*** Trigger warning for discussion of rape and rape jokes ***
The previous article on Rape Jokes Are Not Funny presented evidence for the negative effects of rape in humour within the context of experiencing two comedy events in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
That article went on to describe in two updates what then transpired via Twitter; mainly that some of the named comedians performing in those events challenged both the details of the narrative account, and the foremost conclusion presented in that article. The debate did not engage with the details of the research underpinning the article, however, the discussion was mostly decorous.
Most of the misunderstanding by the comedians was that the article’s debate was centred on offence which they rightly see as an unqualified challenge on free speech. The best quote regarding offence is the oft-quoted comment that Stephen Fry made in conversation with Christopher Hitchens at the 2006 Hay Book Festival:
It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?
However, there is a difference between being offensive and being dangerous, and that was the evidence-backed assertion offered up for debate. It is also an assertion that is not challenging free speech. Self-censorship does not challenge free speech, but simply asks for decency and compassion.
The debate then principally moved to the comments section of the article where one particular individual, also a comedian and colleague of one of the aforementioned comics, largely inhibited discussion by being obstreperous, and through their inability to reason with the evidence being presented. None of the evidence being presented was anecdotal; all of it was the result of many years of industrious academic study by experts in their field. Nonetheless, this comedian was unprepared to assess this knowledge objectively, but instead obfuscated the course of debate.
Therefore, because of the way the thread was perverted away from a navigable path, here is a structured synopsis to clarify and highlight the salient research and main points made in that previous article, and in subsequent discussion. Comments contributed by other people during the discussion are in italics. All of the information provided here has been substantiated by peer-reviewed research. The research is cited throughout the text, and then listed in an alphabetically-ordered bibliography at the end of the piece, along with individual links, where possible, to an archive of PDF documents containing each of these papers. This bibliography is in no way definitive nor comprehensive, but it does contain some key papers and a couple of accessible reviews. These papers are provided in direct response to that comedian’s request, “Can you cite an article I don’t have to pay to read?”, and for your personal use, in order that you can be informed about the issues prior to drawing your conclusions.
1. What’s so special about rape compared to other victims of crime and assault?
People have defended rape jokes with arguments like “then we also have to ban jokes about holocaust, terrorism, child murder, cancer, earthquakes etc. as they all could hurt somebody’s feelings, so comedy would be banned completely”. But there is a fundamental difference between rape and these other topics: The attitude of society towards the victims.
These attitudes are termed rape myths. This is because they are ill-founded. However, despite being fallacious, they are widely accepted as truth. “Rape myth acceptance is therefore somewhat more common in our society than holocaust denial”. This is why rape is different when considering social contexts, because a large part of society accepts rape myths as truth. As mentioned above, this is not about offence. It is about impacts on society and consequential heightened threats to physical and mental safety.
2. What is rape myth acceptance?
“Research using various scales to measure rape myths document that between 25% and 35% of respondents (both male and female) agree with the majority of these rape myths (Lonsway & Fitzgerald 1994), and that men are more likely than women to endorse rape myths (Suarez & Gadalla 2010). When utilizing open-ended questions asking participants to list their personal beliefs about rape victims, Buddie & Miller (2001) found that 66% of their college sample (comprised of women and men) endorsed some combination of rape myths.” (quoted from Edwards, Turchik, Dardis, Reynolds & Gidycz 2011)
The rape myths that these studies refer to are the following:
“She asked for it; It wasn’t really rape; He didn’t mean to; She wanted it; She lied; Rape is a trivial event; Rape is a deviant event.” (the last item means agreement to items like “Men from nice middle-class homes almost never rape”).
For more info, see the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale that uses 45 standardized questions to assess how much someone agrees with these myths (Payne, Lonsway & Fitzgerald 1999).
3. Do rape myths contribute to rape?
Yes, rape myth acceptance makes rape more likely. For example, Bohner, Siebler & Schmelcher (2006) tested rape myth acceptance feedback in 264 men. There was a robust statistical analysis that concluded increased rape myth acceptance does indeed promote rape proclivity.
There is an overwhelming number of studies on this, of which fortunately there are reviews by Murnen, Wright & Kaluzny (2002), and more recently by Flood & Pease (2009).
4. What is rape esteem?
Rape myth acceptance also has a negative impact post-assault, in the way reporting a rape is handled, and in the way rape victims are related to by authorities, friends and even family. This then propagates a sense of worthlessness in rape victims leading to a low self-esteem, and in some cases also reduced body esteem (Kulkoski & Killian 1997).
This has great import in particular in the apprehension and conviction of rapists: only 10-50% of rapes that actually occur are ever reported to the authorities. “Rape myth acceptance has very real and practical implications for women who actually go to the police: In a study with UK police officers, published this year, the researchers found that “Victim blaming was significantly predicted by rape myth acceptance” but “There were no significant differences between officers who were specially trained and those who were not in terms of victim blaming” (Sleath, E., & Bull, R., 2012)”.
Cluss, Boughton, Frank, Stewart & West (1983) showed that only women with significantly higher higher self-esteem scores pursued prosecution.
5. Are rape jokes funny?
Thus, there is strong evidence that normalisation of rape in society (rape myth acceptance) increases proclivity for it. Additionally, rapists feel accepted or vindicated when people are laughing with them, and they see rape featured positively.
“When the audience laughs, rape victims also have a sense of complete abandonment, they know that many in the audience will actually laugh about the victims, many will not feel much sympathy, and that there will likely also be people around them who actually have harrassed or pressured women (if not raped) and find nothing wrong with that. Victims of most other crimes, on the other hand, will likely have experienced much more support and less additional victimization through attitudes in society.”
There is plenty of evidence from psychological studies into sexual assault that conclude rape jokes desensitise the topic, demean victims & normalise culprits. “This is also a question of power. For comfortable people in a reasonably good and secure position it is very easy to make fun of disadvantaged, suffering individuals who are already constantly being marginalised in society. But for people who value empathy and ethical behaviour, it is hard to see how this can be enjoyable or good comedy.”
No studies find the opposite, in favour of any sexist comedy, let alone the extreme sexist comedy that constitutes rape jokes. For example, Ryan & Kanjorski. (1998) surveyed 399 men and women, showing that “sexist humor was positively correlated with rape-related attitudes and beliefs” and that a statistically significant proportion of women (95 … 99.9%) do not like rape jokes.
6. Do rape victims like rape jokes?
The many studies that do exist on these subjects all point in the same direction, that “survivors” (as many have chosen to call themselves) do not like rape jokes. They feel belittled, as if people are laughing at them, and not at the rapist. This lack of self esteem is formed and maintained by societal attitudes to sexual assault, often that the victim “was asking for it”, or that some rapes are worse than others, etc. There is also the issue of “triggering” which can produce damaging and long-lasting psychosis.
Woodzicka & Ford (2009) reviewed decades of work in the area of sexist humour involving thousands of survey participants, and concluding that, “sexist humor as an insidious expression of sexism … facilitating tolerance of sexism and discrimination among men”, and that, “sexist humor can have detrimental social consequences.”
7. Are rape jokes beneficial?
Rape jokes have been defended for challenging our boundaries, forcing us into self-reflection as a society, to expose our demons, to bring it out into the open for discussion, to heal through mirth, to remove the stigma of the victim.
The most common colloquial argument for rape jokes is for those that attack rape and rapists, for example, Silverman’s “Who’s going to protest?”, which highlights how cowardly rape jokers are for their taking on an unchallenged topic
There is no evidence to back up these claims.
8. Do rape jokes contribute to rape myth acceptance?
Clay-Warner & Odem (1997) included “dirty” jokes in a list of sources of learning that contribute to rape myth acceptance, along with, movies including pornography, newspapers, books, and music videos.
Ryan & Kanjorski (1998) showed that, “the enjoyment of sexist humor was positively correlated with rape-related attitudes and beliefs, the self-reported likelihood of forcing sex, and psychological, physical, and sexual aggression in men”.
9. Are rape jokes dangerous?
“There are studies how language and media portrayal influence the acceptance of violence against women, so I think there is a very real danger that comedy can contribute.”
This article has broken down the mechanism by which rape jokes very likely provide both perceived and real threats to victims and potential victims of sexual assault.
A study clearly needs to investigate the full impact of rape jokes on rape myth acceptance and rape victim self esteem. The subsequent links to rape proclivity, rape reporting, suspect apprehension and culprit conviction are already well established.
Ask yourself this: are rape jokes a type of “dirty” joke? Are they sexist humour? Then consider these three schema, where +> indicates “a positive influence on” (promotion), and -> indicates “a negative influence on” (impedance):
Then attempt to balance the purported benefits of rape jokes with the following observations:
i. Rape myth acceptance increases rape proclivity.
ii. An increase in rape proclivity increases the number of rapes.
iii. Rape victims report discomfort upon hearing rape jokes.
iv. Rape mentions carry dangers of “triggering”.
v. Rape myth acceptance and downplaying rape decreases victims’ self esteem.
vi. Reduced self esteem reduces rape reporting.
vii. Reduced self esteem leads to a reduction in culprit conviction.
viii. Reduced rape reporting reduces suspect apprehension.
ix. Reduced suspect apprehension reduces culprit conviction.
My conclusion from all this? Rape jokes are not funny, but actually very dangerous.
“It is extremely important for everybody to stand up and tell comedians: “Rape jokes are NOT funny”. Sure, most comedians won’t care and won’t change their routine. BUT it makes a huge difference for victims to see that they are not alone, that others support them.”
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