A co-worker’s tweet this morning drew my attention to a blog post on how to respond to rape jokes. The author of the blog post lays out 5 possible responses when someone jokes that a woman wanted it, or was so unattractive she should be glad to get raped:
1. Keep quiet and feel uncomfortable.
2. Try to top the joke with a more offensive one.
3. Initiate a Very Serious Conversation in which you state rape is never funny.
4. Initiate a Very Serious Conversation II in which you disclose your own rape, and mention that you were definitely NOT laughing during it.
5. Talk outside the box. As in, “I knew this guy in college, and he totally got raped during rush and had to go to the doctor! He’s in therapy now! It was hilarious!”
Personally, I’ve always felt at a loss as to how to respond to rape jokes, inevitably told by a straight guy (so far). I always feel the strong obligation to confront the joke, wait a few seconds hoping someone else will do it for me, then finally give in and say something. None of the options above sound like much fun, but I guess if I had to pick one I’d do #5 because at least then you don’t put yourself in the category of the patronizing mega-feminist as parodied in Away We Go. Academic studies have actually shown that men—and to a much lesser degree, women—dislike women more when they speak up about sexist comments or other prejudiced behavior. It’s pretty well established that there is a definite backlash to women for speaking up for themselves: numerous sexual harassment cases have shown this, with women fired or further penalized for bringing lawsuits.
Of course, just telling a friend that joking about rape isn’t cool is not the same thing as suing your company for sexual harassment. But both are difficult because of the high social cost to women for rocking the boat. No one wants to be that uppity biyotch who thinks she can tell everyone what to think, and no one really likes that gal. As one study put it, “People have a general desire to be liked and to appear competent” but those who confront racism or sexism “are generally neither well-liked nor perceived as competent. Instead, they are often disliked, viewed as troublemakers, or seen as having problematic personalities.” As one study found, though many women say they’d confront sexist behavior, very few actually do. So just because other women don’t say anything when they hear a rape joke, doesn’t mean they condone it.
Fortunately, the “speak-up stigma” can be lessened through education of the ones who might be telling the jokes. Educating young men, jocks and frat boys especially, on male-on-male rape has been found to not only increase empathy and sensitivity toward female rape victims, but to actually increase willingness to confront their peers’ behaviors. Until then, I guess I’m left with option #5. Here’s hoping I don’t have to use it any time soon.