*** Trigger warning for discussion of rape and rape jokes ***
I caused a bit of a twitterstorm this morning, moaning about misogyny and rape jokes during two Edinburgh Fringe Festival gigs we attended last night. This is now me, trying to work it out, in the way that writers often do try to work out a problem, by writing about it.
It actually started last night, during the aforementioned gigs,
Tom Stade. Don’t bother.
11:21 PM – 25 Aug 12
This tweet was after we walked out halfway through Stade‘s act at the Pleasance Ace Dome. He started well, with a “wedding video” supposedly from Las Vegas. If it was genuine, then it was him getting hitched seventeen years ago. The theme of his set then followed the deterioration of his sex life with his wife, parodied against the sex life of a couple in the audience who were relentlessly targeted. In fact, Stade’s whole delivery and single-track obsession was relentless. Relentlessly boring. It basically involved dropping as many f-bombs as he could in as short a time as possible.
As a measure of his material, he was upstaged no less than three times by audience members; immodestly, I was one of them. In the first instance, after harrying this couple for some time, Stade spoke man-to-man to the husband, saying something like, “We have had sex, right?”, meaning that neither of them were virginal. The man snapped back, “With you?”, catching Stade off mark, and getting a huge laugh and applause.
Finding no more leverage with the couple shortly after, Stade turned his attention to others in the front row. He asked a young man, sitting with his girlfriend as part of a bigger party, who the older man was in their group. “My lover”, came the lightening reply, again to rapturous applause and leaving Stade stumped.
My applause came as we were leaving. We were not the first to go and Stade was clearly rattled that people were tiring of his “comedy”. He challenged us with, “Now, where are you going?”. After so many tedious “jokes” about fucking, I threw one back at him, “To fuck!”. They were still laughing and whooping as the last door closed behind us. Well, I guess you had to be there. In fact, you could have had our tickets!
We were depressed at our unlucky choice, but encouraged that the night was not yet a right off. We had tickets to Best of the Fest, a mystery compere and line up at midnight. So, expect drunken and raucous.
Jim Jefferies was the surprise compere of what turned out to be an all-male line up. He again started well, but a few minutes in and we had more fuck jokes, but now also rape jokes. His first guest was Jimmy Carr who read from a list of new material (paedophilia and rape jokes, that sort of thing), so it wasn’t really a set, just him trying stuff out. He didn’t announce this, but the audience twigged on and he pretty much got booed off the stage a short time after someone had shouted, “Pay your taxes!”.
About then, I tweeted,
Jimmy Carr really not good. jimmy Jeffries still struggling.
Rape jokes not cool.
12:32 AM – 26 Aug 12
Comedy ain’t as funny as it used to be. Funniest moments:
everyone taking the piss out of Jimmy Carr’s taxes.
1:00 AM – 26 Aug 12
Jefferies returned to the stage, also made a Carr tax joke, then a joke about if Michael Phelps had been a “thalidomide“, then a joke about having fucked Phelps’ girlfriend, then another couple of rape jokes. I think I snapped when Jefferies suggested the solution to needing more holes in a woman when there aren’t enough for the number of men wanting to fuck, was to get a knife and cut some more. Sitting in the third row, I called out, “Rape jokes are not funny”. He asked me to repeat it, which I did, and there was a murmuring through the several hundred people audience. Jefferies shrugged and asked, “Who to? Yes they are”. I answered, “Not to the people who have been raped”. To which he responded, “I’ve never met anybody who has been raped”.
Despite his answers, I was never going to win an argument. A person on stage with a microphone and a cache of rehearsed putdowns is in a powerful position. I wouldn’t have minded a little support from the rest of the crowd though, and there were a few “Yeah”‘s in agreement with me, but these were drowned out by laughter and applause when Jefferies added, “You laughed just a minute ago at me calling Michael Phelps a thalidomide” (in all honesty, I didn’t. It wasn’t funny), and, “So, where do you draw the line? You’ve got to be able to make jokes about everything, otherwise you can’t make jokes about anything”.
I’m still trying to work out this fine line for myself. But, my sense of decency, moral outlook and, since this morning on Twitter, an understanding from the rape victim’s point of view, informs me that rape is different from many other targets in comedy. Leaving the show last night, I despondently tweeted,
I heckled, “Rape jokes aren’t funny” tonight and got shouted down.
Evidently, having a measure of decency is supercilious in comedy.
1:22 AM – 26 Aug 12
Of course, I may have been a little disappointed that we ran into Tom Stade again! (Although his set this time was an improvement on the earlier gig, because of a more varied content that only briefly covered some of the previous material.)
How unlucky can you get? Pay for a Tom Stade gig; walk out.
Then he’s back for Best of the Fest. Shit! Comedy is poor.
1:33 AM – 26 Aug 12
But, hey! At least I wasn’t put down as one heckler was with this line from another of the comedians, “I hope you die of AIDS”. Hilarious (not).
This morning, still smarting, I tweeted,
Shocked and horrified by misogynistic “comedy” at Edfringe last night.
Only one “comic” not telling hateful rape & fuck jokes. Never again.
11:19 AM – 26 Aug 12
which got picked up and retweeted quite widely, eventually by Graham Linehan. Several people replied to defend comedy, including Robin Ince and Josie Long, and I agree, there are many many great acts. My personal favourites (in no particular order) are Simon Munnery, Dylan Moran, Stewart Lee, Michael Legge, Robin Ince, Josie Long, etc, etc, etc.. (FYI, the lone comedian mentioned was newcomer Daniel Sloss, although, it was his “AIDS” line, and someone has since told me that he does have rape jokes in his repertoire*).
Other replies tried to defend the freedom of expression in comedy. That everything is a potential target. This is the same hackneyed, tired and worn out argument being dished up for free speech in other forms of media. For example, by this standard, it is evidently acceptable for groups known to be associated with murder to be allowed potential means of income via YouTube. It is also acceptable for Google to be paid income revenue for hosting video gore showing footage of actual suicides, murders, and the aftermaths of violent deaths.
There is an interesting philosophical divide here. I was paid to write a book about serial killers that documents murder. As was pointed out to me via a comment on the Google advertising article above, in a sense I have profited out of those deaths. So, what is the difference in Google and their Advertising Revenue partners profiting from these videos? Is it enough that they are visual media whilst mine relies upon description? Probably not, but it still feels that there should be more honour in the ethical intent of writing a book. But, now I’m not so sure, and I’m left struggling with this contradiction.
There is no doubt in my mind that rape jokes are unacceptable in any form however. There are no good rape jokes. None that make the subject any funnier than the horrid reality that it is for any rape victim. And for me, that is the crux here. The victims of these crimes are alive, survivors, trying to be strong and get on with their lives, while no doubt carrying a lot of hurt and psychological scars. They attend comedy shows and have the right to be entertained like anyone else. The role and ambition of the comedian is to be entertaining, successful. Exalted even. Sometimes they use shock and discomfort, but striding the fine line is an art. So, why do these particular comics want to cross that line and further hurt anyone who is already in pain? It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to realise that your audience is likely to contain people who have suffered sexual assault, stillbirth and disabilities. So, why would you want to make fun of rape, dead babies and birth defects?
How do I know victims of sexual assault are hurt by rape jokes, and do not find them funny in any form? Because, after this morning’s twitterstorm, quite a few direct (private) messages were sent to me, saying any mention of rape in humour is awful for them. I think we have to take their word for it, and no one has provided an opposite view. Instead, survivors have written to me saying everything from, ”very strongly opposed to the idea that people could ever find that funny”, to “It simply isn’t fodder for humor of ANY kind”.
Unless someone can speak from a victim’s point of view to counter this, then currently it is an overwhelming “no” to rape jokes. Perhaps this time people will listen and believe them,
“In all of this, something has been forgotten: that real-life rape, unlike sex, is always a serious business. If a man is falsely accused, it has the power to wreck his life. If a woman – or indeed a man – is the victim, it can do the same thing. We certainly hear a lot about “free speech” from those who will go to the wall for their right to make light of sexual violence. But rape is the opposite of freedom: it means that the victim wasn’t free to say “no” and be heard.“[Whether you're a politician or comedian, rape is seriously unfunny business: Saying ignorant or unfunny things about rape is becoming dangerously popular]
Compassion is only one of the important reasons why rape jokes are not acceptable, but in my eyes, it is what separates me from these comedians and those YouTube profiteers. I write for my readers, my audience. My intent is to also entertain, and yes, sometimes using extreme material as the subject of my writing. Some profanity and gore, to set the hairs on end. But I never wish to upset anybody, insult them, or hurt them. So, as far as possible, I avoid doing so. The rapes in my serial killers book are written about matter-of-factly and there is no sensationalism. I certainly don’t make light of rape.
There is additional important evidence from psychological studies into sexual assault that conclude rape jokes desensitise the topic, demean victims & normalise culprits. A good example is,
Social Norms and the Likelihood of Raping: Perceived Rape Myth Acceptance of Others Affects Men’s Rape Proclivity Bohner, Siebler & Schmelcher 2006 Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 32, 286-297.
This next quote comes from an interesting blog article discussing that paper in the light of US Congressman Todd Akin‘s attempt to introduce the concept of “legitimate rape”.
“Acceptance of rape myths is not just a product of a sick mind, but an unfortunate response to subtle and not-so-subtle messages from social groups, family, and media that communicate the legitimacy of these beliefs … this research does not suggest that anyone who holds erroneous beliefs about the causes of rape will go on to commit rape. But these beliefs can nonetheless contribute to a culture where rape victims are more likely to be questioned and blamed (and to question and blame themselves), and perpetrators are more likely to be excused or even encouraged.” [She Asked For It: The Destructive Impact of Rape Mythology]
There seems to be very compelling reasons why not to tell rape jokes, so the question remains, why are comedians and their audiences so keen on them? One suggestion is that,
“The theories offer an explanation of some people who might find rape jokes funny: people who have not been paying attention to the world around them. The privileged, the wilfully ignorant. They might find rape jokes funny. It says a lot more about them.” [Why rape jokes aren’t funny: the science]
The suggestion is that rape jokes are perpetuated through ignorance. Remember Jefferies’ clever retort, ”I’ve never met anybody who has been raped”? Perhaps he would have a different opinion if he did know a rape victim. Until then there is a real and worrying outcome likely from this ignorance,
“Imagine that you are a comedian. You tell a rape joke, and 20 men in the audience laugh. Of these guffawing pricks, 19 of them are, at best, tedious little solipsists … The other one is a rapist, who will go home thinking his behaviour is perfectly normal and everyone’s in on the joke.“ [Why rape jokes aren’t funny: the science]
The discussion about what is acceptable in comedy has been burgeoning over the last decade. Here is a good discussion of these boundaries by Chicalolita, but I do not believe rape can be included for the reasons that such jokes are not acceptable given above.
Rape seems to be the new discussion topic, especially after the recent Daniel Tosh rape joke debacle. There are even examples being proposed in discussion of what constitutes a “good” rape joke: How to Make a Rape Joke & 15 Rape Jokes That Work. Notably, we are told that one of these lists was compiled by a rape victim, but this seems to go against the correspondence I have seen on this topic from rape victims and counsellors, the majority of whom think any rape joke is unacceptable.
In fact, as stated, there is no acceptable way to make a joke about rape, but if you are going to, then make sure it is an attempt to put an end to such material. Here, Sarah Silverman was not being hypocritical when she recently accused fellow comics who use rape jokes of being weak and cowardly because, as she says, who’s going to protest?
“rape, the most heinous crime imaginable. Seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. Because it seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.” [Sarah Silverman on Rape Jokes (7-6-12)]
And if victims of sex crimes are not in a position to protest, then others must stand up for them, to change attitudes and educate the ignorant. As the research mentioned above shows, this isn’t only in respect of rape victims, but also to take action against there being future victims. Another comedian speaking out on this subject is Murdoch-foamer, Jonnie Marbles,
“This is just a plea to stop making the circuit a place where women don’t feel safe or comfortable. I know it’s your right, and your passion, and nobody can stop you but please, for the love of being a halfway decent person, would you stop? Stop triggering terrifying memories. Stop undoing the hard work survivors have done to overcome trauma. Just please, please stop telling rape jokes.” [Dear Comedians, And People Like Me Who Think They're Comedians: Please Stop: Trigger warning for discussion of rape and rape jokes]
I was going to suggest that, in a comedic vein, there really is only one way to settle this. No! Not like that, but a challenge to any rape joke-making comedian, to present their material to a group of rape victims. But, after today, I realise that would just be sick and torturous for that audience, and the answer is a lot simpler, and already reached by Jonnie Marbles. It is self censorship.
“Just please, please stop telling rape jokes”
Please continue to read the updates and comments below to follow the ensuing debate, and note that there is a follow-up article to accompany this one called, Rape Jokes Are Dangerous.
* UPDATE DAY 1: Daniel Sloss made contact on Twitter; I tweeted him the link to this article and he was gracious in response, but note the admission of ignorance which I find untenable as an excuse. I’m also left wondering what perspective could possibly defend the likely encouragement of a rapist. This was the conversation that resulted (to which Mike Dalena also contributed).
DS: I’m not gonna read this, but thanks x 2:05 AM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: hi. there is a very good argument for dropping the rape jokes. [To not] “desensitise the topic, demean victims & normalise culprits” 2:07 AM – 27 Aug 12
DS: it’s probably a great point. No doubt. But I’m going to stick to what makes my audience laugh. I can only apologise to the rest 3:09 AM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: Understood, but there is a real danger rape jokes encourage rape, and ignorance in your audience feeds it. Make a difference? 4:30 AM – 27 Aug 12
DS: I disagree. But I am 21 and therefore ignorant. I appreciate your opinion, but I have my own as well. Sorry 5:11 AM – 27 Aug 12
MD: Can’t you meet the challenge of making your audience laugh without using rape? I have two friends that were raped. 4:41 AM – 27 Aug 12
DS: I can see where ur comin from. But I approach it very differently from a different perspective. We’ll disagree. Sorry 5:15 AM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: You are also clearly clever & funny (at Best of the Fest). Ignorance is no excuse; the article has your required information. 7:31 AM – 27 Aug 12
MD: Okay. You’re entitled to that. But do me a favor, please. Walk into a rape crisis center and… 2:55 PM – 27 Aug 12
MD: tell the women there that you think what happened to them is funny. Look them in the eyes and tell them… 2:56 PM – 27 Aug 12
MD: tell them their rape was funny. Only then will you be entitled to go on stage and tell all the rape jokes you want. 2:57 PM – 27 Aug 12
DS: dudes, I respect what ur saying and ur right to think. But we’re never going to agree on. 2 different worlds. Sorry 2:59 PM – 27 Aug 12
MD: I’m not asking you to agree. I’m asking you to go tell a woman that has been raped that you think it’s… 9:33 PM – 27 Aug 12
MD: funny. Otherwise you’re a coward every time you do it on stage. 9:33 PM – 27 Aug 12
UPDATE DAY 2: A day of debating the issues, many people have made contact to add their support and agree with this article. Others continue to argue for free speech, but of course, as it is clearly stated above, I am not challenging free speech. Self-censorship does not challenge free speech, but simply asks for decency and compassion.
Daniel Sloss also added a further response to Mike Dalena which I have appended to the conversation above, plus I was contacted by Tom Stade and Jim Jefferies, who are also mentioned in this article. In the interest of fairness, I’m going to reproduce our Twitter conversations verbatim. Tweets are only out of chronological sequence where required to maintain the conversational flow.
Before doing so, Tom, I have made a couple of changes above to clarify that your late set was different to your first, and to disassociate you from the AIDS putdown. Jim, we honestly did not know who was on the bill. It may have changed our minds, but tickets were bought late afternoon, and no information was offered over the phone. Furthermore, I understood that Josie Long and Robin Ince were only concerned for the reputation of Edinburgh Fringe and comedy in general, and were not passing judgement on your act. I felt that they were just trying to suggest some alternatives that they knew about.
Finally, Jim, I have not made this up. Before that Best of the Fest show, I had never heard of you, and I am not alone in criticising your material on that night: “just saw Jim Jefferies do 20 minutes of material normalising rape and sexual abuse at Best of the Fest.” and “Was there with my friend that night and thought it was vile and awful (we are not humourless, this stuff was plain nasty”.
TS: Hello Mr Derry this is Tom Stade my son showed me your words and would you please define misogyny for me 12:15 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: Your use of upstaged is wrong getting people to join in is what it was sir. And I did not use a rape joke in my show thank you!!! 12:34 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: there is no mention of your using a rape joke in my article. there was plenty of suggestion, but nothing explicit. 12:37 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: And at best of the fest I believe I talked about group on, moving, and celebrating my 17th anniversary on the couch 12:37 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I do not comment on your set at Best of the Fest. 12:38 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: You have yet to define misogyny 12:39 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I’m not playing games. I recommend the Oxford or, as we’re in Edinburgh, Chambers’ Dictionary. 12:41 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: You mentioned that only one comic didn’t talk about rape! 12:41 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: the tweet that says that mentions “hateful rape & fuck jokes”. you certainly had many fuck “jokes”. 12:46 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: fuck jokes? I’m talking about being married. The video was real by the way. And if you had stayed for the whole show tbc 12:51 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: there was a point at the end of it but you just walked out and are giving people an edited version 12:53 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: misogyny is men who hate woman and don’t ever put me in that category! My lovely partner is blown away by you right now! 12:55 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I don’t think I am misrepresenting you. if there was a punchline at the end, sorry to have missed it. … 12:56 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …otherwise it is an honest account of a bad evening. I’m happy that you had a satisfied audience. 12:57 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: apologies to your partner. I am not commenting on your marriage. it is your material in question. 12:59 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: you did miss it and then you decided to get your pitchforks and torches out without even talking to the people you mention 1:01 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I was quite open about writing on this, hence your mention in my original tweet https://twitter.com/JFDerry/status/240015025853591552 1:04 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: which ideas of mine do you have a problem with and lets go through them shall we! 1:03 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: this is not up for post mortem. my position is laid out in my blog. 1:05 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: well Mr Derry take care of yourself and thank god the jokes I write aren’t specific to anyone one person unlike your article 1:17 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: free speech it sure is great!!! 1:18 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: good luck yourself. free speech is only worthwhile if people are not directly harmed. there is a suggestion rape jokes encourage rape. 1:30 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: you should get your facts strait Danial slosse told the heckler to die of aides. 2:15 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I don’t specify who gave that put down. 2:16 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: so at least say I had a nice set at the best of then unless there are people out there with a bad Groupon experience 2:23 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: haha! I will make some edits Tom. As you can see, it’s a bit hectic. Will try to do something later this evening. 2:27 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: Na I rather keep my bad boy image thank you offstage I am a really kind and generous person that does lots of work for charities 2:36 PM – 27 Aug 12
TS: and I think Jim is one of the funniest comedians on the planet right now! 2:36 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: well done on telling everyone else what we should laugh at you nazi 1:48 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: what you have written is a load of lies. i never said half those things 1:59 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: where do you think I have misrepresented you, Jim? I think I have our “dialogue” recounted accurately. 2:08 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: you lie i know exactly what i said. do you think i have never met a rape victom or been one myself as a child 2:13 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I’m sorry if you have been abused. you are the 1st to contact me AND support rape jokes (if that is your position) … 2:15 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …all others who have written to me in private abhor rape jokes for how they make them feel. 2:16 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: i support jokes of all kinds, as long as its a joke! i have made jokes about far more offensive subjects then rape 2:19 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: It’s not only that it’s offensive and hurtful, but that it’s also dangerous, and could encourage rapists. … 2:21 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …Please read the research papers mentioned in my article for the details, but essentially, rapists are made to feel welcome. 2:21 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: how? thats like say jokes about bin laden encourage terrorists 2:23 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: There is no academic research that I know of on that, but happy to look at it if you can track some down. 2:26 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: way to censor art. so show such as the family guy should be taken of tv i guess, or a movie like yellow beard 2:22 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I don’t know about the Family Guy reference, but Graham Chapman is a fucking legend. I will have to think about that … 2:24 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …but first thoughts are that the rape depiction is a negative stereotype of pirates. Also in Idle’s Erik The Viking. 2:25 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: watch yellow beard again i saw it the other day, i think it has more rape jokes then any film in history 2:26 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I will. And thanks for the excuse to do so. 2:29 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: youtube.com/watch?v=yrpBJqvr5r8 … graham chapman telling a few rape jokes 2:30 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I didn’t recognise the scorn for rapists from your material required to balance the joke. … 2:36 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …perhaps Chapman/Cook, etc had the history of piracy to draw upon, and that helps. Silverman derides rape jokers as cowards.… 2:37 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: … Bottom line, rape victims hate rape jokes, and they are dangerous. Probably Chapman’s too. 2:37 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: youtube.com/watch?v=_WfKh07YjZI … this is a popular cartoon 2:32 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: that doesn’t register with me at all. felt uneasy, like the Ned Beatty scene in Deliverance. 2:39 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: I can see where the comedy is supposed to come from that, but to me, it fails. Perhaps I’m too close to the subject today. 2:42 PM – 27 Aug 12
JJ: or perhaps everyone does not find everything funny. 2:47 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: humour, like all art, is subjective. no problem there. censorship sucks. again, with you, man. … 2:49 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …But decency, consideration, compassion (perhaps 20% of your female audience that night may have been sexually assaulted)… 2:50 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: …can you find a way of entertaining them without this material? i know the answer is yes, because you had some good shit too. 2:50 PM – 27 Aug 12
JFD: Have to go (school run!) Thanks to everyone, especially Tom @kenstade & @jimjefferies for engaging. We’re all just passionate about comedy. 2:56 PM – 27 Aug 12
Please continue to read the comments below to follow the ensuing debate, and note that there is a follow-up article to accompany this one called, Rape Jokes Are Dangerous.