When are rape jokes funny? Probably when rape culture no longer exists.
In her new book, titled Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, feminist columnist Lindy West brilliantly explains why jokes about sexual assault and rape in comedy enable what has come to be known as rape culture — the set of assumptions and practices that normalize and excuse sexual violence.
"Feminists don't single out rape jokes because rape is 'worse' than other crimes — we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault," West writes.
"Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard," she adds. "Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."
Rape jokes continue to be prevalent in comedy. In July 2012, Daniel Tosh — of Comedy Central's Tosh.0 — performed at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, where he asked the audience for a topic to riff off of. One person suggested "rape." The details of what Tosh said in response are disputed, but he expressed approval of rape jokes.
One woman in the audience begged to differ: "Rape jokes are never funny," she told the comedian while he was on stage. Tosh retorted: "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?"
The joke sparked a heated debate among comedians, free speech activists and feminists.
Comedian Louis CK was a prominent voice claiming that the backlash against Tosh's rape joke represented a "fight between comedians and feminists ... because stereotypically speaking, feminists can't take a joke."
At the Daily Beast, feminist writer and comedian Elissa Bassist criticized Tosh's joke for not only celebrating rape, but inviting it. "He used humor to cut [the audience member] down, to remind her of [her] own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control," she wrote. "The 'joke' ignited a backlash because it was not a joke; it was vastly different from other jokes about rape."
The concerns Bassis, West and other feminists have expressed about rape jokes are about more than comedy. As West describes in Shrill, rape culture is singularly destructive to women:
[A culture] that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was "God's plan"; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial.