But it’s no different from jokes about murder.

 

I once told a joke that hurt someone who’d lost a loved one to murder.

It was awful.

It was not even a joke about murder.

It was a joke about how some people thought I was twenty-three, but actually I was twenty-six. The context really isn’t worth explaining, it wasn’t much of a joke.

I made the joke at a gathering I was about to leave. I went and collected my things and then, on my way out, I noticed that a woman who’d seemed cheerful moments before now looked shaken and tearful.

I didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t tell me, but someone else did later – twenty-three was the age her daughter had been when she was murdered. And just the number “twenty-three” – in reference to a young woman’s age – had been enough to bring the pain to the surface.

Because it wouldn’t take much to do that, would it, when your daughter has been murdered.

I knew it wasn’t really my fault —  I couldn’t have known. But I still felt terrible. Not as terrible as she felt! But terrible. I still wished I could have taken it back. If I had made a joke about murder, and  found I was talking to a mother of a murder victim, I would have felt exponentially worse than I already did, because I would have been knowingly taking a risk of hurting someone. A small one, but still.  I’d have had to accept I’d not just been unfortunate, I’d have severely miscalculated. Either way I would not have felt bullied or censored by the person I had hurt. I never saw her again, but if I’d remained in contact with her, I would not have needed her to ask me not to make jokes about murder around her.

Murder is thankfully rare. Not uniformly rare all over the world, but I have never before or since either made, or witnessed anyone making a remark that caused pain because someone in the room had been bereaved by murder. It must happen (in which case most people would surely apologise and do what they could to minimise the damage) but in a lot of settings, assuming that the presence of murder-survivors is anomalous rather than the norm is not unreasonable. But if murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder.

When someone’s been murdered, they aren’t usually around to tell us what they think of murder jokes. But  if I was in a place where I could be pretty certain that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the women and 1 in 33 of the men had themselves been murdered, and some or all of those ghosts would suffer the pain of their murder all over again if I made jokes about their torment, and if they asked me please not to put them through that,  I would not be all, “But free speech! LOL murder.”

(“It’s not just being reminded”, the murdered people might say. “It’s seeing people laugh about what happened to us. It’s that they think it’s funny.”).

And if there was evidence that murder jokes actually did increase the risk of real people being really murdered … I dunno. Guys, I think I might not even want to be a murder comedian any more.

But I hurt someone not because I made a joke about murder, but because I made a joke about the number twenty-three. This hasn’t come up again and it doesn’t seem likely to, so there’s no particular reason to avoid futher twenty-three-based drolleries, should they occur to me. But you know what? If it was a cast-iron, indisputable fact that not just one person but a very large percentage of people in the world could be tipped into reliving the worst  things in their lives by jokes about prime numbers, I would not, at least not without copious warning, make jokes about the sodding number twenty-three.


Why would you?

(This is about this, and the inevitable defence of rape jokes that arose in the comments).

 

 

(I didn’t even WANT to post another geek-feminism piece so soon! But crap-on-the-internet waits for no woman.)

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 6, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    In high school, I was very badly depressed. One thing that cheered me up was sitting on a high ledge out in front of my English class. One morning, a teacher I knew about but had never been taught by, Mr J, saw me sitting there, and totally flipped out, barking at me to get down, get down NOW. But once I moved, he didn’t stay to get me in trouble; he was actually shaking and pale, and then just walked quickly away. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I just went to class.

    About two days later, I was skipping down a tall flight of steps while singing the lyrics to a Creed song (don’t judge me! I was young!) that went, “Hold me now – I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinking – maybe six feet – ain’t so far down.” And as I rounded the bottom of the stairwell, there was Mr J again, and he gave me the oddest look; he even blanched.

    A week after that, I finally figured out why from one of my friends in the grade above: at the start of the year, Mr J’s son, who was our age, had committed suicide. I don’t know whether he died by jumping, or if it was something else, but either way, I had this sudden, sickening feeling that, without even realising it, I’d been haunting this poor guy, who was by all accounts a good teacher, by twice reminding him of his son. I couldn’t have known, but I still felt awful. And so, like you, I wonder: do other people really not care about their jokes causing hurt to others? And if not, WHY?

  2. Posted September 7, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Great blog post, very even handed and (for once!) didn’t minimise or dismiss the issue of men being raped. I do have a few objections though.

    1) this seems like it applies more to cancer jokes, rather than rape jokes. 60% of men will get some form of cancer over the course of their life, and the figures for women aren’t much lower. It’s not unreasonable to assume vast majority of the audience has suffered a cancer-related fatality in their family.

    Why are cancer jokes okay but rape jokes not? Why are dead baby jokes not greeted with the same opprobrium?

    2) the 1 in 4 statistic relating to rape in America is, I’m assuming, the Ms Magazine statistic from the 1980s. Firstly, this statistic is 30 years out of date. All forms of violent crime have fallen dramatically in the intervening 3 decades. We are as far from 1980 now as 1980 is from 1947. But more importantly, that statistic was never true. You know that skin crawlingly patronising line of reasoning where some men claim that rape victims weren’t really raped? Well, the Ms Magazine survey is the inverse of that. The interviewer decided who was a rape victim, in fact, 73% of the women declared rape victims by the survey didn’t consider themselves to have been raped at all, and almost half went on to have (consensual) relationships with their supposed attacker. The survey included things like kissing, which most people wouldn’t consider to be rape.

    In countries riven by civil war, ie the Congo, where rape is used en masse to terrorise entire communities, the rape rate is at about 30%.

    The oft quoted statistics used in your (again, generally brilliant) piece are simply false, and unfortunate as they let the rest of the article down.

    Rape is a uniquely atrocious crime which can have long lasting effects. This is why it becomes so troubling when false statistics like the ones here are bandied about. Rape is a big enough problem in society, we should be horrified enough by it without having to resort to such wild inflation to prove a point.

    Hope I can get a response to the points I’ve raised, I really did enjoy your article!

    @ross.goulding

    • Sophia
      Posted September 8, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      the 1 in 4 statistic relating to rape in America is, I’m assuming, the Ms Magazine statistic from the 1980s. Firstly, this statistic is 30 years out of date. All forms of violent crime have fallen dramatically in the intervening 3 decades. We are as far from 1980 now as 1980 is from 1947. But more importantly, that statistic was never true. You know that skin crawlingly patronising line of reasoning where some men claim that rape victims weren’t really raped? Well, the Ms Magazine survey is the inverse of that. The interviewer decided who was a rape victim, in fact, 73% of the women declared rape victims by the survey didn’t consider themselves to have been raped at all, and almost half went on to have (consensual) relationships with their supposed attacker. The survey included things like kissing, which most people wouldn’t consider to be rape.

      …what.

      “The 1 in 4 statistic relating to rape in America is, I’m assuming, the Ms Magazine statistic from the 1980s. ”

      Let’s start with that, I guess. Why on earth would you assume that? I can’t overstate how bizarre I find this as a thing to say. Would it have hurt you to Google this for yourself? Do you really think no research has been done on this subject in 30 years? Do you think the British Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and Home Office rely on old magazines?
      http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/Statistics2.php

      Or the American Department of Justice?
      http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf

      Those are from 2013 and 2012, by the way. Full disclosure: the British figures put 1-in-5 as the figure for all forms of sexual assault, the American ones specifically say that 1 in 5 American women has been raped. Also says that around 20% of female college students are raped just while they’re in college.

      “All forms of violent crime have fallen dramatically in the intervening 3 decades.”

      Sexual crime is a persistent exception!

      https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/116471/hosb0611.pdf ‘In the year ending December 2010, there were decreases in all police recorded crime offence
      groups except sexual offences and other theft offences (which increased by 3% and 1%
      respectively).’

      Here are some more fun (and recently documented!) facts about rape:
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/50-facts-rape_b_2019338.html

      For some populatins, e.g Native women in America, it’s more like 1 in 3!

      And some myths about it:
      http://www.aphroditewounded.org/myths.html
      Including this one:
      “And almost half went on to have (consensual) relationships with their supposed attacker.”

      You just implied that if a woman does not immediately leave her rapist, she cannot have been raped. And/or that there is no rape within marriage or long-term-relationships. I hardly know what to say. Do you have any grasp of how flat-out depressing that is to see, as a response to an article like this? Or at all? Do you realise what that says to any woman in a relationship who’s been raped by her husband or boyfriend, anyone who told herself it was no big deal at first but is increasingly conscious that she did not consent? It says, don’t bother complaining or seeking help, unless you ran screaming at once, you’re not going to be believed. 51% of rape victims are raped by their partner, you know, so that’s a lot of rape victims to say that to. It’s not just depressing, actually, it’s DANGEROUS. It also tells men that if they’re in a relationship with a woman it’s okay, they can do pretty much what they like. As long as the woman is confused enough or in love enough or in shock enough to make excuses for them, they don’t need her consent to sex, because even if she does eventually start talking about it, she won’t be believed.

      It’s quite common, actually, for women to have difficulty defining an experience as rape, even one that fits the definition of rape to the letter, if it would mean accepting that their partner is a rapist. Can’t you see how hard it would be to accept that someone you love would do that to you? That telling yourself it wasn’t exactly consensual but it sure wasn’t RAPE might be easier?

      Some stories, from women ‘who went on to have relationships wihth their supposed attacker’!

      http://skepchick.org/2013/08/when-i-didnt-consent-why-i-reported-why-i-didnt/
      http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-07-12/girl-talk-on-dealing-with-rape-within-a-relationship/
      http://herbsandhags.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/how-i-became-rape-victim.html

      “When he called me two days after the rape to ask me out, I said yes immediately. Mainly because I was afraid that if I didn’t go out with him now, he would tell everyone what a slag I was, fucking him in an alleyway, but also because if I went out with him and was his girlfriend, then that meant it couldn’t be rape, it would all be OK and I would stop feeling as though I had no control whatsoever about what happened to me with sex. I wanted to have sex with him in a normal way; in a bed, with me having some choice over it. It would mean that he hadn’t raped me. It would make that Saturday night OK, the beginning of a romance, not what it still felt like – an attack on my autonomy.

      I found him utterly repulsive, boring to be with and I couldn’t wait to get away from him, but I went out with him for 3 weeks to make it respectable and all OK in my mind and then I told him it wasn’t working out for me and I thought we should stop seeing each other.”

      “You know that skin crawlingly patronising line of reasoning where some men claim that rape victims weren’t really raped? ”

      YOU ARE BEING ONE OF THOSE MEN PLEASE STOP IT. PLEASE.

      You thanked me for not “minimising or dismissing” the rape of men. Please, for God’s sake, extend the same courtesy to the rape of women, and understand that telling women that you’re sure they haven’t done any research, their figures are out of date and their perception of the risk of rape is just credulous belief in some old wives’ tale without bothering to check for yourself if perhaps the facts might really be that bad, is not what that looks like. I have had women say to me “Is it really as LOW as 1 in 4? It seems like it’s happened to half the women I know.” I know you probably find it hard to square your experience of women going about their business with the idea that such a large percentage of them have gone through something so horrific (if you’d like women to feel safe confiding in you, DON’T SAY THINGS LIKE ‘women who went on to have consensual relationships with their supposed attacker plainly weren’t raped” — you are announcing that you are not a safe person to tell). But just because they’re not telling you doesn’t mean they’re not telling anyone. It most certainly doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Yes, the idea that underneath the surface all this awfulness exists is horrifying. It should be horrifying.

      You wanted a response and you’ve got one, but understand that educating you on rape is a long way from my idea of a fun Sunday, and I’m not doing any more of it, and therefore any further comment trying to pare down the figures, any argument that you can tell whether a woman was raped by how she behaved after the event, any attempt to redefine non-consensual sex within an ongoing relationship as something other than rape, any yes-but-ery, will not get through. It’s miserable facing that kind of denialism, and not only am I not prepared to go through more of it myself, I don’t want other readers to have to either.

      After that I honestly do not have energy or inclination to deal with your points about cancer and dead babies at any length. People do not intentionally give each other cancer to control them, punish them or put them in their place, health campaigners do not get people trying to shut them up by threatening, credibly, to come round to their house and give them or their children cancer. People laughing at cancer jokes are not reminding half the people present of their power to give them cancer any time they wish. Rape is not an illness, it doesn’t just happen, it’s not a fact of life, it’s a crime people inflict on each other. Dead babies, like murder victims, and unlike rape survivors are not around to be hurt by jokes about them or scared they could be killed all over again, and dead baby jokes do not contribute to a culture where more babies are likely to die. As and when cancer sufferers identify and challenge a damaging trend of jokes about their condition in comedy, they should be listened to, but this is not a hypothetical in the case of rape. In cases where people with particular health problems do face a heightened risk of marginalisation and abuse, yes, jokes about them are extremely problematic and should not be told. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/steven-baxter/2011/10/mong-jokes-funny-punchline?page=1&quicktabs_most_read=1

  3. Posted September 28, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Some of the things bullies said about me as a child were funny. Even at the time, I knew that. That doesn’t stop it being bullying. I haven’t looked at these pictures, but when I’ve looked at similar ones I’ve laughed at some and squirmed over others. That doesn’t matter; funny or offensive is irrelevant because they were intended to denigrate women.

    Take away the bullying and it would be possible to tell rape jokes. For starters, black humour is a coping mechanism and I’m sure victims could joke about it between themselves. And if a man is going to prison, somebody will normally warn them “not to bend over in the shower”, although you’re much less likely to encounter a victim if you’re joking about men raping men. The trick is not to make the victim the butt of the joke; when a victim of a crime becomes the butt of the joke, the chances are it’s bullying. (Contrast with teasing, where you say something completely outrageous hoping the person will laugh at how preposterous it is. And contrast again with satire, where a stereotype is ridiculed.)

    Anyway, I think focusing on offensiveness is wrong. There are people, Grant Shapps for example, who deserve to be the butt of jokes and to have their opinions offended, and I will stand up for someone’s right to cause offence. What I’m won’t stand up for is bullying. And being funny isn’t a “get out” if that’s the men[']s rea.

    • Sophia
      Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      I think jokes about male rape in prison, especially the naked glee at the idea with which they are usually told, are appalling.

      Certainly victims joking between themselves is quite different, and punching up is different from punching down.

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