[Content Note: Rape]
Another week, another deconstruction post about rape and rape culture. I'll apologize in advance in case these are getting too heavy for everyone, but this is something of a 2-part post piggy-backing off of the post from a few weeks ago.
A few weeks ago, I found out I was the last person on earth to hear about the Penny Arcade "dickwolves" debacle. Considering that it lasted for the better part of a year and I usually consider myself pretty plugged into gaming culture and internet feminism blogs, the revelation of my ignorance was a bit of a shock to me; time to start paying better attention. But in the meantime, let's use a year-old controversy as a hook to talk about trigger warnings and why they're useful. Part Two.
So a week or so ago I talked about why I think trigger warnings are a very good thing and that prefacing your words with "I am now going to talk about X" before talking about X allows people to choose whether or not they can deal with listening to you before they've had their coffee and a bracing walk around the block. (And maybe not even then.) Trigger warnings provide a modicum of space space on the big shared internet, and allow people the freedom to move safely through the blogosphere without having to worry so much that they are going to inadvertently read something that causes them to re-experience a traumatic incident.
However, trigger warnings really only deal with "I am now going to talk seriously about X", and not so much about "I am now going to joke about X". What do we do in those cases?
Last time, I argued that a positive side-effect of trigger warnings was a certain amount of self-awareness over what we write and whether or not we are expressing our points rigorously rather than reaching for easy-but-painful analogies. In many ways, I feel the same way about jokes: there are the easy jokes, and then there are the jokes that take a little longer to write but are ultimately worth the extra effort.
So let's say you want to make a joke about MMORPG games. There's a lot of material there for jokes, so you should be able to milk an entire comedic career out of that material. One of the things that is strange and potentially funny about MMORPGs is that because the game has to be the same for all the online players, your character can very rarely effect any real change to the gaming landscape. Since a lot of MMORPG "quests" are things like "rescue innocent people" and "kill bad things", this means that no matter how many innocent people you rescue and bad things you kill, status quo will always be restored immediately because the next batch of players needs innocent people to rescue and bad things to kill.
The practical upshot of this, of course, is that you could spend your entire life rescuing the same people over and over in the game (except that the game mechanics will probably prevent you from realistically doing this) but you won't because it's a game and the characters are fictional and do not actually need rescuing because they're not real. And, of course, the humor comes from the fact that your in-game character is essentially a psychopath: rescuing 5 innocent people for money or quest rewards, but no more than 5 because that's all you were contracted to rescue.
Haha, my sides. I jest; it's actually not a bad joke. It's one I've made to Husband a time or two, because it is a rather messed up setup once you think about it. So I would never blame anyone for getting a web comic out of this setup.
So let's walk through the setup of the joke. Innocent people are caught in a morally reprehensible situation, where it would be morally reprehensible to leave them, but 100% of players do leave them, because the mechanics of the game demand that they do, and no one in the game will ever call out the player for not doing more than the bare minimum necessary to complete a quest. So far so good.
But a problem arises when you want to convey in a short 3-panel strip that the people are innocents caught in a morally reprehensible situation. You're going to need to bring that across in a sort of verbal shorthand that is quick and immediate. And you might be tempted to reach for something easy-and-obvious like, I dunno, rape. Yeah, rape! Rape is bad. We can all agree on that, right? Rape is always bad, all the time. That's why it's called rape. So we'll have the innocent people be rape victims, because obviously it would be morally reprehensible to leave someone in a situation where they are being nightly raped. And just to be super-sensitive, we'll have the rape victims be white males, so that our predominantly white male audience will understand that Rape Is Bad and won't make stupid Rape Is A Compliment statements in the comments. The point is that the comic is not an endorsement of rape, and people will understand that.
And it's important to note that -- at this point in the timeline -- I think someone can absolutely think the above in good faith and with the best of intentions. But! Here's where it starts falling down.
1. People in Your Audience Have Been Raped. According to RAAIN, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are rape survivors in America. What this means is that a good, let's say, 10% of your audience are rape survivors. No matter how much your point in your comic may be Rape Is Bad, it's also about rape. It's about rape in a comic, which is -- let's face it -- a place where many people don't expect to get smacked in the face with a rape dialog at 9 am when they're trying to enjoy their coffee and catch up on the latest web comic.
Now, does the fact that 10% of your audience has been raped and may not find rape to be at all an amusing topic mean that you can't ever talk about rape? Not necessarily. But there are ways you can minimize hurting your own audience, such as putting up trigger warnings and giving people a choice to read this particular comic or not. You could say, "Hey, this particular comic has a reference to rape in it. If you still want to read it, click here."
Of course, you could just throw your comic up onto the screen along with the safer jokes and let god sort it all out. But in that case, you risk openly hurting your readers and (inadvertently or not) telling them I am not interested in trying to make this a safe space for you. If you don't like it, leave. That's your right: your site, your rules. But if you care so little about your readers that you don't mind hurting them, don't be surprised if your readership whittles down each time you make a trigger joke.
And this goes beyond web comics and in to ordinary speech. You can say "wow, I got raped by that video game last night" to indicate that the game in question is incredibly difficult, but you should also be aware that there's a very good chance that your audience may have been raped at some point in their life. Yes, they know what you mean. This isn't a question of understanding. But the word "rape" may also have a meaning for them (personal, real) that it doesn't for you (impersonal, distant) and by using that word in front of them, you are potentially reminding them of something they may not want to remember. And if you continue to use the word in front of them after being politely asked to stop? They are going to start avoiding you.
2. People in Your Audience Are Rapists. Remember when I said that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are rape survivors in America? Well, it would seem that something like 1 in 20 men are rapists (and I don't have numbers for women who are rapists). So when you use "rape" as shorthand for "morally reprehensible situation" in your comic, you aren't just reminding readers who are also rape survivors of an experience that some of them might prefer not to think about that day; you are also addressing readers in your audience who have raped people.
But that's a good thing, right? Your comic makes it very clear that Rape Is Bad and maybe these cretinous rapists will get it through their skulls that Rape Is Bad and they will go and rape no more. Right?
Probably not. See, when you used "rape" as shorthand for "morally reprehensible situation", you used a specific kind of rape. You didn't use rape as a whole, but rather violent rape perpetrated by strangers on slave victims completely unable to leave the situation. And that kind of rape is bad, but it's not the kind of rape that the majority of your rapist readers have perpetrated.
Remember when you thought to yourself "Rape is bad. We can all agree on that, right? Rape is always bad, all the time."? The problem with that statement is that we apparently don't all agree on that all the time. Most of society agrees that a certain kind of rape is bad all the time, and coincidentally, this is the rape you are using in your comic strip. But a rather large portion of society -- including many of your own readers -- do not accept that certain kinds of rape are wrong, or are even actually rape. And these rapes are the rapes that your readers are and have committed.
When you use a Rape Is Bad message, but the rape you give to illustrate that message is the one kind of rape that everyone agrees is wrong, you (inadvertently or not) highlight the extreme and rare case of violent stranger rape as the only type of rape. Violent stranger rape is rape, but by portraying it over and over and over and over again in media as THE rape, the definition of rape is eroded into something that (comparatively-to-other-kinds-of-rape) rarely happens. And the more common rapes that happen pretty much all the time are slowly turned into Not-Rape in many people's mind by the erosion of this language.
And the upshot of this is that by contributing (inadvertently or not) to the Violent Rape Is The Only Rape message that is a part of our culture, you are actually making your rapist readers more comfortable in their rape instead of less so. You aren't teaching them to go and rape no more; you're reaffirming a cultural narrative that as long as they don't lock a victim up in a room and rape them nightly for eternity, they aren't really rapists. Everything else up to that is a-ok. You may not mean to send this message, but you should be aware that you very well may be. And now that you are aware of that, do you want to send that message? Probably not.
And, once again, this doesn't just apply to web comics fed down to the masses. When you say "the boss monster raped me last night in the final dungeon", there is a very good chance that the person you are talking to may be or someday become a rapist. And by using the word "rape" to refer entirely to a brutal assault and not, say, to any of the other, more culturally acceptable ways to rape someone, you are helping to erode the difference between Violent Rape and Non-Violent (and therefore not really) Rape. You see that part in the italics? That's what your rapist friend is hearing. That's why they don't think they are a rapist.
3. Providing An "Unusual" Victim Doesn't Fix The Problem. So maybe you thought by making the victim an "unusual" or "unlikely" victim would lessen the sting of your dark humor. Sure, it's not funny if a girl is being raped because 1 in 4 women actually are raped, but maybe it's safe if you write your comic so that it's a guy being raped because men aren't raped. Right?
Well, actually, you already know this is wrong if you're reading these points in numerical order. Men are raped. But beyond that, you should be aware that there is a long history of male rape being minimized and used as the punchline for jokes. That long history doesn't meant that male rape jokes are comedic gold or safe from triggering; it means we live in a culture that doesn't take male vulnerability seriously and instead treats it as something to be joked about. Once again, if you want to add your comic or comment to the pile of Fail, it's your choice to do so, but be aware of what you are doing when you make that choice.
But, I hear you say, my comic wasn't meant to say Male Rape Is Funny! It was meant to say that Male Rape Is Bad! That's the point. But my point is that your comic is, ultimately, a comic. It's a comic that is meant to make people laugh and in order to get to that point, it uses male rape as a "funnier" alternative to female rape. And that's where a major point of failure lies: male rape isn't funnier than female rape because male rape isn't funny at all.
4. Trigger Jokes Are Intellectually Lazy. You know what's easy? Reaching for "violent stranger rape" as a morally reprehensible situation. You know what's hard? Coming up with just about anything else as a decent facilitator to a joke about a morally reprehensible situation. Challenge yourself to come up with something better than "we're being raped" to characterize a video game victim. Challenge yourself to come up with something better than "got raped last night" when trying to describe a difficult video game boss or final dungeon.
The trivialization of the word "rape" doesn't just hurt rape survivors and it doesn't just contribute to a rape culture where only violent stranger rape is rape and any other rape isn't really rape. The trivialization of the word "rape" into a vague "badness" contributes to a society where we can't articulate thoughts beyond a vague good/bad mentality. Every time I see or hear someone use "rape" to indicate something bad, including the absolute mind-boggling amount of rape analogies online with regards to intellectual property rights, DRM, piracy, and just about anything else under the sun, I'm reminded of George Orwell's "Newspeak" in 1984 where everything is good/bad, plus-good/bad, and double-plus-good/bad, to the point where conversation and even coherent thought is literally impossible.
This point #4 is so minor as to be not even worth mentioning next to the other points. But I bring it up for one reason alone: if you don't mind unexpectedly triggering a large portion of your readership into reliving a horrible and painful event, if you don't mind inadvertently reaffirming to a large portion of your readership that their victimization of others isn't victimization at all, and if you don't mind contributing to a culture that victimizes and belittles people like yourself for any level of vulnerability, then you might at the very least not use rape jokes because if you do so, you're a lazy writer who can't be bothered to think of anything more creative or nuanced than shouting DOUBLE-PLUS-BAD.
It's something I hope you'll think about when you consider reaching for the rape card in otherwise good faith.