Is rape always hilarious? Not so much, Tosh.

Hello! So today I want to talk about the controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh right now. This story has been floating around for a couple weeks now, and I’m including my view because I feel it is one that hasn’t been discussed. I hope it makes you consider this in a way you hadn’t before, and I hope it creates conversation.

If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, recently Tosh was at the Hollywood Laugh Factory making a slew of rape jokes, the basic idea being that rape is always hilarious. A woman unfamiliar with him felt really uncomfortable, and shouted out “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” After a moment of thought, Tosh reacted by saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” You can see the original blog post about it here.

Since then I’ve heard lots of different people throw in their thoughts on this. . . a lot of comics have come to Tosh’s defense, saying that you cannot censor comedy, freedom of speech, etc. Someone told me that it is customary for a heckler to be humiliated by a comedian since they’re interrupting them when the floor is theirs. Tosh himself has said via tweet, “The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”

Right. I’ve read different about different comics saying that stuffy feminists have no sense of humor and that we’re absurd to think that rape can never be the premise of a joke. I always like to hear a plethora of opinions before forming my own (keep reading) and I have to say that none of the feminists I’ve seen speak out about this said that rape can’t ever be the topic of a joke. Both Jessica Valenti and Melissa Harris-Perry made some good points about it, and they were some of several people who have quoted George Carlin and what he had to say about rape jokes.

I think he’s awesome and I completely agree with his assessment. “I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke.” He gives an example of a funny joke wherein men who blame women for their rapes because of what they’re wearing are jackasses. This is where the stark difference from Tosh begins. 1) if you’re going to joke about rape, you can’t keep making women the butt of the joke, and 2) be fucking funny. “Rape is ALWAYS hilarious!” Not funny!

And I will explain why, but first I’d like to say that I don’t hate Tosh, I don’t think what he said was out of misogyny, or that he actually thinks rape is okay. I think what he said was just out of ignorance. I generally really like Tosh. Last year, I spent a pretty penny to take my boyfriend (at the time) to see him in Pittsburgh as a Valentine’s Day gift and I had a blast. In fact, I even made an argument to my beau after the show that Tosh might be a feminist. He made a joke about the wage gap, something along the lines of, “You women love having ladies’ nights with free drinks, but you only make 76 cents for every dollar a man makes. Yeah being a woman is awesome.” He’s also talked about abortion before and it being a really tough choice for young women to have to make. So yes, not normally a Tosh hater.

Anyway, the reason why rape is not always hilarious and why these jokes aren’t cool and why I believe he deserved the heckling is because today rape is a very, VERY big reality for women. One in four women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Most women never, ever report their rape. As I discussed in a recent entry, our culture reinforces silence in women, and I believe this comedy does, too.

And here we go. I hear someone say “Rape is always hilarious,” and I think, well I was raped and it actually wasn’t very funny. I put this out there because I think the issues, as with many others, become more real when you can put a face to them. I don’t say this asking for any type of pity, and I certainly don’t want anyone to look at me differently, but it is something that happened to me and it definitely affected who I am. I’m not going to give a woeful, sad story about it, but it’s definitely relevant.

In my recent article I discussed how many different women (both people I knew and didn’t know) approached me after my presentation on sexual violence in college to tell me about their personal story. The reason why I believe this happened so frequently is because of how I presented.

I had joined the SVVA (Sexual Violence Victim Awareness) program at the end of freshman year, and, ironically, a couple weeks before my training, I was raped. Long story short, I had less than one drink, someone had slipped something into it; what I remember was horrible, but what I was thankfully unconscious for was definitely worse. I didn’t understand really what had happened. I was terrified. I was confused. I didn’t know who to talk to.

Fast forward to sophomore year right before my very first presentation for SVVA. Hilariously enough, the topic I was assigned to present about was date rape drugs. I had told a very small handful of people about what happened, including my mom, which was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. After a month or so of her convincing me to press charges, I agreed, only to have our lawyer tell us that it was pointless; time had passed, and the only witnesses there were my rapist and me (as it turns out, since I was unconscious I was a pretty shitty witness). This crushed me because I felt like any power I had to fight him had been taken away. He got away with what he did to me.

So, right before my presentation, I thought, “I’m getting really irritated. This is pointless. I’m not educating anyone. We’ve all sat through these bullshit lectures about drinking, drugs, etc. We hear statistics that we don’t connect to, that will never happen to us, and we go about our lives.” The last thing I wanted to do was contribute to that. I needed to bring people to my level for them to really hear me. I pulled aside my advisor, Dr. Siple, and gave her a brief synopsis of what had happened. I said I wasn’t interested in giving one of those bland presentations that people (me included) so easily separate themselves from. She was pretty shocked but encouraged me to go ahead. Basically, I’d list a ton of facts, definitions, statistics, then share my story and end on an empowering note with risk reduction strategies.

Well, it was pretty damn effective. I would go on to give that presentation dozens of times throughout my college career to various classes, dorms, student clubs, and groups in Greek life. Over time, the message varied a little bit, as I dealt with what had happened. While it was really scary at times, it was also extremely liberating. After a year or so, I not only had accepted what had happened, but I really made my peace with it. I would be okay with the fact that it happened to me if it saved just one person from going through that experience. In part two of this article, I will delve more into this, but I think this is enough for now.

So, how does this tie back to Tosh? Well, Tosh and I have something in common. I too was heckled by a person in my audience. It happened during my junior year while I was giving my presentation to a bunch of freshmen in the dorms. The following I pulled from my online (MySpace, ha) diary entry in which I wrote about that night, because my memory is NOT that good:

“So I was giving a program to a bunch of freshmen last semester. I should note that at the time, although not outwardly, I was still blaming myself for what happened. Part way through, some freshman boy says something about how my story is bullshit: I wasn’t raped, if I were drunk I deserved whatever came to me. Inside I wanted to scream and say what the FUCK. Instead I collected my thoughts and went off on him. “Alright, well, you can think that, but PA state law agrees with me; a girl cannot give consent if she is drunk. It is considered rape. And it is certainly illegal to put something in someone’s drink that puts them in a comatose state. I had one drink, and alcohol doesn’t do that!  In fact I’ll humor you, let’s say I was just drunk . . . does the fact that I said ‘no’ repeatedly and said ‘stop’ matter? Guess what! That makes it rape. A girl shouldn’t have to kick and scream to say no; one little no is all it takes and the consent is gone.”

I remember the silence. I was challenged and I shot him down with facts. But what he did was so damn tacky and arrogant that I did add, “and by the way, I hope you realize that what you just said means NO girl in this room will EVER have sex with you now.” This was met with a round of applause. I got the crowd to respect my position in the room without joking about violence to my heckler, just a dig at how he had just killed his chances with any woman in that room.

My point with this is that, in our society, women are constantly questioned and shamed when we experience sexual violence and try to talk about it. That boy (I will not use the word man) felt he was within his rights to interrupt me while I was telling a very, intimate, traumatizing experience that few women would ever feel comfortable sharing. This situation is mirrored when women try to charge their rapists with crimes.

One woman at Tosh’s show felt the need to speak out when he said  that something that a quarter of women experience is always hilarious. Just as so few women are as open about their experience as I am, few women would ever have the nerve to speak out and say, “Hey, this isn’t okay.” What I mean here is that for each woman who speaks out about this, there are countless others who feel the same way. I get that heckling is bad, and I get why it shouldn’t be encouraged. I know how Tosh feels; whether you’re performing or giving a presentation, it is meant to be one-sided. It isn’t supposed to be a dialogue. When someone heckles, not only are they being blatantly rude, they’re attempting to in some way undermine what you’re doing. Without a doubt, I know what it felt like to not only need to reassert my authority, but to make that person feel like the size of an ant for doing it. I get it!

And yet, I don’t fault this woman. Is Tosh a bad person? No. Is he ignorant to the issue of sexual violence? Yes. When you are using your stage, whether you know it or not, to further silence a group that already doesn’t really have a voice, you need to be called out. As with a lot of other situations, if you are present for something horrible and do absolutely nothing, you are part of the problem. You can’t say something absolutely offensive, even triggering, to an audience when half of them are women and the statistics for rape are so high, and expect no one to say something at some point. It just doesn’t make sense.

I’m trying to explain this from a different perspective I feel a lot of people haven’t even mentioned: Statistics alone suggest that there were many women in that room who had been raped. It is very likely that some of them had never told anyone. Hearing a man with power say that rape is always hilarious, and witnessing people laugh, reinforced their silence. It invalidated their experience. It was isolating. It was damaging.

Even though I had my shtick of sharing my story with hundreds of strangers, it still took me over a year to tell my last serious boyfriend about my experience. I can’t imagine how horrible I would have felt if I had that big secret and wanted to, at some point, share it with my boyfriend, then witness him and a bunch of other people laugh about how fucking hilarious rape always is.

So, in summation, the construction of Tosh’s rape jokes and his reaction to the woman who heckled him reinforce and in effect FURTHER silence women who experience sexual violence. It also desensitizes men even more to this issue.

While I think heckling is usually absurdly taboo and not okay, because Tosh was callously joking about a horrible reality that woman actually have the potential to face every day, and he CLEARLY (I hope) was unaware of this, yes I do believe that the heckling that time was actually legit.

Is Tosh allowed to tell these jokes? Yes. Is he allowed to say whatever the hell he wants at his shows? Absolutely! But we as an audience, in turn, have the right to react however we want, too. This can take the form of speaking out against what he said, not watching Tosh.0, not attending his shows, or even blogging about it, like I am now.

Bringing it all back from the beginning, this was probably the most personal piece I’ve written, but I felt it was necessary to give a voice to the issue from a group that I hadn’t heard from. I won’t pretend that I don’t find Tosh hilarious a lot of the time, I just hope he takes a note from George Carlin before he jokes about rape again.


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