Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes

Let me start by saying that I am tickled by how many people have shared and commented on my letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes. I am humbly grateful for all of the feedback and I wanted to address a major criticism about why my letter was directed to guys, even though women also tell rape jokes, and even though men can also be victims of rape.

James Landrith, like many others, called out my letter and the original Organon letter as sexist because of the choice to focus on men who tell rape jokes. Landrith argued that the letters were based on the assumption that only men promote rape jokes. He also argued that the letters minimized the importance of male survivors compared to female survivors. It’s tough to read that because I consider myself a fighter-of-sexism and I actually do agree with Landrith and support everything he is saying.

It IS important to recognize that women also tell rape jokes. It IS important to recognize that men can be victims of rape, and not just prison rape. It IS important to call out woman-on-man rape jokes, like in the movie Horrible Bosses, as despicable. It is so important because so few people recognize it as a serious issue and because we, as a society, have way too many fucked up ideas and misconceptions about masculinity and male sexuality. I hear that and I’m with you. But I still chose to write my letter to guys who don’t see the problem with rape jokes.

The goal of the letter was to reach a particular audience. It wasn’t written for every male-identified person in the world. It was written for a certain type of guy: the kind of guy who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a big deal — the guy who thinks that the only reason people don’t want him to tell rape jokes is because they don’t have a sense of humor or because they’re just prudes who are trying to make everybody “PC.” These are guys who actually might want to fight rape (or who are probably against rape, at least) but don’t yet recognize or understand the connection between rape and rape culture.

The letter wasn’t intended to be a manifesto on rape or a report on rape statistics. It wasn’t meant to cover all bases or speak to all the issues or players involved in the perpetration of rape culture. It was a letter, to a certain type of guy. It was designed to try to open his mind by presenting an argument that has nothing to do with political correctness, which he would most likely dismiss as over-sensitivity. I think what’s so powerful about the letter is that it reframes the issue by saying it’s not about “offending people,” it’s about unintentionally validating and normalizing the actions of rapists.

It was also written to address a certain aspect of guy culture — the kind of “bro on bro” socialization that’s all about demonstrating your masculinity, virility, whatever. It was directed towards men inhabiting the kind of all-male cultural spaces identified by Jessica Bennett and Jacob Bernstein in the Daily Beast that, like the Catholic Church and Penn State football, seem to promote or at least tolerate abuse. It was meant to appeal to the side of masculinity that’s protective and heroic, to say: “You guys have the power to shut down rapists, kick them out of your circles and protect the people around you who may be more vulnerable.”

That was what my letter was about. But we need more letters.

We need letters to all the different kinds of women who make rape jokes, as well as letters to all of the other kinds of men who make rape jokes. We should ALL be writing letters – personalized letters to our individual friends, brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, teachers, coworkers, classmates, local representatives, and anyone else who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a problem.

I just wrote one letter.

To whom will you write yours?

An earnest letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes; It’s not about being PC

A letter to “all those men who don’t think rape jokes are a problem” has been circulating on Tumblr. I think the point it makes is brilliant and critically important, but it’s not really written for the men it needs to reach. It’s written using the classic style of self-affirming snark commonly found on feminist blogs. Don’t get me wrong. I love the snark. But it’s not the most effective way to talk to people who don’t already agree with you. So here’s an earnest letter to men who don’t get why rape jokes are a problem, snark-free.

Dear guys,

I’m writing to tell you why joking about rape is a bad idea, and it has nothing to do with being PC or offending anybody.

I know a lot of guys feel like feminists are hyper-sensitive or quick to take offense, especially when it comes to off-color or edgy jokes. I don’t entirely blame them for feeling this way. The reality is that people embrace feminism in their own way and some are more likely to be offended than others. Unfortunately, much of the “work” of feminism is done within the context of offense, written in the language of outrage and accusation. While I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be angry or express their rage (I do it myself) I don’t think it’s always the most productive way to create change. Especially when we’re asking you guys to join us and become our allies in preventing rape.

The reason rape jokes are a bad idea has nothing to do with offending feminists or rape victims (although purposefully offending a rape victim is a pretty shitty thing to do). It’s not about how women react to the joke; it’s about how other men react.

The sad truth is that some men really are rapists. And they aren’t just the crazy serial-rapist-killers you see on Law and Order SVU or Dexter; they’re just guys. According to Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called It Rape8% of men admit committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but they don’t usually think of themselves as rapists. Other studies report this number is as high as 15%. This shit is happening, and the guys doing it aren’t freaks or psychos. They’re your classmates, they’re on the football team, they’re in your WoW guild, they were at your last party.

The problem with rape jokes is that these guys — these guys who seem normal but are actually rapists — hear the jokes and interpret them as a secret wink and nod that you approve of what they’re doing and that you would, or are, doing it too. Via Organon:

Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

That is why you shouldn’t tell rape jokes. That is why you should stand up and call out your friends when they do it. Not because you need to worry about being PC or offending feminists, but because you’re actually helping prevent rape. By changing the “culture of rape” from one where rape is something normal and/or expected to one where rape is treated like the crime it really is, you can make a difference.

And it’s not like I’m asking you to be hyper-sensitive about every single joke. I think there’s a difference between jokes that make fun of rape, or rape victims, and jokes that make fun of rapists. I even made a handy flow-chart to help you figure out which rape jokes are validating rapists and which are shaming rapists. But those jokes that do validate rapists, those are the ones you need to do something about.

I know it’s asking a lot to expect someone to stand up to their friends or strangers. It really is, and it’s usually not fun. But think about it. Do you really want those guys out there — those secret rapists who look just like everybody else — to think you’re on their side? That you support what they’re doing? That you’re doing it too, or would be if you could get away with it?

A lot of guys say they would step in and stop a rape if they saw it happening. Heroic as the idea is, it doesn’t happen very often because rape doesn’t usually happen directly in front of you. But the rape jokes that encourage rapists to think that all guys think rape is funny or okay or not a big deal? Those do happen in front of you. And you can do something about that.

And if you do, it’s not because you’re the “PC police.” It’s not because you don’t have a sense of humor. It’s because you actually care about preventing rape, protecting women, and letting rapists know that you are NOT their comrade, their ally, or their bro.

***Edit 12/2/11: Please check out the follow-up post: Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes.