Many commentators are rightly horrified that a current Presidential candidate might equate rape with pleasure.  The account of John McCain's 1986 rape "joke" calls into question his attitudes toward women, especially given his long legislative record of voting against women's rights.

But it gets worse.  A world that treats a brutal act of sexual assault as a joke is not simply a land of the humor-impaired or a place of "insensitivity" to women.  These "jokes" are a reflection of rape culture - a set of norms defining the permissible use of sexual violence in ways that enable further acts of abuse.

Tonight, I hope we can think and talk critically about how cultural attitudes, rape myths, and gender and race stereotypes fuel gender-based violence - and why we need to fight that.

I'm an occasional contributor to the weekly series entitled "Feminisms."  Here's how the founders of the series describe its mission:

 Feminisms is a series of weekly feminist diaries. My fellow feminists and I decided to start our own for several purposes: we wanted a place to chat with each other, we felt it was important to both share our own stories and learn from others’, and we hoped to introduce to the community a better understanding of what feminism is about.

Needless to say, we expect disagreements to arise. We have all had different experiences in life, so while we share the same labels, we don’t necessarily share the same definitions. Hopefully, we can all be patient and civil with each other, and remember that, ultimately, we’re all on the same side.

When I saw the story about John McCain and the horrible rape "joke" I immediately volunteered to do a feminisms diary on it.  For me it serves as what we progressives call a teachable moment - an opportunity to chip away at the everyday forms of patriarchy that construct and constrict our lives.

What feminists over the decades have been teaching us is that rape is a product of social norms.  The crime of rape is defined by historical and cultural context, and that context can affect who is victimized by rape, and when, where and why it occurs.  And in the United States, rape culture is inextricably bound up with the problems of racism and sexism in society.

Although it isn't the most scholarly source, wikipedia gives us a useful place to start the conversation about rape culture:

Rape culture is a widely used term within women's studies and feminism describing a culture in which rape and other sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence. Within the paradigm, acts of "harmless" sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices; for instance, sexist jokes may be told to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their well-being, which ultimately make their rape and abuse seem acceptable. Examples of behaviors said to typify rape culture include victim blaming, trivializing prison rape, and sexual objectification.

Rape myths and gender and race stereotypes are an important component of these cultural messages.  According to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Myths about rape serve to direct attention away from masculine violence. They are similar to myths about other forms of oppression, such as racism, in that they encourage us to believe that how things are today is the natural order of things, that those who are raped either deserved their fate or enjoyed their fate, and that only certain types of people get raped, so most people can pretend it doesn’t concern them. The myths serve to minimize the seriousness of rape and, by focusing on particular women in particular circumstances, to shift the blame away from those who commit the crime. Blame is focused on the behavior of those who were raped or on particular men, targeted often because of their race or social class.

Myths keep us from understanding that rape is connected to our accepted social values of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality—that rape is common in everyday interactions. Myths keep us from understanding that we can change these circumstances, that rape is not inevitable.

Jokes are a way of perpetuating myths and stereotypes about rape, and they are particularly insidious.  Jokes are considered trivial or harmless.  When jokes reinforce myths about when and why rape might be acceptable they can have serious effects.  But because they are "just jokes" it can be tough to get anyone to take them seriously.

Taking on humor is a dangerous endeavor for feminists.  Being a feminist in college in the 1980's, during the height of the battles over so-called political correctness meant putting your sense of humor credentials on the line.  Because somehow the fight against gender-based violence devolved into a battle over whether you  were, or were not, an uptight, humorless, anti-sex puritan.  The rising recognition of the role of gender-based violence in women's lives has apparently required a rather constant dose of the phrase "that's not funny."    

Someone who felt comfortable in 1986 telling this joke understands rape as acceptable in a way that is alien to me:

Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, ‘Where is that marvelous ape?’

In this account, rape is not physically violent or emotionally damaging, but sexually satisfying.  This is a particularly dangerous stereotype about and consent - it's OK to use force because deep down women really want to be sexually dominated.  In fact, go ahead and ignore her protests and objections, because she will thank you later for showing her such a good time.  

And then there's the racial messages bound up in this joke and in the larger regulation of rape.  It directly references stereotypes of black men in particular, and men of color in general as sexual aggressors - stereotypes that historically have fueled lynch mobs.  As Kimberle Crenshaw and others have shown, racial stereotypes and the historical legacy of slavery lead to unjust targeting of men of color and leave women of color far less protected against sexual violence.

That's why these kinds of jokes go beyond poor taste, and why they reveal more than outmoded thinking.  Rape jokes, and rape culture, enable rape.  And that's not funny at all.

Originally posted to Femlaw on Wed Jul 16, 2008 at 07:01 PM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.