Why Are Comedians Obsessed With Telling Rape Jokes?

The last thing rape victims need is famous strangers telling them why rape jokes should be funny.

Not a dorm room TV was cold this past Sunday night as a new season of cartoons kicked off with a hyped-up crossover between The Simpsons and Family Guy. For fans of both shows, I’m sure it will be remembered as a hallmark of the fall semester.

But the noteworthy meeting of the Simpson and Griffin families was not without incident.

After Bart Simpson demonstrated to Stewie Griffin the fun to be had with prank calling Moe’s Tavern, Stewie had a go at it. (If you want, you can see it here.)

And thus, one more beat thuds from the drum march of comedians like Seth MacFarlane, Daniel Tosh, Roseanne Barr, Louis CK, and others who insist on telling rape jokes in spite of the criticism that doing so is offensive to survivors and sympathizers of rape and sexual assault.

In this case, I fully understand that Stewie’s character is intentionally rotten and mean, and no doubt some will defend the rape joke as being consistent with his demeanor (including MacFarlane himself).

Here’s the thing, though: Stewie Griffin isn’t real. He’s a cartoon character written by a bunch of dudes. These writers could easily have gone for something equally mordant yet free of the deep offense unique to rape jokes. The writers could have chosen anything to fill in Stewie’s line, but instead they lazily defaulted for a gutter-quality joke whose only humorous merit is the fact that it offends.

I’m so tired of this debate on whether or not you can make acceptable rape jokes or who does it right and who doesn’t. Really, who cares? This self-elected challenge of comedians to find a way to make any topic the subject of humor misses the point that rape is a construct premised on sexualized terror. Is it so important for comedians to prove this point that they’re willing to stoke someone’s personal trauma in order to do so?

Yes, humor is a potent salve to cope with the grievous injuries of life. I get that, and I fully support its use. But the last thing victims of rape and sexual assault need is famous strangers telling them why rape jokes should be funny.

Generally speaking, there can never be one single hypothetical joke that universally tickles everybody’s funny bone. Additionally, the subject of rape is uniquely sensitive from person to person. Therefore, the combination of the two—rape as a basis for humor—is all but guaranteed to offend someone.

And given that such a joke is then guaranteed to offend someone, to try to make some people still laugh at a rape joke at the risk of hurting others simply doesn’t seem worth it to me.

The terror implicit in a rape joke isn’t on the same level of personal terror as a joke about having a debit card get declined on a first date. The gravity of a rape joke isn’t like any other joke because rape is an incomparable subject. So given that volatility and potential for harm, it’s difficult to understand the rationale of comedians who insist on continuing to try to make rape jokes in spite of the fact that they obviously hurt people.

When the world abounds in other topics worthy of being joked about, it’s disappointing that comedians would rather brush aside humility and respect in favor of vying for the quest of telling a “good” rape joke with no concern for whom it may hurt.

Drew Bowling writes about language, gender, and mental health, although other topics have been known to enter his orbit. When he’s not writing, he spends his time pretending to be a photographer. Follow his messy thought-trail on Twitter.

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