Who's that girl?

My Photo
Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
jef to some, jen to others, jennifer if in trouble. 26. Glaswegian. lefty. clarinet tooter/singer/egg-shaker in the second hand marching band + TGC 'artist'.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

"I was only joking!": Freedom of Speech and the Power of Rape Jokes


Chances are that you, like everyone, have certain things that you're touchy about. Each of us reacts in our own way and has a unique sense of humour. We all get offended, purposefully or not, by things people say at times. Censoring all speech that causes offence is practically impossible and it's not always fair to say that simply because something is offensive it is therefore harmful. Comedians often take dark subjects as their influence for creating jokes, and even some of the best-known comics are known to cross the line at times. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle regularly attracts criticism for doing so. In April 2011, Boyle was condemned for making a joke about glamour model Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey, that "appeared to 'target and mock the mental and physical disabilities' of the eight year old", and was censured, along with Channel 4, by regulator Ofcom. In its statement afterwards, Ofcom defended it as a one-off decision, stating, "To restrict humour only to material which does not cause offence would be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of expression." Many comedians will often push the boundaries of what is deemed socially acceptable in the hopes of making their audiences laugh.  As someone who was at the recording of that particular show and didn't find it funny then, nor when I later saw it on TV, I was surprised that Channel 4 had made the decision not to cut that particular joke. Whilst I don't find it particularly funny to make fun of children with special or additional needs, I'm sure I've probably giggled at plenty of other things that would have offended someone I know. As far as freedom of expression goes, UK citizens have a negative right to freedom of expression under common law, and in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (and in the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK). Obviously there are exceptions to this, including "any threatening, abusive or insulting speech, any behaviours that are likely to cause a breach of the peace, incitement to terrorism, defamation and corruption of public morals and outraging public decency." If you ask me, that's quite a broad range of exceptions – particularly that last one – and any could be easily moulded to fit your criteria. A lot of what is said 'freely' might be incredibly offensive, but not necessarily illegal and similarly, some of what should be treated as a joke, or innocent self-expression ends up condemned as harmful according to the exceptions.

Defining what we consider 'comedy' is impossible in terms of jokes; everyone has a different set of standards to how amused or offended they are by something. Almost every joke made is at the expense of offending somebody somewhere. Some jokes are just engrained in our culture to the point that many of us laugh without really examining what it is that makes the joke funny. Some feminist groups are often accused of over-reacting when it comes to jokes about rape or violence against women, but is this a form of 'free speech' which we should have more control over censoring? Women's rights activists in the UK accused Facebook of "promoting rape and 'rape culture'" after refusing to remove pages and groups that encouraged jokes about sexual assault. Following an online petition Facebook eventually made it possible to report groups to the site that made jokes about sexual violence.

Rape jokes are a touchy subject - to say the least - for a lot of people. Many argue that you can't pick and choose where to draw the lines and that anything is up for grabs when it comes to comedy. I consider myself firmly in the 'against' camp when it comes to jokes alluding to rape or sexual violence as a humorous subject. This is not because I'm easily offended, nor because I've been affected first-hand by either. I just genuinely don't see how such a topic can be funny. I can't see how normalising something like rape, or encouraging people to laugh at the idea of sexual violence, can have a positive spin, never mind the consequences your laughter might have on the company you keep. For example, did it ever occur to you that if the statistics of those committing rape are so high, it's very likely someone in your circle of friends will have or is likely to commit such an act? The open letter 'To all the men who don't think rape jokes are a problem', on this blog, was a real eye-opener for me, because until then, I'd never even considered it from that point of view. I'd like to think that none of my friends would ever do something like that, but reality is harsh. I'd also like it to be the case that none of my friends had been the victims of rape or sexual violence, but again, reality is harsh.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is arguably best known for her rape jokes. In a New York Times article proposing to be about the 'breaking of taboo', Jason Zinoman said "if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.’ When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke.” Sure, joking about rape is an unfortunate norm of our society, a norm that perpetuates violence against women*. On a separate occasion, Silverman delivered a joke that directly drew attention to the fact that the majority of sexual assault victims never report it, "Who's going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They barely even report rape." This particular joke deviated from the norm, steering away from jokes implying that rape is funny, or trivialising it, and instead made the audience uneasy. Fewer laughed, allegedly. Did they question the content? Let's ask ourselves if there are any positives? It may well be the case that certain rape jokes can provoke people to become more conscious, more aware of its disturbing prevalence; perhaps it could make it easier for victims to come forward and there's a chance it could even lead to better discussions on how society deals with sexual violence. It might even be possible that using humour in this way, by way of a rape joke, can be a useful way of getting that statistic through to people, as The Funny Feminist has considered, “That’s a rape joke I can get behind, because she’s not making fun of the victims, but in fact pointing out one of the most fucked-up things about our culture: that rape victims often don’t report rape.”

My main objection is that considering just how harmful and how triggering rape jokes can be, is it worth the risk? In the UK, one in four women have experienced rape or attempted rape. Only 15% of sexual offences of persons aged 16 and over are reported and only 6% of those result in a conviction. The reported negative effects of rape jokes on victims of sexual assault may include the increasing likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder or the slow down or prevention of recovery. It might even discourage people from reporting the offence, knowing that it could be laughed off. Certainly, it could be argued that there is a difference between jokes that make fun of rape victims or the act of sexual assault and those that make fun of rapists, rape culture, or acknowledge the low percentage of rapes reported. Perhaps, considering just how harmful it can be and how widespread the effects of rape are, more could be done to censor speech that aims to normalise or trivialise sexual assault and rape. My only efforts to censor such things have been to point out that it does just that, whether it be to friends who have made a joke in the pub, the response of a friend of a friend on a Facebook status, or a celebrity on Twitter who should know better. While I sometimes lament the pouring of 'public outrage' on Twitter to so many news stories, I do believe it can occasionally get a point across strongly. Sometimes all it takes is one person to stand up and say 'Wait a minute, that's not okay' and you'll find you have hundreds, or even thousands, of people supporting you. There will, of course, no matter what the subject, be just as many showering you in vitriol. I've seen the subject of rape debated and argued in newspaper columns, and in the comments section of blog posts, only for everyone to be screaming at each other (or the text-based equivalent; typing in caps lock) and falling out. Like I said initially, joking about rape is a touchy subject. The problem is, for at least one in four women, it's more than just that; it's a constant reminder. It's a recurring insinuation that rape is something we laugh about, something that is no longer shocking.

Jokes always have the propensity to offend no matter what their content, but perhaps we should take a stronger line on what we consider unacceptable and what is really 'just joking'. As far as social media is concerned, we must consider at what point we consider something posted on Facebook or Twitter as being harmful to victims. There are many other cases – racial hatred, homophobic content and threatening behaviours – that are not tolerated and, depending on just how important you might be deemed, are punishable in different ways. Of course it's difficult to justify censoring anything, because by its very nature censorship is the removal of true freedom of expression. But if the sensibility and empathetic natures needed in society are somewhat lacking, how else can we challenge those that either seek to harm, or inadvertently do so? The one little thing we can do is stand up and say we won't accept it.


*I'm not neglecting rape or sexual violence of men, just focusing on women in this context. 

Edited for clarity 05/10/14.