Like many comedians, Daniel Tosh has no problem shocking and even offending his audience. But several years ago, Tosh crossed a line. In 2012, the comic came under fire when he paused during a stand-up performance and said of a female audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys, like right now? Like right now? What if five guys just raped her?” (McGlynn). Tosh had been making the point in his stage performance that rape jokes are funny, which prompted a female audience member to shout out, “actually, rape jokes are never funny!” In a Tumblr blogpost, the woman, who still remains anonymous, wrote that she normally wouldn’t interrupt during a comedy routine, but to not speak out against Tosh’s statements would have gone against her values.
Offended fans took to social media to support the woman and speak out against the joke. While Tosh did eventually apologize, fellow comedians stepped forward to defend Tosh’s joke. Louis C.K. tweeted Tosh after the incident, saying, “Your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.” C.K.’s comment makes light of the controversy and even implicitly sanctions Tosh’s remark. Another comedian, Jim Norton, also tweeted about the Tosh episode, saying, “Some attention-seeking woman heckled a comedian, so if anything, she owes him an apology for being a rude brat.” Norton, like so many others, saw nothing wrong with Tosh’s comments and went so far as to say that the woman owed Tosh an apology.
Tosh’s comments are not only offensive, but also consequential. Joking about rape contributes to what is known as “rape culture.” According to Marshall University’s Women’s Center, rape culture is “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynist language…thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” Women are not only the most common victims of rape, but as Tosh’s comments illustrate they are disproportionately subject to attitudes and language that minimize their personal freedom. Misogynist language, which can take the form of sexist humor, sends a message that the safety of women is unimportant. Jokes have meanings we can’t ignore; they are rooted in ideas that society holds to be true, and they can perpetuate values that are ugly, sexist, and dehumanizing. And jokes don’t stop after everyone is done laughing—we carry them with us, whether we know it or not.
Sexist and misogynist humor can desensitize both men and women to the reality of sexual violence, but the research shows that the effect on men is especially worrisome. Men who are exposed to rape humor can develop a very disturbing perception of rape. A study by the University of Iowa looking at the effects of sexist jokes on men 18-50 years of age concluded that men who were exposed to sexist jokes and then listened to different hypothetical rape scenarios were more likely to blame the woman in the story for the rape. According to the study, joking about rape results in a “non-serious mindset” in which hearers or tellers may begin to accept “the norm of prejudice implied by the joke” (Viki et al 124). The study also found that the participants were “more tolerant of a sexist event (e.g. sexual harassment) after they have been exposed to sexist humor” (124). The men involved were less likely to view rape as a serious crime and suggested shorter sentences for convicted rapists. Finally, they had a harder time distinguishing whether specific scenarios were rape or not (123-4).
Though sexist humor affects men’s perception of rape, the tendency to joke about sexual violence cuts across gender lines. In her book Rape is Rape, researcher Jody Raphael describes an incident at Yale University in which the sorority Delta Kappa Epsilon had their pledges march blindfolded, shouting “no means yes” and “yes means anal” across the campus through an area where primarily freshman women were housed (146). Making light of nonconsensual sex encourages the tolerance and acceptance of rape. There are many reasons that most victims of rape don’t come forward and report the crime, but language that downplays its severity and even shifts the blame to victims only contributes to the problem.
Joking minimizes many acts of sexual aggression, from catcalling a passerby, making unwanted advances to a woman at the bar, to insulting someone after being rejected. Humor allows joke tellers to distance themselves from the reality of the joke. But rape humor intensifies the defensiveness that many women live with on a daily basis. Most women grow up hearing constant warnings to “be careful.” We have picked up on the message that living with the risk of sexual violence is a fact of life. Potential perpetrators are receiving a message as well. When rape jokes are told and tolerated, potential victimizers learn that rape is not a serious matter and that victims are often to blame. These messages need to be brought to the surface if we are to see any change.
In order make open discussion possible, several steps first need to be taken. First, we as a society need to acknowledge that rape culture is very real and dangerous (Moseley). Taken together, pretending that rape culture does not exist and continuing to downplay rape contribute to a culture in which the wellbeing of women (and some men) is compromised. It is essential that we hold rapists accountable for their actions, but we also need to speak out against language that trivializes rape. We need more people, including prominent men, to say that rape humor is unacceptable. Jamie Kilstein, comedian and co-host of Citizen Radio, was one of the few male comedians who did speak out against Tosh. He tweeted, “Lots of sad boys making this about heckling[,] not about a comic saying he hopes a girl gets gang raped.” Kilstein shifts the focus to what is important: the outrage should not be over heckling, no matter how frustrating it is for comedians. The outrage should be over the fact that a powerful public figure said that the gang rape of an audience member would be humorous.
In order to see change, rape humor must be met with the disapproval that other offensive comments are. In today’s world, racist jokes are generally not tolerated. Those who make publicly racist statements are shamed—and rightfully so. In April 2014, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fired after a recording surfaced in which he was heard making negative racial comments about African Americans. Not only did he lose his job as a result, but he received a lifetime ban from the NBA (Shelburne). This type of outrage over damaging comments and jokes needs to extend not only among racial groups but also to potential victims of rape. In contrast to Sterling, Tosh still has his television show on Comedy Central and still tours the world doing his standup acts; he still has a large fan base who buy tickets and attend his shows.
Rape humor is not innocent, neutral, or even funny. It gives subtle permission to aggressors and blames the victim. As Raphael notes, “misrepresentation of the act in question betray[s] a fundamental lack of understanding of rape” (145). Rape humor is an important example of this “misrepresentation.” It denies the seriousness of sexual violence and the link between rape humor and rape. If we can instead see this connection, then incidents like Tosh’s threat will be met with the outrage they deserve.
C.K., Louis (louisck). “Your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.” 10 Jul. 2012, 5:28 p.m. Tweet.
Kilstein, Jamie (jamiekilstein). “Lots of sad boys making this about heckling not about a comic saying he hopes a girl gets gang raped.” 10 Jul. 2012. 4:48 p.m. Tweet.
McGlynn, Katla. “Daniel Tosh Apologizes For Rape Joke Aimed At Female Audience Member At Laugh Factory.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 July 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
Moseley, Walter. “Ten Things to End Rape Culture.” The Nation. N.p., 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Norton, Jim (JimNorton). “Some attention-seeking woman heckled a comedian, so if anything, she owes him an apology for being a rude brat.” 11 Jul. 2012, 2:22 p.m. Tweet.
Raphael, Jody. Rape Is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2013. Print.
Shelburne, Ramona. “Donald Sterling Receives Lifetime ban.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.
Viki, Tendayi, et al. “The Effect of Sexist Humor and Type of Rape One Men’s Self-reported Rape Proclivity and Victim Blame.” Current Research in Social Psychology 13.10 (December 2007): 122-132. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
“Women’s Center.” Women’s Center. Marshall University, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.