Nothing funny about rape jokes
- Julie Burton, Michelle Kinsey Bruns: Men, women seem to disagree on comic's rape joke
- They say many men don't seem to get the joke reflected extreme end of rape culture
- They say threat of rape used to define boundaries for women's behavior; joke did this, too
- Men see rape in jokes as an abstraction, but it's real for women, writers say
Editor's note: Julie Burton is president of the Women's Media Center. Michelle Kinsey Bruns is online manager for the Women's Media Center. Both are longtime feminist activists and organizers.
(CNN) -- When the comedian Daniel Tosh reportedly singled out a woman in his audience and suggested, according to a blog post that recounted the incident, it would be "funny" if she "got raped by, like, five guys, right now," the online reaction was swift, heated and often split down gender lines. Many men wanted to explain free speech or heckling etiquette. Many women (and virtually all feminists) said these topics were distractions, at best, from the sheer offensiveness of Tosh's attack.
As we at the Women's Media Center watched hundreds of users comment on our Facebook post about the incident, we saw the same disconnect.
Quite a few of the women who shared our post said they were doing so in hopes that a husband or boyfriend would "finally understand why I won't watch Tosh's show with him." Some even tagged their husbands or boyfriends, to be sure the message would reach its destination.
In the aggregate, these comments gave us a glimpse into the ongoing, low-grade conflicts between women who have been trying to articulate their discomfort with Tosh's lazy, cruel and misogynistic humor, and the men who share their lives but just don't get it. At the center of these disagreements is the rape-joke empathy gap.
The problem isn't a failure of men to see rape as horrific. It's that many of them do not perceive that rape itself lies on the far end of a broad spectrum of ways in which the idea of rape, the invocation of rape or the threat of rape is used to intimidate women or to regulate their behavior.
When women are told that they shouldn't drink too much or walk alone at night or wear a revealing top, they are being given a guided tour of the boundaries of acceptable female conduct. Women are supposed to understand that these boundaries are policed by rapists. We cross the line at our own risk. And if we are caught, the brutal punishment is one we have earned.A comedian who shoots down an audience member who objects to his rape jokes by joking about her being gang-raped on the spot isn't being funny. He's using rape to shut up a woman who crossed a boundary by speaking out of turn. That is unacceptable. Tosh was free to say what he said, of course. But that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant. It was.