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When rape jokes aren't funny

By Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns
July 16, 2012 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
Daniel Tosh was free to say what he said about rape, but that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant, the writers say.
Daniel Tosh was free to say what he said about rape, but that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant, the writers say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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.

Julie Burton
Julie Burton
Michelle Kinsey Bruns
Michelle Kinsey Bruns

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.

Gilbert Gottfried: If you don't want to hear an edgy joke, don't listen

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.

What about rape jokes with less vicious punch lines? Here is the gray area where the empathy gap thrives best. There is absolutely room in both comedy and in feminism for discussions about rape jokes that highlight rape as a social ill vs. those that perpetuate that injustice. That's why we joined with other feminist media critics and activists to produce a YouTube "supercut" of rape jokes -- some insightful and some far less so. Still, the presence of rape in women's lives is too real and pervasive for many to laugh at all the same jokes that many men can.

It's not that women never enjoy crude humor -- a lesbian journalist friend recently confided in us her amazement that her wife is a fan of Tosh's show, if not some of its more brutal misogyny. And it's not that no man knows with terrible certainty what it's like to be a rape victim -- one in five females and one in 71 males in the United States are the victims of rape, to say nothing of atrocities around the world such as those described in our new report on rape as a weapon of war in Syria.

Nonetheless, the significant overlap between the gender divide and the rape-joke empathy gap is real, and it seems inevitable when media coverage of rape so often focuses on what a victim should have done differently to try harder not to get raped. Such shoddy framing creates a fictional image that there's a certain type of woman who gets raped. Women know that's a lie, because they live the truth, but men may never have occasion to question that image, and so when they laugh at rape jokes, they're laughing at an abstraction that's all too real for many women.

Tosh and all those with the privilege to hold a microphone have a responsibility to shine a light on the reality behind the abstraction -- not to perpetuate it, and certainly not to silence those who bear its burden.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns.

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