Skip to main content

When rape jokes aren't funny

By Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns
July 16, 2012 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
Daniel Tosh was free to say what he said about rape, but that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant, the writers say.
Daniel Tosh was free to say what he said about rape, but that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant, the writers say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julie Burton, Michelle Kinsey Bruns: Men, women seem to disagree on comic's rape joke
  • They say many men don't seem to get the joke reflected extreme end of rape culture
  • They say threat of rape used to define boundaries for women's behavior; joke did this, too
  • Men see rape in jokes as an abstraction, but it's real for women, writers say

Editor's note: Julie Burton is president of the Women's Media Center. Michelle Kinsey Bruns is online manager for the Women's Media Center. Both are longtime feminist activists and organizers.

(CNN) -- When the comedian Daniel Tosh reportedly singled out a woman in his audience and suggested, according to a blog post that recounted the incident, it would be "funny" if she "got raped by, like, five guys, right now," the online reaction was swift, heated and often split down gender lines. Many men wanted to explain free speech or heckling etiquette. Many women (and virtually all feminists) said these topics were distractions, at best, from the sheer offensiveness of Tosh's attack.

As we at the Women's Media Center watched hundreds of users comment on our Facebook post about the incident, we saw the same disconnect.

Quite a few of the women who shared our post said they were doing so in hopes that a husband or boyfriend would "finally understand why I won't watch Tosh's show with him." Some even tagged their husbands or boyfriends, to be sure the message would reach its destination.

Julie Burton
Julie Burton
Michelle Kinsey Bruns
Michelle Kinsey Bruns

In the aggregate, these comments gave us a glimpse into the ongoing, low-grade conflicts between women who have been trying to articulate their discomfort with Tosh's lazy, cruel and misogynistic humor, and the men who share their lives but just don't get it. At the center of these disagreements is the rape-joke empathy gap.

The problem isn't a failure of men to see rape as horrific. It's that many of them do not perceive that rape itself lies on the far end of a broad spectrum of ways in which the idea of rape, the invocation of rape or the threat of rape is used to intimidate women or to regulate their behavior.

When women are told that they shouldn't drink too much or walk alone at night or wear a revealing top, they are being given a guided tour of the boundaries of acceptable female conduct. Women are supposed to understand that these boundaries are policed by rapists. We cross the line at our own risk. And if we are caught, the brutal punishment is one we have earned.

Gilbert Gottfried: If you don't want to hear an edgy joke, don't listen

A comedian who shoots down an audience member who objects to his rape jokes by joking about her being gang-raped on the spot isn't being funny. He's using rape to shut up a woman who crossed a boundary by speaking out of turn. That is unacceptable. Tosh was free to say what he said, of course. But that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant. It was.

What about rape jokes with less vicious punch lines? Here is the gray area where the empathy gap thrives best. There is absolutely room in both comedy and in feminism for discussions about rape jokes that highlight rape as a social ill vs. those that perpetuate that injustice. That's why we joined with other feminist media critics and activists to produce a YouTube "supercut" of rape jokes -- some insightful and some far less so. Still, the presence of rape in women's lives is too real and pervasive for many to laugh at all the same jokes that many men can.

It's not that women never enjoy crude humor -- a lesbian journalist friend recently confided in us her amazement that her wife is a fan of Tosh's show, if not some of its more brutal misogyny. And it's not that no man knows with terrible certainty what it's like to be a rape victim -- one in five females and one in 71 males in the United States are the victims of rape, to say nothing of atrocities around the world such as those described in our new report on rape as a weapon of war in Syria.

Nonetheless, the significant overlap between the gender divide and the rape-joke empathy gap is real, and it seems inevitable when media coverage of rape so often focuses on what a victim should have done differently to try harder not to get raped. Such shoddy framing creates a fictional image that there's a certain type of woman who gets raped. Women know that's a lie, because they live the truth, but men may never have occasion to question that image, and so when they laugh at rape jokes, they're laughing at an abstraction that's all too real for many women.

Tosh and all those with the privilege to hold a microphone have a responsibility to shine a light on the reality behind the abstraction -- not to perpetuate it, and certainly not to silence those who bear its burden.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT