So you made a rape joke and now people are, like, really, really mad at you. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt; maybe you were at a party and the booze made your common sense slip away from you or maybe you were making what you viewed as a flippantly humorous remark on Facebook. Either way, you probably didn’t mean any harm, right? So what’s the big deal?
Okay, let me break it down for you in the gentlest way I know how. (Lorde, give me strength!)
“I obviously think rape is wrong! It was only a joke! Cut me some slack, I’m one of the good guys.”
Most people don’t go around literally thinking, “Rape’s okay by me!” I think I can muster enough faith in humanity to stand by that claim. The problem is, even though most people don’t think rape is okay, so many people are still raped. There’s obviously got to be some kind of disconnect happening here, most likely having to do with what people think consent looks like (if they’ve considered it at all). When it comes down to it, I have no idea if rapists intend to rape, but in the end, the result is the same regardless of intention.
To clarify, I am in no way saying making a rape joke is the equivalent to raping someone. I’m saying, as I’ve said before, I have no way of measuring your intentions; I can only observe the impacts of your actions. Whether you meant to hurt someone or not, you did. And you need to take a moment to grapple with that before you try to defend yourself. If you’re really the good person that you claim to be, you will take that into consideration before you proceed. If you want to be one of the good guys, show me, don’t tell me.
“Stop trying to censor me!”
This person is likely not trying to violate your First Amendment rights in any way, shape, or form. More often than not, they are probably trying to inform you that you are doing something harmful so that you won’t do it again. This is actually good because A) you won’t hurt any more people and B) you won’t look like a jerk in the future. If they do get angry or frustrated with you, it’s probably because they’ve had to have this conversation with so many people over and over again; it can be quite exhausting and take an emotional toll on someone, especially if they’re survivors.
But if you really want further explanation, here it is: the First Amendment gives you the right to say pretty much whatever you want (with limitations that don’t necessarily apply to this particular situation). The First Amendment also gives your peers the right to tell you to shut up, to shout over you, and to blow a kazoo in your face, if they like. Now, if they try to arrest you and make a political prisoner out of you, that’s a clear violation of your rights and probably about a dozen other Federal laws, but I imagine it is likely that whoever you are arguing with does not have that kind of power.
“Language only has the power we give it!”
Yes, language is constructed. We get that. But meaning-making (and unmaking) is much more complicated than simply disregarding the power that decades and sometimes centuries of use have given to certain words. Also, you also might come off as slightly pretentious for assuming that your (likely contrived and unoriginal, sorry) rape joke is somehow contributing to dissolving the power behind the word. I’m not saying that to be mean! I’m just saying that you’re gonna look foolish, not just to the feminist that you’re likely arguing with, but also to semioticians.
“You’re just a humorless feminist!”
C’mon, dude, I was trying to be nice! Here’s the deal: I love a good joke. Follow me on Twitter; I’m pretty hilarious, if I do say so myself. I use humor to cope with all kinds of things in the world that I think are fucked up; I would probably lose my mind if I didn’t crack jokes constantly. Humor can not only be self-healing, but it can also be used to commiserate, uplift, and show solidarity. It can be used to show pain, and it can even be used as a weapon against those who seek to oppress people.
But humor loses all potential for redemption when it is used in a way that makes marginalized, victimized people feel unsafe, unwanted, and invisible. That is how I feel when you make a rape joke. You made the worst, most heart-breaking, most disempowering trauma I have ever been through, and you made it into a joke. You made my suffering into a punch line. I hope that was not your intention, but those are the impacts of your words that you could have just as easily kept to yourself.
So what would I like you to do now? I’d really appreciate an apology. I’d really like for you to do your best not to do it again. And if you’re a really brave person, I hope you speak up the next time one of your friends makes a rape joke.
This post was partially inspired by Judie’s awesome piece It’s Okay That You Said Something Racist and by a lot of the ongoing conversations many of us at OK4RJ have about rape culture. If someone has had similar interactions with me online or in “real” life, don’t feel targeted. I (sadly) have this conversation all the time.
I’m Sandra. I’m a rape survivor. I would really like you to stop making rape jokes.