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. This is the 2nd of two video essays examining this topic. Part 1 focused on humor involving men sexually assaulting or harassing other men. Part 2 examines media in which women are depicted as the perpetrators.
• Cameron Esposito’s “Rape Jokes” standup special
• Terry Crews speaking to the US Congress
• Samantha Bee on male abuse comedy
• American Law Does Not Take Rape Seriously
• 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
As we saw in our previous episode on this topic, there’s a pervasive and longstanding pattern in Hollywood of playing the sexual assault of men for laughs. These types of jokes are a staple in gross-out style comedies, on television sitcoms, and in certain animated shows. In part one we noted that when men are sexually assaulted it’s usually done by other men, which is why the first video focused on male perpetrators. If you haven’t seen that one yet, I recommend doing so before continuing to watch this one. In this episode we’re going to take a detailed look at a less frequent, but no less troubling pattern in comedy, where men are sexually assaulted by women.
Just like we saw with humor about male perpetrators, humor invoking female perpetrators can involve a wide range of non-consensual behaviors: from casual jokes about sexual harassment, to punchlines about rape. And in many cases the so-called joke is the act of sexual assault itself. Occasionally these comedic scenarios will involve supernatural rape or sexual extortion, but even in those cases the assault is treated in a conspicuously flippant way; there’s no lasting trauma, and the incident is rarely, if ever, mentioned again.
Part of why these jokes are presented as harmless, lighthearted fun is because there’s a widespread myth in our culture that “men always want sex” and therefore “men can’t be raped,” at least not by women. This is, of course, false. Man can be raped. Our society, by and large, tends to dismiss or at least refuse to seriously acknowledge the fact men can sometimes be the targets of sexual assault and that women can sometimes be perpetrators. Whenever this fact is brought up, it’s met with confused questions like, “How is that even possible?” Well, the rape survivors organization RAINN addresses that question directly stating: “In no way does an erection invite unwanted sexual activity…. Normal physiological responses do not in any way imply that you wanted, invited, or enjoyed the assault.” I think that’s worth reiterating: normal physiological responses do not ever equal consent, and that applies to everyone regardless of gender.
To be clear, what makes this type of comedy insidious is not that it presents rape or harassment as a good thing. In fact the over-the-top inappropriateness of the behavior is what’s supposed to be funny. No, what makes these jokes insidious is they present the sexual assault of men as somethings that’s ultimately harmless.
This is so ingrained in our culture that even as you watch some of the clips in this video, you may catch yourself questioning whether or not some examples are really that bad, or if they really amount to sexual harassment or sexual assault. And if those questions do pop into you head, I’d just ask you to keep in mind that all these punchlines are built around non-consensual interactions, whether that be an unwanted kiss, a suprise butt grab, an instance of sexual harassment, or an act of rape.
Unlike comedy about men assaulting other men, when men are assaulted by women, the joke is nearly always built around a gender-flipped role-reversal and hinges on the perceived social absurdity therein.
In order to better understand what I mean by that, it’s useful to examine this trope through the prism of Hollywood history. So let’s turn back the clock 70 years and take a look at a 1949 musical called Neptune’s Daughter. While you may not have heard of this movie, you’ve almost certainly heard the film’s academy award winning musical number. “Baby, it’s cold outside,” has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, and for good reason: the male lead refuses to take “no” for an answer. The song is what’s referred to as a mouse and wolf duet, in which the man takes on the role of predator and the woman the role of prey. Despite the obvious display of sexual coercion, the whole scenario is played off as romantic flirtation.
The reason I bring this up is because there’s a second less famous version of “Baby, it’s cold outside” performed in the same movie. Only this time, the gender roles are reversed. Unlike the sincere version, this rendition is played entirely for laughs. The punchline is rooted in the unexpected shock of seeing a woman taking on the customary male role of “predator,” while the unsuspecting man is forced into the traditionally female role of “prey.” Just in case the gender-flipped joke wasn’t clear enough already, in his attempt to get away from her advances, the flustered guy ends up accidentally wearing women’s clothing.
The gender flipped framework provides the comedic hook in a wide range of media that makes light of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Some classic Looney Toons cartoons starring Pepe Le Pew end with a sudden role-reversal punchline. Predatory interactions in older movies, TV shows, or cartoons were often less explicit than what we’re used to seeing in contemporary media. But the pattern of gender-flipped comedy has remained remarkably consistent right up to the modern day, and it repeats more times in more media than we have room to mention.
At first glance these role-reversals might seem like a subversive form of poetic justice, especially when they’re employed to teach a chauvinistic man a lesson, like in the 2005 hit comedy Wedding Crashers. Vince Vaughn plays a sleazy guy who is subsequently sexually assaulted multiple times and each of those assaults is framed as him “getting a taste of his own medicine.” When the victim is a villain or some other scumbag character, it’s not uncommon for the sexual assault to be framed as him “getting what he deserves.” The problem with this karmic justice framing is that, as we all learned in kindergarten, two wrongs do not make a right. Revenge is not justice and no one deserves to be raped, not even really bad people.
Beyond a failure of basic morality, there’s another disturbing implication embedded in these scenes. Because in order for the gender-flipped joke to really land, the audience must first buy-in to certain gendered assumptions–namely that men are naturally supposed to be the sexual aggressive and women sexually submissive–otherwise it wouldn’t seem so absurdly funny to see those gendered expectations suddenly reversed.
POWER AND CONTROL
We expect to see men in predatory roles because domination and control, especially over women, is a central value in patriarchal masculinity. This is why when male characters are depicted as being controlled by women, instead of the other way around, it’s often presented as the most demeaning thing imaginable for a man. The toxic idea that it’s the ultimate humiliation for men to be treated like a woman is then explicitly reinforced through the popular comedic motif of women raping men with dildos. These jokes are almost inevitably followed by a “walking funny” punchline in the next scene.
Another reasons why role-reversal jokes seems so unexpected is because in the real world women are far less likely to commit sexual violence, which means that unlike women, being prayed upon isn’t a clear and present threat in the daily lives of most men. According to the Department of Justice, 82% of juvenile rape victims are girls. While 90% of adult rape victims are women. And as I’ve already mentioned, when men are sexually assaulted, it’s primarily done by other men. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but the numbers do tell us that adult men being sexually assaulted by women is relatively rare compared to the reverse. But it does happen, and sexual assault should always be taken seriously regardless of the frequency of the crime or the gender of the perpetrator.
As Terry Crews reminded us during his senate testimony, sexual assault is not really about sex, it’s about power. Since we live in a world that is still largely male dominated, we unconsciously expect people in positions of power or authority to be men, which is why gender-flipped scenarios where women hold power over men are so commonly mined for absurdist humor. In most of the examples we’ve looked at in this video the jokes hinge on unbalanced power dynamics. Whether it’s a boss sexually harassing an employee, a teacher abusing a student, a sober person assaulting someone who is intoxicated, or a police officer accosting a suspect, these scenes are fundamentally about power and control. And that would be true regardless of the gender or sexuality of the characters involved.
Some comedians like Melissa McCarthy and Tina Fey like to use gender-flipped scenarios to try to raise awareness about predatory men. The punchlines rest almost entirety on the supposed absurdity of seeing a woman sexually harassing men in the same ways that men have long harassed women in the workplace. But however well-intentioned these attempts at role-reversal satire may be, they ultimately fall flat because even if they were somehow successful in highlighting men’s predatory behavior, they do so by reinforcing the idea that the sexual abuse of men is inherently funny and absurd.
Gender flipped comedy can be an effective tool in illuminating gender bias but not when it comes to sexual assault or harassment because the punchlines still leave us laughing at victims. And comedy making fun of survivors is comedy that throws rocks down at those without power in a traumatic situation.
You may have noticed some suspicious patterns emerging in the clips we’ve been looking at thus far. For instance, if the female perpetrator is depicted as “conventionally attractive,” then the man is frequently shown as enjoying the assault or at least being deeply conflicted about it. In which case the guy’s internal struggle with himself to try to resist the woman’s advances becomes the focus of the joke.
The only real threat he faces is the threat to his own self-control. Rape scenes like these are carefully constructed as sexual fantasies, designed to be vicariously arousing for presumed straight male audiences. This is true even if the perpetrator is framed as being too controlling, too domineering, or otherwise unhinged. We’re focusing on comedies in this episode, but I should note that even in dramas where a “conventionally attractive” female aggressor is clearly written to be the villain, her acts of sexual assault or sexual harassment are still framed as an illicit sexual fantasy for straight male viewers. And the male character is never really presented as being completely powerless in most of these situations.
It’s also instructive to look at how other men react to these “sexy” assaults. Inevitably other men express admiration or envy and even congratulate the male victim for being sexually assaulted. This is especially true when media depicts a ”hot teacher” taking advantage of an adolescent male student. Despite the extreme power imbalance inherent in these scenarios, the sexual abuse is nonetheless framed as a way for young, shy, or awkward boys to gain self-confidence and achieve manhood status in the eyes of their peers. The only consistent exception to this rule are the rare pieces of media about the molestation of very young boys. But otherwise, when “conventionally attractive” older women prey on teenage boys, it’s almost always presented as tantalizing and ultimately harmless. And that holds true, incidentally, in both comedies and dramas.
Media like this perpetuates the myth that men can’t be violated by women because they’re “always willing” anyway. That idea that all men want sex all the time, or should want sex all the time, is an especially harmful one. First and foremost because it’s not true. Some men may not be interested in sex, some men may not be interested in sex with women, and some men may prioritize emotional connections or lasting companionship over physical intimacy. Secondly, the myth that real men should want sex all the time creates an enormous amount of social pressure on men to conform to that expectation. So much so that the myth can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein some men fear being ridiculed or losing social status with their peers if they don’t perform some a version of the sex-obsessed guy.
At this point you may have noticed another troubling pattern that occurs whenever the female perpetrator isn’t presented as “conventionally attractive.” In those scenarios sexual assault is played for gross-out humor. These jokes fall under a trope called the Abhorrent Admirer and the associated visual gags carry with them a whole host of regressive ideas about gender. On the one hand the punchlines make fun of male survivors by framing them as weak, pathetic, or emasculated for being assaulted. And on the other hand the jokes target women by presenting them as too fat, too ugly, too masculine, or too old to be desirable.
I think it’s worth taking a moment to break down exactly what messages are being sent by these scenes. On one level the underlying assumption embedded in these jokes ties the value of women directly to their sexual desirability to straight men, then ridicules the very idea that any woman who doesn’t meet impossible Hollywood standards of beauty would dare to express any kind of sexuality at all.
In sharp contrast to what we saw earlier, other male characters invariably react to these “unsexy” assaults by ridiculing the victim for being assaulted by a woman deemed unattractive. This is another aspect of the larger media pattern that conflates women expressing their own sexual desires with acts of malice, deception, or outright villainy. Women who are presented as sexually self-assured, in ways that aren’t about male-fantasy fulfillment, are turned into a joke and framed as predators. Doubly so if they happen to be women of color.
Over the past decade we’ve seen more and more comedy writers adding a veneer of self-aware meta-commentary to their dialog, wherein they ironically call attention to a social issue. However, the final punchlines in these productions nearly always undermine any social message the script may have had. More often than not meta-ironic humor ends up reinforcing rather than challenging the status quo. Shows like South Park, 30 Rock, and Always Sunny in Philadelphia have been particularly guilty of trying to have their cake and eat it too. Or I guess in this case trying to have their rape jokes and critique it too. As I’ve pointed out before, simply acknowledging something is not the same thing as meaningful criticism.
In any discussion about the sexual assault of men or boys you’re almost guaranteed to hear the term “double standard” thrown around. Socially speaking, a double standard is defined as “a rule or principle that is unfairly applied to different people or groups in society.
When it comes to sexual assault, we’ve already seen what can be called a double standard reflected in a handful of the clips, those in which men or boys are applauded for being assaulted by a woman if she’s deemed attractive enough by other men. Meanwhile women are almost universally blamed and shamed regardless of the circumstances. And this is where some misunderstandings relating to a double standard come in, because while it’s true that the sexual assault of men is not taken seriously, that doesn’t not mean the sexual assault of women is taken seriously. In fact, most of the time female survivors are dismissed or simply not believed and male attackers are rarely held accountable. The sad reality is our society doesn’t take the sexual assault of anyone all that seriously. In fact some of the same movies and TV shows that include rape jokes targeting men, also include rape jokes targeting women.
When we see the sexual assault of men is played for laughs in media, it’s not evidence of some sort of anti-male bias. What it is evidence of is the same culture of blame and shame that female survivors deal with on a daily basis. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many of those who have been most vocal in pushing back against the media pattern we’ve been discussing have been women.
The truth is that sexual abuse jokes targeting men and sexual abuse jokes targeting women are really two sides of the same coin. As we’ve seen, both types of jokes prop up regressive ideas about gender and both throw rocks down at the vulnerable and victimized. When the sexual assault or harassment of men is turned into a joke, it not only trivializes men’s experiences, it also contributes to the trivialization of rape in general. Because when male survivors are mocked and ridiculed, it makes it easier and more acceptable for our culture as a whole to shame and dismiss survivors of any gender.