Archive for January, 2012

why rape jokes aren’t funny, even if you’re kinky
January 2, 2012

You’d think that given that kinky people are universally more enlightened about sexuality than the general population, nobody would have to explain this one. But from recent discussions I’ve seen go by online, it appears that we can throw that little “superior enlightenment” theory out the window (no big surprise there), and that a post laying out the basics of this is in order.

I will, for the curious, attempt to shoot down a few of the most common responses I’ve seen to women who’ve posted on similar topics, by means of a footnote at the end of this post. So if you are about to say “You’re just a humourless feminist,” “You’re missing the point,” “You’re just a man-hating lesbian,” or “You’re just bitter/triggered/biased because someone raped you,” or simply curious about how I’d respond to any of those dismissals, scroll down.

All righty. Moving along.

Point 1. Kinky people can be, and are, sexist. Rape jokes are one form that sexism is expressed.

Despite what the research says about how kinky guys are generally pro-feminist (see part 1 of the footnote for that), the research (at least, what little research there is) still indicates that in the public pansexual BDSM scene:

  • women are more likely to identify as submissives and men are more likely to identify as dominants;
  • women are generally presumed submissive and men dominant (and whether this is a cause or an effect of the first element is a question well worth debating, and one which I seldom see discussed);
  • women and submissives are treated with less respect than men and dominants; and
  • this disrespect generally takes forms along classically sexist, essentialist lines.

Thomas Macaulay Millar deftly links “domism,” role essentialism and sexism and sums up the key related points from two major (kink-positive) scholarly studies of the pansexual BDSM scene in this brilliant post. Please go read it, it’s really quite impressive.

In short, despite any claims to enlightenment or feminism, standard-issue sexism is still clearly present in the pansexual BDSM scene.

One of the many ways sexism plays out in the BDSM scene is rape jokes, and other kinds of all-too-common comments intended to humiliate or reduce women or submissives (because of the significant overlap, both work here) within the pansexual community but outside the context of negotiated scenes or relationships. Millar’s post quotes a few specific examples from the two studies he refers to, but you can find many more if you read either one in full. They are remarkably familiar for anyone who’s spent time in pansexual scene space.

Point 2. Rape jokes aren’t funny.

I don’t mean in that in a finger-wagging way. I just mean they aren’t actually funny. They fail to get a laugh most of the time (with some notable exceptions I detail in the next point).

You know what always kills a joke? When you have to explain it, or explain why it’s funny. I often see people trying to explain why rape jokes are funny, so that tells me right away that they pretty much aren’t. There are a few classics, like “Can’t you take a joke?” or “You have no sense of humour,” both surefire lines of defence for people who don’t know how to make good ones. And then we also have a few more righteously principled defences. One I often hear goes something like, “Well, if I can joke about murder, why not rape? Are you saying it’s okay to laugh about murder but not about rape? Do you think murder’s okay, but rape isn’t?”

I don’t know why it comes up so often, but it really does. And it’s particularly relevant because answering those questions tells us a lot about precisely why rape jokes aren’t funny.

If we look at some yummy Stats Can data, it tells us that “Police reported 605 homicides in 2006 … a rate of 1.85 homicides per 100,000 population.”

Meanwhile, also according to Stats Can, “Quantifying sexual assault continues to be a challenge, since the large majority (91%) of these crimes are not reported to police. According to self-reported victim data from the 2004 GSS on Victimization, approximately 512,200 Canadians aged 15 and older were the victims of a sexual assault in the 12 months preceding the survey. Expressed as a rate, there were 1,977 incidents of sexual assault per 100,000 population aged 15 and older reported on the 2004 GSS.”

Do we see a difference here? Fewer than two murders per 100,000; just under 2,000 sexual assaults per 100,000 and that’s only counting the 12-month period right before the survey. Let’s keep in mind that a person can be sexually assaulted numerous times in a lifetime and most of us rarely answer Stats Can surveys, whereas murders by definition happen only once and, with some notable exceptions, are pretty reliably reported, what with, y’know, dead bodies to deal with and such. I’d say the scale difference here is rather evident.

What am I getting at? Well, we—many of us, at least in non-war-torn North America—can joke about murder because we’ve never met someone who got murdered, or murdered someone, or met a murderer, or been murdered. Most of us will never encounter that reality in our entire lives, so it’s distant, and that makes it easy to be callous about, to treat as banal. I’d be willing to bet that if 2,000 out of 100,000 people had witnessed a murder in the last 12 months, we likely wouldn’t be laughing much about that either, not to mention there would be 2,000 fewer people around per year to make the jokes. Rape is a concrete reality for many of us, and it’s much harder to find anything funny about it as a result. So the comparison to murder doesn’t hold up. It’s not about one being more right than the other, or more PC. It’s just about how difficult it is to find humour in serious trauma that directly affects many of us all the time.

When people are challenged about making rape jokes, I also hear a lot of them cry “censorship,” start talking about the PC police, or beat the tired old argument that we should be allowed to discuss anything we want within the realm of kink because it’s supposed to be this safe place where anything goes as long as it’s consensual. And y’know, far be it from me to tell you what you can and can’t talk about, unless of course I’m moderating the group, in which case I’d be well within my rights to shut down inappropriate topics as outlined in the rules.

But will I tell you what I think you should and shouldn’t talk about or say? Hell yeah. For instance I think you shouldn’t use racist terminology, make fun of fat people, joke about people with disabilities, or sling around homophobic slurs. Challenging people—kindly, without personal attack, and with the benefit of the doubt, until such benefit is clearly no longer warranted—when they’re being douchebags is itself dialogue, not censorship; it is a really valuable form of activism. It contributes to creating a group climate where dissent is an option, where people have the opportunity to learn about what hurts and marginalizes people who aren’t like them, where people outside a narrow range are more likely to feel welcome and included (and then everyone gets laid more). Who said it’s okay to make some people feel rotten (by making rape jokes) but not to make others feel rotten (by calling out bullshit)? I’d say it’s pretty even as far as deals go, though if I had to pick whose feelings I’m more concerned about, I’d definitely be more likely to worry about those of a possible rape survivor than those of a guy who wants to make a tasteless joke. I know, that privilege is a hard thing to look at, but really, guy, you need to get over it. I’m not much one for playing the Oppression Olympics, but for what it’s worth, on the scale of oppression, you lose.

Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about rape fantasies in the context of kink? Nope. I think we should talk about them as much as we like. It’s a helluva charged-up topic for all kinds of good reasons and that makes it well worth discussing. But talking about our individual kinks is not the same as joking about what person we’d really like to rape, how much so-and-so really needs to get raped, how rape is probably the only sex so-and-so gets, or any other similarly stupid, boring tripe. These things are not thoughtful discussion, exploration of a taboo kink, genuine engagement with an edgy form of fantasy or play. There is a world of difference between saying “I fantasize about doing a rape scene” or “my partner wants to do a rape scene and I’m not sure how” and “Jill really needs to get raped in a back alley, haha!” If you’re not enough of a grown-up to be able to tell the difference, you probably shouldn’t be playing this game at all.

We could get into a big debate here about how things are different if a woman, and not a man, makes the joke, or laughs at it, or if the joke is about a female rapist, or a male victim, and so on, and so forth. I’m not really interested in debating it much though. Sure, it might be different on some level, as many things are depending on who’s saying them. Okay. Fair enough. It’s still not particularly funny to make a rape joke. It might be less directly reflective of the reality of rape out there in the world, but really, does that make it therefore hilarious and/or justifiable? Seems to me it simply creates an environment that makes it acceptable for people who are not in these “more justifiable” categories to also make rape jokes. And really? Meh. I can think of better things to stand up for than my right to make unfunny jokes about my own possible sexual assault perpetration or victimization. They’re a bit clunky, and they still play into the fact that…

Point 3. Rape jokes directly support and encourage rapists.

For this one, I’ll refer you to yet another brilliant post, this one by Organon.

Here’s a quote that sums up the post:

“6% of college-aged men, slightly over 1 in 20, will admit to raping someone in anonymous surveys, as long as the word “rape” isn’t used in the description of the act—and that’s the conservative estimate. Other sources double that number.

“A lot of people accuse feminists of thinking that all men are rapists. That’s not true. But do you know who think all men are rapists?

“Rapists do.

“They really do. In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again.

“Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.”

So basically, if you make a rape joke, casually banter about doing non-consensual things to that hot woman or submissive over there, or treat rape as though it were something banal and normal and nothing to get terribly upset about, well then sure, you might be triggering the one in four women sitting nearby who’s been raped. And sure, you’re making yourself look like a complete douchebag (no, sadly, you don’t come off as a super-sexy “edgy” kind of kinkster, despite how desperately you might like to—if you are that edgy, surely you can come up with a more creative strategy). But mostly, what you’re doing is inviting the one guy of the proverbial twenty, who is also sitting nearby, to rape someone, quite possibly someone in that same room. Because he doesn’t think you’re joking. He thinks you’re completely serious, and that it’s completely okay to do that.

And you know what? Even if you’re not sitting near that one-in-twenty guy? The women sitting nearby? They might think you, yourself, are that one guy in twenty who might actually rape them, given the chance, considering how completely blasé you’re being about the topic.

And even worse? Maybe you actually are that guy. You sure do exhibit all the signs. Really you’re kinda advertising it, wouldn’t you say? This, right here, is about the only reason I can think of why you might want to continue making rape jokes, or laughing at them—at least now your targets can see you. So if you are that one in twenty, please, make all the rape jokes you want. Because if all the non-rapists in the room stop making them, and stop laughing at them, but you keep right on keeping on, then we’ll know exactly who to avoid. In the meantime, there’s a degree of mistrust that sorta has to be extended to everyone, because it’s sometimes hard to tell which one of every twenty is the one-in-twenty who’s truly dangerous.

And with that in mind…

Point 4. The BDSM community does not keep anyone safe from rape.

The research doesn’t talk specifically about the BDSM community on this point, but the statement applies there as much as anywhere else. In fact, no community, network, or set of trusted friends and acquaintances keeps anyone safe from rape. Why? Because 70% of rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim.

That figure, or higher, is repeated all over the place—the Toronto Police Service, the Rape Victims Support Network, Victims of Violence (with research funded by the Department of Justice Canada), and even good ol’ Stats Canada.

Some of those perpetrators are relatives, colleagues or neighbours. And some of them are friends and acquaintances. In other words, even if we drop all the husbands, boyfriends, dads, work colleagues and so forth from the list and focus exclusively on the “other acquaintances” category, the simple fact of knowing people—like, say, from attending the same munch a few times or seeing each other at the occasional play party—is no guarantee of protection. Quite the reverse. The people habitually found in a given social setting are the ones most likely to rape the other people in that same social setting.

So please, let’s stop with the idea that we police the SM world and magically make it safe for everyone because of our focus on consent. If 19 out of 20 guys (and yes, I am focusing on guys here, because the studies above also note that around 97% of sexual assault perpetrators are male) believe in consent-only activity and practice it 100% of the time, that still leaves the one guy out of twenty who doesn’t and who is still happily ensconced within the community. And let’s recall that many of those 19, along with a few gals, may be making that one guy feel perfectly justified about what he does, because while not being rapists, they may still be helping to create an environment in which rapists can flourish, or at least get by relatively unnoticed. So if you’re one of those folks who thinks that if you say “consent” often enough, you’ve paid your dues and can now also make or laugh at a rape joke, think again. These things do not cancel each other out.

Point 5. People vastly under-report incidences of rape and sexual assault, mainly because of fear of repercussion or ostracization.

If you were an oppressed sexual minority—say, a kinkster—all your life, and you finally found a community where you could meet like-minded people, and explore this very deep and compelling part of yourself with people you find attractive, wouldn’t you want to make sure your membership in that community wasn’t jeopardized? And if that community distrusted the cops because the cops had been known to arrest them for their enjoyable consensual activity, and possibly even take away their kids or get them fired from their workplace, wouldn’t you be unlikely to bring the cops’ attention their (your) way? And if you knew that because you were a pervert, the cops might think you were really asking for it anyway (much like if you were a sex worker, or a gal with a short skirt, and so forth), wouldn’t you be less likely, in the midst of your own trauma, to risk adding the further trauma of being disbelieved and your charges dismissed? Yeah, well, layer all that on top of the existing reasons why 91% of your average not-kinky people who get sexually assaulted don’t report it to the police, and you have the perfect storm.

I don’t think we will ever know how many people get raped or sexually assaulted within the pansexual BDSM scene because those people have a whole fuckload of reasons why not to ever tell—way more so than their non-kinky counterparts.

Conclusion: Reality bites.

We can talk about consent, safewords, negotiation and safe calls, and we can trot out the existence of female dominants and male submissives all we want. None of this makes reality go away:

  • The pansexual scene both displays the idea that men are in charge (dominant) and women are not (submissive) and reinforces that as a norm.
  • Discourse about the proper roles of dominants (men) and submissives (women) within the pansexual scene commonly steps way outside the bounds of negotiated relationships or scenes, which is not okay.
  • Rape jokes (which are not okay even outside the scene) are made within the pansexual BDSM scene directly or indirectly as part of that discourse.
  • Rape jokes in any context reassure rapists that what they do is normal, okay and approved-of; in BDSM spaces, they reassure rapists that even here, regardless of a parallel “consent” discourse, rape is still okay.
  • So-called community self-policing does not erase the occurrence of rape and sexual assault.
  • The pansexual scene’s internal community codes as well as the pansexual community’s relationship to the dominant society may directly act as deterrents to the reporting of sexual assault, whether to the police or within the community itself.

Consider this: a rapist walks into a pansexual BDSM event. He looks around and sees that mostly, the men are dominant and the women are submissive, and there’s a whole complex language around consent. But then he also notices that people aren’t really practicing what they preach, or at least they seem to do so inconsistently, because clearly sexist dynamics are playing out outside scenes or ongoing D/s connections. And the people joke about rape in a way that makes it seem like that’s just as cool here as it is anywhere else—and not only that, but they’ve got fancy things like collars and cuffs and rope to make it all even easier! All he needs to do is learn the “in-crowd” language to avoid being easily detected. Cuz really, once he’s got that down, he’s not very likely to encounter much resistance, and even if he did, she’d never take it to the cops. And she wouldn’t risk saying anything in the community either, cuz she’d get snubbed. Sweet deal.

It’s a bit sobering, isn’t it?

And that’s why rape jokes aren’t funny, even if you’re kinky. They are only one part of a larger system in which many other things happen that are not funny, but they are also one of the easiest to simply stop. So let’s stop making them. We’re a creative, intelligent bunch, or at least we sure like to think of ourselves that way. I’m sure we can find plenty else to laugh about.


And here is that promised footnote on my response to classic dismissals.

  1. “You’re just a humourless feminist.” Feminist? Yes, and honestly, unless you are a frothing idiot, you are too, or at the very least, you believe a lot of the same things feminists classically believe whether you label it as such or not. In fact, most kinky guys do, according to this article by Patricia A. Cross and Kim Matheson. In their research, they found no appreciable difference between sadomasochists and non-sadomasochists in terms of their attitudes and beliefs regarding feminism. (Though it sure is interesting that their findings also indicate that, while still well within the range of pro-feminist, men in SM communities generally have a higher belief in traditional gender roles than women do, regardless of kink role.) Humourless? Well, I make no claim to stand-up comic prowess, but I think I’m pretty funny, and by all accounts most of the people I know would agree, but I guess that’s up for argument. While we’re at it, shall we debate the equally subjective notions of “attractive” or “smart”? I’ll pencil you in for that discussion sometime in 2080, ‘kay? Call me.
  2. “You’re missing the point. This discussion isn’t about rape, it’s about (insert stated topic here).” If you made a rape joke, guess what? Now the discussion is about rape. Oopsie for you. Next time, stick to the topic at hand and you will not have a much-deserved shitstorm on your hands.
  3. “You’re just a man-hating lesbian.” If by the word “lesbian” you mean “woman who likes to fuck women,” you’re bang-on. Mmmmwomen. But I’m not a lesbian, properly speaking, because I also have a long history of dating, playing with and fucking men, as well as trans folks who identify all along the gender spectrum, the latter of which includes my partner of five years. I suppose it is possible I could have done all that and still hated the men and other non-female-identified people I’ve been with, but that would be an awfully significant waste of time. And also? I have three brothers who are the awesomest guys in the world, so anytime I’ve been even remotely tempted to say “I hate men,” I have always caught myself, because seriously? These guys would give hope to the most man-hating of man-hating dykes. (On a side note, most dykes who don’t sleep with men don’t actually hate them. It’s more that most men are just kinda irrelevant to them, which I suspect gets some guys’ knickers in a knot way more than any actual hating would.) More important than my sexual history, though, is that I don’t really think hating anyone is the most productive of places to put my activist energy. I’d much rather invest in coalition-building and avoid grossly stereotyping groups on the basis of a single shared characteristic given that, y’know, that’s kinda what gets done to me, and I don’t like it. Also, I was born at least a decade too late to get caught up in the Sex Wars. Hello from the third wave.
  4. “You’re just bitter/triggered/biased because someone raped you.” Actually, no. I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted. I am one of those fortunate women—and how awful that one should have to be fortunate in living to their mid-thirties without being raped. Hey, I’m not saying nobody’s ever tried. If you have a spare day or two, I could list you the many, many times I’ve had guys (always guys) attempt to get me drunk, try to corner me in a room alone, or flash me in a subway station. There’ve been so many I’ve lost count—and I’m hardly exceptional in that regard, and my stories are hardly the most dramatic. Certainly I’ve had plenty of non-consensual touch inflicted upon me, including in kink spaces. But nobody’s ever managed to get it any further than a single unwelcome move. Whether because my big bad scary dominance has given them pause, or my strategic escapes have left them in the dust, or my physical self-defense has been enough to show them there be dragons there (or just really sharp fingernails), or I’ve just been plain lucky, I don’t know, but suffice it to say I have no directly personal triggers in relation to the topic of rape. That all being said, if you’re going to disqualify someone from speaking about rape precisely because she or he has been raped, I’m seriously not impressed. If you follow that logic for a step or two, what topics of significance to you are you no longer qualified to speak about? I bet the list would get long awfully quickly, so let’s quit while we’re ahead, hmm?

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