A Pox on the Patriarchy
- Caroline Criado-Perez
Perhaps these questions seem to have little to do with each other. On the surface they don’t much actually. But although the topics differ, the questions are linked in one key way: our reactions to them.
Rape and mental health are both thorny issues. In the wake of the Daniel Tosh debacle, not to mention the Assange, Akin, Galloway, and really, too many people to list debacles, the answer to the first question is likely to be ‘never’. And, in a way, those people who would say ‘never’ would be right: jokes at the expense of rape victims are not only morally repugnant, they are plainly not funny. Really, they’re not.
But is a blanket ‘never’ response to rape jokes helpful? I know, this is a shocking question coming from a feminist who spends far too much of her time trying to contradict rape apologists. But bear with me.
This black-and-white response is problematic because it assumes that the butt of jokes about rape will always be the victim. This troubling assumption suggests the depressing degree to which we have come to expect laughter to be directed against victims, rather than perpetrators. It suggests that we have become so inured to this idea that anyone who questions the need for a total blackout on rape jokes is assumed to be on the Tosh side of the debate. This is unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because if there’s one thing that the past few weeks has demonstrated, it is that the public suffers from a disturbing lack of understanding about rape. And this lack of understanding is not going to be helped by making rape a without exception taboo; all it will really do is encourage those who think making jokes about victims is ‘edgy’ when, the reality, as Sarah Silverman points out, is that rape is ‘the safest area to talk about in comedy’, because, ‘who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.’
So what has this got to do with questioning mental health then? Well, a couple of things.
The first connection comes from a twitter exchange I had the other day, where I questioned George Galloway’s mental health, based on his recent and past actions. I was castigated for this by another twitter user, who accused me of ‘denigrating’ those with mental health by making such a comment.
I understand why this user made that assumption. We live in a society where, despite the reality that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, mental health is still considered an embarrassment and people with declared mental health problems are still likely to suffer discrimination at work. We live in a society where we throw around mental health terms as a form of abuse; we dismiss people as ‘mental’, ‘retarded’, ‘psycho’. We live in a society where a supposedly reputable website like Salon feels comfortable with talking about ‘The Olympics’ Schizophrenic Gender Policy’, and doesn’t feel the need to apologise when challenged – or in fact even to respond. Clearly, there is a lot of abuse and misuse surrounding mental health terms.
So I understand why this user made that assumption – but that doesn’t make her right.
The assumption that questioning someone’s mental health is intended as an insult makes a profoundly disturbing statement about the status of people with mental health issues. It assumes that to consider that someone has mental health issues is to insult them. And of course, like some jokes about rape make the victim the punch-line, sometimes questioning mental health is used as an insult. But to assume that therefore all questioning of mental health does this is not only wrong, it’s unhelpful.It is unhelpful because by maintaining mental health as a taboo, it encourages the perception that mental health issues are what happen to other people, when the reality is that mental health issues happen to a quarter of the population. Strikingly, and here’s the second connection, this is the same figure of the female population that has been raped. And the connection becomes even more striking when one considers that many women don’t feel able to report a rape because they are unaware that being raped by a boyfriend or husband is a ‘legitimate rape’; the reality of course, is that a woman is far more likely to be raped by someone she knows than the stereotypical nasty man in a dark alley.
Just so with the propagation of the myth that mental health is an embarrassing insult. Just so with the myth that ‘mental health issues’ apply only to those who have a seriously debilitating disability. As a result, and I speak from experience, many don’t consider the possibility that they themselves could have an issue that could be solved by going to see their doctor. So instead, like the women who don’t feel they can report rape, these people struggle on alone.
Rape jokes can be wrong. Questioning someone’s mental health can be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that they are both always wrong. To accept that would be to accept a damaging status quo whereby mental health sufferers and rape victims are denied a voice and, as far as public discourse goes, even an existence.