We must threaten women with rape to save comedy, says the internet

When Lindy West says that bad rape jokes are the last refuge of the lazy, unfunny comedian, threatening to rape her is not the most convincing way to demolish her argument.

Lindy West is no one's idea of a shrinking violet. The Jezebel writer is mouthy - I mean that as a compliment - in a way that makes me feel incredibly British, like I should be ironing an anti-macassar and offering the vicar another Eccles cake.

In the last few days, she's waded back into the debate about rape jokes, arguing that they contribute to "comedy not being a welcoming place for women". That is true as both a general point, and a specific one: in July last year, Comedy Central stand-up Daniel Tosh thought it was totes hilair, after being heckled by a woman about earlier rape jokes in his set, to tell the crowd at large: "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like, right now?" (QTWAIN, Daniel Tosh.)

What Lindy West was not arguing was that rape jokes should be "banned" (however that would be accomplished - maybe Louis CK could issue the US comedy equivalent of a fatwa?) or even that all rape jokes are intrinsically wrong. She had written an earlier post on "how to make a good rape joke" citing Sacha Baron Cohen and several other male comedians making jokes where the underlying premise was something more sophisticated and interesting than "hur hur it's funny because it actually happens to real people and it's horrible". 

For example, here's Sarah Silverman: "Needless to say, rape, the most heinous crime imaginable. Seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. Because it seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. I mean, they’re traditionally not complainers."

And here's a supercut put together by the Women's Media Center to demonstrate thoughtful versus thoughtless rape jokes:

So, to recap: what Lindy West was calling for was not an end to rape jokes, but better rape jokes. Remember how much better comedy became when we went from Jim Davidson and Roy Chubby Brown making jokes about race to Chris Rock and Reginald D Hunter? Yeah, that. 

But, of course, this is the internet. And somewhere along the line someone decided that the best way to react to a woman you didn't agree with was to joke about her being raped, or maybe even cut out the middleman and threaten to rape her yourself. You get bonus points if you throw in a little chaser about how she's really too ugly to be raped, and should therefore be grateful for the compliment that is your erection. As it is forced inside her body. 

West recorded a video of her reading out some of the comments and tweets about her since she entered the debate, and you can watch it here. She also screen-capped a few.

I just want to take a moment here and sit down, like Ole Granny Lewis, and say this: I'm 29. I can remember a time when people didn't threaten to rape people for writing or saying something that they disagreed with. It is incredible that within a decade, this has become the go-to reaction for hundreds of thousands of young men (and, perhaps more incredibly, women).

The first time I encountered this was at university, in both meatspace and on Xbox Live, when "I totally raped you" became the standard banterous blokey way of glorying in a victory. I didn't think all that much of it at the time, but when I asked female bloggers to write about their experience of online abuse in November 2011, it became apparently that The Rape Threat was the rallying call of a generation. If someone leaves themselves logged into Facebook and you post on their account, that's "frape". On Twitter, it's "Twitrape". Russell Howard did a bit on Mock The Week once where he said he liked to put his finger in people's mouth when they were yawning. He calls this Yawn Rape.

I suppose in a way, this obsession with rape threats is a compliment to feminists. Because it's the intrinsic power of the idea of rape, and the word itself, that makes it irresistible to both comedians and forum-dwelling mouth-breathers. Rape is still an everyday occurence, but we've made it shocking. We've made the case that the existence of rape is offensive, and to joke about it unthinkingly is offensive. We have given the word power.

Comedy fascinates me, because the boundaries are so fluid and there are no easily explicable rules. But here's the general principle (nicked from Sarah Ditum, writing on a very different subject): offence in comedy is an icepick. You can use it to climb to the top of the mountain. Or you can bury it in someone's skull. In other words, using an offensive word, or deliberately being offensive, is a tool: you can use it constructively to make the point you want to make, or you can be the guy that makes the four millionth Madeleine McCann joke that's nothing more than "LOL DEAD CHILD LOL". 

(I wrote a bit here about offensive jokes I feel are justified, in case you're interested.)

There are two takeaways from this debate. The first is: what the hell are we going to do about a generation of people who think it's OK to casually threaten to rape people they've never met, just because they've expressed a view? The Internet Rape Threat Boom is obviously about power, just like rape itself. If a woman has an opinion, and your response is to reduce her to a vagina, your intention is clearly to demean her, to shame her, and to silence her. (And to exclude her: some internet communities seem to use rape chat like a "GURLZ NOT ALLOWED" sign on a treehouse.)

Just as rape is an expression of dominance over someone else - you are weak and I am strong - so the Internet Rape Threat has always seemed to me to be a way to tell women to know their place. Again, that's a twisted compliment to feminism, because it means that some men feel threatened enough by the undoubted advances women have made that they feel the need to fall back on the one area in which the taller, stronger people with penises will always dominate. (cf the fact that these dudes never go for "I will totally continue to be over-represented in public life!" or "Your piece sucked, no wonder your gender comprises only one-fifth of MPs!" as an insult).

And I just don't know what the answer is. When this stuff is tweeted at, or emailed to, a person, often other people don't see it. Being abused on the internet is a peculiarly lonely experience, which is why it's so shocking to see Lindy West reading out slur after slur about her weight and attractiveness. That kind of vitriol isn't designed to be heard, but read. It's unsettling to hear a voice attached to those words, even though I've seen them written a thousand times. 

There is one thing that can be done, however. It would be a start if all the comedians dying on the barricades to defend crap rape jokes stopped to think: who do you want your fans to be? Do you want to encourage morons to think that simply barking the word "RAPE!" is the very essence of humour? Are you happy being the person who makes idiots feel justified in the kind of comments that have been directed at Lindy West? (And at Anita Sarkeesian, and at least a dozen other women I could name).

 If you do, then accept that you're the thin edge of the wedge. And at the fat end of the wedge is some guy on the internet, threatening to ram the wedge into any woman who dares to have an opinion. 

Yes, that was kind of a rape joke. 



Sarah Silverman, author of several funny rape jokes. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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