Recently, comedian Daniel Tosh dealt with a heckler by saying “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” This touched off a firestorm of both criticism and defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions. And this is nothing new. Comedians (good ones and bad ones) have been making rape jokes for a long time, and Tosh is just the current lightning rod. But I think this is a good opportunity for dialogue, especially among artists—comics, poets, rappers, writers of every kind. Here are three points I think are important:
1. We’re not picking sides between “pro-censorship” and “anti-censorship.” We’re picking sides between “pro-rape jokes” and “anti-rape jokes.”
This is not a free speech issue. As a comic (or poet, or rapper, or singer or whatever), you have the right to say whatever the hell you want to say on stage. But your audience has that same right. If you say something hurtful or offensive, they can heckle you, call you out, start internet campaigns to ban you from clubs, whatever. And you have to deal with that.
No one is trying to make it illegal for a comic to say offensive shit; we’re just trying to hold you accountable. That’s a huge difference, and people hiding behind the “free speech” argument are really missing the point. I want you to take chances on stage, to challenge people, even to deal with hecklers harshly—but there are a million ways to do that without joking about something that is extremely hurtful to so many people. Less offensive ways, sure, but funnier ways too.
2. “Edgy” comedy or art shouldn’t just be about saying naughty words and pissing people off; it should be about pissing people off in order to make a larger point.
I’m not against any kind of joke on principle. A good comic can make anything funny. But if you’re going to make jokes about rape, your excuse has to be something more than “it’s okay to hurt people because the bit landed, it was funny.” If you’re going to make jokes about potentially offensive topics, there’s an easy way and a hard way. The easy way is to just shout out offensive things in the name of free speech and “pushing people out of their comfort zones.” The hard way is to provide an unflinching, in-depth analysis of the way that people deal with these painful topics, to really explore them, in order to make some kind of profound point about them (and be funny).
Most people who make rape jokes (or gay jokes, or racist jokes, or whatever) aren’t smart enough to have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. They’re hacks. It’s like a little kid shouting “poop!” in the grocery store and then grinning. Truly edgy writing pushes people out of their comfort zones, sure. But it pushes them toward something, some deeper truth or observation about humanity.
3. Rape jokes don’t magically turn people into rapists, but they do contribute to a larger culture of normalizing rape, blaming the victim, shaming, silence, etc.
If you’ve never heard the term “rape culture,” that’s really what we’re talking about here. No one is arguing that you’re worse than Hitler because you made an off-color joke; they’re saying that rape jokes are yet another “little” thing that contributes to a society in which women (and men) are raped. A lot.
These “little” things add up—maybe it’s a rape joke at the comedy club, plus a newspaper op-ed blaming the victim, plus a music video turning women into objects, plus a fellow student saying “that test raped me,” plus movies or TV shows that glamorize the “tough anti-hero taking what he wants without apology,” plus a family culture of silence and shame around sex, plus a police force who just goes through the motions when it comes to investigating or working to prevent sexual assault, plus a million other things—it’s a tsunami of shit. And you can add to it, or you can fight against it.
With Tosh, sure, his whole shtick is that he’s an offensive jackass; his joking about rape shouldn’t be surprising. But that doesn’t mean we should all just ignore him. If you’re against rape, you have to be actively against rape culture. There is no neutral. And just like rape culture is a tidal wave of “little things” as well as big things, fighting back against rape culture can take that same form. Call people out. Start conversations. Hold yourself accountable. Maybe something positive can still come from all this.