Friday, 23 August 2013

Rape jokes: still not big, still not clever

Over the past 24 hours I have been working with my charity, Trans Media Watch, to try and ensure respectful coverage of Chelsea Manning's decision to come out as trans. The fact we've known about the matter for some time didn't really help; we always knew that when she went public the story would be huge, and it has been very hard for us to keep up. Although we're very pleased with how some media outlets have responded, we've also seen a lot of really nasty stuff, some of it in supposedly professional publications and, of course, a lot of it on social media.

What has stood out about the social media stuff - and some of the comments in national newspapers, before editors got to them - is the number of jokes focused on prison rape, and the number of people who seem to find them hilarious. Rape jokes on the internet may be nothing new but the striking thing about these is how many have come from people (mostly men) who just a few weeks ago were up in arms about the abuse many women suffer online. The disconnect is remarkable. These are people who generally seem to think of themselves as the good guys, even as feminists. They would probably be horrified at the thought of making rape jokes about non-trans women. But because Chelsea Manning is trans, she's seen as fair game.

The issue here isn't simply about how Manning's gender is understood, about when she is seen to 'count' s female; it's about why people think that should matter. To put it simply, rape jokes about a man wouldn't be funny either. Avoiding this kind of behaviour isn't simply a box-ticking exercise to make a good impression on influential women. It has been assumed to represent a genuine understanding of how horrific rape is, or at least an appreciation that the subject can be traumatic to others, and the ease with which Manning has been targeted reveals that, in some cases, that simply isn't there. When people make these jokes about Manning, it becomes obvious how hollow that pretence of sympathy was.

There are no doubt people who have made such jokes, or laughed along with them, as a reflex action, without any examination of their import. It's time for those people to think about how they come across. There are others who have approached the subject as gallows humour, who have understood and have aimed to use humour to expose horror. This always has its place, but it needs to be done with great caution in a context where there's already so much carelessly brutal stuff going around.

There's another aspect to this, and that's that rape jokes aimed at women, ugly as they are, tend to be intended to shock. By contrast, much of the joking about Manning has been giggling, conspiratorial stuff, as if it were no more than a little bit of naughtiness. There's a sense that it's socially condoned, or that people expect it to be. We all need to speak out against this. The developing dialogue about abuse hurled at women online must expand and account for the fact that sexual aggression is just as unacceptable no matter whom it refers to.

I would hope that responsible internet users can unite on this. I don't like to think what it says about our society if we can't.

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