Why rape jokes aren’t funny: the science

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.


Further reading:

The anatomy of a joke

Dear comedians and people like me who think they’re comedians: please stop

Feminists don’t think all men are rapists. Rapists do.

35 thoughts on “Why rape jokes aren’t funny: the science”

  1. Nice dissection. It bugs me that people think that because something is subjective and it’s mechanisms are difficult to understand that it’s somehow beyond criticism. Thanks for putting that idea to bed.

  2. Some interesting things there – I think the problem with the incongruity theory is that for people like you and I that are somewhat engaged with the issue it can be true. But I do find that the majority of people aren’t. For the majority rape is a topic that they keep as far away from their minds as possible. It’s still a taboo topic in many, many places. The statistics for how many people will know a rape survivor are quite high. The statistic for how many people are aware that they know one will be considerably lower. For a huge amount of people it isn’t background noise, it’s something you don’t think or talk about. And so jokes about it are incongruous. It’s not just the wilfully ignorant. It’s just the plain ignorant, and I mean that literally – people that just don’t know any different.

    Where I think you’re right is that the work in bringing the topic to the fore that bloggers like yourself engage in will eventually render you correct. The awkward thing is that, to a certain degree, I think comics are helping along the extinction of the rape joke. Because when you normalise joking about rape, you also, unavoidably, normalise talking about it. The destruction of the taboo is a good thing. Not necessarily the best way to do it I’ll admit.

    To your second point, does the nature of the joke not matter? If one of those men is a rapist, and the nature of the rape joke mocks and belittles the rapist, rather than the victim (which in my experience, the ‘joke’ that started this article notwithstanding, most do) would it not have the opposite affect?

    A big thanks for that last link, by the way, I’ve been looking for some evidence of that sort of thing one way or the other for a while and it’s pretty interesting.

    1. For men, ignorance is certainly a point (though for women, this is less so). However, as I said, it’s an ignorance that can be very easily addressed, unless they are rather wilfully sticking their fingers in their ears.

      As for jokes belittling rapists–they’re few and far between in comparison with the noisy loud LOLRAPE.

  3. This really, in my opinion, has nothing to do with whether it was legitimately funny. If he had pointed out a random woman and started throwing around rape “jokes,” I would have agreed that what he did was really f’d up. The thing is, Daniel Tosh is an outrageously offensive comedian, to everyone, all the time, in every show he’s ever had, since the beginning of his career. She paid to see him, put herself in the situation to hear a wildly offensive comedian, and then ***heckled**** him for being offensive DURING HIS SHOW. Then she was upset when he continued the “joke” (regardless of whether you think it’s funny, it doesn’t make a difference) at her expense. This is not a “blame the victim” scenario, there are lines of responsibility and not everyone in society agrees with what is funny and what isn’t. She should not have gone to a show and yelled at him, during his act, when I’m willing to bet he had already said some really outrageous stuff about black people and mexicans–which she apparently had no problem with.

    Rape jokes aren’t funny, but the blind defense of people who place themselves in just really ridiculous positions who were–in the end–totally fine and never in any more danger than having their feelings hurt, is frustrating. Daniel Tosh has been an asshole for years, if she couldn’t handle it then she shouldn’t have gone to his show. No one forced her to go, and no one forced her to confront him during the middle of it.

    If you don’t like a comedian and you want them to fail, you don’t go to their show. You don’t pay their salary. Maybe you write some blog posts about why their comedy isn’t funny, send a letter to their publicist… something. But don’t interrupt them during one of their shows and expect the person who makes a living being a douche bag to not trample you into the ground. She’s an adult and made a very specific decision, and in that case she deserves it. Sorry.

    1. If you read her article, which presumably you didn’t, you’ll have noticed that (A) she didn’t have a fucking clue who Tosh was and didn’t go and see him on purpose and (B) heckling is a normal part of comedy.

      Personally, I’m with MediocreDave’s suggestion. When a comedian tells a rape joke, set off a rape alarm. Then maybe they’ll stop doing it.

      1. You’re right, I hadn’t until just now. I kept stumbling upon these diatribes because friends kept posting them, so I was operating off of what people said.

        Even still, I don’t believe it’s Tosh’s responsibility to change his comedy based on an individual in the audience. Like I said, not everyone finds the same sort of comedy funny. Clearly there are people who DO find what he does hilarious, and I don’t think it should be his responsibility to poll everyone before they walk into a room whether or not they are aware of his particular style and to then warn them about the ensuing flame-war that is about to be unleashed. She could have gotten up and left, but it was against her sensibilities. Heckling may be a regular part of comedy, but so is a comedian’s reaction. She said herself that she knew she was never in any danger, she heckled him, he used his previous “joke” as a launching pad… and that’s generally how that works. Except this time, the world exploded in reaction.

        Perhaps there should be a rape alarm. But it seems awfully unfair the amount of flack an individual comedian has been getting for doing exactly what he’s done for years upon years. He has a television show where he says things that even I cringe at. Some of the bloggers and commentators have moved this to a more generalized, “we should all stop doing this,” but a lot of people are also just on a flamewar. And it also seems like every time a person tries to argue that rape jokes are funny, which there are clearly a lot of people who think they can be (including women), they are rarely met with any sort of reasonable “These are the things you’re not seeing,” it’s more just “You’re a sexist pig and I hope all the women in your life hate you.” While I don’t find them funny, I don’t think that Tosh deserves the level of flack that he’s getting and I don’t think that people making jokes on a stage–not in some serious public forum–should be getting eviscerated for trying to defend their point of view.

        1. Those jokes need to die. Perhaps you missed the bit about the dangerous implications?

          Rape alarm for any comedians who use them.

          1. There are dangerous implications to joking about how black people are stupid and steal all our stuff. Or that Muslims blow shit up. Racists have a very similar issue of thinking everyone else feels the same way as them, with comedy affirming their opinions. The effect that those opinions have on minority demographics is extremely serious. Until you’re willing to kill every potentially harmful joke for all comedians, effectively removing an entire vein of comedy from existance, then it’s hard to take this argument seriously.

            1. Wait… you think it would be bad if comedians stopped telling racist jokes?


            2. Wait… you think it would be bad if comedians stopped telling racist jokes?


      2. Well, I’m sorry Matt, but you can’t have it both ways.

        You can’t argue that this man is being abused by the general public for his offensive comedy and then blame the woman who comes across it by accident for being offended. He makes a choice every day that he goes to work to be offensive – he make his money out of it. He is 100% aware that people will be upset by his comedy – because otherwise it isn’t offensive comedy. That goes for racism as well as sexism – and just because this woman chose to stand against the sexist elements doesn’t preclude her finding anything else in his set distasteful.

        He doesn’t get a special pass for being a super special comedian – he gets held to account just like everyone else. If he chooses to continue down this comedic route, I kind of think he’s an idiot, but that’s his choice to make; he makes it on the understanding that a section of the general public is upset and offended by what he does, but that’s how he makes his money.

        It might be better to stand up for her right to disagree, publicly or otherwise, given that she’s the minority in a difficult position here. He’s not – and on top of that he’s actually making profit out of her discomfort. No one is trying to retract his right to say what he wants, but he doesn’t get a pat on the back and hug for being called out on it either.

        1. I’m not blaming her for being initially offended. It’s understandable that a person would walk into a comedy club and not realize that the comedy she was about to see isn’t her cup of tea. She can write all the blog posts she wants about how she just couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Distasteful, not funny, horrifying, etc.

          But to decide, instead of leaving, to call him out in the middle of his set and get offended – because he then directed his offensiveness directly at you – is ridiculous. He doesn’t get a special pass for being a special comedian, but he also shouldn’t get a special dose of ridicule because someone went to his show and gave him crap while he was doing his job. He did not target her, if he randomly picked a girl out of the crowd and attacked her then that would be completely uncalled for and shameful, she called herself out. There should be no more reaction to that than anything else he ever says.

          And how is she a minority? She’s a woman, women aren’t minorities, they make up like 51% of the US population last time I heard a stat on it. And of the people talking about it in social media, it certainly seems like she’s in the majority of people who actually care about this controversy. No one should get a pat on the back and a hug in this situation, because everyone acted like an asshat. But no one should get any particular level of criticism either, because *everyone* acted like an asshat. This never should have been a thing at all, directed toward her or him.

      3. Matt:

        It’s not about changing the show for one individual. A lot of people go to see comedians not knowing anything about them. If they didn’t, no comedian would ever make it anywhere and Daniel Tosh’s entire audience would consist of his friends and his mum.

        That said though, he did change his show for one individual. She said something he didn’t agree with, and he added an ad-libbed bit about how women he disagrees with deserve to be raped.

        Are you telling us that he shouldn’t change his material to avoid offending (at least) one person in the audience, but that it’s ok for him to change his material specifically to threaten one person in the audience with violence?

        Some smug fuck not only publicly humiliated her but induced a whole room of people to laugh at her getting gang raped, just because she criticised him. And you’re saying she acted like an asshat?

        More to the point, when a guy went out of his way to be offensive her, she was out of order for being offended? By his deliberate attempt to offend her? Really?

        Jesus. Go choke on a turd you gigantic idiot.

        1. Alex, that entire line of reasoning does not, in reality, follow from what I said. You’re misunderstanding my argument purposefully in order to come to a concluding statement which makes you sound like an 8 year old.

          Your line of reasoning:

          Argument 1: “It’s not about changing it for one person”
          So he should just change what he does completely – because *everyone* wants him to change. Except he has a really popular television show and makes millions of dollars doing exactly what he’s doing. But just in case someone doesn’t know what he does, he should change his whole act to accommodate those people. You know, just in case.

          Score: 3 out of 10. It almost begins to make sense, but then you realize the entire premise it’s based on is faulty. Fail.

          Argument 2: Essentially – “He changed his act to threaten an individual in the audience with violence. Which runs counter to your argument that he shouldn’t have to change it. He did, and he did so to humiliate her.”

          There are a couple points here that are wrong and or misguided. 1. He didn’t actually threaten her with violence. She said herself that she knew that the scenario he was suggesting was not actually likely to take place. To pretend like it was in any way a possibility is pretty ridiculous. It was an asshole comment for sure, but to act like she at any point in time thought 5 guys were going to descend from the rafters and rape her in front of everyone is really out there. The point of the statement was to be really offensive while also tying to his previous joke. It’s was contextual, not just a random threat pulled out of nowhere. But, really, this is neither here nor there. The fact that it was mind blowingly offensive is not the question. More importantly… 2. He didn’t change his show. SHE changed his show by interrupting. This is the important piece that everyone keeps discarding like it’s not important, but it is. She was not some helpless victim who was just sitting there and he targeted her like some sort of horrible ass. She called him out during the middle of his show. And yes, the comedian establishing dominance and humiliated her. That’s usually what happens. What exactly did she think was going to happen? He was going to say, o yes, you’re right, my apologies?

          Score: 6 out of 10. Better attempt, but still ignores important pieces of the altercation.

          Argument 3: She wasn’t an asshat.

          She interrupted him during his show in order to inform everyone of her opinions of his comedy. Yeah, ok.

          Score: 0 out of 10. What an idiotic thing to say.

          Conclusion: I should eat “turds” cuz I’m a “gigantic idiot.”

          Score: Kindergarten. How old are you?

          1. “She called him out during the middle of his show.”

            Again, if you believe in free speech – you believe in free speech, surely? If the comedian has a right to make whatever jokes he’d like then why does she not have the right to stand up and question him?

      4. Not “someone” not knowing what he does. A substantial portion of his audience. If any kind of performer or artist wants to attract new fans, they have to reckon with at least one person, but probably a lot more, in the audience who doesn’t know who they are. You’ve never gone to see a comedian, or band, or film, or read a book or watched a TV show that you hadn’t heard of?

        Aside from that, statistically, half of his audience will be women and around a quarter of them will have been sexually assaulted. So about 13% of his audience will have very, very good reason to be offended by jokes about rape.

        Ah, “establishing dominance”. Says everything you need to know really. She wasn’t shouting “you’re shit!” or “say something funny now!” or calling him a cunt. She was telling him, with impeccable politeness by heckler standards, that his act was making her uncomfortable. This is the weird hypocrisy at work. Whether rape jokes are acceptable depends on the content, but Jesus don’t ever, ever say something slightly negative about a comedian from the audience, or visibly walk out, or you deserve whatever you get. This “dealing with hecklers” shit is based on the idea that there’s a clear hierarchy at work, and so regardless of what anyone actually says, people need to be punished for speaking out of turn and the comedian’s right to free speech completely trumps the audience’s.

        Maybe she should have just kept schtum and voted with her feet. Nobody’s ever got shit off a comedian for visibly walking out right? Or might Daniel Tosh have clocked her standing up and said something like “clearly someone doesn’t like my rape jokes, hey, wouldn’t it be funny if on the way out like 5 guys…”?

    2. @Lily and @Alex:

      Actually, I think you hit the nail on the head with the comedian’s right to free speech, and the hierarchy at work, being exactly the base of what I’m getting at. No, the audience doesn’t have free speech, at least not in that room. The comedian is on the stage, they have the mic, and the audience needs to know their place. As soon as they leave the room, they can say whatever they want – it’s a free country (whether or not I agree with it, hence this controversy, is a different story). This isn’t a “know your place” thing because she’s a woman either, if the comedian were a woman, if they were gay, a kid, or whatever, they are in charge. People are there to hear them, not you. However, Alex, I would agree with you and everyone else if your scenario had actually played out like that. Had she just gotten up and left and he attacked her, then he would have been stepping out of line. And, really, she could have yelled back at him if she wanted. Because he needs to know his place too: people should be allowed to leave the room because they don’t like what you have to say. They have chosen to be there of their own free will, and that’s why you can say whatever you want – but if they choose to leave you aren’t allowed to say or do anything about it. Free speech does not mean you get to talk on your phone during a symphony, either. Unless you’ve been invited to be part of the show, you’re not, and you should keep your mouth shut. If the person on stage decides to slam you back down into your place after you step out of it, then you had it coming (within some reason, of course, but in this case he was already talking about rape… it’s not a non sequitur he’s pulling out just to be outrageously offensive).

      1. Bullshit heckling comedians is like answering your phone in a symphony. That’s utter fucking arsewash and you know it. Even if you don’t include hecklers and put-downs as a vital part of stand-up that’s sometimes one of the funniest things the comedian’s actually done, all comedy, is built on interaction. You don’t see Wagner writing a pause for laughs into the Ride of the Valkyries, or a section where Siegfried asks the audience questions and then improvises around their answers.

        Also, a society where one person has freedom of speech and another doesn’t is not one you really want to be defending. Even if you do believe people who challenge a comedian’s supremacy, regardless of how, should be “put in their place” by any means necessary, all this woman did was go home, get onto a medium where she did have equal freedom of speech (tumblr) and tell the internet what happened.

        As for walking out, maybe you think she should have that option, but the fact is, she didn’t. You might believe in the right to leave a comedy show without reprisal, but a lot of comedians don’t, and (quite understandably) take walk-outs as an affront. If this woman had walked out, she wouldn’t have been taking much less of a risk than she did by speaking up.

        Yes, comedy is a free space where you can air ideas unrestricted. I’d even say the plausible deniability of jokes makes them inherently ideal for exploring boundaries. But you can fuck all the way off if you want it to be a space where everyone else has to shut up so you can explore prejudices and violent revenge fantasies unchallenged. That’s dictatorship, not free speech.

  4. I always find it funny how people who defend ‘free speech’ like Matt don’t defend this woman’s right to free speech. Tosh can say what he wants but that doesn’t mean he has some sort of inalienable right to say offensive crap without facing the consequences of his speech. If she ‘shouldn’t’ go to a comedy club she is supposed to magically know contains rape jokes and just ‘put up with it’ if she is offended then Tosh and his ilk ‘shouldn’t be allowed to go on a pity party when they are asked to face up the consequences of what they are saying to a public audience.

    This ‘special dose of ridicule’ is actually ‘the consequences of saying stupid and offensive things’. If he can’t deal with that then he is no paragon of free speech he is a paragon of saying ‘what I want and not having to deal with the consequences of it and not wanting anyone else’s right to free speech to interfere with me’, which is a totally different thing.

    Staying silent when someone says something sexist, racist, homophobic etc is akin to a tacict acceptance so speaking out about it is a PERFECTLY VALID THING TO DO. It’s called free speech and I think you ‘shouldn’t’ be getting offended by it.

  5. Would it be ok for this comic to point to a black man and ask the audience to burn a cross on his lawn? Or lynch him? If not, why not? Is the black man supposed to just suck it up because he chose to pay to see the show?

    Humor is subjective. Drunk humor used to be considered funny until society started realizing the number of deaths drunk driving has caused and the damage alcoholism has done to so many. Somehow, I don’t think Foster Brooks would be such a hit today as he was 40-50 years ago because what we think is funny about drinking has changed.

    Racist humor is harmful because of our history of discrimination and the actual threat minorities have to live with. The same thing goes with rape jokes. Rape or the threat of rape is still a reality to far too many women. Would those defending this type of humor still feel the same way if it was directed at their mother, wife, or sister? I would hope not.

    I am against censorship, but I do believe in voting with my wallet. I won’t support someone who thinks rape is funny. But I do want to know who thinks its ok so I can avoid their company because I would consider them a potential threat.

  6. It’s pretty well known that if you heckle comedians during their show, they are going to insult the hell out of you. These same arguments could be applied to a comedian responding with racist, ethnic, etc jokes against someone of those races, which happens all the time. Humor is entirely subjective. One can laugh at offensive ‘jokes’ involving rape, racism, domestic violence, etc and still have a healthy respect for those topics in the real world.

    1. It seems to me that laughing at offensive “jokes” involving rape, racism, domestic violence, etc. is quite disrespectful and certainly does not indicate an “healthy respect” for those topics. Btw, thanks for acknowledging that they aren’t jokes and aren’t funny by putting the word jokes in quotation marks.

    2. One more thought about your comment, “One can laugh at offensive ‘jokes’ involving rape, racism, domestic violence, etc and still have a healthy respect for those topics in the real world”: When you or others are laughing at “jokes” involving rape…do you think you are somewhere other than “the real world”?

  7. I despise rape jokes, and even casual references like “frape”. But I’m also an advocate of free speech, and I think that comedians should be free to speak about whatever they want. By and large, I think people will avoid them if they go too far beyond the usual sensibilities of society. I’d never heard of this fellow before, but I doubt he’s likely to become the next Izzard. Clever humour will always win out, rather than lowest common denominator stuff that appeals to Sun readers and Jezza Kyle followers.

    I pretty much agree with what Love Bug 54 says above. I would hope that posts like this one show people that rape jokes do offend people’s sensibilities very seriously, and hopefully one day they’ll be as much a thing of the past as other forms of “humour” – censorship by public demand, if you like.

    1. It’s not really about sophisticated humour. I’d take a crass gag about piss or dickfarts over a a convoluted and cerebral Ulysses reference, where the joke was that shat on people who’d been raped.

  8. Every single link has dates. None of these are /explicitly/ harrassing – he has clearly deletes those – but his tweets, those he favourited, and the people he is friends with, all point very clearly to him being sexist.

    People he is friends with include herring1967 (see his timeline for vileness)
    Also this link

    , he has staunchly defended Assange and said he has not raped – implying that the women who accused him are lying

    Note he has favourited this and is friends with the tweeter

    Favourited comment saying ‘rape is not the problem’

    Note he favourited statement flatly saying Assange is innocent

    Note, he retweeted it no later than june 25 – clearly over two weeks ago. This is proof, if nothing else, that he is lying about how long he’s been on twitter.

    More on that: earliest favourites tweet

    As I said, no idea if these will help, but it’s the most I could find, given how much he’s bawleeted, and it saves you a hunt? (God I hope these links work, otherwise I’m going to look like a right dick.)

  9. Seems Keith Chegwin thinks rape/sexual assault jokes are funny too: https://twitter.com/thekeithchegwin/status/224034794005217280

    (Text in case it’s deleted: “Found a hole in my trainer that I can put my finger through – And I’ve now been banned from the gym”)

    Pulled him up on it but his reply was “Why on earth are u following me – Cheers up” and “Apologies if I’ve upset you – no-one else has complained. I would suggest if you’re easily offended – unfollow.”

  10. Ever since people have felt they have the rights to speak freely they’ve been making more and more daring jokes ranging from racism to sexism, and even jokes based on terminal illnesses, and they think it’s acceptable and funny. You need a pretty sick mind to think that someone getting raped or dying from cancer is funny. We may live now in a society that allows people to speak freely, but it doesn’t mean that you should if it’s going to offend and upset others hearing about it or encouraging sick minded people to go off and carry out the joke as if it’s acceptable behaviour.

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