Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Legitimate Language on Rape and Mental Health

- Caroline Criado-Perez

When is it OK to tell a joke about rape? And when is it OK to question someone’s mental health? 

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.

17 comments on “Legitimate Language on Rape and Mental Health

  1. Guls
    January 22, 2013

    Some really original and thoughtful writing here – juxtaposing rape and mental health throws up some interesting questions. You maybe picked up on Jamie Kilstein’s Rape Joke routine last December – this was my take on it: http://musicbugsandgender.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/a-penetrating-insight-into-farcical-attitudes-to-rape/ He demonstrated insight and intelligence towards a contentious subject, I thought. I guess not making victims the butt of the joke is what’s important, which is true for mental illness also. Having experience of the latter, I was lucky enough to have been well-supported by friends and also my employer who arranged my shifts around doctor’s appointments and also paid for some counselling thru occy health. Had I been a victim of rape I feel confident I would have received the same level of support. Not everybody is so lucky.

    I’m impressed by your patience with an obvious troll samzayvan – his comments would have been posted in my trash folder, frankly ;)

  2. samzayvan
    August 29, 2012

    Well I tried to answer your questions, but the moderators wouldn’t approve my comments. So much for free speech and feminism! Email me at samzayvan@gmail.com if you seriously want to know what I think!

    • Week Woman
      August 29, 2012

      I am a moderator – all your comments got through. Let’s not be dishonest please.

  3. How old are you? Do you think being forced against your will is funny? Do you think victims of rape will be pissing themselves laughing every time they hear a rape joke? No they will be horrified and disgusted to think that their unimaginable suffering can be made into some form of comedic entertainment. So no, feminists do not like rape jokes, but not because we are feminists, but because we are people with empathy and respect for those who have suffered.

    • samzayvan
      August 29, 2012

      I don’t give 2 fucks if rape victims are offended by rape jokes. If they can’t handle hearing rape jokes, change the channel or don’t come to the comedy club. IF you guys had so much empathy you wouldn’t be forcing your ignorant opinions on other people and trying to censor their speech like the fucking Soviet Union.

      • Week Woman
        August 29, 2012

        Calm down dear; no-one’s censoring your free speech. They are challenging your opinion. If anyone’s against free speech it appears to be you, with your aggressive swearing at anyone who dares to disagree.

  4. Fridgehopper
    August 28, 2012

    Samzayvan- Please explain why you find rape jokes funny, as in what is it about them that’s funny? Would you care to provide an example of a “funny rape joke”?

    PS- Doesn’t critiquing or criticising bad humour count as free speech? I wish all you goddamn misogynists would stop stifling people’s free speech!

    • samzayvan
      August 29, 2012

      First of all, I never said that you people shouldn’t be able to spout your dumbass opinions, so stop trying to create a false equivalence. You can go on the internet and type your stupid feminist bullshit all day, thankfully nobody gives a shit.

      [edited to remove rape joke - we do not find it funny]

      Thirdly, I find rape jokes funny because they make me laugh. It’s impossible to explain “why” something is funny; laughter is an involuntary reflex.

      • Week Woman
        August 29, 2012

        Your incoherent keyboard-smashing rage over those who disagree with you does rather imply that you do think that they shouldn’t spout their ‘dumbass opinions’. As does wishing that they would stop. We are wishing you would stop. I fail to see the difference. I look forward to a reasoned response from you on all the points raised*

        *wishful thinking

      • Fridgehopper
        August 29, 2012

        You purposefully read a feminist blog and stated “I wish you goddamn feminists would try to stop stifling people’s free speech. Let people use their own brains instead of telling people what to think and listen to.” so it appears that YOU at least do “give a shit” about our “stupid feminist bullshit”.

        In fact, it seems you give so much of a shit that you went out of your way to comment on a feminist blog you disagreed with, stating that you wished the author didn’t write those things (get the impression you didn’t read the whole post though, since you appear to have missed the part in the conclusion where the author stated that rape jokes *aren’t* always wrong) and said you wished they’d “stop”. So it does seem like you’re the one who wants to stifle free speech when people say things you don’t agree with, and that you don’t want to “let people use their brains instead of telling people what to think and listen to”.

        So in conclusion, I’m really confused as to what your problem with this post is, since it’s just some “stupid feminist bullshit” and you think we should be able to “spout our dumbass opinions”. What was the point of your first post again?

        P.s- I wish you’d taken your own advice and used your brain to decide that this blog wasn’t something you would want to “listen” to, would’ve saved yourself some time.

  5. samzayvan
    August 28, 2012

    I think rape jokes are hilarious and I wish you goddamn feminists would try to stop stifling people’s free speech. Let people use their own brains instead of telling people what to think and listen to.

    • BenCPike
      August 28, 2012

      I agree, rape jokes are brilliant. Here’s one: A rapist walks into a bar. Someone tells a rape joke and everyone laughs. The rapist thinks everyone is just like him and his actions are acceptable because people make jokes about them. Hilarious no?

      • samzayvan
        August 29, 2012

        If you really think rapists rape people because they hear jokes about rape you are a truly dumb human being.

      • Week Woman
        August 29, 2012

        Actually, Mr Pike is correct; it contributes to a culture whereby rape is normalised, and results in the type of comments we have seen this week about anything but rape involving a stranger and added violence being discounted as rape. A worrying number of men seem to be pretty ignorant about the law on rape. And finally, laughing at victims just isn’t funny – quite weird that you should think it is frankly.

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  7. Opinionated Pavs
    August 26, 2012

    Another thought-provoking piece. Personally, I take the stance of ‘no rape jokes ever’ because I find that the clowns who do make these jokes could retort with ‘well they can joke about it, why can’t I?’ in the manner of a 5 year old. They would be unable to differentiate between a joke at the expense of the victim, versus one aimed at the perpetrator, or at the culture of rape that we have (starkly apparent to everyone over the last few weeks, not just the feminists who have been campaigning about it for, what? Ever?) And the frankly disgusting jokes made by Boyle, Gervais and the like need no further attention attracted to them. Hopefully, like the dreaded wasp who flies around my pint of cider on a sunny Sunday, if they are ignored for long enough, surely they’ll go away?*
    *crawl back under their stone.
    As for mental health issues – the figures are *enormous* and I do feel that the stigma of mental health being used negatively is so entrenched, I understand the quick response when a term such as ‘mental’ is used about someone who clearly has major issues and a dogged belief that cannot be challenged without hysterical retort, blindsiding with opinions disguised as fact, which may actually indicate that they do have an (undiagnosed?) mental illness, rather than writing off anything they say with a ‘oh they’re clearly mental’ and not looking at any underlying factors.
    As a side note, I have been sexually assaulted and suffered mental ill-health but neither of these were a consequence of the other. However I do believe that they make me qualified to comment. Even if that comments seems to have become ‘Erm, I don’t really know, not sure, it’s a tough one’ :)
    Keep up the good work, WeekWoman.

    • Week Woman
      August 26, 2012

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment :) it is a tough one, I agree. Love the sunny Sunday analogy!

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2012 by in Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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