Thursday, July 19, 2012

why murder is funnier than rape

Recently comedian Daniel Tosh was accused of joking about rape. According to a blogger, Tosh started talking about how rape jokes were funny, and the blogger shouted out that rape jokes are never funny. Then Tosh said, "wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?"

The comedy club manager tells the story a little differently, saying someone else brought up rape and that after the blogger yelled out, Tosh said she sounded like been raped by 5 guys. Whether you prefer the story as told by the angry heckler or the manager, who says he didn't hear it all clearly, Tosh seems to have definitely made light of rape.

And the reaction, which included a petition to get Tosh fired, started me wondering: why is it okay to tell jokes about murder, suicide, amputation, blindness and many other terrible things, but not rape?

Usually when people ask that question it is meant as an argument, like, "why are you so mad about my rape joke but didn't say a word about my blinding baby seals joke," but that's not what I mean. I generally find rape jokes discomfiting myself, but I'm okay with a little murder humor.

As I thought about it, I began to think that part of the problem is, when people joke about rape, there is not a clear presumption that the one telling the joke really is that bothered by rape.

Everyone agrees murder is bad, except for psychopaths. No one wants to be murdered, and while people might say, "I could kill that guy," most people in reality would find killing someone a deeply unsettling act. So when someone tells a joke about murder, there is an unspoken preamble that goes something like, "murder is a really terrible thing. It's horrible to even contemplate it, but because often humor can work like a steam valve, relieving pressure, and because this not wanting to be murdered thing is something we all share, I'm going to tell a joke about killing someone."

Sadly, there cannot be that presumption about rape, because rape is not something everyone has a problem with. The idea that women are "asking" to be raped is so common that every once in a while some judge horrifies the world by saying it from the bench. In an Amnesty International poll in 2005, a frightening number of people felt that women who flirted, wore sexy clothes, or got drunk were at least partially responsible for their own rapes.

In a way, I think it's similar to the reason white people aren't supposed to use the "N" word. The problem is, there are still bunches of white people who use the "N" word in its very worst connotation, and as long as that is true, how can you ever be sure that the intent behind the word is benign when spoken by someone white?

I don't believe any topic is off limits for comedy. Sarah Silverman can get away with telling a rape joke, because we all know it's not something she's actually in favor of. Louis C.K.and a few others have also managed it. Much of the Tosh controversy may well be that he always comes across as an ass (this is based on watching his TV show for five minutes; I really can't tolerate the guy). As some blogger said, Tosh just looks like a guy who has some roofies in his pocket. He may be a really nice guy, he may think rape is a terrible, terrible thing, but if so, his persona does not convey that well. A guy like him should probably just stick to something safe, like jokes about killing people.


  1. I see a couple of reasons not mentioned here for why both rape & racist jokes are frowned upon in some circles:

    1) Rape & racist joke are perceived as gaining a laugh at the expense of a disenfranchised group when these jokes are told by a privileged group. Murder doesn't have these kinds of boundary issues.
    2a) You could be telling a rape joke to someone who's been raped. You can't tell a murder joke to somebody who's been murdered (well, technically you can, but...)
    2b) The 2010 US crime statistics I found state that forcible rape is 5 times as prevalent as murder - so you're more likely to be telling the joke to someone who's been raped or knows somebody who's been raped as oppose to somebody who knows someone who was murdered.

    That being said, I don't believe in universal morality or universal standards of humor, and personally find all sorts of dark humor hilarious. So I don't think statements like "it's wrong to joke about rape" or "rape jokes aren't funny" are demonstrably false.

  2. Greg,1 is a very good point. 2a is true, but you can tell a murder joke to someone who has had a relative or friend murdered. But of course 2b shows that you're five times more likely to be telling a rape joke to a victim than a murder joke to the relative of a victim, so it's still a valid point.

  3. "In an Amnesty International poll in 2005, a frightening number of people felt that women who flirted, wore sexy clothes, or got drunk were at least partially responsible for their own rapes."

    To be fair, a large number of people would say that people who wander into the Korean DMZ are partially responsible for their own murders, too.