There’s been an awful lot of discussion surrounding rape jokes this week. It all seemed to start with a “comedian” named Daniel Tosh deciding to announce that he thought it would be funny if an audience member got gang-raped. Numerous comedians waded in to defend this piece of alleged humour. Tosh’s fans cheerily threatened to rape anyone who thought that maybe the joke wasn’t on. Accusations of humourlessness flew around.
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t humour. It flies in the face of funny.
There’s been rather a lot of research into humour and how it works. One of the major veins in this research is Incongruity Theory, which I touched on in explaining why Jeremy Clarkson isn’t funny. Essentially, Incongruity Theory posits that humour is the state of realising incongruity between a concept in a certain situation and the real objects which are thought to be related to the concept. This is what is almost always missing from rape jokes: there’s no incongruity. Rape is a horribly commonplace occurrence. There’s no incongruity. It’s just something that’s there, humming in the background. It’s like the antiquated comedians asking “what’s the deal with buses?”.
Another theory in play is Benign Violation Theory. Under this theory, humour happens when the recipient receives a threat to how things “should be”, the threatening situation seems benign, and they can see both of these interpretations at once. One of the conditions to be satisfied for benign violations to occur is psychological distance: the ability of a person to feel far away from the threatening situation. When it comes to rape, once again, this is a tricky condition to be met. Women are brought up to fear rape in the hope that it will somehow make us be more careful and therefore magically stop us getting raped. And let us not forget the sheer numbers of survivors.
The theories offer an explanation of some people who might find rape jokes funny: people who have not been paying attention to the world around them. The privileged, the wilfully ignorant. They might find rape jokes funny. It says a lot more about them.
Imagine that you are a comedian. You tell a rape joke, and 20 men in the audience laugh. Of these guffawing pricks, 19 of them are, at best, tedious little solipsists, who probably watch Top Gear and would be just as amused if you asked about the deal with buses. The other one is a rapist, who will go home thinking his behaviour is perfectly normal and everyone’s in on the joke. If you find being this comedian a remotely desirable situation, please report to your nearest neighbourhood SCUM chapter for an induction that definitely doesn’t involve razorblades and meathooks.
The problem with rape jokes extends beyond only being funny to narrow-minded wankers and rapists: there are real-world effects. Some studies suggest that after exposure to sexist comedy, men are more likely to discriminate against women and less likely to donate money to women’s organisations.
Ultimately, the humour fall flat at every level. Unlike a hackneyed Knock Knock joke, though, rape jokes can have dangerous consequences.