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Is rape something we can joke about?

I was watching Ricky Gervais’ Fame tour last night and about 30 minutes in he starts joking about rape. In the skit he asks “what sort of society has to remind people not to rape?” It’s referring to an advertisement that emphasises consent in sexual encounters. Instead of this being an insight into how much of a problem rape is in the UK, this becomes a joke. He parodies the court case where the judge asks “why did you rape her” and the rapist responds “I forgot [about consent]”.

One of his jokes is in reference to another radio advertisement warning people against taking illegal cabs in the UK. The phrase they used to warn people was “if you want to know the cost of an illegal minicab, just ask a rape victim”. Gervais then looks to the crowd and says “don’t! Worst advice I’ve ever had. It really winds them up. It brings back terrible memories. I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did”. He refers to it as “irresponsible advertising”. The crowd laughs and I strained my ears to hear the awkwardness in their laughter, maybe a nervous cough or two, but I couldn’t. The crowd laughed along as though there was no truth in what he was saying.

I couldn’t laugh. For me that became the line. It was no longer funny. There was no humour in that.

There are many jokes out there that make fun of particular groups. Everyone’s heard a joke about thin Ethiopians, murderous Nazis, black people, white people, Indian people. Some of them may make you laugh, and others won’t.

This time I didn’t laugh. What is it that stops you from laughing? For me it wasn’t funny because I work in the field of gender-based violence research and know that a rape has lifelong effects on a survivor. You only need to read any one of these blogs:

to understand that this is no joking matter.

So if you were someone who has watched it and found it funny, how did you? How did you get past that? Can we ever joke about rape?


  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


  1. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 8 July 2010

    Of course you CAN joke about rape. But that doesn’t mean you SHOULD. It’s just not a funny topic. Like pus, or paraplegia or cancer.

  2. Ram Ram 8 July 2010

    Your justified sensitivity borders on censorship. Maybe an arab country would be more suited to your views? With freedom of speech comes, ACTUAL FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

    Just a tip. Never ever watch a Jimmy Carr comedy show, your ears would bleed.

  3. Akanyang Merementsi Akanyang Merementsi 8 July 2010

    Hell no, you can’t, especially for the victims. It is very emotionally personal.

  4. Tim Richman Tim Richman 8 July 2010

    This is the comedian’s (or writer’s or director’s) eternal dilemma. What is offsides? What is wrong? What cannot be condoned?
    Often the best or most engaging humour comes from the most sacrosanct subject matter precisely because it is edgy and controversial and (almost) untouchable. It is human nature, I suppose, that humour lurks near the margins of acceptability. (And sometimes humour is the best, or only, way to cope with certain subject matter.)
    There cannot be many genuinely funny jokes in the world that don’t offend someone. That said, the greatest humour crime is surely to intentionally use controversial topics to mask lame jokes.

  5. FishEagle FishEagle 8 July 2010

    Of course we can joke about rape!!! My sense of humour is the only thing that got me through my own rape. My guess is that a REAL rapist would never joke about rape. I actually feel rather safe around a guy that openly discusses such issues, as opposed to the brooding type of guy that projects the perfect image (when meanwhile…). One must acknowledge the sense of awkwardness that guys feel about rape, in general, and that humour may be a good way for them to talk about an otherwise, taboo subject. Remember women can, and do, express their outrage at any time.

  6. Robin Grant Robin Grant 8 July 2010

    In a culture where civil obedience is the norm, one can make light of the obvious, especially where there is a strong tendancy towards the nanny state that the UK has become. That is the gist of this humour, and it needs to be understood and appreciated in its context.

  7. No! It’s never funny. It should be red taped matter when it comes to jokes. Unless you have been there, you have no true concept of the damage these jokes cause, then again comedians take hits at all kinds of sore points that must hurt others too. Personally I think these jokes trivialise and diminish the gravity of rape, when there are enough forces at play trying to keep the issue taboo. Humour has its place. It’s not with sexual abuse. Thanks for expressing this Jen.

  8. Peter L Peter L 8 July 2010

    Oh dear
    I suspect that you may have kind of answered you own question!

    You state “There are many jokes out there that make fun of particular groups. Everyone’s heard a joke about thin Ethiopians, murderous Nazis, black people, white people, Indian people”

    You could have added Jews, Disabled people, retarded people, victims of any number of atrocities and natural disasters, etc.

    You ask “Can we ever joke about rape?”

    You probably mean SHOULD we ever joke about rape.

    The answer would be no if you are a rape victim, or related to, or friends with one, or a person with any reasonable sensibility.

    The same applies to concentration camp jokes if you are jewish, or related to, or friends with.

    The same applies to disabled people etc etc.

    Is it not possible that you are completely missing the point – that Ricky Gervais was not joking about rape, he was lampoonong the government agency / NGO or whoever that used a very inappropriate example to get their point across?

    As you seem to find jokes about rape offensive, but admit to finding some jokes about “Ethiopians, murderous Nazis, black people, white people, Indian people” funny, what does this say about you?

    Is there not perhaps just a teensy wheensy element of hypocricy here?

    OK – here is my contribution:

    How many young PC activist feminist advocates for women’s rights does it take to fit a lightbulb?

    Oh, forget it!

  9. HD HD 8 July 2010

    I think you are overreacting.

    He is protesting the notion that people can claim that they did not “consciously” rape a victim (absolving them of personal responsibility).

    It is a stupid advertisement, any way, since rape implies non consent. He is further commenting on the state of British society in which people must be reminded of what constitutes good behavior on something as obviously bad as rape.

    Rape has nothing to do with the “message” of his joke.

    The second joke/comment is about the appropriateness of an advertising campaign that equates the costs of illegal cabs to that of rape victims.

    Just because the word “rape” appears in a joke doesn’t mean that it speaks to “rape”…

  10. The Grinch The Grinch 8 July 2010

    Is rape something we can joke about? Well, ask Zapiro…

  11. Jeromy Jeromy 8 July 2010

    Frankly, I feel that you are too sensitive.

    I’ve been attacked in my house some years ago by four knife wielding robbers, I was stabbed in my armed and lost the ability to exercise skills I’ve spent a fortune and a lifetime developing, while I fought to protect the lives of my wife and child.

    And yet I will laugh at and appreciate a comedian doing a good spoof on knife wielding life threatening robbery situations, (as indeed I have) and I don’t need 5 websites of sympathizing counseling to get me over it either.

    I don’t understand the issue, really, and I therefore expect it to have something to do with politics.

  12. Sunshine Sunshine 8 July 2010

    All rape jokes are distasteful – But rape jokes are created equal. I think it depends on the joke. What’s the point of being politically correct about this horrific crime? Indeed, how absurd is it that many men dont get that sex must be consensual? Jokes show just how absurd society is. Precisely because it is horror, we can use rape as a point to reflect on the absurd. Sometimes that will make us laugh but sometimes humour is downright offensive. Zapiros raping justice cartoon comes to mind; its not neutral on woman’s bodies as objects of rape for sure, so it is a contentious one from a gendered analysis. but then in this sexist country we live in, patriarchs are raping women and justice – the metaphor works. Personally I wouldn’t tell a rape joke, but honestly, it depends on what it illustrates. Same with hitler jokes. Horrible jokes but in them is codified the evil of that man. I don’t know I could be wrong. Also thinking of the Boondocks cartoon series where one of the main characters has a fear of doing wrong because he doesn’t want to go to jail and get anally raped. The opening scene is him having a nightmare of dropping the soap in prison and this man with the longest penis ever tells him to pick it up. It’s hilarious. Distasteful, maybe, but funny and the whole episode makes a point about racial profiling.

  13. Sunshine Sunshine 8 July 2010

    Sorry I meant NOT ALL RAPE JOKES ARE CREATED EQUAL in my previous post.

  14. Mister Twister Mister Twister 8 July 2010

    Thank you, Robin Grant. People, stop being so wet. Robust humour is required.

  15. Owen Owen 8 July 2010

    One can joke about anything as it breaks tension and can contribute positively towards a healing process. The trick is in the time and place of such jokes. Obviously for you it was neither time nor place.

    Jokes help get one back onto an even perspective and can calm the mind in very tense situations. Particularly in the midst of a fire fight where one can panic one needs mates who can hold it together and a well timed joke can do the trick.

  16. Brian Brian 8 July 2010

    Nope! i dont think one can openly joke about it,especially considering emotional scars,trauma and the even the unfortunate H.I.V that’s passed on to victioms……only a naive mind can find it utterly hilarious……

  17. Linda Linda 8 July 2010

    I don’t find it funny and I unlikely will until I know that I, and every other woman or child, can move freely without the fear of being raped. Until then, the South African ideal of living in a “free and democratic” society is just that, an ideal, and something not accessible to all South Africans.

  18. Shaun Shaun 8 July 2010

    Key here is context. Rape is not funny, the fact that advertisers in the UK think it’s a good idea to link a taxi service to rape is something that is open for derision. Only very brave comics do rape material, and the ones that do walk a fine line between being topical and being offensive.

  19. BeenThere BeenThere 8 July 2010

    Oh please stop taking everything so seriously! (And I am not saying don’t take rape seriously; I am saying get over yourself when it comes to making light of serious issues) And yes we can joke about rape and make light of it. I was raped when I was younger. Bad things happen to most people at some point in your life. I can sit in a heap and feel sorry for myself (and freak out if anyone make light of rape) or move on. I have chosen not to allow it to hold me back in life.

  20. Bovril24 Bovril24 8 July 2010

    He was not making a joke about rape. He was using the ‘horror profile’ of rape to ridicule a silly law and the minds behind it.

    If he had used a softer example it would have lost its impact and edge (and this blog would not have been written,)


  21. Lehlohonolo Phadima Lehlohonolo Phadima 8 July 2010

    I suspect that jokes that generally awaken people’s physical and psychological wounds are to be used with circumspect. So if it is possible, say to make a racial joke, which might be to a person who’s suffered tremendous physical and psychological agony. This would make the racial joke absolutely unacceptable. But then how does one know who in the audience, is going or has gone through what? so i wouldn’t say burn them…they’re a complete No-no… And perhaps since we can never know who’s been through what – it IS possible to joke about it. Perhaps as victims, we might have to learn to put different messages in context.

  22. Walter Walter 9 July 2010

    The current way to close down any area for discusion(or jokes) is to claim it “offends” someone. But should that fact that someone is invariably offended by almost anything thats said be reason to say it “shouldn’t” be aired? Of course not, within reason. I would rather spend time thinking about what are the appropriate spaces for various communications, than join the crowd that delight in making certain topics and ways of thinking or talking verboten.

  23. Lindiwe Lindiwe 9 July 2010

    I agree Jen. It’s like that ridiculous “what do you tell a woman with 2 black eyes? Nothing – she’s already been told twice”.

    Offensive and misogynist.

  24. Leonard Leonard 9 July 2010

    I agree with Peter L. “There are many jokes out there that make fun of particular groups. Everyone’s heard a joke about thin Ethiopians, murderous Nazis, black people, white people, Indian people. Some of them may make you laugh, and others won’t.”
    Now you want to decide what and what not should people laugh about?
    You should consider becoming a politician.

  25. Di Di 9 July 2010

    I don’t agree with any jokes at the expense of those who have suffered in whatever context that was. Although humour can relieve a tense situation – when we joke about race, rape, gender, whatever… we become desensitized to the seriousness of the evil perpetrated against those people.
    I used to forward sexist jokes until a petition against rape was circulated. My male friends found it ridiculous to worry about rape, instead to worry about the score of a rugby match. They thought it was funny. That was the moment I made a decision to never ever relate a joke (no matter how craftily and wittily put together) that was at the expense of anyone. Why can’t we laugh at things where we are all laughing together and not *at* someone?

  26. chris2 chris2 9 July 2010

    Jenny, can one joke about death, although it is usually no laughing matter? The cicumstances can sometimes be funny. Is rape necessarily worse than death? One should consider that there are degrees of rape, e.g. statutory rape, which may be consensual. Let’s face it, not all jokes are in good tatste. Do any PC jokes exist? Just asking.

  27. Banana Banana 9 July 2010

    Is the author Hitler in disguise?
    Freedom of speech, freedom to listen, and in your case freedom to moan!
    I agree with Rams comments

  28. Dino Dino 10 July 2010

    I do admire Jennifer for having the courage to speak out on this issue. I think that we must all do owe bit to aggressively expose the Rape Crisis in SA for the atrocity that it is.

  29. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 11 July 2010

    Is it appropriate to joke about prophet mohammed (yes praise be to him- my muslim friend told me to say this when I mentioned mohammed-PBTH) draw cartoons where people can laugh. There is a place for you Jennifer in the Muslim brotherhood.

    Maybe Zapiro has got it right since he seems to offend everyone.Jews gentiles, apostates, blacks whites muslims acquitted formerly alleged rapists and the uruguayan Suarez.

    @Lindiwe, I find that joke funny.A joke is like a magic trick take you down a false path then quickly show you the light. This joke highlights the plight of women instead of encouraging people to beat up on women. Say it in front of 100 people and more than 80 (thumb suck)will laugh at it.
    I watch Chris rock a lot. he jokes about politicians,black people/white people and celebrities.who says these people want to be joked about. Who says blondes want to be joked about. What about the irish?

    Here is an idea- ban all jokes. kill this industry.

    The only thing that says a joke is bad is
    a)people dont laugh
    b)people dont pay to see the commdian

    Anything in between is fair dinkum

  30. Carol Bower Carol Bower 11 July 2010

    @ Chris – statutory rape, by definition, involves victims who CANNOT consent – usually because they are children or disabled, so I can’t see how “some rape can be consensual”?

  31. Hard Rain Hard Rain 11 July 2010

    One of the previous commenters said: “Personally I think these jokes trivialize and diminish the gravity of [insert terrible thing here]” (insertion mine)

    This is kind of the entire point of humour. It’s a natural coping mechanism. In a word: catharsis. There’s an old saying: “Why do we laugh? Because we have to”.

    It’s hardly something to be reviled, but if it offends your precious sensibilities then, oh well… get over it. However, in this day and age, being “offended” is treated like being raped in any case.

  32. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 13 July 2010

    I’ve watched the show, and I get the distinct impression that Gervais is a lot smarter then you give him credit for. The joke was funny, but he’s 100% correct: What kind of man needs to be reminded that he shouldn’t rape?

    In the same show he goes after so many other ‘weak’ targets, including cancer patients. Personally I like the idea that we can laugh about deadly serious issues, its the only other option after crying.

  33. To Hard Rain – in response to your response to my post. I disagree entirely.

    I was raped, I was told shit happens get over it, so i cut off and tried to cope while the rapist got away, because everyone told me not to think about it. they tried to get me to laugh it off, like the rapist was some silly old man. This affected me even more so and put off the trauma until now when it all came flushing back ten times worse. my comment was posted based on my own experience. what experience do you have?

  34. clarus clarus 29 August 2010

    A South African male friend once told me a “joke” about rape. I thought that it was one of the most disgusting things I had ever heard. What on earth made him think that I would “appreciate” it? It’s possible that he has been a victim of rape and that he was using that “joke” as a way of dealing with trauma – but very unlikely.

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