calling “dibs,” it belittles the experiences of people who have been raped, molested or assaulted.

Only when we refuse to stay silent can we begin to break down the rape culture that transforms a devastating violent crime into a joke.

Make some noise.


For more information or to get support, contact the GVSU Counseling Center, the GVSU Women’s Center or Eyes Wide open, GVSU’s peer sexual assault educators.

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