News flash: Rape jokes aren't funny

The editors of the University of Western Ontario's student paper, the Gazette, took their spoof issue too far.

Published April 10, 2007 6:45PM (EDT)

A reader just alerted us to a controversy in London, Ontario, sparked by a recent spoof issue of the University of Western Ontario's campus newspaper, the Gazette. It included a so-called satirical article about a "Take Back the Nightie" march held on campus, supposedly organized by Western's Women's Issues Network (WIN).

In the hands of the Onion, this might actually have been funny. But unfortunately, the article fell far, far short of the humor it supposedly was aiming for. You can check out the full text here, but following are a few choice excerpts:

-- "My vagina told me she hates thongs ... they're far too restrictive," said Jennifer Ostrich, a vocal WIN member. "And what my vagina wants, my vagina gets."

-- "Near the end of the march, chaos broke out when Ostrich's vagina crawled from under her flowing white nightie, stole a loudspeaker, and went on a rampage ... 'You don't know me, bee-otch,' it squealed. 'You can't even see me through all this hair you've let overgrow. Think of me. I can't even breathe down here.'"

Laughing yet? Keep reading.

"Upon seeing the chaos, London Police Chief Murray Faulkner stopped greasing his nightstick and intervened. He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich's wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson."

It then continues: "To Ostrich's dismay, the vagina followed, giggling as it said, 'I love it when a man in uniform takes control.'"

Man, oh man. Now, I'm as much for free speech as the next person who, well, believes in the idea of free speech. But with freedom comes responsibility -- including the responsibility to realize that if you publish something as stupid, offensive and unfunny as this article, you're going to piss readers off. And rightly so -- especially because of its not-so-veiled references to actual people. Like, for example, Murray Faulkner really is London's police chief. (He's quoted in the London Free Press as calling the article "disappointing" and "stupid.") More upsetting, "Jennifer Ostrich" and another name used in the article, "Katie Conservative," are thinly veiled references to two real women from WIN who have been campaigning all year against the Gazette. Instead of responding to the women's complaints in a mature, rational way, the Gazette apparently chose to joke about raping one of them.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't have the right to say stupid, offensive things. But they shouldn't then be shocked when people get angry -- and they should be a little more thoughtful than the Gazette's editors, who initially responded to criticism by publishing an editorial about the controversy that says, "Our response? Get over yourself." (Unsurprisingly, that didn't go over so well.)

The Gazette, realizing that it was perhaps imprudent to tell offended readers -- including a woman whose alter ego's vagina was raped by a police chief -- to get over themselves, then published this follow-up editorial today. It's much more apologetic in tone, but it does raise the question of what planet the editors are living on.

"Some students feel two paragraphs in the article promote or normalize sexual assault," it says. "This, again, was not the intention nor the perceived reading of the article we thought we would achieve. When the vagina ended up 'loving the man in uniform,' we hoped to make a point that no really does mean no, that the idea a woman always desires a man's sexual advances -- regardless of what she says -- is a terrible and erroneous assertion. We thought we were admonishing the very things people are upset about."

To which I say, nice try. I don't think whoever wrote the article (which was published anonymously) was actually trying to endorse rape or sexual assault. But I also don't think that it was a real attempt at social commentary, and claiming that rape by "greased nightstick" equals "no means no" is ridiculous. It was just a stupid, frat-boy article that stirred up a response far bigger than the editors ever anticipated, and now they're feeling the well-deserved heat.

Today's editorial says that partially as a result of negative feedback from this spoof issue, the Gazette plans to form a study group to talk about subjects including an "editor accountability and removal process." They also should form a study group to examine what "satire" actually is -- and how to do it right.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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