Rape Versus Murder

Provocative title, I know. Not meant to be, really. I only mean to be forthright.

This is not a post about whether or not it’s okay to joke about or write about rape.

This is not a post about whether or not it’s okay to joke about or write about murder.

You may have those discussions on your own and I trust you’ll play nice.

This is about how, whenever controversy arises over a rape joke (like, say, what happened the other day with The Oatmeal), there arises the inevitable defense of, “It’s okay to joke about murder but not about rape.”

Or, more to the point, folks don’t get upset about murder jokes.

And yet, rape jokes seem to cause offense — or, worse, cause harm.

It’s complicated. And also true. It’s just like how people within certain groups can use terminology or tell jokes that those outside the groups can’t. That may seem unfair or something unbalanced, but, y’know, sorry. Grow a pair. Be great if life and art and culture were simple; they ain’t.

So, then.

Why is murder okay as a topic of humor but rape generally isn’t? (Or, if you prefer, why is murder not a trigger? Why does murder not make people upset in the same way as rape?)

Here’s the thing:

Murder is an, erm… permanent situation. It leaves behind the victims of those who knew the person. But the murder victim does not himself survive. The dead body isn’t walking on the street, poking around the Internet on his iPhone before accidentally stumbling upon someone making an “I’ll kill you!” joke. (And, for good or bad, that’s one of those first angry threats that children seem to come to — “I’ll kill you!” Something there in how we deal with mortality, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

Rape victims are still with us.

Let’s talk statistics.

In 2008, looks like the United States had 14,180 murders.

In 2005 (sorry, having a hard time finding perfectly equivalent data), the United States had 191,670 instances of sexual assault, and RAINN estimates that the number is now approximately as high as 207, 754 per year. And rape remains one of the most underreported crimesAnd approximately 1 in 6 women will experience rape or attempted rape (that number is 1 in 33 for men).

Those victims of rape are still out there. And you don’t know who they are, but one in six? Hell, even one in thirty-three — that’s a fucked up number. And it means it’s pretty likely that a rape joke is going to land in the lap of someone who has been raped or who has suffered the attempt. It’s not just about upsetting those left in the wake of the crime, as you have with murder — the victims of these crimes are here. Awake. Alive. And painfully aware of what happened to them — doubly so when you fling a casual rape joke at their heads.

Rape, sexual assault and even child abuse leave living, breathing scars. Scars that re-open all too easily.

But you know what? Hey, I can argue that it’s okay to joke about non-sexual assault. Or war. Certainly the victims of those shitty awful events are still up and hanging around –

So, here’s the real reason that rape jokes are troubled territory –

Because the rape victims say so.

They get to say that. They get to feel that way. On this, they can set the cultural rules.

It’s not about right or wrong, or logic versus emotion, or arguments of oversensitivity and hypocrisy — you have the free speech to make whatever jokes you want or talk about rape in whatever way you feel is illuminating. But they get to be upset about it. And call you on it. And be hurt by it.

But consider this:

You get to not be a rape victim.

They, however, are not afforded that luxury. Ever again.

That may be the most important consideration of them all.

52 comments

  • But consider this:

    You get to not be a rape victim.

    They, however, are not afforded that luxury. Ever again.

    Yes. This.

    Thank you.

  • In college I read a report that said by the age of 17, 1 in 4 girls will experience some sort of sexual abuse. A joke about any sort of sexual assault is never appropriate, in my opinion. There will be those that snicker and defend that kind of humor, but there will be a significant amount of people who are brought back to something terrible.

  • I don’t understand why this is so hard for some people to comprehend. Rape is an act of violence, it’s about power and control. For people who have never lived with the fear of being raped I don’t know that anything will get through to them.

  • Honest question: why is it important to cite the difference between sexual assaults rate between men and women (especially so when it’s vastly agreed that’s probably a gross underestimation of the real numbers due to a much lower rate of reporting, just like domestic violence)?

  • Not sure what prompted this discussion, but I know 2 women who are victims of rape. One of these women I am exceptionally close to. She’s not offended by rape jokes and reasons that she knows the difference between rape…and a joke about rape. One is horrible…and the other is dark humor. She is quite sensitive to other victims, though, and is quick to point out that this is just how she feels. She wouldn’t go making a rape joke in a public setting.

    She says the same thing about cancer jokes, ethnic jokes, and others. It comes down to common sense. If you don’t know the people around you…don’t make a joke that may make you look like an ass hole. This topic is less about rape and more about being a human with some tact and scruples.

    If you want to tread deeper…look at rape culture. I’m a member of several forums that discuss sex. A topic that comes up frequently are women and men who have rape fantasies. Because of the stigma that surrounds rape…a lot of these people feel horrible for having these fantasies. The prevailing wisdom is to embrace your fantasies and to understand that they are just fantasies. It’s a common fantasy and is normally carried out in a safe environment. These people are constantly shamed by certain groups of people that feel they are horrible people and promote a rape culture in our society. When anyone defends these people, they too are shamed and labeled as rape apologists.

    There is a fine line in our society and this line is blurred often. People on both sides of the fence need to show some restraint and respect for their fellow human. Instead of rushing to burn people at the stake, they should take some time to find out if that person is actually a witch or not. Honestly…society scares me.

    • I was wondering about this. I know the rape fantasy is the most common fantasy among women. Yet if you joke about rape, or even talk about it lightly and suddenly you are evil, even though this is the most common fantasy (of both sexes).

      Since starting to dive into the rape issue, I have found my personal love life to be much more difficult. I am in a constant fear when having sex with my wife, that I am going to be somehow raping her. She doesn’t think so, reassures me, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. And it is very difficult to enjoy sex when you are constantly thinking, “if i hit her ass, is that assault?”

      • Blue – in a fantasy you’re in control. It’s in your head, you’re the boss. Rape and sexual assault are all about the LOSS of control. Tell your fantasy you need a bathroom break, your fantasy gives you a bathroom break. Tell a rapist to stop and they’re not going to.

      • I have a wonderful solution for you! Ask her “Honey, would you mind if I smacked your ass while we have sex? No is okay, you know.”

        Listen to the answer. And now you know.

        (More generally: if she is telling you that she wants to have sex with you, respect her judgement. If you think you’re the kind of person that she cannot be honest with, and her answers are suspect, get help?)

  • Terrific post.

    Provocative? Most certainly.
    Necessary? Absolutely.

    The more rape is brought to the center of the wider media and public, the less shame victims will feel and even if only one more person is able to report what’s happened to them, then you’ve done a good job.

  • Some of the numbers I have from old FBI And ODJJP featured stats like: 1/4 women and 1/8 men before age 18 will be sexually assaulted. Sexual abuse is a silent, untreated epidemic.

  • Unfortunately the stats don’t matter to most people. As for the instances when rape plays a role in any kind of medium’s story (be it Lara Croft’s new game arc or a novel or a movie), there has to be some reason behind. There has to be more than an easy way to show a woman, man or child has overcome a tragedy. I swear, every soap opera type “good girl” has never lost her virginity by fucking someone; they always have virgins getting raped. This creates an artificial sense that women never own their sexuality. Storytelling is hard, dammit! If you’re going to go there, you damn well better know what you’re doing with that plot.

  • Beautifully said from beginning to end, Chuck. And I’m going to echo SJ:

    “But consider this:

    You get to not be a rape victim.

    They, however, are not afforded that luxury. Ever again.”

    …is an excellent way of putting it. Thank you.

  • “Because the rape victims say so.”

    SO MUCH YES. My younger cousin recently made a comment about a scantily clad girl she had seen and said, “it’s like she’s just asking to get date raped.” She meant is as a joke and I shot her down HARD. I’ve had friends before who made rape jokes and I laughed until I realized that the only way to make the jokes not-okay was to treat them as not-okay.

    What I’m trying to say is, Right on, Chuck!

  • Well said, Chuck.

    An interesting side to this coin is that, while it’s become increasingly uncool to make rape jokes directed at or about women, male rape jokes still seem to be fair game in many circles. I wonder how long it will take to change that.

  • “It’s not about right or wrong, or logic versus emotion, or arguments of oversensitivity and hypocrisy — you have the free speech to make whatever jokes you want or talk about rape in whatever way you feel is illuminating. But they get to be upset about it. And call you on it. And be hurt by it.”

    Right on.

    I hate the “argument” that comedians and others often make. “Hey, it’s free speech! You can’t get offended!”. No, sorry, that’s not how it works. You can say whatever the hell you want. And then we, the audience, react to it. That’s how it works.

    And hey, if your audience isn’t reacting well to rape jokes, maybe that means *it’s not working*.

  • Jeffo: an unfortunately long time, I’m thinking. (Consider how common prison rape jokes are, for instance, and those almost always refer to male-on-male violence.)

    Peter: that sounds like it has story potential…

  • I had a boss once who joked about Rape and how it’s “just sex” and that women “shouldn’t get so upset about it.” He didn’t understand why I got so very angry at him and quit soon after.

    Thank you.

  • Well, I would say some murder jokes rank up on the taboo list with rape jokes.

    I mean, one can not go up to an orphan, steal his lunch, and say “What are you gonna do, tell your parents?” (why hasn’t the Joker said that to Bruce Wayne yet?)

  • Thank you so much for this post- especially noting that people who have thankfully not experienced sexual assault don’t get to pick what is and is not okay regarding it. It was really great to read this when it can be so dangerous to read things regarding rape and sexual assault on the internet.

    You should probably add a trigger warning to the title, though?

  • Well said.

    Another thought is that historically, rape has not been taken that seriously as a crime. More so than with any other crime, the burden of proof is, and always has been, on the victim, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that make it O.K., or not really rape, in many peoples’ minds. Joking about rape often makes it seem like the victims really aren’t victims, or that committing it is understandable in at least some situations, because, “y’know ladies (and yes, sometimes gents), boys will be boys and you just shouldn’t have been a you know what, and you’d have been fine.” Sadly, this attitude still exists, and until we create a world where no one thinks this about rape and its victims, then people who have been raped (and even people who haven’t but are painfully aware they could be) will be bothered by rape humor.

  • I had to comment on this, because I’m an incest survivor, and have publicly revealed that on Twitter a few days ago, after I got attacked for posting an erotic fiction piece by a teenage writer on my blog: http://www.kseniaanske.com/blog/2012/12/2/teenage-erotica-my-first-time.html I’m quietly writing a non-fiction book about incest, because not many people know the statistics. Approximately every 3rd woman and every 8th man has been sexually assaulted by the age of 18. According to another statistic, approximately 85% of perpetrators were related to their victims. What would you call that? Yeah, you get the point. So, yes, thank you for posting this. Together, we may shed more light on this and perhaps change it for future generations.

    (And now I’m scared to push that Submit Comment button… sigh… I hope this is not too much off topic, you pushed my sore button…)

  • I agree completely.
    I really don’t find rape jokes funny, because rape upsets and angers me for personal reasons. I love that on The Oatmeal, he took the panel down (before I even saw it) and apologized for offending readers. Too often the response is defensive, “It’s just a joke and if you don’t get it that’s YOUR problem.” When the better response is (IMO) to simply say, “sorry, My bad. Misjudgment on my part.”

    In the similar but different column, some friends and I got into a a somewhat heated discussion of what we’d do if we were robbed at gunpoint. We were teenagers so there was a lot of bravado about how we’d overpower our attacker. We didn’t notice that one of our friends was getting more distant until she quite vehemently demanded we change the subject.
    Turns out she’d been mugged and stabbed when she was only twelve, and lost a kidney as a result. It had happened in another town, and she’d never mentioned it before.
    Having experienced BEING the insensitive party in that event, and also being the offended party in other situations, my whole take away is this: being a victim, a survivor, is not something people can see. When in doubt, avoid being offensive, and if you do offend, have the cojones to bow out and apologize.

  • Dear Chuck. you have put a lot of thought into this post, but your conclusions of why it’s socially acceptable to joke about murder and not acceptable to joke about rape are wrong. I am sure your data is correct, but human brain does not process information in the same way like a computer. Organic way of information analysis has no simple yes or no, right or wrong, true of false. Every human thought is a composite of many feelings and emotions that are layered on top of each other like skins on an onion. Logic has very little to do with it.

    When we think of a crime, what we actually see in depths of our mind are images, fragments of imagination. A mafia boss that gets gunned down outside of a casino is a different type of a murder to a 12 year old girl that gets strangled on her way home from school. The mafia killing could be entertaining, and it has been made so in many books and movies. The schoolgirl murder is not funny at all. Our feelings about these situations are very different and have nothing to do with statistics, or whether the victim survives or not. It’s an emotional response based on our imagination of these crimes. Mafia boss is probably an evil fat guy in a black mercedes. The schoolgirl is a picture of innocence.

    There are many different motives and types of a murder, but rape is a lot more specific crime. When we hear the word rape, we never imagine the mafia boss getting raped, but the schoolgirl, yes. That’s why we don’t joke about rape, just like we don’t joke about the murder of victims in concentration camps.

  • Well said. Once you’ve known someone who’s been raped, you learn that is purely soul murder. The victims experience constant panic attacks, nightmares, shattered self worth and the inability to enjoy sexual intimacy. They work to recover who they were before the rape, but that person is good as dead. The wound may heal, but the pain and trauma remain. No one asks for it. No one deserves it.

    I applaud The Oatmeal for admitting his mistake and taking the panel down. Sometimes you have to hear yourself saying something stupid to understand why it’s stupid.

  • I agree that victims of rape (or anyone for that matter) have the right to be offended, but the person making the joke has the right to make the joke. You cannot unilaterally state that all rape jokes are bad because someone who was a victim of rape may hear it.

    Besides, there is no consistency when it comes to the societal acceptance of what kind of rape joke is A-Okay. How many times has a late night talk show host or some other hackey comedian done a joke about a Catholic priest? Or a Jerry Sandusky joke? Those are rape jokes, and I rarely hear anyone complaining about them.

    George Carlin did a bit about this exact topic, and guess what? He made some funny jokes. Did they offend people? Most certainly, but he still did them. In comedy clubs and theaters around the country, as well as on an HBO special. He didn’t stop telling them when people got offended because that was his intent. He wanted to shine a light on the absurdities in our cultural taboos and ask why we weren’t allowed to joke, or talk, about certain subjects.

    There is a fine line to be walked when making jokes as they are meant to entertain, even if they are offensive. But whether it be a joke or a book or a poem or a cartoon, I disagree with anyone who says that a specific subject should be off limits.

  • This is a sore topic for me, too, and I’m still in the not-a-victim category. But being a storyteller, I’ll share a brief one anyway.

    Two nights ago I had to walk one mile, on a relatively busy street, which was relatively well-lit, after dark, to pick my daughter up from school. The town I live in is… well, it’s 60K people, so not huge and not quite small enough to know everyone. Point is, it’s the kind of place where, in general, a girl *can* walk down a street after dark alone and not need to be terrified. But I was. I was watching every shadow, I had my keys in one hand and pencil in the other in case I needed to escape someone, and it took me ten minutes to calm down enough to let my daughter see me once I’d reached the safety of the school entryway. When he rather miraculously arrived, I told my husband to his face that if he ever made me walk alone after dark again, I’d divorce him. Because I didn’t grow up in this relatively safe town. I grew up in a good-sized city, the kind where girls travel in packs, park in the middle of the parking lot, and keep mace in their jacket pockets because purses are too hard to get into.

    You can’t know what will offend another person. Sometimes the hard part is realizing that you’re crossing a line that you’d never have imagined existed. Discourse, like Chuck’s post here, is vitally important and helps make us all more aware. And, hopefully, better people because of it.

  • Tom, you make some good points, but I’d ask you to think about who the targets of the jokes are. When people joke about Catholic priests and Jerry Sandusky, who is being mocked? They are. Not their victims.

    In contrast, the rape jokes we’re discussing hardly ever target the *rapists* — they’re making light of the victims’ situation. That is the difference to me. Whether or not you can joke about rape (I would argue that Sarah Silverman shows that it’s possible, though unlikely) as a topic without offending rape victims isn’t the issue at hand. The question is: about jokes that use rape victims as the butt of jokes, who gets to decide what’s offensive? And the answer isn’t rapists or those who haven’t experienced sexual assault firsthand.

    • I completely agree. If a joke is aimed at the victims–essentially Nelson the bully pointing at their situation and saying “HA-ha”–then yes, in my opinion, those types of jokes–and the people who tell them–are worthy of derision and deserve all the backlash they receive.

      I was making a more generalized statement about, “what are the results of people being offended?” If it is to somehow say, “You CANNOT make those kids of jokes.” Then I disagree. However, if it is more, “You’re walking on dangerous ground here, tread lightly or suffer the consequences.” Then that is freedom, and I am perfectly fine with that.

  • Rape victims aren’t the only ones offended by rape jokes though. I mean c’mon, what with the ‘rape culture’ meme I think we can accept anybody afraid of being raped (you ‘almost raped’ crowd) can empathize with the idea of being offended by some murder jokes (especially personal ones) if you’ve ever felt in fear of being murdered by someone.

    It’s not only the victims of crimes being around to suffer that matter, but ANYONE offended by the topic. Victims are not alone in being upset by some schadenfreude.

  • The first argument is a poorly thought out one. Along with what the above poster said, what about attempted murder victims? They are still around…come on.

  • Here’s the problem behind the “Because the victims say so” argument: That would essentially mean that joking about ANY event in which someone might have been a victim of some sort should be off-limits. The idea seems strange when you consider the fact that words don’t mean anything. Not a single thing.

  • And some survivors of rape don’t like the word victim put on them. You may permanently think of me as a victim, some survivors of rape may feel more comfortable being called victim because they feel it honors their pain. For others it actually prevents them from speaking up, who wants that victim label. Victim can be useful in a court of law because there’s a sense you must be a flinching victim for your pain to be real and to avoid shaming.

    In an ideal world only survivors of rape get to decide if they are victims or survivors or whatever language they choose and the victim label is not another thing non-consensually shoved on them and told they will always be.

  • As an Asian, we get pushed around and our lives are less valuable to non-Asians. Murder is just another concept to make one person/group powerless, and I’ve seen jokes about “hiding dead bodies” on the sites I post by people that don’t like me for pointing out racism and such, and they think Asians are pushovers.

  • I do agree with some points, such as how rape is already a rampant issue that is too little addressed. However, as someone who does not joke about rape, I have a few issues with your post.

    Firstly, you said that rape victims are still alive and have deep emotional scars. That is absolutely true. However, have you ever considered the pain and sadness that the families of the murder victims go through? Remember the Luka Magnotta murder case: The mother was in complete agony over it. Even if they wanted to, this can never bring back the life of the one taken away from them. Joking about murder may bring back the traumatic memories of losing their loved ones. A rape victim has scars, but there is still some hope that they may recover and enjoy life once again (not that one should use the “Get over it” excuse – that is very insensitive and completely unsympathetic). Someone who has lost their son/daughter to murder can never see their beloved grow up and live a full life.

    I am not defending rape jokes. However, I believe that society nowadays does not value life itself very well.

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