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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”