Why The Rape Joke Conversation Remains A White Conversation
I hate rape jokes. I’ve always hated them when made about women and children. Yes…I’ve even heard them made about young girls between 10-17. And, after hearing many in the public blame an 11-year-old not the rapists for gang rape and more worried about the Steubenville rapists’ future football careers than the rape they committed, to the point that even the hacker involved in helping the rape victim may face more jail time than the rapists, I realized again that rape culture means the normalization and defense of rape, the blame of victims and disdain for anyone who helps/supports them.
Even as a womanist I had to evolve on my response to rape jokes/references about incarcerated men. Ten years ago while watching a Law & Order episode, I might say “mmm hmm” when “Elliot Stabler” would make a reference to a child molesting perp “getting what he deserves” in prison. Today, the thought of it disgusts me. This is how pervasive rape and prison culture is. It can have women, even ones with feminist leanings think that rape is awful except in the case of incarcerated men. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the 13th amendment which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude (so this doesn’t even take illegal slave trade and human sex trafficking into account) except as punishment for a crime? Over time I learned that imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchal views on rape had no place in womanist ethics. If womanism is committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female, this includes examining the punishment for profit industry of Prison Industrial Complex where rape goes unchecked (and impacts incarcerated women heavily, as well) as if it should be a part of punishment in a way that I believes eschews the 8th Amendment (though as I alluded to, The Constitution itself is full of holes) when the State is involved (often) or does nothing to intervene on this assault common in prison.
Rape has always had a racial narrative attached and one used to reinforce White supremacy. While White men who raped Black women (and other women of colour) remained literally unchecked and virtually unpunished for centuries, even through the Jim Crow era, they simultaneously pushed the racist narrative of Black men as uncontrollable rapist bucks for whom White women had to be protected from. Notice that White male sexuality had (and still has) no narrative of deviance attached. Let’s be clear, without the slave trade and rape, American capitalism wouldn’t exist, period. Pushing this “fear Black men” narrative then (and even now) allowed White men to further subjugate White women via gender yet guarantee their placement above Black women and other women of colour to maintain a racist and White supremacist society. Even today, a Black man accused of raping a White woman holds a higher stigma (except for rape of a child) than any other race/gender combination. It’s viewed as a transgression against White supremacy itself. Though most rapes with any race/gender combination aren’t prosecuted, again revealing the pervasiveness of rape culture overall, 96% of rape victims name a White male as the rapist, yet about 80% of men incarcerated for rape are Black men. This means that while White men continue to rape with numerical (due to population density) and statistical (even when controlled for population density) impunity, when Black men are accused, many more face consequences (even as not enough men who rape face consequences at all; 97% will never see a day in prison for this particular crime.)
Fast forward to the constant debate about the appropriateness of rape jokes and it appears to be a conversation between White men and White women. One of the reasons why this conversation seems to be shrouded in shock isn’t just because it’s completely disgusting, irritating and dehumanizing that primarily White men (and even some White women) insist upon their “right” to not only make rape jokes but their “right” to be free from criticism by the non-government public (which reveals that they’ve never actually read the 1st Amendment before, not surprising in America) and their “right” in the “free market” to force people to consume their products versus people’s rightful option in a capitalist society to boycott advertisers or not consume etc; the shock exists because this is honestly the first time that in a White supremacist society, White men are even publicly associating themselves with rape and are content with being viewed as rape apologists who are deviant. Remember, centuries were spent proliferating the narrative of Black men as inherent rapists. While that narrative still exists as the punishment industry reveals today, it’s interesting that White men so committed to White supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal power have found a way to be publicly associated with rape, yet without punishment. Perhaps the shock of it for many White feminists lies in the fact that for so long in the public eye, rape was painted as something not for humor since it’s what “evil” Black men could do to them one day. (This isn’t to say that Black women don’t face rape threats for speaking out in any sphere, as seen with Adria Richards and Zerlina Maxwell; it’s just that the overall conversation is still very White.)
Yesterday on Twitter, I pondered about the price of rape jokes for Black male comedians. I’ve been to many live Black comedy shows, watched many Black comedy DVDs and watched many Black stand-up comedy shows on TV especially from 1994-2009; high school through a few years ago. (In the last few years, I’ve consumed very little comedy at all. I find it more emotionally tiring and problematic/offensive than funny.) I’ve rarely heard a Black male comedian make a rape joke. I can’t even think of one. And to be clear, I am not asserting that Black men (like every race of man) aren’t capable of rape or don’t ever rape. Further, I am not asserting that Black male comedians are magically feminist. Colourism, sexism, classism and misogynoir fill many Black comedian’s jokes which many Black and mixed audiences laugh at. But the rape jokes? Haven’t really heard them from Black comedians. I haven’t heard of many of them throwing their fists in the fight to defend rape jokes or even make the ridiculously inaccurate “free speech” or “free market” arguments. Perhaps the price is too high and they see no career benefit to aligning themselves with White supremacist capitalist patriarchy in this case, though they have (and do) in others. The dark cloud of Black men being associated with rape in a way that White men are not doesn’t seem to be worth walking under in protection of rape jokes.
Certainly deep ignorance circles this conversation as well. Because of the pervasiveness of rape culture, the most ignorant will argue that the rape joke conversation remains White because “only” White women “look good enough” to rape, when clearly rape is not about attractiveness nor is it a compliment; it’s violence that occurs within a cultural climate where society at large participates in rape culture, from art (i.e. song lyrics, comedians), media (i.e. shaping news stories to favor the rapist not the victim), the police (i.e. the low arrest rate of rapists, victims forced to recant) the government (i.e. anti-choice, misogynist legislation), citizens (i.e. the culture of victim blaming) and so many more facets. Further, the hypersexualization and stereotypes via controlling images of Black girls (often called “fast,” which disregards their humanity and makes adult men who abuse them blame-free) and Black women makes it that much harder for us as non-White women to even be taken seriously as victims. Couple this with the cultural lack of empathy from Whites in a White supremacist society and the difficulty for some Black women to name the rapist if he’s Black or not be considered a liar if the rapist is White, and it really reveals how Black women cannot afford rape jokes…at all. According to Black Women’s Blueprint, 60% of Black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. How is this “funny?”
The lesser albeit still ignorant argument suggests that rape jokes are just like any other jokes. The problem is this isn’t true. Notice how so many jokes that are passionately defended are issues that threaten those most marginalized in society and seem to be what affluent cis heterosexual White men themselves experience the least. This isn’t a coincidence. The humor industry as a part of the entertainment industry is propagandist and can be used to create or reinforce oppression. And since the primary goal of entertainment is to sell ideas, concepts and culture, whether accurately (almost never) or inaccurately (almost always), this isn’t surprising.
Another reason why this conversation remains White is because of White feminists themselves. Many are notorious for framing White male sexism and misogyny against White women as a threat to all women yet White male sexism and misogynoir specifically towards Black women, especially when framed as a “joke” is framed as politically brilliant and important “satire.” Many White feminists quickly align with White male power in the latter situation, whether in the preservation of White supremacy or even just to regain attention by centering themselves in the situation and controlling the conversation. Black women’s outrage at this doesn’t seem to matter to them. In these cases, Black women frequently have our intelligence insulted and feelings disregarded by many White feminists. Further, when White feminists take a stand against White men and their rape jokes yet are racist in the their own lives and/or ignore what White male “humor” does to Black or other women of colour, their cries end up ringing more White supremacist than feminist. (This is elaborated on very well by @graceishuman in The Perils of Funny Feminism.)
Rape is serious. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not overly fabricated. It should appall other men that so many men (and some women) think rape jokes, rape apologism, and rape culture itself are “normal.” What this says is that men are savages and women should accept this. It also says that men cannot be raped either. In multiple ways it denies men’s humanity. Even so, so many men are comfortable with this. I’ve seen men who don’t make rape jokes per se still rationalize rape as something up to women to stop. They’re committed to zero accountability. They dehumanize themselves.
Rape culture is a social pariah. People blame those most likely to be victims (statistically it’s women, cis or trans), pretend that men cannot be raped (i.e. those horrendous military stats aren’t all women, Prison Industrial Complex, trans men), and worst of all, laugh it all off. Dehumanization has always existed. Oppression doesn’t even require “hate” for it to exist. I’m just unsure as to why all of this is “funny.”