Talking back at a sexist bigot

Rachel Cohen reports on the angry response to a vile example of "comedy."

Daniel Tosh performing at Boston University (Julian Jensen)Daniel Tosh performing at Boston University (Julian Jensen)

WHEN PROFESSIONAL bigot Daniel Tosh took the stage last week at the Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles to make jokes about rape, his routine was unexceptional. What was exceptional was that someone in the audience talked back.

The woman who spoke up recalls: "I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman." What happened next ignited a storm of debate.

On stage, Tosh suggested that it would be funny if the woman who yelled out were gang-raped there in the theater. The woman and her friend fled, and "the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there," she said.

The woman's description of events, posted to a friend's baking-themed tumblr, struck a deep enough chord that it was shared far and wide, eliciting comments at established news outlets and popular websites. Many people expressed their outrage at the ugly treatment of someone who dared to stand up to sexism. Their anger shows the often-unexpressed discontent among many women and men about the fact that women's oppression is not only tolerated, but accepted as fodder for jokes.

On the other hand, plenty of others responded to the controversy with familiar taunting and abuse: blaming the woman for being offended about what was "just a joke" and claiming she was "asking for" Tosh's threatening response. Incredibly, Tosh is being portrayed by some as the real victim--because his "free speech" was "censored" by a heckler.

Tosh's defenders are certainly right when they point out that rape jokes are a regular feature of Tosh's "comedy," as is racism and bigotry of all kinds; that loads of other performers rely on such misogynistic material; and that large audiences embrace this as "humor."

But none of this proves that rape is funny. Rape jokes have nothing to do with humor, and everything to do with sexism. They reinforce existing prejudices about women and allow those who accept those prejudices to feel comfortable in continuing to hold them and spout them, while making those who reject bigotry feel embattled.

Anyone who stands up to such "jokes" deserves to be emulated a thousand times a day in all the places where sexism rears its head, from comedy clubs to the workplace, the sidewalk, the bus, school, plane, bar, café, park, grocery store and more.

As Jessica Valenti wrote in the Nation:

At the end of the day, the misogynist fervor behind the defense of Tosh isn't an impassioned debate over free speech or the nature of humor. It's men who feel entitled to say whatever they want--no matter how violent--to women, and who are angry to have that longstanding privilege challenged. I guess they don't find that funny. Well, neither do I.

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THE FACT that there is a debate about this subject at all is in part because the very thing that makes rape jokes unfunny--the reality of sexual assault and the toll it takes on its victims--is so often treated as hypothetical, subject to debate and open to interpretation.

But rape is real--and far more common than most people realize. According to Justice Department statistics, one in six women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime--and that number is likely far too low because rapes are often not reported. On college campuses, one in four women are victims of rape or attempted rape. The statistics also disprove the stereotype about rape being committed by a stranger--some two-thirds of reported rapes were committed by someone known to the victim, including spouses or partners.

Rape isn't a joke--not to any woman who has survived it, nor to anyone who lives in fear because of the climate of sexism that makes rape possible.

The outcry against Tosh is the result of more and more people raising their voices against the fear, shame and victim-blaming that accompanies the prevalence of sexual violence. Not only was Tosh forced to issue a faux-pology, but almost 35,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking the CEO of Comedy Central cancel the show Tosh.0.

The opposition might not have been so loud and visible if not for the wave of protests against sexism, from the Slutwalk marches across Canada, the U.S. and other countries last year; to the demonstrations in New York City when authorities failed to prosecute former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of rape; to other protests against attacks on women's access to health care, birth control and abortion.

Feminist websites have also played a pivotal role in responding to the onslaught of attacks that make up the war on women. Often, sites like Jezebel.com bring a welcome and cutting wit to the latest legislative affront to women's rights--and highlight cases of injustice that would otherwise go unreported.

For instance, Jezebel told the story of another woman young woman who stood up to a less famous bigot. Kelsey, a 20-year old woman with a blog and tumblr account, proudly posted about having punched a man in the face after he had been harassing and threatening a woman on the street. As she wrote:

I hope your mother/girlfriend/sister/friends/everyone asks what happened to your nose. I hope you have to explain that you thought it'd be funny to joke with your friend about raping the drunk girl across the street. I bet you didn't think that the girl who was walking in front of you would turn around and punch you in the face. You're a filthy piece of shit, and I don't regret this at all.

But the aftermath to this incident shows the scope of misogynist abuse and threats of violence faced by women who stand up against sexism. Shortly after Jezebel picked up Kelsey's story, she shut down her blog, replacing it with the message: "Due to continuing threats and comments, this account will no longer be active. I have spoken to the police about the whole ordeal and all involved have agreed that this was the best action to take. Edit: I did tell the police the entire story. I turned myself in and understand the possible legal consequences."

While Kelsey's message doesn't describe the kinds of threats she received, recent experiences of other women suggest what she faced.

For instance, video blogger Anita Sarkeesian caught hell after she launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to help her expand her series "Tropes vs. Women"--which analyzes the shallow stereotypes that so often take the place of developed female characters in film--to look at "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games." Sarkeesian received a slew of vile responses, including hand-drawn images of her being raped by video game characters. Someone even took the time to program a "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" game--in which clicking leaves a photo of her face covered in welts and bruises.

Last fall, when left-wing British journalist and blogger Laurie Penny decided to publish some of the hateful threats she receives as a matter of course during her work, other women came forward as well. As the Guardian reported:

The frequency of the violent online invective--or "trolling"--leveled at female commentators and columnists is now causing some of the best-known names in journalism to hesitate before publishing their opinions...Caroline Farrow, a blogger for Catholic Voices, points out she has nothing in common with writers such as Laurie Penny except her gender, but is subject to the same violent abuse...[As Farrow said,] "I get at least five sexually threatening e-mails a day."

The stories of women like Liz Gorman, who describes being sexually assaulted on the sidewalk in broad daylight as a normal part of "walking while female," provide a chilling reminder that these threats are not limited to anonymous online interaction, but represent a risk that looms over women's daily participation in public life.

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IN SUCH a climate, the growing mood of resistance is clear, but at times tentative.

It should not be surprising if those who want to protest the prevalence of sexism and bigotry are not always confident or systematic in doing so. Popular culture, especially stand-up comedy, is super-saturated with sexism. This helps create a climate in which the people fed up with sexism can feel like they are isolated in their beliefs and have to fight an uphill battle.

This is because the problem of sexism doesn't begin or end with Daniel Tosh or the Internet. It lies at the heart of capitalist society.

Even when Republican legislators aren't trying to criminalize menstruation or miscarriage, women's legal rights are regularly treated as a political football. The double burden endured by the vast majority of women--of work both outside and inside the home--still represents an enormous boon to a system that doesn't have to pay for the child care or housework women do for free. And the justice system utterly fails to prosecute sexual and domestic violence, reinforcing the fear of survivors that reporting the crimes against them will more likely bring retaliation rather than vindication or safety.

In the face of all this, it's all too easy for those who want to stand up for women's rights to feel on the defensive, including in their daily life.

That's why it's so important when the frustration and anger so many people feel is expressed in protests against sexism and attacks on our rights. Last year's flurry of organizing around Slutwalk events, for example, had its roots in the response of a group of women in Toronto to the routine victim-blaming of a police official. Their example was quickly taken up in city after city, around the world.

The Slutwalk marches and protests gave a forum for people of all genders to make their voices heard in opposition to sexual violence and all the other aspects of women's oppression. That in turn can help raise the confidence of everyone who participated--and even wider numbers who were inspired by people taking a stand--to challenge sexism wherever they face it, whether in a comedy club, on the sidewalk or at work.

From individuals confronting bigotry in their daily lives to organized protests against violence and discrimination, when ordinary people challenge the outrages of a sexist society, they can also start to build the kind of solidarity needed to create a society free of sexist ideas, violence against women and inequality.