Last week, US comedian Daniel Tosh sparked a furore when, warming up his audience for a 'hilarious' rape joke, he was heckled by a woman yelling, 'rape is never funny'. Tosh's response is a subject of contention. The woman claims he said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if five guys raped this woman, like, right now?' However, the club's owner says Tosh scoffed, 'Looks like this girl's been raped by five guys.'
Either way, the response cuts to the heart of what is fair game for comic fodder. Some feminists say it is never funny to joke about rape because, statistically speaking, there are bound to be rape survivors in every comedian's audience. Other writers and comedians came to Tosh's defence, crying censorship.
Taking to Twitter to defend himself, Tosh wrote, 'there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies'. In this he is correct. Comedians can serve a higher purpose than simply making us laugh. My favourite comedian, Bill Hicks, used comedy as a medium for exposing society's worst ills. Hicks aimed to enlighten as well as entertain as he told what he perceived as the truth.
But what is the 'truth' about rape, and can we ever laugh at it? A friend of mine, Zach Rhinier, works as a stand-up comedian in New York City. When I asked him if it is ever okay to joke about rape, his response echoed that of many feminists, 'Only if it mocks the rapist, but not a victim.'
Tosh's brand of humour fails because it ridicules women rather than rapists and the culture that allows rape to flourish. Tosh's TV show, Tosh.0, frequently takes aim at women. In one notorious segment, 'Lightly Touching Women's Stomachs While They're Sitting Down', Tosh plays clips of women being touched non-consensually, including their confused reactions, and then encourages male viewers tape themselves doing the same.
Make sure the woman is seated, stresses Tosh, so that 'she's aware that you are in fact feeling a roll'. The point is to shame women for not living up to society's impossible beauty standards. Worse still, Tosh encourages men to ignore any protestations: 'Be careful, because they like to pretend they don't love it'.
Where have we heard that before? Tosh is essentially employing the same language rapists use to justify their actions, while giving his three million viewers permission to harass women.
Tosh and his fans consider such jokes harmless. But in fact they reinforce the assumption that women's bodies exist for male use — which is precisely the attitude that underlies rape culture. Touching women without permission, especially in a manner that exploits their insecurities, undermines women's safety and autonomy.
Many, if not most, women have at least one story about being inappropriately and non-consensually touched. It first happened to me while I was riding the escalators at a train station with some school friends. There was a group of teenage boys behind us and one of them, egged on by his mates, placed his hands under my netball skirt and touched my genitals. I was 13. He wasn't much older.
I did not turn around. I did not protest. I did not acknowledge his actions. I just stood there, humiliated, pretending that nothing was happening. He was guilty but I was ashamed. This is the 'rape culture' Tosh perpetuates when he encourages men to treat women's bodies as their personal playground.
So is it possible to tell a rape joke that doesn't mock the victim?
Yes, as Ever Mainard, a US comedian, proved when performing a rape joke this year in Chicago. 'The problem is that every woman ... has that one moment when you think, "Oh! Here's my rape!"' Mainard goes on to liken the feeling of inevitability to a game show. 'You're saying no but he's saying yes. Here's your rape! A suspicious van in a dark parking lot next to your car ... your keys fell? You're fumbling around? Here's your rape!'
In this skit Mainard blasts a culture that sees 50 per cent of the population living with the fear (whether justified or otherwise) that it is only a matter of time until they are raped. She lets individual women know they are not alone in this fear and exposes the failings of a society where something as mundane as walking to a car and dropping the keys could end in rape.
Likewise, Sarah Silverman blows the lid on a 'comedy secret', confiding that rape jokes are not as 'edgy' as some comedians perceive them to be. After all, 'who's going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They barely even report rape.' Here, Silverman takes aim both at lazy comedians for choosing easy targets, and highlights the trauma victims feel. These women, Silverman is saying, are attacked twice, once by their rapists, and again by a victim-blaming culture that so stigmatises them they feel they are better off staying silent.
Unlike Tosh's offerings, these jokes enlighten as well as entertain. They serve a purpose. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, they're funny because they're true.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.