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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.