Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rape, Humor, Liberals, and the Sacred

This is a response to a piece by blogger Bacchus of the awesome Eros Blog (NSFW) entitled On Not Speaking Up.



How Rape Humor Enriched My Life This Week


We have this friend, and everybody likes him. He's sweet beyond sweet, kind to everyone, and I think his main motivation in life is to meet, hug, and have long, intimate talks with everyone in the entire world. A few days ago my boyfriend and I were on our way to a party at this friend's house to play Magic: The Gathering,[1] and we were talking about Posnerian rape licenses[2] (like you do), and my boyfriend mentioned how sad it would be if our friend were a rape licensee - because he'd never find anyone who disliked him enough for sex to be non-consensual! He'd just wander the world sadly, "but he'd never go so far as to not be nice," my boyfriend added. Could this same information have been communicated as well by just saying "wow, isn't our friend super nice?"

So later that night, at our beloved friend's house, I was watching two guys play Magic, and it was a fairly even game until one of them played a "Grimoire of the Dead" card, which I am informed is a "mythic rare" card of unimaginable power. "Wow, I'm about to get reamed, aren't I?" his opponent said. Could this same social information, with all the good sportsmanship I think it conveys, be communicated as well by just saying "wow, I'm about to lose, huh?" In fact, when I was in the process of destroying[3] my boyfriend with a hastily-constructed deck and a shaky understanding of the rule set, I noticed myself saying "I think I'm going to fuck you with THIS card" - the obvious hyperbole takes the edge off of competition that would otherwise be uncomfortable, somehow. This is what I am reminded of when Bacchus (NSFW) talks about online gaming boys using the phrase "rape your face" to describe combat victory. It has nothing to do with women and everything to do with navigating complicated group-belonging and status dynamics.

Do you know someone in a relationship of habit, with no particular intimacy or frisson? Our term for this - to distinguish it from the kind of satisfying, kinky, intimate relationship that is greatly preferred - is a "rapeless marriage." As in, "she was trapped in a rapeless marriage for ten years." Could the social information and pleasure of this phrase be conveyed as well another way?

I Promise I Am Not A Misogynist Monster Here

Notice that, in the above examples, no one was actually raped.

I am a girl. I have never been raped, but my close female relative (within two degrees of separation) was raped under circumstances making it unclear if she would survive. She was raped by a stranger, and when he was done she managed to convince him to abandon her alone in the desert rather than murder her outright.

Another woman in my life was drugged and gang-raped by boys she knew.

Are those of us who joke about rape somehow adding to the suffering of the real-life victims of rape?

As I have mentioned before, I grew up in Northern Idaho among rednecks, and I was horrified when some of my little redneck friends' redneck parents would say things to them like "You do your chores right now or I'll beat you bloody!" My little redneck friends were not disturbed by this in the least; it took me a while to realize that nobody was actually beaten bloody at any point. My own parents used the more genteel (but still terrifying) "unknown punishment" - the details were left intentionally vague, and I was probably in high school before it dawned on me that the threat was empty and the "unknown punishment" didn't really exist. Does the specificity of "I'll beat you bloody" make it genuinely objectionable in a way the "unknown punishment" is not, even though both parties understand that there will be no blood?

Liberal Sacredness

Jonathan Haidt has identified five primordial moral foundations upon which humans base our conceptions of good. These range from Harm/Care (caring about others, protecting them from harm) and Fairness (treating people justly and fairly) to Loyalty (to your in-group), Authority (respecting the established social hierarchy), and Purity (avoiding the pollution of sacred things).

From the Wik:

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.

Haidt identifies liberals as more oriented toward what I think of as REAL morality - treating others fairly and not hurting them. Conservatives seem more interested in what I think of as bogus morality - respecting authority, being true to your school and loyal to the Packers and America, and not queefing in the holy water.

But I think that this misstates things a great deal. My beloved Internet friend Rob Sica says that, as a liberal, he tries to expose himself to those with more conservative moral foundations - loyalty, purity, authority. I think that's laudable, but we as liberals are still human, and experience all the foundations to some degree - we just need to know where to look.

In my own heart, I noticed a strong (physical) sacredness reaction to the beating of Robert Hass at Occupy Berkeley. Thinking of the jackboot bruising Hass' precious ribs made me understand how a Christian could get riled up thinking about the jackboots whipping Jesus. It's hard not to fantasize about violence under such circumstances. It's intense, physical, not subject to rational correction. Yes, Robert Hass is just a man, and lots of other real people's ribs suffered equal or worse abuse. But they don't make me want to punch a police officer in the face; without the sacredness induction, I feel almost as bad for the pathetic pigs as I do for the protesters.

PC is our way of doing sacredness. But we need to recognize this and stop doing it - because sacredness is bullshit.

Framing Sacredness as Harm/Care

Arguing in favor of calling out those who use rape humor, Bacchus refers to a feminist treatment of the rape humor issue that argues that rape humor is wrong because rapists think rape is normal, and rape humor enforces this belief.

The writer of that piece cites (unsourced) the fact that rapists think rape is normal. "In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again," she says. Let's accept this as true for now. What this doesn't prove is that thinking rape is normal is what causes them to rape. It doesn't prove - can't prove, because it's not true - that an increase in rape jokes leads to an increase in rape.

What we see happening here is a move from a genuine harm/care foundation - don't rape people, don't hurt people, don't put people in camps and kill them - to a sacredness foundation - the idea that somehow just talking about the taboo subject will make the tabooed subject occur. Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!

Blogger Bacchus[4] takes on "Jew humor" as his personal crusade in his online game, even though he candidly admits he doesn't currently have any Jewish friends. I personally hardly have any non-Jewish friends, but I can't say I agree that enforcing a taboo on antisemitism's "sacredness" will actually do anything good for individual Jewish folks, or even Jewish people in the aggregate. In fact (and I'm about to give you a real citation, coincidentally via aforementioned Rob Sica, and not just say "studies show over and over again"), making a token gesture may actually make us less likely to act when it's important. In her paper "Vicarious moral licensing: The influence of others' past moral actions on moral behavior," Maryam Kouchaki reports on five related studies that all demonstrate that being told you're not racist, or taking actions that convince you you're not racist, actually make you act more racist. For instance,

In Study 1b, when given information on group members' prior nondiscriminatory behavior (selecting a Hispanic applicant in a prior task), participants subsequently gave more discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant for a position stereotypically suited for majority members (Whites). In Study 2, moral self-concept mediated the effect of others' prior nonprejudiced actions on a participant's subsequent prejudiced behavior such that others' past nonprejudiced actions enhanced the participant's moral self-concept, and this inflated moral self-concept subsequently drove the participant's prejudiced ratings of a Hispanic applicant.

So not only does preserving a zone of sacredness around rape and Judaism NOT prevent harm to actual women and Jews, it may actually make us feel fine about harming or allowing harm to come to these groups. (See also Dorothy Thompson's brilliant essay "Who Goes Nazi?" from 1941.)

Snuggletown Has Boundaries

One of the liberal values I find most questionable is that every environment (or even most environments) should be welcoming and inclusive to everyone. (Related: Five Geek Social Fallacies.) Social belonging is something we all need, but I question whether social belonging can be achieved at all without exclusion.

In college, I got used to seeing, appended to event announcements, "please honor this as a woman-only space." That't pretty vomitrocious, but no one had a problem with it. Why not? Perhaps because we recognize that special, fragile women need to be "honored" (sacredized) as the special, fragile creatures we obviously are, without dirty boys contaminating our space with their cooties. No one has a problem with this kind of exclusion; women need a place to talk about mascara and tampons and stuff, without boys intruding.

But what about 14-year-old gamer boys? Don't they need to define for themselves their own space?

American children in the past had much more unsupervised time away from grown-ups. They created their own social orders and spoke their own language, with little interference from adults.

Now that adults are expected to supervise every moment of children's lives, we expect them to develop a kind of egalitarian, welcoming social order that we cannot even develop for ourselves. And in trying to prevent pretend harm, we may be doing real harm.




1. Not joking, as you will see.

2. A long time ago Richard Posner wrote a lot of things about "efficient rape," including a thought experiment in which some individuals who rape might not be merely avoiding a market in sex, but might actually prefer rape to consensual sex - so much so that their pleasure in raping people outweighs the suffering of the victim. Such individuals could be allowed to purchase rape licenses from the government to maximize everyone's utility. Many people, in hearing about this, feel the same kind of sacredness violation that they feel upon hearing rape humor.

3. Is "destroying" preferable to "ass-raping" here? Is there a good reason why murder humor is acceptable where rape humor is not?

4. Who for the record I would totally smoke a bowl with

27 comments:

  1. It was around the time of the dickwolves fiasco that I made up my mind the sociology of rape humor was far and forever beyond my ken. So I hope you'll forgive me if I just sheepishly say "I agree" without further elaboration.

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  3. I often wonder... why people are so against rape games, while they don't seem to have any issues with people playing games where they beat/shoot/murder and crush characters to a pulp or any other game where killing is the only goal (most FPS).

    I guess murder games are alright as long as you don't bring any rape humor into it.

    what are the effects of rape games compared to murder games. Do rape games encourage rape?

    and for the record, I'm not a gamer.

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  4. Anonymous, I think I made a similar comment some while back about murder sometimes being excusable/justifiable whereas rape never is (although I've concurred with Walter Block that rape as court-ordered punishment for rapists could make sense). I forget if I was talking to Sister Y here or at my blog. Or maybe Chip's.

    Off-topic, but since you've got an interest in the down-side of being alive and the inevitable decline toward death, I thought you might be interested in this photography project on elderly farm animals.

    I asked this at the linked Bacchus post since the Shakesville comments were closed, but does anyone know what studies were being referred to regarding rapists believing everyone else does it but just doesn't get caught?

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  5. Rape is just forced sex. Doesn't sound so bad when you put it that way, right? We force things on people all the time. Forced feeding. Forced entry. Tickles. Gotta pay your taxes or we'll use force. Life is so wonderful that we force it on people (effective illegality of suicide). Why not force the most wonderful part of life? Could it be that when something is forced it doesn't feel as good as when it is a choice? It's sometimes OK to force something if you think that they are going to enjoy it. Problem is that people aren't as good at modeling other people's minds as they think.

    As for the discrepancy between video game murder and video game rape; Video games seem to be based on children at play. Children pretend to hurt/kill eachother immorally(murder) but they don't usually pretend to have sex, let alone rape. If children knew more about sex and rape they would pretend it out more. Then again, young kids tend not to have many sexual desires but they do desire to use force against others and be violent, which shapes the way that they play. Since there is a long history of children's pretend violence being mostly harmless but no similar established record for pretend rape, we treat the two differently.

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  6. Thanks for this.

    I was involved in a discussion about rape humour (pardon my Canadian) with someone who would probably consider herself a feminist recently. My argument was that the fact that these rape references are even humourous reinforces how wrong rape is. Since humour is based on incongruity, rape jokes will not be jokes to these supposedly clueless rapists. However, if everyone around them is laughing, won't they start to question their assumptions that rape is normal?

    The other aspect of the argument, which you touch on, is the aspect of inclusion. I guess I agree that not every environment has to be welcoming to everyone, but I couldn't disagree with my friend's position that this humour will be genuinely offensive to some people and that therefore it should be avoided, at the bare minimum, where there is a captive audience.

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  7. In Steven Pinker's new book , "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," there's an interesting (and impressively wide-ranging) discussion of rape at pp 394-415. Pinker cites a survey by David Buss showing that "men underestimate how upsetting sexual aggression is to a female victim, while women overestimate how upsetting sexual aggression is to a male victim." This might explain why jokes about prison rape are mainstream while other expressions of rape humor tend to raise eyebrows.

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  8. worn-out flip flopDecember 4, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    I find the bases of morality research interesting and what you say about "real" morality, especially since for what it's worth, I always thought the definition of morality was based on fairness and harm (ie. what is immoral was defined as what is unfair, which includes harming others).

    It actually sounds weird to think of disgust of impurity or loyalty alone as being a foundation of morality.

    For it to be called a moral question/issue, intuitively, I've felt the discussion must center around who is being harmed.

    Something like saying disloyalty or impurity is immoral seems as odd to me as saying something like "disobedience to traffic laws is immoral" or "disobeying fashion norms is immoral". It's true, that the disobedience to traffic puts people's lives in danger and thus is immoral. But again, this goes to harm right? It's not the disobedience itself that's thought to be immoral. It's just a thing that results in harm.

    So, really isn't the issue still morality has to do with harm? Even disloyalty deals with the language of harm (ie. harm to a group, offense). It anthropomorphizes a group (eg. a nation etc. as a being having unified desires, goals and betrayal as harming it). Also, stuff like blasphemy or impurity can be framed as "harm to God" (well it's kind of hard to reconcile if you believe in omnipotence, but something like offending God by worshipping other gods, as in the Old Testament, causing feelings like jealousy)? That's psychic harm.

    In situations like sexual norms, it's telling that it's often still couched in harm terms (pornography harms women, gay marriage harms the development of children), which means something about the way we think of morality.

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  9. Your liberal roots are showing up when you talk about female-only spaces. Female-only spaces are necessary for women to be able to express themselves without male aggression. Liberals like you have to disagree with it because your fun-feminism is predicated on the belief that women should always be available for men and that women should measure themselves by how attractive they are to men.

    The problem with liberalism is that it's predicated on equality towards the law, but without any examination of why some people are considered inferior. Without any such insights and addressing the root causes of sexual/racial/economic/etc inequality, the belief in equality is only a pipe dream.

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  10. TGGP, could you link me up to Walter Block's support of rape as punishment? I definitely want to add this one to my list of Blockisms. Walter Block is truly the stupidest man on this planet.

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  11. Thanks for the comments! A few responses:

    Riley J.:
    It's sometimes OK to force something if you think that they are going to enjoy it. Problem is that people aren't as good at modeling other people's minds as they think.

    This is why we think reproduction is wrong, like rape: it forces something on someone that might really, really suck, and the people doing the forcing are likely to be modelling the minds of the forcees really, really wrong.

    If children knew more about sex and rape they would pretend it out more.

    Guessing you didn't grow up on a farm.

    Pual:
    My argument was that the fact that these rape references are even humourous reinforces how wrong rape is.

    Yes! Certainly this hypothesis would need to be considered if we actually care about harm/care, instead of just signalling sacredness.

    Chip:
    I think that would be expected from the general result that rape is subjectively more painful the more it is fitness-destructive.

    worn-out flip flop:

    I was just reading a paper thank I think sheds light on that - haven't finished it yet, but here it is.

    FT:
    I object to treating men and women as homogeneous groups with homogeneous preferences.

    Equality is most definitely a pipe dream.

    women should always be available for men and that women should measure themselves by how attractive they are to men

    Can you think of any other reasons why I might argue that women-only spaces are insulting?

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  12. "Equality is most definitely a pipe dream."

    I thought liberals believed in equality of opportunity. Do you not believe in that form of equality as well?

    "Can you think of any other reasons why I might argue that women-only spaces are insulting?"

    I dunno, pure woman-hatred?

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  13. Luckily my girlfriend finds that hot. <3

    As for equality - the mismatch between what is right/morally required and what is possible is a large part of my reason for being AN.

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  14. Francois, see here.


    I was going to comment at the antinatalism blog about Bryan Caplan's almost debate with Karl Smith, but it's relatively inactive.

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  15. On Twitter you asked if there are any smart, conscientious people who favor the war on drugs. I usually cite Mark Kleiman, although the policies he favors are quite different from the status quo. I think a drug regime run by him would be a vast improvement, even if I prefer legalization of all drugs.

    He has contributed to a new book on drug policy, which he discusses with legalization advocate John McWhorter here. The book I have read by him is "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment". Everyone should read it.

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  16. the mismatch between what is right/morally required and what is possible is a large part of my reason for being AN.

    Wonder if you might not have to delve into some meta-ethics to resolve a tension between the kind of moral objectivity/realism you seem to want to maintain and your naturalism. In other words, Nietzsche's glad tidings of the innocence of becoming seem like bad tidings for hard anti-natalism.

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  17. "As for equality - the mismatch between what is right/morally required and what is possible is a large part of my reason for being AN. "

    Nice non-answer.

    "I was going to comment at the antinatalism blog about Bryan Caplan's almost debate with Karl Smith, but it's relatively inactive. "

    I posted a comment, but I'm sure it won't get through. I also wrote an entry on my blog about it.

    Short summary: Caplan is a complete dick.

    http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/bryan-caplan-repeats-same-nonsense-but-this-time-with-more-arrogance/

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  18. 1. I'm sorry, but I seem to entirely have missed the explanation of how objecting to public trivialization of rape among strangers who may be victims of rape (which is likely, given the prevalence of rape) is equivalent to holding something sacred.

    2. If there are real-life rape victims who indicate that such language adds to their suffering, should we tell them to suck it up? I can't think of a direct example right now, but the whole Elevatorgate incident last summer suggests that many victims of rape do not appreciate creepy behavior in elevators or a defense of such behavior, even if it lacks explicit references to rape.

    3. I don't see how objecting to rape-trivializing language or antisemitism means the objector necessarily identifies as a non-prejudiced individual.

    4. If 14-year-old gamer boys want their own space, they need to create it themselves instead of appropriating public MMOs open to everyone. Other players have the right to voice their objections to 14-year-old gamer boys' behavior because it affects their gaming experience, as well.

    5.The rape jokes of the kind described by Bacchus obviously have nothing to do with women. The way calling someone weak or cowardly a pussy has nothing to do with women and the way writers' use of only the male pronoun in such a way that the reader can't tell if the author just didn't bother to make women feel included or actually meant to exclude them has nothing to do with women.

    6. This bit about humor is entirely speculative, but it seems like the more grave an action is considered, the more likely we are to recognize trivial, hyperbolic references to it as a joke because no one in their right mind would dare admit to having homicidal tendencies. Murder, despite (or, more likely, because of) disproportionately affecting men, is seen as a real, human problem. Rape, on the other hand, is seen as a women's only issue (despite all the male victims) and therefore less serious. So when one uses rape jokes, it's harder to tell if they are actually joking. After all, plenty of people see nothing wrong with rape. It's kind of like Poe's law that way.

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  19. I don't understand how objecting to something because it "trivializes" something else is anything other than holding that second thing sacred.

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  20. Pual, by that reasoning I hold rape sacred because that's what "that second thing" is. As someone who actually used to hold something sacred and use the following trope: "it's sacred, not secret" as a reason why discussions of certain religious rights were verboten, I can safely assure you that such is not the case.

    Perhaps I was unclear before. There is a good empirical reason not to use the kind of language described by Bacchus in public forums: it may trigger PTSD in sexual assault victims. How do we know? Some of the victim have said so and, however unreliable self-reports generally are, I think this is one of the more clearly reliable instances. PTSD is real harm. That is the reason someone might object to language that trivializes rape.

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  21. I think a big difference between rape and murder is most people in developed countries are not fearful of murder on a daily basis, but most women, especially if it is dark outside (it gets dark before 5:00 pm in the winter, and is often dark in the morning when going to work), feel at least some fear and vulnerability. We live with knowing on a daily basis that men are so much physically stronger and than we are, and can very easily overpower us. We also know that rape is a common and sometimes very violent crime, and the vast majority of victims are women.

    Having to deal with this situation all the time is bad enough, but add to it that when a rape happens, often people either think the woman is making it up, or they think she deserved it for wearing tight clothes, being outside at night, for drinking too much, or some other such reason.

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  22. Serious, hopefully not obnoxious question: how can I meet girls like you?

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  23. Serious, hopefully not obnoxious question: how can I meet girls like you?

    Still trying to figure that one out myself. If you find some, let me know.

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  24. Re: PTSD. It's an interesting question when we have a duty to avoid hurting someone's feelings by talking. If there is a strong duty to avoid discussing rape in a flippant or tasteless (non-sacredness-respecting) manner because it will cause psychological harm to rape victims who happen to hear it, there must be a similar duty for others with PTSD relating to other subjects. Such exceptions would quickly destroy the possibility for free speech. My argument is that we set a low standard for rape-PTSD-triggering because rape is sacred, whereas we set a high standard for e.g. combat or bullying PTSD because those aren't sacred.

    I don't discount the possibility of harm from casually talking about rape; I've accidentally triggered someone (a man) to tears by making a casual "your mom" joke, and I still feel bad about it 15+ years later. The question is about where we set the societal standards. Are they fair? Or are they based on monkey logic? I think monkey logic can inform fairness, of course.

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  25. I think we also need to actually distinguish between "PTSD triggering" and "making someone sad". Based on my extremely limited understanding of PTSD flashbacks, isn't it much more likely that one will be triggered by a sight, sound, or smell that reminds the sufferer of the actual experience, rather than a flippant reference to the general concept of "rape", "war", or "mom"?

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  26. TGGP wrote: "I was going to comment at the antinatalism blog about Bryan Caplan's almost debate with Karl Smith, but it's relatively inactive."

    Just wanted to say that I find this Caplan's most coherent and convincing response to anti-natalism. His earlier attempt to portray life as a freely disposable good (which it very obviously isn't) was a bit silly and shallow.

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  27. looks like Sister Y got hacked by teletubbies.

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