Dear Betty White, SNL, & comedians everywhere: prison rape is never funny.

I watched the Betty White-hosted SNL a little earlier, and my goodness me, the woman is a national treasure. Really, and truly. I adore her, and not just because I attended St. Olaf for a year!

But one skit made it nearly impossible for me to keep watching, much less laughing — perhaps you’ve guessed which one! Yes, boys and girls, it was the “if-you-don’t-change-your-ways-you’ll-go-to-prison-and-get-raped” lark.

Ha! Rape is so fucking funny! No, not really. Not ever.

No, wait. I have been taught — schooled, really, is more the word — that if the rape is your own, if you’re the survivor, you get to joke as much as you want. Megan, formerly of Jezebel, made this very clear to me, and she was damn right. I do not get to tell you how you deal with the reality of your experience, no matter how squirmy it might make me.

But, with that caveat — rape is just not a topic for jokes and/or japes. And for the most part we as a society seem to have understood that to be the case.

Except when it comes to men. Exceptexcept when it comes to men in prison.

This fact infuriates me. I used to work with male survivors of sexual assault, and I have a hard time expressing just how much it infuriates me — but I did write something about it once, for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. (Oddly enough, soon after I wrote the following, Ezra Klein also addressed the issue [as I’ve since learned he had been doing for some time]. To see a man writing about it made me almost weepy with gratitude).

I harbor this wee little hope that the folks at SNL, and in the world of comedy more broadly, will someday realize the enormity of their error….

Emily L. Hauser: Prison rape: Not funny, not OK

Rape destroys your security and shreds your sense of self. No one — no one — deserves that.

By EMILY L. HAUSER

March 4, 2008

OK, it was funny: The “I’m F—ing Ben Affleck” bit on Jimmy Kimmel’s show was, in fact, kind of hysterical. It’s no surprise it’s gotten so many YouTube views since.

But, as so often happens when straight men joke about gay sex, Kimmel and Affleck had to throw in a joke about prison rape. And rape, unlike silly videos where people make fun of themselves and each other, isn’t actually funny.

Which is why most of us no longer tell rape jokes — unless they involve male prisoners, that one small part of society about whom we apparently believe such humor to still be knee-slapping. And by extension (subtle or not-so), the rather larger group of men in general.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice reported some 8,210 allegations of sexual violence among the country’s 2.6 million inmates of America’s jails, prisons and juvenile facilities; of these, about 2,100 were substantiated (due to underreporting, this number is not reliable).

The simple truth is that rape shatters people, no matter where it happens. Rape takes your sense of security and sense of self, and shreds them. The problem of prison rape, Prof. Mary Sigler wrote in the Iowa Law Review in 2006, “is first and foremost a failure of our moral obligation to treat people humanely.”

If a rape survivor is lucky — with access to good counseling services and surrounded by loving people, and assuming the attacker wasn’t an authority figure, and no STD was contracted — he or she will find a way to pick up the pieces and move on.

Off the top of my head, though, I’m guessing men in prison don’t often have such luck.

Our use of this humor reveals an alarming disregard for the people in our prison system — and a troubling approach to the notion of male weakness. Affleck’s and Kimmel’s joke was directed against each other, but can you imagine if they’d suggested women enjoy sexual abuse?

Why is it not horrifying to suggest the same of a man?

I suspect that, to some extent, it’s our fear of homosexuality (never mind that most prison rapists are heterosexual). We still can’t abide the notion that lots of men out there have sex with other men. So we treat such sex as something bestial, and act as if gay men invite, enjoy, maybe deserve, assault.

All of which seems to me to be painfully wrapped up in the thorny issue of America’s masculine ideals: That “real” men, somehow, don’t get hurt. As if boys in the hands of pedophiles, or men overcome by those more powerful, are culpable. Are, in fact, laughable.

Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t blame either Jimmy Kimmel or Ben Affleck for this social ill.

But the ease with which such jokes are still made reflects something very disturbing about us. I shudder to think what goes through the hearts of male rape victims at such moments, whether they are teenaged survivors of predator teachers, or hardened criminals.

No one deserves to be raped, abused or assaulted. And when it happens, it is never, ever funny.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living outside of Chicago. She is a former rape crisis counselor.

******************

Update: I updated the post title. Not sure why. I think I wanted to be more direct.

5 Comments

  1. So I think part of the issue here is how men are viewed and how rape is one of those things that people tend to see as a failure of strength on the part of the victim. It’s ok to joke about men being raped because men are precieved to be tough. It’s not ok to joke about, but I think the underlying acceptability of this type of humor stems from that. Victim blaming unfortunately happens all the time.

    men aren’t supposed to be emotionally vulnerable, but we are……….

  2. dmf

     /  May 10, 2010

    i’ll spare you the semiotics of schadenfreude but while i generally agree with you about such unfortunate public displays these darker aspects of our psyches should be addressed and not merely repressed, pushed back into the shadows. humor, humiliation, sex, and horror have a long and complicated history in our common evolution. and yes scapegoating is a rampant evil, contrary to rumors Pan is not dead

  3. Emily, thank you for speaking out on your blog and in the Star-Tribune. I am a male rape survivor and I don’t find rape jokes of any kind to be humourous. I find them demeaning, minimizing and childish.

    You mentioned that you “shudder to think what goes through the hearts of male rape victims at such moments” in the commentary printed in the Star-Tribune. I can’t speak for all male rape survivors, but I can tell you what I feel at such times. I feel minimized, mocked, laughed at and generally devalued as a human being. I want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world for a while. It sickens me to my core.

    So, thank you for speaking up and getting it right.

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