Nothing is ‘just a joke’ if jokes are one of the main ways we reinforce social bonds with people.

You know when there is a language barrier between you and another person, and you end up laughing about the tiniest things? You resort to wildly gesturing, trying to physically animate what you can’t say; in the mean time, you’re making each other laugh with pantomimic gestures. It’s because laughter is acceptance, a quick way of saying “I like and accept you”. A comedian knows whether a set’s gone well according to the audience’s laughter. One of my old bosses always used to open up meetings with a joke. It makes people feel accepted; it puts them at ease.

With this notion of laughter and acceptance in mind, I’d like to address the issue of violence against women, specifically sexual violence, when people mention it satirically, sarcastically and in jokes. Even more specifically, jokes where the laugh is on the woman or girl victim. To me, violence against women is nothing to be laughed at. However, that’s probably because I work in women’s rights and, in a world where violence against women is endemic, I wish people would spend more time understanding and advocating against sexual violence than laughing about it. This article is different: I will not be focusing on how rape jokes may impact victims or inform attitudes towards sexual violence (although these are extremely relevant and valid points). This piece is about the contexts in which I have observed this kind of humour.

Sexual violence and humour are too often combined by people who claim that it’s justified because it’s so abstract, so bizarre to them, that of course they’re not laughing at victims of sexual violence, and of course they don’t condone rape by any means. They claim they would never rape, and ‘real’ rape is not funny. However, disregarding the fact that they may well be sharing this “joke” in the company of someone who has direct experience of sexual violence, the context in which it happens in is potentially more interesting to analyse than the content of the joke itself.

So, humour is about acceptance. People collectively laughing at something, or being able to laugh at someone else’s joke, are all ways of sharing something, of verifying a bond. They are ways of making an individual or a collective feel good. For this reason, it’s impossible to ignore frequent undertones of masculine bonding in sexual violence humour. After all, the humour around sexual violence that I have witnessed or been told of, all happens in a context where men are seeking to bond with each other.

The simplest common ground that humans like to focus on is sadly as basic as sex or race. Similarity with someone means you are at ease; you see something of yourself in that person. You want to show them that you accept them, or encourage them to accept you. A simple way to do this is to remind them of your similarity to them, or your shared difference from others. It’s straight up ‘Us and Them’ that makes people feel secure. In the case of rape jokes, I’ll put it simply: I’ve never heard a woman tell a rape joke to other women. I’ve also never heard a man tell a rape joke solely in the presence of women.

The sarcastic comments, the degrading gestures and the rape jokes all occur in a context of manly affirmation. A context of proving you’re a man to other men, that you’re all men together, by magnifying the difference between you and women. Simply put, it’s acceptance of sameness; belonging. To add another dimension, if you want to make yourself feel strong: you are men and you are more powerful than women. This is achieved through the violence part. Violence is a physical demonstration of power.

A man making a sexually violent or pervy joke about a woman, to another man, doesn’t necessarily wish to rape women, but is craving that sense of male acceptance, the feeling good about himself that comes from making a joke that someone laughs at: that sense of camaraderie that arises amongst allies. This becomes literal in military scenarios; a close male friend who served in the Singaporean army told me that homophobia and sexism were rampant because they reinforced bonds between strangers; they facilitated fraternity. This is unsurprising in a masculine environment that depends on notions of dominance and strength for morale.

And yet, there’s a difference between man and manly. I have tons of male friends who will not laugh at rape jokes, who will not respond to a comment about a passing woman’s physical appearance. They know they will be confronted with “come on mate, it’s just a joke”, if they challenge someone who makes these comments, or even told to “get a sense of humour”. Numerous male friends have confided in me about their discomfort, even within their own friendship groups, that male bonding is too often facilitated around a shared differentiation from, and domination over, women.

This is why deconstructing humour and “jokes” is interesting: it makes people uncomfortable, especially those that tell them. People become extremely defensive. Stripping away and deconstructing jokes means they aren’t funny anymore: it allows us to unpick what is subconsciously going on. Jokes are the contentious terrain of freedom of speech; some people are proud to say,“there’s nothing I won’t laugh at” or “it’s important to be able to laugh at things”.  However, words and jokes are not “nothing” and should not be so easily dismissed. Linguistics and humour are a complex part of human behaviour that, if you analyse, reveal the social motivation of an individual.

Humour is based on shared experience and recognition of similarity. Men do not have to loudly vilify women in public in groups to feel good about themselves. They do not have to tell a rape joke amongst friends to feel masculine and respected in front of others. They do not have to mock and make sexual comments about women that pass them. Telling rape jokes may make blokes feel “manly”, powerful, dominant. But, to those who tell these jokes: Are you so uncomfortable in your own skin that you want to make women feel uncomfortable in theirs? This may facilitate temporary ‘masculine’ bonding. However, it also exposes the social insecurities of individuals seeking cheap social affirmation, reinforcement of their standing amongst other men, to gain a sense of masculine safety. All the while, unnecessarily undermining women in the process.