No, there is nothing funny about rape. But understanding that is the first step toward making a successful, feminist rape joke — as the irreverent comedy site Reductress just demonstrated.
On Wednesday, fans of the feminist site noticed that its usually eclectic homepage was blanketed with more than a dozen rape-themed headlines and stories like these:
The homepage takeover came in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that has roiled the New York stand-up comedy scene. After the sketch-comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade banned a comic who was accused of sexually assaulting several female comics, several male comedians came to his defense. In particular, Kurt Metzger, a (possibly former) writer for Amy Schumer, took to social media with several inflammatory posts calling women "hens" and questioning their credibility if they do not report rapes to police.
The controversy struck a nerve with many feminists in the comedy community. So Reductress editors Beth Newell, Sarah Pappalardo, and Nicole Silverberg put out a call for pitches on the topic of sexual assault.
"We had hundreds of pitches in just a couple of hours," Newell said. "That's what led to the homepage takeover idea."
Metzger has since posted an apology on Facebook, but Newell said the problem goes far beyond him.
"Many other men in our community have been posting sentiments similar to Kurt's, to varying degrees of intensity," Newell said. "We wanted to call all of that out and make sure the guys on the progressive but problematic end of the spectrum weren't walking away from this, patting themselves on the backs for being 'one of the good ones.' "
Reductress's jokes don't mention the New York comedy situation specifically; instead, they target some of the most dangerous elements of rape culture at large — like the idea that women frequently make false rape accusations ("Most Women Lie about Rape, Says Man Lying About Rape"), or that victims are to blame for putting themselves at risk ("Fun Summer Drinks When They Ask, 'Well, What Were You Drinking?' ") or that women say they were raped because they want attention ("I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention").
"You can make jokes about sensitive subjects," Newell said. "You just want to make sure they punch up rather than down and never target the victims."
This echoes the point made by feminist writer and comedian Lindy West years ago, following a controversy involving comedian Daniel Tosh — who made a series of rape jokes during a stand-up routine and then, when a female audience member heckled him, suggested that it might be funny if she got raped by multiple men.
This was obviously a terrible attempt at a "joke," West said, but that didn't mean that there wasn't a way to responsibly expose the horror of rape through comedy.
"The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them," she wrote in Jezebel. "But the best comics use their art to call bulls— on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse."