Sexual Assault of Men Played for Comedy

Sexual assault of men as comedy is so ubiquitous and so normalized that you may not have even noticed it shows up everywhere. Most popular comedic actors engage in this type of humor. The jokes are typically designed to demean, humiliate, control, or emasculate a male character for being the victim, or potential victim, of sexual violence.

• Internet Archived video link + download

• Black & Pink
• Just Detention International
Statistics and facts about sexual violence
How to support male survivors

• Cameron Esposito’s “Rape Jokes” standup special
• Terry Crews speaking to the US Congress
List of movies including jokes about men being abused
List of TV shows including jokes about men being abused

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Full text transcript below

This episode comes with a very strong content warning for frank discussion of, and media clips involving, rape and sexual harassment.

There’s a surprisingly disturbing trend running through a lot of mass media entertainment, a trend that often flies under the radar. Let me explain. You’re watching a popular movie or tv show, laughing along at the hijinx, when suddenly things take a jarring turn. [Guardians of the Galaxy clip] Wait a minute, was that a rape joke? [Rewind clip] Yep, it certainly was. Maybe it’s just an anomaly. [Deadpool 2 clip] Hold up, that’s another rape joke in another superhero blockbuster. Let’s try something else. [2 Fast 2 Furious clip] Ugh. [Iron Man 2] How about we try a comedy. [Sausage Party clip] Yikes! Ok, let’s switch to a TV show [It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia clip, Family Guy clip, Conan clip].

You’ve likely noticed the pattern here; in each case, sexual assault is played for laughs, and in each case the targets of the joke are men.

Comedic scenarios involving the sexual abuse of men can include a wide range of behavior: from casual punchlines about unwanted kissing or touching to gratuitous one-liners about anal rape. It’s hard to overstate just how common jokes about men being sexually assaulted are. Most popular comedic actors and their writers engage in this type of humor.

Statistically speaking men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual violence then are people of any other gender. And so that’s what’s we’ll be focusing on in this video. We’ll examine media in which women are portrayed as perpetrators in a future episode.

Sexual assault of men as comedy is so ubiquitous and so normalized that you may not have even noticed it shows up everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean it’s everywhere. Even at the Oscars. [Oscars clip] Speaking of songs about male rape, there seem to be an awful lot of them. [Clip montage]  The sexual assault of men is a go-to joke for many animated sitcoms. [Clip montage]  You might be surprised to find out that slightly less explicit variations of these jokes also show up in children’s media with alarming regularity. [Clip montage]  Notice how these jokes are designed demean, humiliate, or emasculate a male character for being the victim, or potential victim, of sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement has brought to light rampant sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful men in Hollywood. While many telling their stories have been famous women, there has also been a handful of male celebrities coming forward as survivors, including actors Anthony Rapp and Terry Crews. Crews has been especially vocal, even testifying about his experience in front of Congress in support of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights, where he stressed that sexual assault isn’t about sex at all. It’s about power.

TERRY CREWS: “I was sexually assaulted by a successful Hollywood agent. The assault lasted only minutes, but what he was effectively telling me, while he held my genitals in his hand, was that he held the power. That he was in control. This is how toxic masculinity permeates culture. As I shared my story, I was told over and over again that this was not abuse. That this was just a joke.”

Since coming forward, Crews has faced a good deal of backlash from other straight men. And it’s no coincidence that much of the ridicule directed at him echoes the punchlines we’re discussing in this video.

As with all comedy, it’s important to ask who or what is being targeted by a joke. So let’s take a few examples from popular mainstream comedies and talk about what we are meant to be laughing at and why. Because it’s the “why” that helps illuminate how underlying messages can have a negative impact on the way we think about assault and masculinity.

In the 2015 comedy Get Hard, Will Ferrell plays a wealthy hedge fund manager who finds out he’s going to prison for embezzlement. The core premise of the movie is that Ferrell’s character is terrified of being raped in prison. Kevin Hart’s character exploits that panic to get hired as a “toughness coach” to help prepare him for life on the inside. This setup, as you might imagine, leads to a steady stream of rape jokes.

At the heart of these jokes is the perceived emasculation of men who are scared of, or become emotional about, sexual assault. Get Hard is just one of many many examples where male characters on the receiving end of sexual assault jokes are framed as weak, cowardly, effeminate, or unmanly. Men’s vulnerability is an endless source of mockery in mainstream comedy, and vulnerability that results from sexual violence is no exception. The idea behind the joke here is as obvious as it is toxic: that men who aren’t tough or manly enough to avoid being victimized are pathetic and deserving of ridicule or worse.

Punchlines about men being sexually assaulted usually revolve around the idea of a man being made subordinate to another man and therefore forced into a role that is stereotypically feminine. Emasculation jokes are supposed to be funny because, in a patriarchal culture like ours, we’re meant to think that there’s no greater humiliation for a man than to be treated like a woman.

We’ll talk extensively about the 2005 hit comedy Wedding Crashers in part two of this series, but the movie deserves a mention here as well because of how it frames one of several sexual assaults committed against Vince Vaughn’s character. The basic setup is that Vaughn, as our lovable chauvinist, suddenly has the tables turned on him. It’s your typical gross-out comedy scenario designed to make audiences laugh squeamishly at seeing straight male characters thrust into awkward sexualized situations with other men. There’s an underlying homophobia running through scenes like this, which is connected to extreme levels of anxiety around straight male sexuality. The insinuation is that if a man is sexually harassed by another man, it means he’s perceived as gay, and being perceived as gay is supposed to be deeply humiliating for straight men. Despite what media may tell us, it’s critical to remember that being sexually assaulted has absolutely nothing to do with someone’s sexuality, just as it has nothing to do with their masculinity.

If the perpetrator is a gay-coded man, or a character of ambiguous sexuality identity, then sexual assault is usually framed as a product of some uncontrollable sexual desire, which then works to demonize gay men by directly linking them to predatory behavior. It’s made even worse if, as is often the case, the rapist in the only gay-coded character in the whole production. All of this contributes to the longrunning pattern in Hollywood where gay sexuality is framed as a clear and present danger to straight people. Which it isn’t. Queer sexuality is not a threat to straight people. Rapists are a threat to straight people just as they are a threat to people of all genders and all sexualities.

In 2016 the meta-ironic superhero movie Deadpool, starring Ryan Reynolds, become the highest-grossing R-rated film in history. And one of its opening scenes provides us with a good example of another common media pattern, the “scared straight” style rape joke. The punchline here revolves around a male superhero weaponizing the performance of ambiguous queer sexuality as a form of intimidation.

It’s the same type of joke we see with the overprotective father freakout. Scenes like this end up accidentally illustrating an important point: because it’s not just the act of sexual assault itself that functions as an instrument of domination and control in our culture, it’s also the threat of sexual assault. Sexual assault is, in many ways, simply another form of violence. And leveraging the threat of that violence as a deterrent to keep young men and boys in-line is a frequent theme in media.

You’ve probably noticed by now that a lot of this comedy has something in common: it involves prison rape. Prison rape jokes are so pervasive in mass media entertainment that the phrase “Don’t drop the soap” has become a routine sight-gag. [Clip montage] Despite the insinuation of anal rape, “Don’t drop the soap” punchlines have also found their way into children’s cartoons.

One of the reasons these jokes pass under the radar is because for straight adult men (of able body and mind), the possibility of being sexually assaulted isn’t a real concern in their everyday lives. The one exception to that, and it’s a big one, is straight adult men who are incarcerated. Prison rape is a rampant and horrifying problem that destroys lives. Each year, over 200,000 people are raped or sexually assaulted while imprisoned in the United States. It is important to remember that just like on the outside, sexual assault in prison should not be confused with consensual sex between prisoners. While the vast majority of the comedy we’ve been talking about invokes the rape of straight men, in reality queer and transgender prisoners are most likely to be the targets of sexual assault in prison.

Many prison rape jokes also carry with them some explicit racist overtones. It’s no accident that punchlines regularly involve white men being threatened with rape by a “big scary black man.”  [Clip montage] Scenes like this one are built around the racist idea that black men are more brutal, aggressive, or predatory than other men, and that therefore it’s black men specifically who pose a special threat to white men’s masculinity.

Terry Crews’s story about being sexually assaulted is so powerful because it disrupts that “scary intimidating black man” narrative. Before his personal evolution, some of those “scary” characters were even played by Crews himself. To see him now choosing to speak up and be publicly vulnerable challenges those racist media myths about black masculinity.

TERRY CREWS: “When my assault happened, quite honestly, I probably would have been laughed out of the police station.”

It’s not unusual for police officers or other authority figures to be shown engaging in forms of dark comedy that involve the sexual violation of men. Procedural-style dramas, in particular, frequent depict law enforcement officials threatening male suspects with rape as a way to get them to talk. [Clip montage] Writers seem to love these extrajudicial taunts and use them as a source of schadenfreude. The quips are designed to elicit a satisfied snicker from viewers at seeing the bad guys squirm. For some reason, Denzel Washington has a lot of dialogue to this effect in his filmography.

So why does this matter? Well, the harsh reality is that rape is one of the unofficial but widely sanctioned ways that “criminal justice” institutions punish “undesirable” prisoners, especially queer men, trans folks, and people with mental disabilities. Make no mistake–the powers that be allow prison rape to happen, sometimes through passive facilitation and other times though direct participation. It’s part of how the prison system maintains control over men’s bodies and sexualities while they’re incarcerated. But the type of “police brutality as comedy” that we’ve been talking about isn’t designed to critique or illuminate the widespread abuses of law enforcement. Even when police officers are shown as humorously incompetent, the jokes are still made at the expense of those being victimized.
By and large, audiences accept these sadistic punchlines because of who the rape threats are directed at. As long as it’s criminal suspects being victimized and “likable” authority figures doing the victimizing, then it’s widely seen as criminals “getting what they deserve.”

When it’s a cop drama, the leads are generally presented as tough guys (or occasionally tough gals) who are being “tough on crime,” and prison rape is framed as a form of ironic poetic justice. This is often referred to as reciprocal punishment or karmic justice. It’s a morally abhorrent but widely accepted idea best encapsulated by the idiom: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Sometimes karmic rape plot points involve villains being assaulted with a weapon, or alternatively raped by a large male animal.

The word for this isn’t justice; the word for it is revenge. Now it should go without saying, but rape can never ever be a form of justice. When media frames the sexual assault of men, even bad men, as “getting what they deserve,” it perpetuates a culture of rape acceptance.

It also makes prison rape seem inevitable, which it’s not. There are solutions to the prison rape epidemic. Namely, keep people out of prison, which means working towards mass de-incarceration through a combination of decriminalization and a focus on education and rehabilitation programs instead of locking people up. But with every casual prison rape joke, it makes those goals more difficult to achieve.

CAMERON ESPOSITO: “I’m trying to talk about sexual assault. It’s not like that’s a new topic in comedy. We’ve had rape jokes forever, but it’s just like those jokes have usually been like: ‘RAPE!’ That’s the full joke. And an audience, because that’s a taboo word, will have a response. [Awkward laugh.] And then that comic will hear that response: ‘Ooo, I have done a good joke.’”

As comedians like Cameron Esposito and Lindy West have pointed out, it is possible to tell jokes about rape from a survivor’s perspective, where the punchlines target rape culture. But that’s not what’s happening in the movies and TV shows we’ve been looking at here. As we’ve seen again and again, the target of these jokes are the victims of sexual assault and harassment, which is why, when actors, writers, or directors try to defend these jokes from criticism, their arguments don’t hold any water.

WILL FERRELL: “Anytime you do any comedy somebody’s gonna go… ‘Ohhh myyyy!’ [fans self] But that’s kinda what we do. We provoke. We prod. We also hold a mirror up to what’s already existing out there.”

The idea that these comedians are somehow bravely pushing boundaries or fearlessly transgressing taboos by telling prison rape jokes is pure self-delusion. When Will Farrell or Kevin Hart or Adam Sandler or any other famous comedian amplifies dismissive and toxic ideas about rape in their comedy routines, it’s not meant to raise awareness, and it’s certainly not designed to “hold a mirror up” and give voice to rape survivors. They’re acting out these rape jokes because it’s an easy way to get cheap laughs.

And the price of those laughs in the further trivialization of rape in a culture that already doesn’t take survivors seriously, while at the same time, as we’ve talked about, reinforcing a whole bunch of regressive ways of thinking around race, masculinity, sexuality, and criminal justice. Beyond that, these jokes also give people permission to continue silencing and shaming survivors.

If Hollywood writers and comedians really wanted to break taboos and push boundaries, they could try treating survivors of sexual assault with a measure of dignity and empathy because that would be a guaranteed way to shock their audience.

Thanks for watching. Now I know this can be a difficult and intense topic so I’ve left a bunch of resources and additional information in the text below this video. I want to thank all my script advisers for their invaluable feedback in writing this episode, especially Rev. Jason Lydon who founded an organization called Black and Pink, which is dedicated to supporting queer prisoners. You can find that link in the description below as well. In Part Two of this discussion, we’ll shift focus and talk about media where women assaulting men is played for laughs. If you’d like to support my video series, you can do that over on Patreon. And I’ve left a link to Paypal in the description below. See you next time.


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