“Rise of Rape Talk” by Kira Cochrane
The Guardian recently ran a really powerful editorial by Kira Cochrane about the ways that rape jokes and the vernacularizing (is that a word?) of rape helps maintain and uphold the patriarchy and the rape culture we live in. While ultimately depressing, there is something heartening about the fact that this article ran in such a mainstream publication.
Here it is:
The rise of rape talk
Boxer David Haye is far from alone in his casual use of the word ‘rape’. In all walks of life, rape jokes and rape analogies are becoming commonplace
By dodging an apology, Haye implied he hadn’t said anything wrong, that there was no need to express regret; indeed, earlier this week he tweeted: “If I apologised for every stupid/ignorant thing I said, I wouldn’t have time for anything else during the day!” And, in some ways, Haye’s jovial, unapologetic response isn’t surprising. After all, the use of the word “rape” to describe all kinds of bad experience – from getting beaten up in a boxing match, to having your hairdo completely ruined – has recently become usual, average, shruggable. Just as the word “gay” has been twisted by pop culture, used to refer to someone or something a bit uncool, the word “rape” is now regularly used where “nightmare” or an apt expletive would previously have been in order.
An example of so-called rape talk? Coming out of an exercise class recently, a guy turned to one of my friends, sweating and breathless, and heaved a sigh of satisfied exhaustion. “Wow, that was just like being raped, wasn’t it?” he said. My friend stood motionless, blinking back at him. Another? In the July issue of UK Elle, the Twilight star Kristen Stewart talked about being trailed by the paparazzi, saying that when she sees the resulting photographs: “I feel like I’m looking at someone being raped.” (Stewart later apologised for the comparison). Online, there has been a lot of talk about “Facebook rape”: a term used to describe a third party getting access to someone’s Facebook account and changing their details. Almost 1.3 million people are fans of the Facebook page “Thanks wind, you have totally raped my hair”, where photos of windswept women are posted. And the rightwing US shock jocks, always ahead of the crowd with vile, vicious language, have been using rape talk for years. In separate discussions of healthcare reform last year, Rush Limbaugh warned his listeners, “get ready to get gang-raped again”, while Glenn Beck compared himself and his viewers to “the young girl saying, ‘No, no, help me,'” while “the government is Roman Polanski”.
Another part of this phenomenon is the popularity of out-and-out rape jokes. I had an idea there was a taboo against these, but I realised how wrong I was last year when I attended an amateur comedy showcase that a friend was compering. There were about a dozen acts, and almost all included material making light of attacks on women. It’s never a good sign when an evening ends with you and your friends bellowing, “No more rape jokes! No more rape jokes!” from the back of a bemused crowd. After the performance, my friend said the comedians had been amazed anyone would object. Everyone else they had delivered the material to had apparently found it absolutely hilarious, she said, a ribald delight.
It’s not surprising those amateur comedians were nonplussed: rape talk is commonplace on the professional circuit. In his show at the Edinburgh festival last year, in the midst of some material about drink-driving, Ricky Gervais said: “I’ve done it once and I’m really ashamed of it. It was Christmas – I’d had a couple of drinks and I took the car out. But I learned my lesson. I nearly killed an old lady. In the end I didn’t kill her. In the end, I just raped her.” Geddit? (Me neither.) Russell Howard jokes about “yawn rape”, someone sticking their finger into a yawning mouth – not as offensive as the Gervais joke, but still a strange use of the word, no? Then there’s Jimmy Carr, who said in an interview in this paper last year: “I happen to think the construct of ‘99% of women kiss with their eyes closed, which is why it’s so difficult to identify a rapist’ is funny. It’s not really about the act of serious sexual assault. You have to go out of your way to take offence over, ‘I bought a rape alarm because I kept on forgetting when to rape people'”.
Go to see a Richard Curtis film such as The Boat That Rocked, and don’t be surprised to find yourself grim-faced during a scene where one character leaves his girlfriend in a pitch-black room and encourages one of his friends, a virgin, to go in and have sex with her, hoping she won’t notice the swap. (As Richard Herring noted sarcastically on his website, it was thanks to this film he realised “all women are duplicitous whores and attempted rape is something to have a giggle about”.)
Or how about Observe and Report, starring popular US actor Seth Rogen as a mall security guard called Ronnie Barnhardt. In one scene, Barnhardt goes out with the object of his affection, Brandi. She gets completely wasted on tequila and antidepressants, and proceeds to vomit heavily on the way home. She passes out in bed, there’s vomit on her pillow, but this doesn’t stop Barnhardt having sex with her. It looks like rape, it sounds like rape: it is rape. But some people described this scene as the biggest laugh of the film. Critics defended it on the basis that, some seconds into the assault, Barnhardt pauses, and Brandi stirs back into consciousness: “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?”
It might be argued that the reason people makes jokes about rape, or use the word to describe something small and throwaway, is because they recognise it is among the worst things that can happen to a person, and therefore anticipate an exciting frisson of shock. To say that the wind “raped your hair” is to apply the incredibly serious to the incredibly trivial, and the comedy is meant to bubble up through that disjuncture, that mire of exaggeration.
That’s the defence. The result, this writer would suggest, is simple: when you use rape in jokes, or as a glib aside about the terrible sandwich you ate at lunch, you’re suggesting the crime just isn’t very serious. As Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, says: “Rape is so particularly traumatic and so meaningful in so many ways, that there’s something about using the word in other contexts that diminishes the reality of it, and the impact it has on women’s lives. Rape is a powerful word, and it’s powerful for a reason, because of that devastating impact.”
Aside from suggesting rape isn’t all that erious, these jokes also underplay its prevalence. Estimations of the number of women raped or sexually assualted in the UK every year are necessarily imprecise, but they range from 47,000 to 100,000. It is thought that around one in four women are victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. In telling rape jokes, or throwing the word casually into conversation, there is an assumption that the person you are talking to won’t have experienced this – or that, if they have, you just don’t care about the memories you might provoke, the anxiety you might trigger. “I think people don’t necessarily realise how common rape is,” says Brindley, “and that when they’re speaking to an audience there will definitely be people there who are rape survivors. On that basis, I think you have to have some recognition about the impact of what you’re saying.”
In my view, rape jokes feed a culture in which jurors either disbelieve rape complainants, or just don’t think rape is that significant: I spoke to a juror once who said he didn’t feel comfortable convicting a defendant of rape because the woman had only been violated orally. Haye might never apologise, but it’s time to put an end to rape talk now.
• This article was amended on 10 September 2010. The original contained a paraphrased version of a Ricky Gervais joke: “I nearly knocked this old woman over, but I didn’t. I raped her.” This has been replaced by a verbatim version provided by a representative of Ricky Gervais.
See the original article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/10/the-rise-of-rape-talk