Rape jokes are not innocuous. They perpetuate rape culture and promote rape myths which consequently invalidate the experiences of survivors and justify the actions of perpetrators of sexual violence.
According to Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, rape culture (or rather, our culture) is a culture in which we are “surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are.’”
Memes or jokes glorifying sexual violence desensitize us, and significantly impact survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence.
I've heard statistics on statistics on statistics about survivors, perpetrators, and the acts themselves, but what I find to be most heartbreaking is that only 5% of college women who are raped report it to the police, and 42% tell no one about the experience. Clearly, the legal system isn't the only problem.
In the past, I served as a sexual assault crisis counselor on a 24-hour hotline. I’d listen to survivors’ and loved ones’ stories, I’d explain their reporting options and the pros and cons of reporting, and I'd help them navigate our center’s services. I learned quickly, however, that survivors didn’t just need to find a counselor or to be tested for STIs. Rather, survivors needed to be told “I believe you,” and to know that whatever they are feeling, however they are (or aren’t) coping, is valid. They needed to take to heart that what had happened was not their fault, as one of the most common symptoms of rape trauma syndrome is guilt.
GUILT. As a society we teach “don’t get raped” rather than "don’t rape."Consequently, survivors ask themselves “What could I have done differently? How could I have prevented this? Was I not clear enough? I shouldn’t have drank that, worn this, talked to them.”
Rape jokes tell survivors of sexual violence that you are not an ally, that they cannot reach out to you for support, that you will either invalidate their story, or worse blame, chastise, interrogate, or disbelieve them. Rape jokes tell survivors that they need to “get over it,” that their emotions and trauma are not legitimate, because rape is funny. It isn’t a big deal. It isn’t that different from failing a test. Rape jokes often reinforce rape myths, that men just can’t control themselves, or that women are “asking for it” by speaking out, dressing a certain way, or not obeying.
Rape jokes are a major barrier to survivors reporting and consequently a barrier to holding perpetrators accountable. While one in six women experience rape or attempted rape, that certainly doesn’t mean that one in six men are rapists. Rather, most perpetrators are repeat rapists, perpetrating an average of six rapes. That means that our failure to create an environment in which survivors feel safe and supported through the reporting process allows for further victimization.
Rape jokes also teach perpetrators that their actions are normal and acceptable. Rapists don’t consider themselves rapists. They don’t associate their actions with the world ‘rape,’ even if they’ll admit to acts that constitute as rape. (For example, answering “yes” to questions such as “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force [...] if they didn’t cooperate?”) Through their ability to dissociate their actions from the word “rape,” rapists assume that their actions are normal, that all men are rapists.
And rape jokes reinforce this. Rape jokes tell rapists that their actions aren’t anything different from normal, healthy sexuality. Rape jokes condone rapists' actions. To rapists, they are a confirmation that other men- those telling the jokes, and those laughing at them- are rapists as well.
Rape jokes are not just insensitive. They are microaggresions, contributing to our rape culture, and sending the message that sexual violence is acceptable, inevitable, the status quo.
We don’t have to tolerate it. It is our responsibility to end rape culture.