On Pushing the Edge of Edgy Jokes

By speaking more freely about rape, do we help destigmatize it? Or do we run the risk of trivializing it and cheapening its devastation?

As 2013 nears end, I’m starting to think that this year has been the year of the oxymoron. If the phrase “internet privacy” isn’t enough to prove the point, then surely the concept of the “rape joke” is.

Yet, for all the trouble that various male comics (like Daniel Tosh) have gotten into this past year with their attempts to wring humor from the topic of rape, it’s interesting to note that various female comics have been making remarks about rape (and getting away with it) for many years. Sarah Silverman once joked that as a Jewish girl, getting raped by a doctor was a mixed blessing. And both Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer (on their respective cable TV shows) have made jokes about their own supposed childhood molestation.

Are rape jokes to men and women what the N-word is to blacks and whites? Blacks can use that notorious term in comedy or lyrics but for whites, it is (understandably) forever verboten. (Just ask Paula Deen.) Similarly, female stand-ups can joke about sexual violence without raising ire, but men must always steer clear of the subject. Or so it seems.

Still, the debate continues with some comics, like Patton Oswald, coming out against so-called “rape jokes”. He wrote in a blogpost in June of this year: "Just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness on stage in a comedy club."

Others comics, however, have come out, more or less, "pro", as in pro free speech. Long-time firebrand Roseanne (now going by Roseanne Barr again), wrote for TheDailyBeast, also in June of this year, that prohibiting the telling of "rape jokes" was tatamount to censorship, a further victory for the surveillance state, saying, "Free speech can be messy and bloody and offensive; if you aren’t prepared for the grossout, stay out of comedy clubs that birth comics like Sam Kinison and Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks, and stick to ones that birth comics who do Jay Leno’s show."

Though surely we have enough things in this world to joke about without ever touching on the topic of rape and child molestation, is an all-out ban (as Oswald might suggest) the solution? Or could incorporating this topic into humor—indeed, into all aspects of speech—produce some sort of positive byproduct?

I'm old enough to remember a time when even the term “cancer” was still uttered only in a whisper. And I remember the time that the only phrase that seemed to carry with it more shame and silence than cancer was the topic of child sexual abuse. I can’t help but think that society’s long-standing hushed approach about verbalizing both these issues only originally compounded the erroneous sense of guilt and humiliation that victims of either the disease or the abuse already felt.

If cancer eventually came out of the shadows, due its seeming proliferation and the brave souls who refused to remain quiet, then the subject of child abuse emerged from under the collective, metaphorical rug by the same process. The candor of women like Oprah Winfrey and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derber helped bring the subject to the fore and plant it firmly into the spotlight.

Long silent victims, now liberated from their unofficial radio silence, could now come forward, tell their story, get help if they chose, or, at the very least, no longer feel like they had to hide. The staggering number of victims that emerged and continue to emerge also served to illustrate just how widespread this problem really was, stunning many of us who thought, or hoped, it was a rare occurrence.

Of course, one of the eventual results of this sudden candor and greater personal exchange and disclosure is to see the topic become over referenced and exploited. Too many child-custody cases have become clouded by fabricated accusations of abuse; a number of books (e.g., Room, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) have turned molestation plots and subplots into a go-to theme, an attempt for sudden gravitas. And, of course, there are the aforementioned jokes by the likes of Chelsea Handler and others.

But even with this usage, isn’t it better than suffering in silence like we did for decades? Better that we talk too much about a topic rather than not at all?

And, now, at the end of 2013, should the topic of rape, including rape jokes, be addressed and treated the same way? By speaking more freely about the issue, in any context, do we help destigmatize it and, thereby, allow for more freedom and willingness to discuss the topic, liberating it from imposed quietude?

Or do we run the risk of trivializing it and cheapening its devastation?

I can think of nothing less intriguing or amusing than a stand-up comic (male or female) devoting a significant portion of their on-stage performance to rape jokes. And I would forewarn any would-be “edgy” comic wanting to do so, in the name of First Amendment freedom, to proceed with extreme caution; their audience will immediately let them know what they think is funny and what they are willing to tolerate.

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