Rape jokes: An untouchable taboo?

By Elin Box

One cannot help but notice that lately there has been a plethora of jokes about one particularly sensitive subject matter: rape. Whether the offending content lies in films such as “The Dictator” or in internet forums, recently including our very own popular “Overheard at Durham Uni” Facebook group, there have been many ferocious arguments over whether rape jokes are acceptable or whether they are one taboo that should remain untouched.

On one hand, the joke-tellers claim that the jokes are harmless banter. It is true that no one is being physically hurt by the mere telling of such jokes, although the jokers seem to be overlooking the less tangible, yet just as genuine, emotional hurt that such jokes can and do inevitably provoke.

Furthermore, those in favour of rape jokes insist that they have the sensitivity and human decency not to tell rape jokes to victims of rape. To do so would be the height of viciousness and distaste, and supporters of rape jokes acknowledge this and claim that they would never be so tactless. 

However, a major flaw with this argument is that it is very difficult to know who has been a victim of rape. Whilst it is easy to avoid telling a racist joke to a black person for example, there is no easy way to identify a rape victim. It is not something that most victims publicise, nor is it something that they should have to. With the shocking statistic that 25% of women will admit under the cover of anonymity to being the victim of rape or attempted rape, it seems ludicrous that a person can crack jokes about rape and not expect a victim to overhear. It is also possible to argue, using a somewhat counter-intuitive logic, that the very fact that those in favour of rape jokes admit that they would not tell such jokes to rape victims shows that on some level they admit that the jokes go too far and are unacceptable.

Moreover, something that sets rape jokes apart from other offensive jokes is the fact that they remind people of an extremely distressing event. Racist or sexist jokes, whilst still potentially offensive, only remind the listener of the fact that they are a certain race or sex; something that in itself is not particularly distressing. Having to listen to a joke about rape, however, will trigger exceptionally traumatic and horrifying memories in people who have been affected by rape, and this takes rape jokes to a new, disgusting level beyond other offensive jokes.

Particularly upsetting for rape victims can be the fact that they may feel unable to oppose the joke too rigorously in case they attract unwanted attention to themselves and out themselves as a victim of rape. Admitting this fact to themselves, their families and their close friends is often a very difficult thing to do, and is not something that a rape victim will want to repeat or insinuate by putting up too much resistance to such jokes.

Although all decent and normal people would agree that rape is a terrible and inexcusable crime, making lighthearted jokes about the matter makes it seem less serious and trivialises the issue in a way that many justifiably find very offensive. By finding humour in a situation that in reality is entirely humourless, tellers of rape jokes are implicitly giving the impression that rape is not too serious a matter; that it is something insignificant enough to belittle and ruin with ill humour. Such a mockery, although often unintended, leaves many rape victims feeling humiliated and angry.

This leads onto the final, broader point that all jokes, no matter what their topic, are there to entertain. Jokes stop being funny when people become genuinely upset when listening to them. At this point, jokes stop being jokes. Therefore, it is perhaps inappropriate to refer to “rape jokes” as “rape jokes”. Instead, they are simply an immature attempt to seem outrageous and original by straying into an area that is so sensitive and wrought with emotion that most decent people steer well clear. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect or respect for the victims of rape should do the same.

4 thoughts on “Rape jokes: An untouchable taboo?

  • Something that springs to mind for me; I was a fresher, sitting with a bunch of friends. It was late in the evening, we were all winding down from a good night. People were telling jokes, we were having a good time. Then someone started telling rape jokes. At the time, I hadn’t ‘outed’ myself as a rape victim.
     At the time, it was still quite raw and I was struggling with it a great deal. Hearing those jokes and hearing my friends laugh at them made me think ‘if I ever tell anyone, they will trivialize it. This has ruined my life, and they think it’s a joking matter. Maybe it is a joking matter, maybe I shouldn’t be affected by it, maybe being raped isn’t such a big deal…’
    I know my friends would be horrified at the thought that by telling those jokes and laughing at those jokes, they made me feel ashamed and guilty for being raped and for ‘not being over it’.

    • Vicky, I felt the need to reply to your comment, which, as a victim of sexual abuse, including, yes, rape, has a great deal of resonance for me. 
      I’ve lost count of how many tasteless jokes I’ve overheard in the media, popular culture, & from people in general. Whilst, as Elin highlights in this article, I understand that people tell these such jokes without real consideration for victims of rape, & I’m sure wouldn’t dream of intentionally telling them directly to such people, so I cannot hold it much against them (although, of course, it is slightly hurtful), it does nonetheless make one feel very alienated from one’s own peers & society in general. Also, talking about something that’s had such a traumatic, lasting effect on oneself in such a trivial, even heartless & callous way makes it all the more difficult for one to start to come to terms with, even communicate, one’s own experiences of sexual abuse. How can it just not enter people’s minds that someone they’re addressing, directly or indirectly, may well be a victim of sexual crime? Are we really getting to the stage that people will talk candidly about anything, unless someone close to them reveals some very personal details to that person which, to be frank, they have no right to be confided with?All in all, it’s very sad that people feel they can make light of such dark, horrible experiences that are more commonly experienced by than they clearly imagine. I suppose the best thing one can do is to challenge these people, like this article is attempting to do, about what they say & have said, for such people shouldn’t be allowed to perpetuate, even strengthen, casual views on matters of such seriousness, to the extent that a large, silent minority are made to feel all the more alone, isolated by horrible personal experiences.

      Lastly, I hope this comment makes you feel, as yours did for me, a bit less isolated as a victim of sexual crime within this university. We do exist, & people should realize it & the hurtful effect such candid joking has.

  • Thank you for this article. I find it very well-written and you’ve made many excellent points. I was assaulted long ago – I refuse to call myself a victim – and I’ve heard many jokes through the years. I find such things distasteful, but I’m far from the belief that the subject should be taboo. Comedians try to push the boundaries; this is nothing new. There have been entire routines dedicated to child molestation – Priests, Michael Jackson, you get what I mean. It’s disgusting to me, but nothing seems to be sacred when it’s under the ‘humor’ umbrella.
    Like most, I’ve only told a scant few people in  my life about what happened; not because of shame, but because I understand most people wouldn’t know what to say or how. Does it hurt me to see something like this being reduced to a punch-line? Of course. But to say it should be banned or off-limits, that goes too far for me. I don’t believe *most* people involved in jokes like this are intending to be cruel. I hope excellent articles such as this one  will bring the issue to light for those that might not truly understand the emotional harm being done.
    As for comics, they go for laughs. If we all stop laughing, they will move on to something else.


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