On Wednesday, I wrote about Jezebel writer Lindy West’s rather remarkable chronicle of the vicious sexual harassment she’s received since appearing on W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased to talk about rape jokes with Jim Norton, a comedian who disagrees with her about how they should be approached, but respectfully. I argued that West’s decision to make public the kinds of vitriol being slung her way was a good decision, not just because it mobilized support for her, but because it was good for business: Jezebel’s raking in traffic and ad dollars off of the incoherent rage-slinging of people who are angry at her.
But I also think the comments West posted reveal something interesting and important: the people who are threatening and harassing West have absolutely no idea what rape actually is. Over and over again, they’re variations on the same theme, that West doesn’t have to worry about being raped because she is sexually unappealing. It’s an idea that’s the inverse of an old theme, that rape happens because a woman’s good looks, or the way she dresses, are simply so provocative that she deprives a man of his reason. Rape is a form of sex, and something that only beautiful women can be victims of. And even then, they’re not victims because they were withholding or denying something that a man has a right to. By this reasoning, West should be grateful to be raped, or be seen as rape-able.
Needless to say, all of these ideas are profoundly wrongheaded, but powerfully persistent. But their persistence, and seeing them aggregated here, makes it clear why these conversations disintegrate so quickly. If we’re not operating on a common understanding of what rape is, it’s impossible to explain why, for example, Louis C.K.’s jokes about a rapist’s entitled mentality, or why it might be effective to rape rather than kill Hitler, are funnier than Daniel Tosh’s suggestion that it might be hilarious to see a woman get raped in the crowd at a comedy show. The first Louis C.K. joke mocks precisely the mentality West’s harassers exhibit, that rape is an exercise of sexual rights, and the latter an explication of rape’s power to degrade and inflict emotional suffering. The latter is an affirmation of the idea that rape is a means of putting women back in their proper relationship to men. But of course Louis C.K. reads as funnier to those of us who understand rape as a weapon, and Tosh’s to those who understand rape as a tool or a complement. We can’t get on the same page about what’s funny, and what’s hurtful, until we arrive at the same understanding of rape.