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.
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 crimes. And 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.