So. Rape jokes.

I’ve seen a few comedians pull off this seemingly impossible task from time to time. Louis CK has managed it (is there anything he can’t do?). Glenn Wool did it earlier this year at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and he was one of my favourite acts.

However, the vast majority of the time, comedians who attempt humour around this particular topic get it horribly, horribly wrong.

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This is the poster for a now-cancelled event that was due to take place at Station 59. And yes, you’re reading it right: it was going to be called There’s Nothing Funny About Rape: A Comedy Debate, and it was going to feature an all-dude lineup.

Social media existed, people pointed out how FUCKING OFFENSIVE THIS IS, and the event was cancelled.

Hallelujah.

Enter one of the aspiring comedians who was going to be on the bill: Alan Driscoll.

Station 59’s management had posted on their Facebook page about the event’s cancellation, and amongst the clamour, Alan decided to voice his disappointment that the debate was no longer going ahead. You see, he’s different, guys. His rape jokes would have been awesome.

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Yep. They would totally have been awesome. Even though they were being presented by an all-male panel consisting of emerging comedians who put their hand up in order to get a spot on a stage, as opposed to being chosen because they were equipped to argue the topic well. Even though the event was being promoted with a poster that screamed “trivialising rape! Yay!”

Obviously, this whole thing was starting to sound like a recipe for a big ol’ bowl of disaster. Hence the event’s cancellation and the apology from most involved.

Alan, however, doesn’t feel the need to apologise. His rape comedy would have been a “powerful healing thing”:

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In truth, I’ve not seen Alan’s comedy. However, the only comedians I’ve seen who have included actually funny material about rape in their routines have been remarkably skilled, nuanced and so empathetic. I have a hard time believing that a dude who won’t even say “sorry, the event I agreed to appear in was, in retrospect, not the best idea” will be fitting into that category anytime soon.

I’m not writing this blog post just to rip into Alan. It may have started out that way, but that’s not what I actually want to do here. I’ve engaged with him a fair bit in the relevant thread and I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere (last I checked, he was off to do his laundry and urged those trying to engage with him to “have fun with [their] LOLcats” – he got really riled up about the term “mainsplaining” for some reason, and now he hates memes). But for anyone else who may pass this way, particularly if they’re a comedic hopeful who thinks they could pull off a rape joke, the rest of this post is for you.

I can’t speak for everyone, and certainly not every woman. But here’s why rape jokes are problematic for me.

Rape is terrifying in its uniqueness. It’s most often committed by those closest to the victims, who hold a position of trust. It’s a terrifying abuse of power. It’s a reduction of the victim to their most dehumanised self. Think about it – our bodies are supposed to be completely ours. They are the one thing that we bring into the world with us. We are supposed to be able to decide how and when we use them – and rapists take that away. It is violent. It violates. To have your body abused inside itself – can you imagine it? Can you?

Basically, there’s a reason that it makes so many of us feel squicky.

Furthermore, we live in a culture where what rape is still seems to be up for debate. Everything from “legitimate rape” to the fact that a disturbing proportion of men will admit to rape (as long as you don’t call it that) supports this. We live in a culture that blames the victim. We live in a culture where, if you get raped, it was probably, sort of, mostly your fault. We live in a culture where victims believe this.

To top it all off, we live in a culture where women are at higher risk of rape than men. We live in a culture where access to a woman’s vagina is likened to her leaving the keys in her car.

We live in a culture where many women – too many – must constantly fear Schrodinger’s rapist. We live in a culture where too many women met Schrodinger’s rapist. We live in a culture where far, far too many women have been abused, and hurt, and then told that if they just hadn’t worn that skirt, or sent those mixed messages, or, or, or…

So, comedians: you seriously want to joke about that? You seriously have a special insight into how it might feel to have your body violated? You seriously think you have something really fucking special to say about how it feels when someone in whom you’ve placed the ultimate trust abuses it?

You seriously think that, given the prevalence of rape in our society, your joke isn’t going to add to the trauma of audience members who came to see you in the hopes of enjoying a goddamn laugh?

You seriously think you can make rape funny in a way that is empathetic, respectful and won’t traumatise or shame victims of this hideous crime?

You seriously think you’re as good as Louis CK?

Ah.

I didn’t think so.

Stick to fart jokes.

P.S. I would like to big-up Rob Caruana, the maker of the poster that started this whole thing. He posted a pretty amazing apology that showed that he’d listened to what people had to say about the event and had taken it on board. This is progress, folks. Listening to each other, accepting apologies when they are made and helping everyone understand the points of view of others – this is good stuff.

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P.P.S. I’ve seen some pretty interesting stuff written about me (and to me) in the last few days, and if anyone comes across this post from here on out, maybe just note the following:

  • I am well aware that women are not the only victims of sexual assault, and my heart goes out to the many men who have undergone this horrible experience. I simply said in my post that most victims of rape are women (a statistically true statement) and I drew attention to certain aspects of rape and rape culture, such as Schrodinger’s rapist, that have a greater impact on women. When I wrote the paragraph about rape being terrifying in its uniqueness, I deliberately avoided mentioning women versus men because I am all too aware that people from both genders can be affected.
  • No, I do not think I should get to “decide” what is “funny”. But I do see a disproportionately high amount of comedy, and I have seen a lot of comedians tackle controversial topics and promptly fail, because they are too caught up in the “I can say whatever I like on stage” mentality and haven’t thought through exactly how troubling the subject might be. This post was meant to try and get aspiring comics thinking about that a little more carefully. If you do, and your joke is still funny, GO NUTS. Please. I could use a laugh.
  • I am not affiliated with the management at Station 59 and had no hand in the debate’s cancellation. I am glad it was cancelled because it didn’t look like it was being well thought through, as evidenced by the all-male lineup and troubling poster. That’s not to say that debates of this nature should never, ever happen again or some shit. I am not against free speech.
  • I am also not okay with people calling up Station 59’s management and abusing them or making threats. A mistake was made, an event was cancelled, and as far as Station 59 goes, let’s move on. As far as rape and comedy go, debate is a good, healthy thing. But the manager of Station 59 doesn’t need to hear any more about it, okay? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go have some fun.
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About missaleksia

Street press journalist and culture vulture based in Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy Australian hip hop, obsessively following television shows, healthy debate, baking and wine. My views are my own. Keep up to date with me on Twitter: @missaleksia
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49 Responses to So. Rape jokes.

  1. Kathy says:

    There are not enough ways for me to convey how deeply I appreciate this or how much I agree. Instead I will just say BRAVO and tweet the link.

  2. Sam Ryan says:

    And this place is located opposite Australia’s biggest mental health hospital… Sad irony.

    Great post, thought-provoking and insightful for those of us who think we get and are being sensitive but really don’t.

    Great self-awareness from the poster maker about his participation in the show, thats kind of acknowledgement has to be difficult, applauded.

  3. I’d like to read a detailed explanation from the author of what makes that Louis CK rape joke stand out above the dross. It’s pretty much a garden variety rape joke that relies on the shock value of the subject matter from I can ascertain.

    • missaleksia says:

      Hi Kieran,

      The section on Louis CK’s joke in this article basically says it all: http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke

      The phrase, “It’s not what you say, but the way you say it” applies here.

      Context is always important, and this joke works because of the context of Louis CK’s body of work and his general attitude.

      -Aleksia

      • Smith says:

        Have you seen any of the comedians that were to take part in this debate? Most of whom are feminists, intelligent and skilled comedians? No, thought not. You’ve made yourself look a bit silly here.

      • Come on Aleksia. I asked you, the author of this blog, to explain why it’s funny. Don’t invoke others to explain yourself. It’s lazy journalism. ‘It not what you say but the way that you say it’ Yeah, that’s very true. But a joke doesn’t work in the context of someone’s body of work. It stands on it’s own merit. Most comedians know this because in the space of a 15 minute set you can make people laugh one minute and then offend them the very next. This joke works for you. Great. It’s not an objective measure. Let’s go down to a women’s shelter and tell the same joke and see who find’s it funny. I’ll be quoting from your blog extensively this Wednesday at Station 59. Your reasoning makes very little sense to me. I book the open mic at the venue and it was me who gave the go ahead to the debate by the way. I will be explaining why next Wednesday. You are welcome to take the stage and defend your point of view and we can have a discussion about all of this if you like. I support freedom of speech. Completely. But I also have a well though out reason for everything I do.

      • missaleksia says:

        Hi Kieran,

        Sounds like you’re still trying to make the debate happen! Unfortunately I must decline your appealing-sounding offer to “defend my point of view” at your open mic night on Wednesday night as I am busy.

        As for the copious amount of information you would like me to provide… well, I’m a blogger and you’re a reader, not your student who hasn’t filled out her homework sheet.

        Lastly, I am not sure why you have let me get under your skin so badly, but I had nothing to do with the cancellation of your event. All I did was write a post about why comedians should think carefully before tackling certain controversial topics of humour. If you need a straw man for your future arguments, I think the local hardware store offers any supplies you may need.

        -Aleksia

      • For some reason I can’t reply to Kieran directly, but seriously dude? She doesn’t owe you an essay in response to a question posed in the comments of her blog. She linked you to something she agrees with. She’s under no obligation to reinvent the wheel for you. You don’t like her short answer? Tough cookies. It’s not “lazy journalism”, it’s a blog comment, ffs.

        If you don’t agree with her blog, fine. You’re under no obligation to. Heck, I don’t agree that Louis CK’s rape joke cuts the muster, either. I’m taking issue with your tone and demands of her time, energy and attention, which are completely out of proportion here.

      • missaleksia says:

        Thank you! I have been trying to work out how to express this myself. I don’t expect that everyone will find the same things funny as I do, but I wanted to include those examples to show that for me, I don’t consider this (or any) topic to be inherently off-limits. Strange how some people will misconstrue statements to bolster unrelated arguments.

    • BK says:

      “Garden Variety Rape Joke” ?

  4. Melanie says:

    great great entry! wasn’t louis ck one of the first ones that came to defend daniel josh rape “joke”, though. I am gladly proven wrong because I wanna like Louis ck!

  5. JJ says:

    Who gets to decide who is “skilled, nuanced and so empathetic” enough to do jokes about rape?

    • missaleksia says:

      Hi JJ,

      I don’t think there’s going to be a committee elected soon or anything like that, but if the vast majority of an audience are laughing with a comedian, instead of pelting them with metaphorical eggs on the internet, I’d say they’re on the right track. It’s pretty obvious when they’re not.

      -Aleksia

      • JJ says:

        I don’t think any of these comedians got the chance to have the audience laugh with them or throw eggs.

        This event was ill advised and offensive but I’m concerned when people feel they can decide who is funny and who is offensive without seeing their act.

      • missaleksia says:

        JJ, if you think I’m taking it on myself to “decide” who is funny and who isn’t, I think you’ve missed the point of the post a bit. I criticised the event (which, as you said, was ill-advised and offensive), and I criticised Mr Driscoll’s handling of the feedback he received about his participation in the event. I then put to any comedian contemplating talking about rape in their routine to think a little more carefully about exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

  6. Excellent post. You’ve got a new follower, now. 🙂

  7. Hi Aleksia. I’m a male comedian who just so happened to have been raped when I was 8 years old by an elderly man who my family and friends trusted. His nose was half eaten away by cancer at the time but that isn’t important right now. Anyway, am I eligible to tell rape jokes? I mean, I tell some pretty awesome fart jokes and such and I even have a doozy about how silly men are (it’s brilliant, you’ll see) but I really would like to, one day, tell my story to a crowd from a different perspective. Thanking you in advance, Andy.

    • missaleksia says:

      Hi Andy,

      Apologies for the delayed reply. I thought I had responded to you earlier but it appears this may have gotten lost in the ether. Anyway, all I wanted to say in my post was that some comedians could afford to think a bit more carefully about using controversial humour in their routines, rather than treating certain topics as notches on their comedy belts. I’ve no interest in telling people what they can and can’t say, so please, say whatever you like to the crowd. I think I made it pretty clear that I don’t consider rape to be an off-limits topic in comedy (many people do – I am not one of them), but I have noticed a trend of people taking on certain topics in their routines because of the notoriety that comes with them, not because they actually have something to say on the subject.

    • Catherine JK says:

      Hi Andy, I think in asking your question, maybe you could consider how you would have felt closer to the time, or even now, if people made jokes about paedophiles. Is that okay? You don’t have to see someone’s show to say that the topic is offensive. But hey, they have the freedom to be completely insensitive morons if that’s their life’s ambition.

  8. Bev Killick says:

    I am so glad as a comedian, a mother and a victim of rape, who has come out the other side and healed, to see the backside of this abhorrent “rape joke” trend that has crept into the comedy circuit here and OS. I thank the ppl that tried to bring this trend into the light by attempting to stage a forum on the topic. Perhaps it should have stayed away from being billed as a Comedy night. And obviously, and not the first to say, included women. I’m glad the show didn’t go ahead. I was planning to attend naked. If anything it has opened up some healthy discussion. I am part of an all female online comedy group and we are all supporting and nurturing each other on the topic the debate set out to discuss. It has opened up a festering can of worms that needed to be opened before it exploded somehow all on it’s own.

  9. Shaun Conroy says:

    There is a certain breed of comics out there who see topics like rape as comedic mountains to conquer. It’s the “I came, I saw, I made the serious and potentially hurtful topic a gag” mentality. To these comics I say this — you can watch all the Louis CK clips on youtube you want, but guess what? You’re not Louis CK, nor do you have the skills, class or experience to do what he does. Until you do, be your own comic and stop posturing like a tool.

    • helenbalcony says:

      Yes! Yes! It’s a dick-measuring kind of behaviour. Or territorial marking. Crude as that. When I saw the tantrums in response to the loss of their “debate” and the repeated calls for “free speech” I couldn’t help but think of our little dog who has to piss on everything when we’re out walking, otherwise… something terrible will happen, obvs. If there are areas of womens experience we don’t want them to piss on, like Ollie, they feel something has been taken away from them…

  10. Smith says:

    This reads as condescending and uninformed. Have you seen any of the comedians on the bill before? Have you done stand up comedy before? Then why do you know better than these performers? You don’t. You like to think you do, but you don’t. I don’t even disagree that the event was a bad idea and poorly presented. I do. I would have done this differently. But you do not have the authority to speak about comedy or topics of comedy that you think you do. That authority needs to be earned. You sound like a naive child crying that someone took your toy.

    • RC says:

      I AM a comedian. And I HAVE seen these comedians. And, by YOUR logic, I DO have the authority to speak on these topics because I ‘EARNED’ IT. This author may indeed sound like a “naive child”… but you sound like a thoughtless dick. Go fuck yourself.

    • Catherine JK says:

      Dear Smith,

      Have your read any feminist literature? Have you worked in the social work field dealing with child abuse and sexual abuse? Have you been a rape counsellor? Do you have any intellectual grasp or framework for justifying saying that making jokes about rape is okay? Did you think the comments made about the death of Julia Gillard’s father were funny? I’m trying to work out how YOU can tell people that them saying jokes of this kind isn’t offensive is somehow THEM being condescending. Besides which, a number of posts indicate that at least some of the commentors ARE familiar with the ‘comedians’ (or jokers) in question.

      • Smith says:

        No, but comedy is my life and if I have thoughts about certain subjects I express those thoughts through comedy. Would you prefer I never contemplate the horror of rape, something which has irrevocably changed my life? Hold on, why do I care what you prefer? I do comedy and if you don’t like it that’s fine, just don’t look down your nose and tell me what I can or can’t talk about.

      • Sam Loy says:

        @Smith
        I you have the freedom and authority (who grants this “authority” I know not) to wax comedic about any topic you like, then I, Catherine JK, missaleksia, and whoever-bloody-well-else have the freedom and authority to write blogs about any topic we like. Including the seemingly taboo topic, “When Comedians Say Stuff That Isn’t Really Funny”.
        The debate wasn’t shut down, it was freely cancelled by the organiser because many people expressed their opinion about it. Imagine: a world where people had the right and online capabilities to not only express their opinion, but to also have it heard. What a world!
        I respect your right to “have thoughts about certain subjects (and)…express those thoughts through comedy”, but the irony is you don’t seem to be respecting our right to express ourselves by looking down our noses at you. You live in a country where you have the legal right to perform on stage any joke you want. And that country affords me the legal right to think anything I want about you, and say anything I want to.

  11. I thought this blog was brilliant, but as it was reposted by Brad Oakes, and promoted to me as his, I mistakenly gave him credit for writing it. He’s corrected my misconception. I so appreciated reading this. It has brought up a lot of discussion, which is good. Sadly, many people…many male comics…still don’t get it, regardless of the truth. Thanks for a great piece of writing, you gave the topic much needed clarity.

  12. loupollard says:

    Reblogged this on loupollard and commented:
    A great post

  13. Mick Neven says:

    Let’s not forget that Louis CK didn’t step onto the stage as the fully-fledged celebrity stand-up comedian that he is today. He’s been doing it for 28 years. That’s how long it takes to become as skillful and nuanced, and empathetic and everything else that he brings to the table, including the ‘voice’ that gives his jokes context.

    In his 28 years he’s taken it up the arse onstage, bombed, died, turned the audience against him, offended people and more. That’s all part of the learning process. Luckily for Louis, he did it before ‘outraged’ people could muster the powers of social media against him.

    Some jokes are funny, some jokes are not funny. If you want to be a good comedian, or even a great comedian, try to only tell the really funny ones. Also, if you’re just starting out, don’t let people film your spots, lest they be taken out of context and used to whip up a social media frenzy.

  14. AJ says:

    This article has really made me second guess some of my rapes.

  15. I’ve posted some crap on Facebook about this whole thing too:

  16. Wriggles says:

    Well written missaleksia! A grounded, rational opinion of what could have potentially been an incredibly offensive event. YES, I i acknowledge that there are comedians out there who have the art and delicacy to delivery comedic efforts on non-PC subjects. Yes, it can also challenge some taboos in society. However I very very VERY much doubt that watching 8 men (or 8 women) stand on the stage and crack jokes about sexual assault is going to be a “powerful healing thing”.
    I would be concerned it could trivialise rape/sexual assault/sexual abuse to an audience which, given recent australian data, very likely contains a number of women (and men) who have experienced the subject of the ‘debate’ first hand.

    You do not need to ‘defend’ your opinion Aleksia. You are entitled to it.

  17. Graeme Spence says:

    “Station 59, is the place to be whether for a quiet drink with mates, dinner with friends or the place to party on a friday and Saturday nights. Station 59 caters for the needs of all.
    Station 59 has a pool table, live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Something for everyone.
    Station 59 is also equipped for partys and functions with a private room available upon request. For more information see the functions section of this site.” (taken from station 59 website)

    I think it would ruin my quiet drink with mates to have to watch a blogger chased to the stage by pitchfork and flaming torch to defend her online writings. With fewer Australian venues offering a stage for original art I would like to think Kieran would have more respect for his position, and tread a less fine line between art and entertainment.

    • missaleksia says:

      Hmmm.

      Not sure that I’d call anything in there a “rape joke”. There’s some very crude sexual “humour”, and clear frustrations at the apparently incomprehensible disconnect between women being on dating sites and not wanting to act like total whores, but I don’t hear him actually bringing up the victims, or perpetrators, or act, of rape.

      I’m wary about framing this debate in such a way that all sexual humour falls under the banner of “rape jokes”. This guy is frustrated and crude, and he clearly likes using (ahem) descriptive language, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is glorifying having sex with women against their will. It seems to me that he’s more frustrated that women on dating sites are saying that they don’t want to have one-night stands, which he sees as contradictory to the point of dating sites. I don’t think I could argue that what’s coming out of his mouth is actually intrinsically linked to the crime of rape. I think you could make a pretty good argument for him being a misogynist.

      I would, however, call it absolutely awful comedy, and if I ever reviewed this guy I would savage him. Offensive for the sake of it. I wouldn’t take that routine to the festivals, and if I were at a comedy night where a routine like this were being performed, I’d leave until he was done. I think the dude is entitled to perform this routine (free speech is a thing, after all) but I would hope that most audiences would vote with their feet. (They’ve certainly voted with their YouTube dislikes – there’s hope yet!)

  18. Ljubica says:

    Reblogged this on a miscellany of lju and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  19. Pingback: The 55th Down Under Feminists Carnival | the news with nipples

  20. Pingback: Why I hope frape isn’t word of the year | hunteressthompson

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