Skip to main content

When rape jokes aren't funny

By Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns
updated 10:57 AM EDT, Mon July 16, 2012
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
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT