In the days immediately after Eurydice Dixon was murdered in Princess Park, a female comedian made a short post to a Melbourne comedy Facebook page: Can we stop the rape jokes now? Rape jokes are a contentious issue, now even more so, in the context of the #metoo movement, and when faced with the loss of (another) woman to sexualised violence.
I too wanted the rape jokes to stop, for several reasons. First of all, they represent a privileging of the cheap thrills of men over the interests of women. Rape jokes are not art; they are designed to shock and serve as low-hanging fruit. The mechanism of humour is a performed indifference to women’s powerlessness and victimisation. Minimising the victimisation or abuse of women is hardly something new or groundbreaking – in society or on a comedy stage. If you genuinely want to be edgy and challenge the ‘PC brigade’, go on stage and eat your own shit in protest of society’s pressure to recycle.
Of more concern, this performed indifference dehumanises women and has the potential for harm. Sexual violence and violence against women more broadly is underpinned by hostile sexism. Research by psychology scholar Thomas Ford from the Western Carolina University suggests that jokes with hostile sexist content can increase the rape proclivities of men with aggressive orientations towards women. It’s not women who are triggered by rape jokes, its men.
While (#) not all men harbour such inclinations, it’s not as though those who do have identifying features or can be picked out in a crowd. Violent tendencies and mindsets are often below the surface. A male comedian doing his material cannot know who he is performing to and what that means. In effect, male comedians are not in a position to understand or predict the possible impacts of sexually aggressive material, nor do they have anything at stake because the risks aren’t experienced by them.
In my experience, male comedians who support rape jokes targeted towards women are the same comedians who argue against ideas like toxic masculinity, rape culture and misogynistic patriarchy. In other words, they explain men’s violence against women in individualistic terms. It’s not men they tell me; it’s damaged individuals. Yet, when I engage the debate saying rape jokes are not an issue of offence, they are an issue of harm, there is stony silence. Male comedians want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to deny both the macro and micro contributions to men’s violence against women so that they can continue to prioritise their interests – i.e. performing – over women’s safety. This is male privilege writ large.
Eurydice’s rape and murder broke me for a time. When I realised the perpetrator stalked her, I was devastated. I know the feeling of being preyed upon by a perpetrator, as I have survived childhood sexual assault. I can remember running and hiding, trying to keep myself safe. I was eight. My most recent experience of feeling like prey was in 2003, when I was backpacking overseas. On this trip, I experienced a minor sexual assault on a train in India and another in Nepal. In terms of fear, neither incident compared to a threatened attack in Prague. It was the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and I’d gone into an Irish-themed pub to watch a game. Almost immediately, I was invited, assertively, to join a guy at his table. He was brooking no argument and I was concerned that rejecting him would have consequences.
He was coked-up and pretty soon started making suggestive comments, comments that got more and more aggressive. Soon enough, he was very graphic about where things were at; he’d be taking me out the back and fucking me, roughly against a wall. I’d be taking it in every orifice whether I liked it or not. This wasn’t a conversation or flirtatious banter. While strategising my exit I was doing my best to joke it off and divert his attention. Protecting myself wasn’t easy. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight.
Partway through, he invited an English man and his son to join our table. Pretty soon, the son leant across to say, ‘I think you’re in a bit of trouble here’. He didn’t need too much insight, given that the rape threats had grown more insistent and graphic in their presence. My assailant-in-waiting had no qualms about verbalising his intent. Neither of us was in any doubt he meant it. I was terrified and felt my life was at risk as he escalated. We hatched a plan to run if and when we got a chance. We did, and I made it out unharmed. I was lucky and want to acknowledge that on a night where one man threatened me, another didn’t just stand by.
Some men know the experience of predatory sexual aggression from their childhood. Many do not. That sense of being preyed upon is not one that many of the straight white men that dominate comedy stages would carry, particularly in their adult life. Perhaps, so-called coward punches or king-hits is the closest many men come to the phenomenon of perpetrators motivated to enact violence by exploiting power imbalances. In the context of this debate, I prefer the term king-hit because it speaks to the power dynamic at play. The king is sovereign, all-powerful and in historic terms could make decisions about life and death – off with his head!
Tellingly, there is no such thing as a genre of king-hit jokes. Google offers one (using the term sucker punch), and even that manages to be derogatory to women: ‘What’s the difference between a 69 and a sucker punch? At least in a 69, you can see the cunt coming.’ Note that the premise of the joke is not how funny it is when a man’s skull fractures upon hitting the sidewalk. Given the absence of these jokes, it is evident that men are not mining this phenomenon to surface the funny in men’s violence against other men. Indeed, men’s violence against other men is a comedy taboo, the boundary not to be crossed lest we make men think about their own vulnerability. This lack of an analogous genre of material means that men are never provoked to empathise with women, their risks, fears and what it’s like to sit through the performance of indifference that presumes humour in being the victim of violent aggression.
To be clear, I am not against all rape jokes. I support material that has rape as the subject of the joke and critiques the social arrangements and relations that support it. However, jokes that reproduce rape myths, dehumanise women and legitimise rape proclivities have no place on a stage. When women arc up about rape jokes it’s not a reaction to any perceived indecency; it’s in response to the careless indifference that their colleagues are happy to perform for a cheap laugh.
In her last gig, Eurydice identified as a feminist, not an ‘equitist’. She wasn’t looking to square the experiences of men and women. Neither am I. I’m not advocating for more king-hit jokes. I’m advocating for men, comedians and otherwise, to empathise with the experience of powerlessness, defencelessness and vulnerability, and to challenge men’s violence rather than contribute to it.
So, let’s ask again – can we stop the rape jokes now?