We’ve had a lot of conversation on this blog about the way Daniel Tosh handled a woman who told him rape jokes weren’t funny at a recent show. There are a lot of threads to parse here—how people handle heckling (and how clubs should handle them)*, whether rape jokes can be funny under any circumstances, why comedians close ranks around their own. But I want to separate those issues out and talk very specifically about another strain of argument. One thread of conversation here has suggested that the woman who related her story was wrong, or oversensitive to feel threatened when Tosh suggested it would be funny if she were gang raped. The idea behind those objections is that no one would ever act based on Tosh’s words, and that because there isn’t a real prospect of her being actually assaulted, there is no impact to his words.
This is wrong on two levels. First, if you’ve never had someone visualize raping you out loud, and I’m talking about actually visualizing performing sex on you without your consent, not use of sexual violation as metaphor for victory and defeat, I can tell you, it is not pleasant. It’s unpleasant randomly on the internet, and I can’t imagine having it happen in a crowded room. If we stripped away the circumstances, if Tosh had just singled out this woman as an example during his defense of rape jokes, maybe that would be clearer. But because the point of a comedian’s response to heckling is to shut the person interrupting the set down as quickly as possible, there’s an idea that the most effective way to do that is to be as gross and mean as possible. As the anonymous OffensiveComic told me during a long, and for me, useful conversation about heckling on Twitter, “If the thing a comedian says to a heckler isn’t the worst thing anyone’s ever said to them, the comedian lacks imagination.” Daniel Tosh meant for this woman to be uncomfortable. Whether she consented to it or not is another question.
But beyond that, some people are saying that the woman who had this experience should have been aware of what to expect from Tosh. If that’s the case, then she should have been aware, as Angus Johnston points out, referencing a Jezebel post on a Tosh routine from the spring, that Tosh’s schtick is sometimes and intentionally not confined to words. As Katie J.M. Baker reported:
After Tosh introduces the segment, entitled “Lightly Touching Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down,” he waits for the audience to laugh and then says, “It’s not what you think.” (Huh? What does he think they thought?) Then, he breaks it down: “This is where you sneak up behind women who are sitting and lightly put your hand upon their stomach.”…”Make sure she’s aware that you are in fact feeling a roll,” Tosh clarifies, after asking his audience to follow his examples — all clips of women giggling confusedly and looking ashamed after having their stomachs patted. “Be careful, because they like to pretend they don’t love it.”
And you know what? People followed his instructions. They went out into the world. They touched women without their consent and laughed at their confusion and embarrassment. This is what it looks like:
Comedy Central billed this as “Daniel develops a way to get closer to women, and challenges viewers to get close, too.” Maybe his response to the woman in the crowd isn’t as direct an instruction as this particular attempt to disguise harassment as hilarity. But Tosh’s defenders can’t have it both ways. If this woman should have known what she was getting into, then her fear and discomfort makes more sense, not less.
*I have a post on this coming tomorrow, informed by conversations with a lot of terrific comedians, to whom I am grateful.