How dangerous is it to be a woman on the internet with an opinion?

Jezebel writer Lindy West reading out the hideous comments she received after she spoke about rape jokes.

Jezebel writer Lindy West reading out the hideous comments she received after she spoke about rape jokes. Photo: Jezebel.com

It’s not that I’m not used to hearing jokes about rape thrown about like confetti at a wedding. Hell, it’s not like they haven’t been thrown at me. As Jezebel.com writer Lindy West so brutally demonstrated earlier this week, when you’re a woman who uses the internet to write about feminism and gendered violence, rape threats - sorry, jokes - go with the territory. 

West had appeared on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell with comedian Jim Norton to discuss that industry’s tendency to excuse and celebrate rape ‘humour’ as edgy and dangerous, and what effect this ultimately has. As she wrote afterwards: 

I don't believe that previously non-raping audience members are going to take to the streets in a rape mob after hearing one rape joke. That's an absurd and insulting mischaracterization. But I do believe that comedy's current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to (that's 'contributes' not causes) a culture of young men who don't understand what it means to take this stuff seriously. 

Unfortunately, many viewers disagreed. And they wasted no time in employing the typical methods used by that portion of men aggrieved by a woman encroaching on their sacrosanct freedoms to behave as they want, when they want. 

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And how did they try and prove me wrong? How did they try to demonstrate that comedy, in general, doesn't have issues with women? By threatening to rape and kill me, telling me I'm just bitter because I'm too fat to get raped, and suggesting that the debate would have been better if it had just been Jim raping me. 

You can watch the video of West reading some of the comments here. They include the charming, “Noone [sic] would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess’, ‘Jaba has nothing to worrie [sic] about, not even a prison escapee would rape her’, ‘That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her’ and, somewhat ironically considering West’s apparent unrapeability, ‘There is a group of rapists with over 9000 penises coming for this fat bitch.’ 

In the past, West has been clear about the fact she doesn’t believe rape is an off limits topic for comedy and I agree with her. The presence of rape in a joke is not in and of itself an offensive act. But as Molly Ivins asserts, jokes that position victims as the punchline aren’t just lazy, they’re vulgar. So while it’s possible to craft good comedy out of the blackest of topics (yes, including rape) it requires a level of skill and/or experience found in only the most clever practitioners. 

Unfortunately, that’s not quite reflected in the sheer number of below average comedians out there who confuse laziness with edginess, or who think mentioning Louis CK is a universal hall pass. Controversial topics are seen as clever by proxy, despite the pedestrian attempts to broach them  and the staggering regularity with which they occur. In fact, the idea that rape is a dangerous territory into which only the most courageous of comics are prepared to wade is perhaps the only thing funny about this. Rape jokes - especially the bad ones - are a dime a dozen. 

As West’s experience shows (and Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson and all the other women who dare to have an opinion on the internet), women are expected to applaud the casual invocation of sexual violence as a tool for comedy or discourse lest they become the victims of it. 

Faced with the weight of that unspoken threat - that this is what awaits you if you speak up - it’s not difficult to understand why so many women chuckle along. If I laugh at the joke about the woman being raped in the park, or at the girl being carried around unconscious around the party, or at the woman being heckled by the comedian on stage, then maybe I can let this guy/these guys know that I’m on their side - and then they won’t target me.

It makes it even more difficult when other women join the chorus of people criticising 'sensitivity', as Roseanne Barr did following West's posts. In a string of bizarre tweets, Barr accused West of advocating censorship. As Marianne argues over at XO Jane, it's not that Barr is expected to side with West because they're both women - but her wilful misunderstanding of West's argument (which has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with viewing violence in a framework of cultural normalisation) seems at odds with her self identification as a feminist kicking up, not down. 

If violence occurs on a continuum, then that cultural normalisation is key. I think back to the number of times I’ve laughed at things that made me uncomfortable - the jokes where I knew that I wasn’t just the listener but also the punchline, and that part of the enjoyment for the teller was that he got away with turning me into both. I’ve acquiesced to that palpable male energy around me, and complied because I’ve been afraid of being called ‘difficult’ or worse, ugly. I’ve been afraid to have the undercurrent of that bubbling wrath turned on me when it turns out I wasn’t so willing to play the part of the dutiful subjugate, so instead I’ve laughed and told myself it’s not so bad. They didn’t mean it that way, so why cause a fuss? 

Get upset over being told (as West was) that someone’s going to rape you with a traffic cone - even though they don’t even find you attractive - and you’re being ‘sensitive’ and taking things too personally. But tell a man you don’t like his joke about rape and it’s like Stonewall all over again. You might as well call him a RAPIST, which is like, the worst thing you can ever say to a man EVER. He’s not a rapist! He just thinks rape is funny! Not in real life, silly. Just fake life. Anyway, stop being so mean :( 

There’s a deep irony in the fact that the comedy fraternity sees the rights of women to feel safe as theoretical, yet their own rights to joke about raping them a cornerstone of freedom of expression. Honestly, I've never seen anyone with thinner skins than the comedians who claim to need freedom to explore all topics, no matter how they might hurt others. That the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by men is a huge problem; the vast majority of rape victims are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. This isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about one group using the pain of another group (which has traditionally been inflicted by the first group!) to further their own careers because in the swag of tools available to the average comic, rape isn’t seen as traumatic but ‘taboo’. 

But as West’s experience shows, this isn’t even about what’s funny anymore. It’s about the fact that women are still expected to view their own existence as a joke; to put up with jokes about being raped or being fat or being fat AND raped, or being too fat to be raped, or needing to be raped in order to be punished for being fat or opinionated or just there. 

That we’re expected to laugh at them, to keep our concerns and anger to ourselves and to dismiss them as harmless fun is just the pesto on a spectacularly bad sh-t sandwich. When the most dangerous thing about rape humour is not that it attempts to silence and degrade women but that protesting it makes some men feel bad, then it's time to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask whether or not we deserve all this freedom in the first place.

 

 

50 comments

  • Isn't this where one of the usual suspects graces us with arguments that the true incidence of rape is less than 1 in 1,000 women? Or maybe that old chestnut, 99.9999% of men would never rape, and we should only fear for the evil Mr One-In-A-Million?

    I can't express how sick I am of hearing these same old, tired justifications that completely neglect the obvious and sickening fact that rape is a prevalent and devastating crime, rather than some sort of misunderstanding to giggle about like schoolboys.

    What Lindy West has faced are not jokes in any sense of the word, but brutal abuse and threats. There's nothing harmless about it and I don't think any man with an IQ higher than his shoe size would disagree.

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    June 07, 2013, 9:03AM
    • I'm with you Red Pony. Rape, rape jokes - just not cool.

      And I'm a big fan of risky humour.

      I think there's something to be said for "taking back the power". I'm gay and I'm usually the first person to make fun of myself for being gay, therefore removing the power of anyone else who might try and call me a "faggot" it simply doesn't affect me.

      However, there is a distinction here.

      Rape is something that happens to a person. Up there with murder and domestic violence its probably one of the most atrocious crimes in today's society.

      I think as Clem said, only the most skillful of practitioners could probably work in a joke about rape and have it work in the "empowering" sense that I described above. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the majority of comedians.

      There can be a dark pleasure in laughing at something that you know is slightly naughty. It's like having that piece of double chocolate mud cake (mmm mud cake...) that you know you shouldn't eat... it can be a guilty pleasure. But I don't think rape jokes are one of them.

      I think the fact that I'm gay gives me licence to make gay jokes, like black African-Americans have licence to use the N word and women have licence to use the C word. I don't think people who have never experienced rape or seen its real-life affect on someone should be making jokes about something which they are clearly grossly uninformed.

      Anybody that has known anyone who has been raped would agree that its no laughing matter.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 10:16AM
    • I believe I posted those statistics in other comment threads, drawn from the ABS census data and the AFP reports, and pointed out that the perception of the prevalence of rape does not match the reality as established by the known facts and statistics, even when those statistics are doubled or tripled to account for what are surely a significant number of unreported incidents. Whenever I have done so, nobody has responded, either to agree or disagree.

      That isn't really relevant to this topic, however.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 10:28AM
    • Red Pony

      Irrespective of my IQ, I agree with the broad thrust of your contribution. I have self-censored this comment, so you won't hear any opinions from me with which you might not agree. I am not a victim here, rape jokes are not funny, and we need to explore how we stop hate speech without sacrificing free speech

      Commenter
      Nogbad
      Location
      Usual Suspect
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 11:23AM
    • Rape is a massively under-reported crime, though, DM. So data based around the reported rate is naturally going to be lower than the actual rate. But how do you measure the actual rate? Since it's so hard to pin down you get two sides picking the outlying data and arguing with that, and I don't think that helps anyone.

      It's almost as silly as saying only one gender can joke about rape (so a man that has been raped can't, but a woman who hasn't can?). The problem is that some comedians see "you can't joke about..." as a challenge, and worse, think that if something is shocking it's automatically funny.

      If one can get the context right, there's no reason for one group to be censored while another isn't for making the exact same joke.

      Commenter
      Stuart
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 11:38AM
    • My IQ is higher than my shoe size. I have certificates to prove it.

      What is amusing about your post is that you quote ABS statistics and then say you are sick of the 'justifications and arguments'. By that did you really mean facts? Is it the facts that bother you?

      You then go on to state that rape is a 'prevalent' crime. The statistics that you quoted show that it is not a prevalent crime.

      I agree that no one should make threats or find rape funny but if you want to argue with men you have to use logic and facts.

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 11:38AM
    • DM,

      Those statistics are based on convictions, not overall incidences. There is a vast and robust literature demonstrating that rape is extremely under-reported, and attrition in the prosecution process means that very few cases even make it to court. You don't really, honestly believe that only 1 in 1,000 women are victimised, do you?

      Nogbad,

      Best comment I've seen from you in ages. :)

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 11:40AM
    • @ DM, you are aware that you misrepresented the statistics? I did a very quick google search on rates of sexual assault, and you either lied in your previous comments or just didn't bother to read properly. The recorded rate is that about 3% of people reported experiencing sexual assault in the previous 12 months, but the statistics for those who have experience sexual assault at any time since the age of 15 is 25%. So yes, the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault for women is 1 in 4.
      http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/statistics.html

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 1:01PM
    • "Those statistics are based on convictions, not overall incidences. There is a vast and robust literature demonstrating that rape is extremely under-reported, and attrition in the prosecution process means that very few cases even make it to court. You don't really, honestly believe that only 1 in 1,000 women are victimised, do you?"

      The statistics I used were based on reported cases, not convictions, and they covered everything from 'harassment' through to full sexual assault. I tripled the reported figures to compensate for under-reporting, although I acknowledged at the time that tripling the number of reported cases was probably insufficient. I can't really comment on the veracity '1 in 1000' number, because I can't recall of the top of my head the exact number per year I ended up with.

      Personally, I think that even if 1 in 1000 was true it would still be far too common, but I vaguely remember my numbers said it was at least two or three times more common than that, although I could be off in my recollection and it may have been more like 1 in 200 per year.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 1:10PM
    • Firstly, I love how the usual upsets know exactly who they are, nice to see you DM and nogbad, hows it hangin? Classic DM, can't you get enough of statistics bro? Clem didn't even quote statistics this time round and here you are: statistics statistics, statistics. No its not the point here, well done. As a PS: most rapists are men. FACT. Whether the victim is male, female, boy, girl, whoever, most rapists are men. Maybe you're not a rapist, maybe your mate isn't, I can't speculate, but men, as a gender, are the ones most likely to rape another. So to copping rape jokes: in Australia, "Freedom of speech is not an excuse to harm others." source:Five fundamental freedoms, department of immigration and citizenship, aus, Governmt website. What harm that comes from rape jokes is the mental and emotional harm that comes from being deeply shaken and offended by another's words. 'jokes' are in no way our last bastion to go about saying whatever the f*ck we want to another. We all know that cracking jokes can land some people in some very hot water (here's looking at you Eddie). We don't have any freedom to hurt, main, kill, as we see fit. Mentally or physically. Whatever the weapon.

      Commenter
      caroline
      Date and time
      June 07, 2013, 1:13PM

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