The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best


I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

* * *

Online we’re asked to be charitable: to look on the bright side, argue graciously and assume the best. Most days I see the case for assuming good faith: most days, when trying to say what I mean, I can pay folk the courtesy of acting as if they mean what they say. (Taking sincerity as read even when one has doubts seems both good manners and a good tactic, because attempting to read minds implies the owners can expect you to.) I respect the benefit of the doubt, but remembering F makes me wonder—can we ever be overgenerous?

‘Addressing the best form of the other person’s argument even if it’s not the one they present’ has advocates. Steelmanning, as Chana Messinger describes, is good for road testing one’s own beliefs, but in close combat I’m less keen. If I’m out to change someone’s mind, I want to answer what they’ve said. One person’s steel is another’s straw: if your idea of the best case for someone’s stance differs from theirs, they might see weaknesses in it you don’t. Conversely, if they could argue better, you risk attacking an argument they don’t understand.

What happens when it’s a person we doubt? Atheist rock stars’ fans can be relied on to call critics uncharitable, obsessed with smear campaigns and witch hunts, denying other perspectives are even competent or sincere: I liked Dawkins too once, but stopped being able to assume the best when it meant thinking thousands of people were lying or mad. One can’t, it seems, be equally generous to both sides, and people’s track records make a good tiebreaker. Eventually my flatmate’s comments about rape did stop, perhaps because he could see my faith in him wearing thin.

What if the very appeal for charity is cause to withhold it? Where doubt exists, people who deserve generosity rarely rely on it, nailing their colours to the mast instead and making what they think clear. Those who evade, equivocate and require others to assume the best sometimes sow doubt for their own benefit: F asked me to believe his daydreams of torturing women were a joke, yet never offered any reason to, sheltering in uncertainty. Without a means of dispelling the fog, I wonder what charity might have forced me to ignore.

The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

8 thoughts on “The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

  1. 1

    So, while there’s hardly any evidence for it, it seems possible that your influence on F may have moved him to be less pro-rape. I don’t think you should feel bad about that amount of progress coming as a side effect of just needing a place to live. It wasn’t your obligation to be a missionary, so a zero-to-tiny amount of good is ok. The key question is if his presence distracted you. If he wore you out, that’s bad. But if he was a negligible burden, then don’t let him make you feel bummed out. Even if he is still short of the ideal. You’re just rooming with him, not getting married to him. If you were, then I’d want to see more evidence of progress from him. But as it is, I think you’re doing ok.

  2. 2

    Edwin (brother of John Wilkes and the most famous actor of his day) Booth’s dying words were, as the story goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”.
    Mel Brooks is famous for saying, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
    I happen to think that jokes, humor in general, are reflective of our anxieties. I also think that another side of that multisided coin is that jokes and humor, our stories in general, are reflective of our fantasies as well. Obviously, there are some subjects, rape among them, that we have not yet learned how to deal with in a socially acceptable way. Perhaps we will one day figure out how, perhaps not.
    Frankly, you do not give enough details in your post to decide whether this person is a rapist and I do appreciate your charity, but the fact that he makes jokes about rape and misogyny, I think, may be indicative that something else is going on. At the very least, your story seems to lend support to the feminist admonition that men can be victims of a patriarchal society as well as women.

  3. 4

    Two things:

    1) I’ve never regretted seeing people in the worst light rather than the best, after more than 2-3 examples of problematic attitudes. There’s 7 billion people, kicking one or a dozen to the curb probably doesn’t ruin my life. Too many times, I’ve seen people bend over backwards over and over to give bad people the benefit of the doubt, and it eventually leads to them having their generous nature cracked over their skull.

    2) Odds are, at least once in your life you’ve been in a room where a rape “joke” was told and one of the other people in the room was a rapist or a victim of rape. Your (and my) silence was a quiet approval of the rapist, or a smack in the face to the rape victim.

  4. 5

    The thing is, what is socially acceptable regarding rape is changing. It is changing as we speak, and at a fairly rapid clip compared to most changes in social mores.

    Alex’s friend was acting on the old model of what’s socially acceptable to say about rape.

    The thing about that old model is that it’s rape culture. It’s a set of social norms that function, whether by design or by accident, to shield rapists from scrutiny and from consequences for their actions.

    Alex’s friend might have been a rapist (personally I think he was, and in any case it’s not a risk I’m willing to take with any person who makes jokes like that); the fact that he lives in a rape culture, rapist-sheltering society makes it impossible to tell because it’s “normal” for non-rapist men to make rape jokes and say incredibly rapey things.

    Another example of rape culture: when you tell a story about an angry guy who was probably a rapist, and the first two men who comment are full of empathy and concern… not for the potential victims of this man, but for the maybe-rapist himself.

  5. 6

    I try to make charity, like respect, my default setting when I first interact with someone. But like respect that charity can be forfeited if I believe subsequent behaviour warrants it.

  6. 7

    Context is everything, so it can be hard to work out what is genuine and what isn’t. Some will be awful individuals with a lack of moral substance, others will be joking. Context, as ever, is key.

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