Daniel Tosh, he of Tosh.0 fame, is an American comedian who caused a great media hoo-ha a couple of weeks ago by telling his audience that it would be hilarious if a female heckler who took affront to his particular brand of humour was gang raped. The below is taken from a blog entry written by the woman in question, describing Tosh’s response to her heckle that “rape jokes are never funny”:
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
The response was predictably divided: feminists and the unfunny damning the statement on one side, and staunch pro-freedom of speech activists and liberally-minded comedians on the other. At least, that’s how some respondents have outlined the scenario. As always happens, the response has been branded an overreaction by women of a certain delicate disposition. Criticism of Tosh and his maverick merry-making shenanigans has been called an attempt to quash freedom of speech and impose strict limitations on the material available to comedians, as he stated in a tweet after the event:
The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies
While the argument that no topic should be exempt from ridicule is valid, it is a lazy and essentially irrelevant defence in this scenario. Intelligent comedy often derives a large portion of its value from its power to address controversial subjects. While sometimes crass and seemingly insensitive, a comedian who can make an audience wince with a well-penned one-liner can also make them think. This is what separates the cruel from the insightful.
For a good comedian, a heckler, while irritating, can be a fantastic opportunity to show just how quick they can be. Their retorts can, at times, become highlights of the show. Usually, these kinds of put-downs embarrass the heckler into silence, often by turning around their own statement to make them look foolishly arrogant, ill-informed or downright stupid. Comedians can often be called out for being unkind, but this response went further. Tosh’s statement was categorically not funny; it held no intrinsic or contextual comedic value: no element of irony, satire, wry social comedy or even plain old slapstick. Because of this, it seems its primary function to put down the heckler came before the function of entertaining the audience.
A hostile reaction to a casual reference to rape is often dismissed as over-sensitivity on the part of the listener. This theory is based on the idea that the listener has interpreted something as unsavoury or morally wrong and has taken offence. But for many people, a hostile reaction is not born out of offence, but out of a very real and powerful pain.
Rape statistics are difficult to pin down, as a high proportion go unreported, and of those that are, many do not progress to prosecution. According to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in 1998 an estimated one in every six women in America had experienced an attempted or completed rape; some bodies suggest that the current figures are much higher. An estimated 60% of rapes go unreported, rising this figure to 95% among college students.
These alarmingly high figures demonstrate that the likelihood of encountering individuals on a day-to-day basis who have suffered a sexual attack is high. In any given social situation, there is no way of knowing whether any participant of a conversation has a history of sexual abuse. Because of this, I tend to operate on the principle that any flippant reference to a topic which can be avoided with little hindrance to the conversation but might unwittingly cause considerable harm to any person present should be avoided. Simply put, it costs very little in terms of effort or personal sacrifice to avoid making rape jokes. When this is weighed against the considerable emotional pain an ill-timed comment could inflict, the decision to refrain seems to me to be a no-brainer.
In the context of the Daniel Tosh debate, statistically, there is a high probability that one or more members of his audience will have been the victim of sexual abuse at some point in their lives.
Rape humour, except in the very rare cases when it is handled with great dexterity, is a brand that exploits people’s pain for laughs.
Culture Map Austin published a response from a comedian called Curtis Luciani, who tries to persuade a male audience of the serious implications of using rape as the subject of humour, and why it must be tackled with great skill. He explains why this kind of reaction should not be dismissed as ‘taking offence’ in a refreshingly frank and eloquent (though seemingly crude – stick with it) response which attempts to build a kind of empathy with the pain and humiliation suffered by sexual abuse victims when subjects such as these are handled insensitively:
People have wounds, and those wounds are painful… All of us who like comedy are generally in agreement with the idea that “taking offense” is lame, and a comedian should be willing to “offend” whenever he or she wants to.
But causing pain is quite a different fucking matter. Your job as a comedian is to take us through pain, transcend pain, transform pain. And if you don’t get that, you are a fucking bully, and I’ve got zero time for bullies.
The motivation behind Tosh’s statement was to humiliate his heckler. It was intended to make the audience laugh at the idea of someone suffering in a particularly violent manner. The experience, no doubt, was humiliating:
I should probably add that having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.
Tosh achieved his aim of subduing his attacker by creating a hostile environment in which to humiliate and shame her.
You know what else is used as a tool to shame and subdue women? Rape. It robs the victim of dignity, power, and self-esteem. It is a weapon used to overpower and humiliate women, to force them into submission. And here lies the key factor that differentiates sexual abuse from almost any other controversial topic. There is an element of not only victimhood but victimisation which is absent from narratives of disease or other ill-fortune. It entails intended and deliberate harm, whose psychological consequences are overwhelming and incalculable – to the extent that women are ashamed to admit to something about which there is no earthly reason why they should feel ashamed. Admitting to a history of sexual abuse is often considered shameful or degrading, despite the fact that the fault lies not with the victim but with the perpetrator.
This belief is not only held by traumatised victims, but by huge numbers of people including outspoken public figures and social media users. Rape culture is propped up by wide and indiscriminate ‘slut shaming’ everywhere – from the criticism of under-dressed clubbers to judgemental tabloid columns. The whole victim-blaming narrative hinges on the fact that blame is often apportioned, at least in part, to the victim of sexual attack. For just one example, I refer you to the Twitter furore surrounding the Ched Evans rape case. Comedians, if they opt to wade into such territory, must aim to challenge and not to enforce these narratives.
In the face of all this, ‘free speech’ seems a pretty weak defence – and a self-defeating one at that. Using violence, the threat of violence or even flippant references to the same to silence criticism is an attempt to deny someone an opinion or a response. Surely that is a greater attack on freedom of speech than criticising someone’s comedy? Any attempt to reverse the roles of victim and oppressor to paint Tosh as the marginalised party falls rather flat. It’s time to end this ridiculous notion of entitlement – that comedians are exempt from all social convention and accountability. Comedians, like anyone else, must consider the impact of their words. Because otherwise, Curtis Luciani is right. You are a bully. And there’s not much that’s funny about that.
Image: redfriday on Flickr
This article was originally published here.