"Rape is as American as apple pie — until we own that, nothing will change." — Jessica Valenti
The easiest way to describe rape culture is by comparing it to nasty gum stuck under your shoe: You don't always see it, but you know it's always there. It can manifest itself in horrifyingly evident ways, like during the coverage of the Steubenville trial, but also in more subtle ways that are no less harmful. Covert rape culture is just as damaging as overt rape culture. In fact, it's our inability to recognize rape culture that compounds its effect. As Walter Moseley and Rae Gomes point out in at the Nation, "Rape culture exists because we don't believe it does." Ignorance isn't bliss; when it comes to rape culture, the most menacing beast is the one we don't see.
Among the most common places rape culture hides is in comedy. Rape jokes may seem innocuous, but when they're told over and over again on mainstream television, there's nothing benign about them.
Take a look at this jaw-dropping video, and you be the judge:
The worst part of this video, as Joseph Lamour from Upworthy points out, is almost half of these jokes come from a single show: Two Broke Girls. Considering the show is co-created by a female and is one of the few sitcoms that spotlights female friendships, it's even more distressing. The trivialization of sexual assault shouldn't happen anywhere, but it's harder to tolerate when it's sprinkled into shows that are made for and about women.
I know what you're thinking: "But wait, it's a joke, it's not like these jokes are going to make people go out and rape people!" Consider this: science tells us rape jokes actually impact how people perceive rape. According to peer-reviewed research, mere exposure to rape jokes actually increases the self-reported likelihood of raping someone. Moreover, these jokes make the person on the receiving end more likely to blame the victim, fail to take rape seriously and support lower sentences for rapists. Research also finds that this trend is only magnified for men who already display sexist beliefs.
These jokes also affect the rapists themselves. Research confirms that rapists are more likely to think that what they did "wasn't really rape." In a chilling study conducted in 2009 by David Lesak and Paul M. Miller, male college students admitted to raping (often multiple times), so long as the word "rape" wasn't used in the questionnaire. That's exactly what rape jokes do. They either give the impression that there's nothing wrong with rape itself, or imply that certain types of rape don't count.
So jokes that poke fun at raping a woman in her sleep or trivialize the act of sleeping with a drunk girl aren't just offensive to victims of sexual assault, but they also help normalize the behavior of rapists.
Keep this in mind next time you're tempted to make or laugh at a sexual assault punch-line. Chances are that rapists are laughing along with you too.