Rape jokes and comedy: The debate rages on

Lindy West and Jim Norton trade perspectives on when rape jokes can work, and when they can't

Published May 31, 2013 8:51PM (EDT)

On Thursday night's "W. Kamau Bell Show," Jezebel writer Lindy West and comedian Jim Norton debated the appropriateness of rape jokes in comedy. The subject has received significant attention lately, as women's issues receive greater attention thanks to "leaning in," and comedians like Daniel Tosh and outlets like The Onion have received criticism for trivializing violence against women.

As West pointed out in her piece "How to Make A Rape Joke," feminists have argued that rape jokes are never funny, while comics argue that anything can be funny in the right light -- though West's stance is that neither is quite true. In her piece, she wrote: "The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse."

During the debate, she explained that comedians have a responsibility to handle jokes about offensive topics carefully. Referring to the Tosh incident, in which the comedian told a heckler that it would be funny is she was gang-raped "right now," West said:

"There's a dude on the stage saying 'wouldn't it be hilarious if everyone raped that girl?' And everyone laughs and then, by the way, sometimes everyone does rape that girl, and that's a thing that really happens in the world. Like I don't mean the people in that club then rally and they're like, 'eh, I'm not doing anything,' but in the broader scheme of the world, this is a thing that happens, and it's actually really trivializing to say that mocking and exploiting a rape victim's trauma to her making fun of 'a thing.' It's not the same."

"It's about contributing to a culture that perpetuates" the trivialization of rape, she explained.

"I understand the emotion behind wanting people to not mock certain things," said Norton. "But nobody ever just comes out and says 'You can't say that 'cause I don't like it,' because there's something kind of self-centered and self-serving about that."

"As long as your intention is to be funny," he said, "we all go into a comedy club knowing that. And there is a big difference between even a harsh rape joke and saying, 'all kidding aside folks, rape is good.' We all know the difference between that."

Watch the full debate below:

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Comedy Debates Humor Rape Television Video W. Kamau Bell