LeAnn Rimes gets laughs by saying she thinks she raped a past boyfriend. (In Bed With Joan episode 72, original screen capture)

Who sees humor in sexual assault?

Singer LeAnn Rimes, after making a quip about spiked drinks, told Joan Rivers how she lost her virginity with her boyfriend at age 16. When Rimes added, "But I think I raped him," the anecdote drew laughs from her husband and the Rivers film crew.

A Big Brother 16 contestant recently joked that two of the competitors sharing the Big Brother house "should double team" a female contestant while intoxicated and "take all of her virginities in one night." Laughter ensued. The young woman's mother issued a statement of concern for her daughter as a possible "target of rape" while still on the reality TV show and said she wanted the man who made that remark to imagine how he would feel if people made such remarks about his sister, Ariana Grande, "and see if he thinks it's funny."

A former comic book store employee has reported that she got fired for expressing concerns that included calling out the store's "rape room." Either a member of management referred to a back room as the "rape room" as the ex-employee has asserted or, as the store's owner has related in his response, that group trainer had actually called it the "stat room" (short for "statue room"), to which one new employee asked, "Stat, like stat rape?" (Even if that is the case, who refers to statutory rape so readily and calls it by nickname?)

In the Steubenville High School rape case, witnesses laughed on and on as they discussed whether an unconscious 16-year-old girl was dead. Project Knightsec anti-rape activists released video of one witness howling that she was "deader than Trayvon Martin." Along with guffawing through remarks about how dead she looked, they laughed about what two football players did to her: "They raped her more than the Duke Lacrosse team." The most vocal jokester also tweeted, "Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana." Tweets, photos, videos, and other evidence rapidly hit social media that night and in the days after. Two teens tried as juveniles were found guilty of raping the girl, photographing her, and disseminating child pornography for sharing a photograph of the undressed, unconscious, underage girl. Quite a few folks fretted that the case had ruined the convicted rapists' promising futures more than they cared how that crime had impacted its victim.

By no means are these examples equal in offense, but were any of these things sensible to say? Some rape-related jokes trivialize sexual assault while others endorse it. Some people who crack such jokes neglect to consider the implications and impact upon victims and those around them; some others jest in order to cope with bad situations as a misplaced defense mechanism; and then there are those who sadistically celebrate these terrible things. Rape joke defenders who say, "Come on, it's just gallows humor," might ought to consider that many law enforcement officers use dark humor to desensitize themselves so their own emotions don't overwhelm them on the job. This occupation-related reason does not justify such humor among others. There's also some difference between true gallows humor (i.e., joking in the face of death or other bleak and morbid subjects) and finding hilarity in the suffering of living people who can hope for better. While dark humor might help certain criminal investigators keep coming to work, it also increases insensitivity to victims and their families, potentially making investigators misinterpret vital information or simply discount true crime.

Why all the argument? After analyzing online debate content while noting the seeming futility of such disputes over whether rape is ever funny, Kramer (2011) concluded that both sides accept the same basic assumptions about how humor operates even though each side asserts the superiority of its own humor ideology. The respective contentions that "rape can be funny" or "rape is never funny" exert implicit claims that each objectively understands humor better than the other. The arguments become less about persuading others to see one's own position and more about asserting that position to express personal identity and identification with that side.

What kind of person jokes about rape? Decades of empirical research reveal surprisingly little given the magnitude their distribution and how many people from different walks of life are spreading them around. We know more about the effects of desensitizing people to any particular topic, though. 

Humor demeaning to women, even when nonsexual in nature, may reinforce some men's readiness to rape. Correlational work by Ryan and Kanjorski (1998) showed that men’s existing tendencies to enjoy sexist humor correlated positively with rape proclivity, rape myth acceptance, adversarial sexual beliefs, and general acceptance of interpersonal violence. In later experimental work, Thomae and Viki (2013) found that male participants who were simply exposed to sexist humor then expressed greater rape proclivity (willingness to commit rape) than did men exposed to non-sexist humor, although whether that means sexist humor increases willingness to rape or instead the frequency of admitting to it should be harder to determine. Thomae and Viki's studies further indicated that this effect depended on existing tendencies toward hostile sexism, an interaction which would mean that men with strong feelings of hostility and bias toward women were the ones most likely to express greater rape proclivity after exposure to sexist humor. The sexist humor therefore exerted a priming effect by activating existing inclinations, making them more salient, and bringing them out to influence overt behavior.

Empirical investigators have long shown that human males generally find either sexual humor funnier than females do, regardless of which gender serves as the so-called "butt of the joke" (Cantor, 1976; Groch, 1974; Malpass & Fitzpatrick, 1959; Prerost, 1980; Sekeres & Clark, 1980; Wilson & Molleston, 1981). Love and Deckers (1989) felt this was likely because women had experienced more sexual discrimination, but causality is likely more complex than that. Men report having more frequent and more intrusive thoughts about sex than women do (Fisher, Moore, & Pittenger, 2012; Hofmann, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2012; and many more). Men, on average, find both sex and violence to be more entertaining than women do as indicated by, among many other things, the male sex drive and sheer physical aggressiveness. Women can be more aggressive or hostile in other ways. Boys and men who feel irritated toward girls and women and who do not develop better ways of responding may imagine simply overpowering females by physical means where males more often hold the advantage. Social norms and gender role stereotypes include expectations that "real men" must be strong and powerful, able to conquer. Those frustrated by their own perceived inadequacies relative to their stereotypes might try to reduce bad feelings about themselves by blaming others. Instead of faulting themselves for not living up to stereotypes as "real men," they may resent females for not fitting their stereotypes for "real women." The stronger the woman acts in any manner, the more a troll might yearn to "put her in her place."

Research participants who demand less punishment for rape have been found to enjoy sexual humor more, although we might make better sense of this correlation if we knew more about the specific sexual humor that Ruch, Busse, and Hehl (1996) presented to that study's volunteers. Across genders, people with negative attitudes toward women enjoy sexist and sexually aggressive comics more (Henkin & Fish, 1986). Love and Deckers (1989) found that more women in their study would notice the sexist aspects in comics whereas men tended to overlook the sexism and perceive only the sexual aspects. The women also identified more with each cartoon victim than did the men. Use of sexually aggressive humor may be juvenile in origin, so the differences may be greatest among adults who are more immature, as indicated by Führ’s (2002) finding that adolescent boys use more sexual and aggressive strategies than girls do using humor to cope with anxiety and stress

Gelatophobes (individuals afraid of humor, also spelled gelotophobes), generally grumpier and less cheerful than others, show less appreciation for humor, tend to perceive humor as threat, and characterize their own senses of humor as inept, cold, and mean-spirited. Their enjoyment of sexual humor is more similar to that of non-gelatophobes even though gelatophobes find it more aversive (Ruch, Beermann, and Proyer, 2009), so when it comes to sexual humor, a person who wields it threateningly might still be amused. The mean-spirited person may more readily attempt sexual humor that others find inept, cold, or mean. If we're going to consider gelatophobia, though, we might also look at the accusation that the ones who have a problem with rape jokes are just a bunch of humorless feminists. Franzini (1996), in an empirical exploration of some such accusations, found no general relationship between feminism and sense of humor - i.e., feminists were not humorless.

We do not know nearly enough about the personality correlates, motivations, and other factors associated with the liking of this kind of comedy. Fewer researchers seem to investigate sexist and sexually aggressive humor these days. Have we have grown warier of presenting such jokes to today’s research participants?

Rape humor takes other forms, as well, and it’s not all about gender relations. Rape joke defenders, who say others should chill out and accept such humor, sometimes argue that a double standard exists depending on which gender gets raped. There is some cultural acceptance of man-on-man sexual violence, especially in prison. There's no shortage of prison rape jokes, from relishing what fate might befall felons in real life to making light of film characters as they fear, fend off, or fall victim to rape by fellow inmates. The taunt "Don't drop the soap!" is a popular punchline. Author Anne Rice recently said, "I'm nauseated by the way TV sitcom and crime show heroes joke about or threaten perps with prison rape...." Arguing that smirking over any sexual violence makes everyone less safe, Ezra Klein called prison rape "a cherished source of humor, a tacitly accepted form of punishment and a broadly understood human rights abuse. We pass legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act at the same time that we produce films meant to explore the funny side of inmate sexual brutality." Tolerating it for the guilty means accepting it as well for the wrongly accused. As for the rape joke defenders' purpose in bringing up prison rape jokes, though, it should be easy to note that gender is not the only difference in play there.

People are speaking out against rape jokes.

Brian Jones, who is a veteran Marine and editor of Task and Purpose veterans news, criticized the military for inconsistency in forbidding active Marines from publicly making disloyal statements while ignoring the active misogyny some display in public settings such as Facebook. "It's hard to believe that in 2014 that I have to tell my fellow Marines, my fellow veterans, that they shouldn't make rape jokes."  

Stand Up For WomenObjectZero Tolerance, and Rape Crisis Scotland have asked comedians to rethink rape jokes. Comedian Kate Smurthwaite led the charge as a Change.org group has asked not for censorship but simply for comics and other performers to ask themselves, "What are we laughing at?" Many more have lent support through the hashtag #RapeIsNotFunny. 

Should they and countless others continue to campaign against rape jokes or should they, as fans of Team Dickwolves will argue, learn to relax and take a joke? What do you think? Is rape ever the right punchline?

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References

Cantor, J. R. (1976). What is funny to whom? Journal of Communication, 26, 164-172.

Führ, M. (2002). Coping humor in early adolescenceHumor: International Journal of Humor Research, 15, 283-304.

Fisher, T. D., Moore, Z. T., & Pittenger, M. J. (2012). Sex on the brain? An examination of frequency of sexual cognitions as a function of gender, erotophilia, and social desirability. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 68-77.

Franzini, L. R. (1996). Feminism and women's sense of humor. Sex Roles, 35, 811-819.

Groch, A. S. (1974). Generality of response to humor and wit in cartoons, jokes, stories, and photographs. Psychological Reports, 35, 835-828.

Henkin, B., & Fish, J. M. (1986). Gender and personality differences in the appreciation of cartoon humor. The Journal of Psychology, 120, 157-175.

Hofmann, W., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science, 23, 282-288.

Kramer, E. (2011). The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments. Language in Society, 40,137-168.

Love, A. M., & Deckers, L. H. (1989). Humor appreciation as a function of sexual, aggressive, and sexist content. Sex Roles, 20, 649-654.

Malpass, L., & Fitzpatrick, E. (1959). Social facilitation as a factor in reaction to humor. Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 292-303.

Prerost, F. J. (1980). Developmental aspects of adolescent sexuality in reactions to sexually explicit humor. Psychological Reports, 46, 543-548.

Ruch, W., Beermann, U., & Proyer, R. T. (2009). Investigating the humor of gelotophobes: Does feeling ridiculous equal being humorless? Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 22, 111-143.

Ruch, W., Busse, P., & Hehl, F. (1996). Relationship between humor and proposed punishment for crimes: Beware of humorous people. Personality and Individual Differences, 20, 1-11.

Ryan, K. M., & Kanjorski, J. (1998). The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles, 38, 742-756.

Sekeres, R. E., & Clark, W. R. (1980). Verbal, heart rate, and s.c. responses to sexual cartoons. Psychological Reports, 47, 1227-1232.

Thomas, M., & Viki, G. T. (2013). Why did the woman cross the road? The effect of sexist humor on men’s rape proclivity. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 7, 250-269.

Wilson, D. W., & Molleston, J. L. (1981). Effect of sex and type of humor on humor appreciation. Journal of Personality Assessment, 45, 90-96.

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