Are Rape Jokes An Oxymoron?

In the comments on my Salon piece about The League, one commenter raised an objection I hear from time to time, often, to their credit, from men, that there’s no way to make a really funny rape joke. I should note first that everyone has different trigger levels, and I understand that some people will never be comfortable hearing jokes about sexual assault, and that position should be treated with the utmost respect. No one has the right to try to force anyone else to enjoy something. But I do think it’s possible that very carefully constructed and tightly targeted jokes can effectively reinforce the idea that rape is a horrible thing to do.

Take this bit, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:

Charlie is obviously not actually a professional “full-on rapist,” nor is their any suggestion that such a thing would be a good or admirable thing to be. The joke is about his own patheticness: he’s so afraid to admit what he actually does for a living that he lies, trying to say he’s a philanthropist, and then when he pronounces it wrong, he rolls with it even though saying he’s a rapist is vastly worse on every level than just telling his date that he works as a janitor. The routine doesn’t shame victims, it doesn’t mitigate the gravity of sexual assault, it just serves to dig Charlie, sweating and hornet-stung as he is, into an even deeper hole.Alternatively, there’s Louis C.K. on rape — or rather, on rapists (NSFW if you don’t have headphones):

He’s not making himself the target here. But instead, he’s taking square and effective aim at people who believe they have a right to sexual access regardless of consent are bad people. A lot of it is in the delivery: Louis’ deadpan reveals just how ridiculous and scary the thought process by which someone decides they deserve to have sex with someone no matter whether they can get consent or if the person they attack can give consent is.


I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the lead-in to this joke (which is why I’m breaking them up), a bit about whether rape would have been an effective weapon of war against Adolf Hitler:

Sexual assault was a means of repression and conquest during World War II, whether the victims were women in concentration camps and ghettos, or Russian, German, and Polish women who were assaulted by Red Army troops (creepily, some male historians have argued that German women who supported Hitler’s regime and were assaulted are not victims in the same way that other women who were raped during the war).

But more than that, this is a joke that relies on an impersonation of a victim, and on the idea that victimizing someone, even someone really awful, can be funny. One possible interpretation is that the joke works because it has an empowered vision of victims, that it treats the idea that a sexual assault can stop a person from having a life, even one that involves invading Poland, as if it’s ridiculous. But I think that might be too many layers down, and most of the audience will stop at the idea of Hitler cringing in the shower. And even though he’s the worst of the worst, that’s not really okay, and it’s not really helpful. Fantasizing about victimizing something is an impulse we should resist. Nobody deserves to be raped, no matter the circumstances. The appropriate targets of this kind of humor are perpetrators, not victims.