Home > feminism, offensive humor, rape culture > Case #1: Shakesville vs. Penny Arcade and “Rape Culture”

Case #1: Shakesville vs. Penny Arcade and “Rape Culture”

Some time ago, a rivalry began between the world’s worst feminism blog, Shakesville, and the world’s biggest video-game comic, Penny Arcade, over the below comic. Why? Because of a concept called “rape culture,” defined thusly in Wikipedia.

a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence… Various commentators have labeled the United States itself as a rape culture.[1][2][20]

“Sounds horrible, of course. The comic itself, however, does not really offer quite such an endorsement:
The comic that sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder don’t want you to laugh at.

Making a joke that relies on the reader finding rape a horrible thing, the comic – cavalierly, to be sure – refers to rape without ever depicting, endorsing, or otherwise excusing the act.

Shakesville was not impressed, first cautioning viewers who dare to even read ABOUT this comic with this notice with a TRIGGER WARNING:

[Trigger warning for rape used in a “humorous” capacity.]

This is why, as a feminist, I barely have a sense of humor.

Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don’t take rape seriously. I don’t find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.

This is why I avoid comedy. I don’t go to comedy movies, I rarely watch comedians, I avoid sitcoms like the plague. I’ve started to develop a Pavlovian response, cringing preemptively, to things I do find funny, because if somebody makes a dark joke, I’ve learned it won’t be long until the rape jokes show up.

This is why I’m a humorless feminist. Because rape jokes killed my sense of humor.

This doesn’t seem like the kind of person one should be looking to for commentary on humor. But it connected, touching off a firestorm, prompting the site’s admin, Melissa McEwan, to follow up:

No, one rape joke does not “cause” someone to go out and commit a rape. But a single rape joke does not exist in a void. It exists in a culture rife with jokes that treat as a punchline a heinous, terrifying crime that leaves most of its survivors forever changed in some material way. It exists in a culture in which millions and millions of women, men, and children will be victimized by perpetrators of sexual violence, many of them multiple times.

I have two problems already with this presupposition.

1) The data does not support the concept of a culture that is creating rape acceptability, normalization, or approval. First of all, the likelihood of the average woman being raped (percentage of women who are raped per capita) has gone down by 75% in the last forty years in the United States, at a time of increasing exposure to portrayals of violence in media of all forms, and wider availability of edgier and raunchier pornography, comedy, and writing than ever. Of course, one rape is too many, but if we’re looking to improve from here, how about we find better indicators of causality? Something that isn’t inversely proportional might be a good starting point.

Yeah, well, where’s the chart for how FUNNY people think rape is?

2) It is not a comedian’s job to pander to every individual’s sensitivities. If they choose to use risqué or offensive elements in their humor, and they are willing to lose the part of the audience that is turned off by it, that’s an artistic and business choice that is perfectly valid to make. Making rape a sacrosanct topic that is above humorous reference/commentary is not a commendable goal for any person to have. If this were such a zero sum game, you wouldn’t be allowed to laugh at rape jokes that brilliantly defend rape victims, such as these:

If you laughed at this, you’re not taking rape seriously enough.

Surely death jokes, death being a far more final, injurious, and universal human experience, would’ve been outlawed long ago under such an argument. Thankfully the “death culture” is alive, well, and hilarious:

TRIGGER WARNING: Contains humor.

People who would like to convert their personal sensitivities into moral absolutes that all of society must share are, as far as I’m concerned, the real danger to a vibrant, respectful, and free culture, as they use shame as a weapon to limit people’s freedom of expression. Veterans of the flap over videogame violence in the wake of the Columbine shootings would be right to draw a comparison between the “rape culturists” complaining about the effect of rape jokes, and bible-thumpers who believed videogames were converting us into sociopaths. As with “rape culture,” the data didn’t support the bible-thumpers:


But, unbelievably, Shakesville’s war against Penny Arcade continues to this day. The latest firestorm being over this comic, written by a guest:

It’s definitely edgy. But I fear rapists in the audience lose their boners if it’s about food preparation.

What did Shakesville have to say?

First, this, written with oh-so-biting sarcasm:

The only thing that was certain is the only thing that’s ever certain, which is that feminist survivors of sexual violence who don’t find rape jokes funny are stupid, hypersensitive, rage-seeking missiles who want to censor the world. [sic]

Ha ha ha. Those people who think that certain feminist extremists want to censor things sure are nuts.

Well, let’s dig in then, what DO they think of this comic?

I would say this is a terminal case of Not Getting It, if I thought that Gabe and Tycho really don’t get it. But I think they do get it. At this point, it’s not that they’re just being insensitive to survivors who asked them to stop; they’re actually being actively hostile to them. Contemptible.

So, you don’t want to censor anything, you just want them to “stop” creating content you find “contemptible.” Short of that, you’re willing to claim to your huge reading audience that their posting that comic represents being “actively hostile” to rape survivors. Classy.

Well, thankfully, they don’t have to “stop,” because there is nothing wrong (legally or morally) with creating a disturbing piece of media if that’s what you want to do. Also thankfully, rape survivors have the right to consume content other than that with which they object, which is usually the best thing to do when one happens upon so-called offensive humor.

As for the “feminist survivors” referred to in the above quote — I wonder why there is such a limitation on who may object to this comic? How seriously would a male rape survivor be taken if he objected to this comic on the grounds that they “triggered” him? Dr. Tara J. Palmatier concludes that “If we live in a rape culture, it’s one in which violence against men and boys is normalized and excused, and not the other way round.” That’s because more males are raped every year than women, thanks to incidents that occur in prison, and male rape victims don’t really get the same police protections, cultural sympathy or activist attention. (By omission, it appears they aren’t even regarded as having standing in Shakesville’s newest tirade against Penny Arcade.)

The Compromises


  1. You should substantiate your argument that this concept exists for real, with data. I shared the graph about how rape is becoming more rare while violence in popular culture and access to porn is going up, and got this graphic in reply:

    9506399I gotta admit. I see this annoying-looking man’s point.

    Very droll indeed, but unfortunately for people who are not you, conversing with someone who is asking to make sweeping cultural changes but can offer only personal anecdotes that loosely illustrate why their changes are so urgently needed is rather tedious. I, for example, wish that Larry the Cable Guy was not allowed to perform comedy because I believe he makes people stupid. But I don’t have any evidence of it, so I basically keep that one to myself. Especially when I’m actually speaking to Larry the Cable Guy.

  2. Consider politely asking content providers to label their content so that people with your sensitivities may be forewarned before accidental exposure. Ratings and warnings have worked for videogames, music, film, and television. The internet is more of a wilderness, so you can hardly blame people for not offering such disclosures as a matter of course.
  3. Consider the fact that you don’t speak for every feminist or survivor. Such as this one, who says “Rape Culture is a myth. I reject it outright.”
  4. In the name of good taste, as one writer to another, please refrain from using phrases like “heaving grotesquery.” The awkward anthropomorphizing of an adjective you (also awkwardly) converted into a noun is, after all, pretty fucking grotesque.

Rape Joke Makers:

  1. If you get a complaint that your content or humor offended someone, remember you’ll do yourself, your audience, and the complaining party a lot more good by treating that complaint with respect. See if there is positive action you can take (like labeling your content with a warning), even though you don’t have to change anything about your content if that is not your wish as an artist. Don’t know how to be humble when your pride is hurt by a complaint? Copy/paste this response, customizing it to your needs, and make good on the promises:“Thank you for [reading/watching/listening to] [your content] and sending me your thoughts. I want you to know I take your feedback seriously. I’m going to [implement warnings/post a notice about potentially objectionable content] so that nobody will accidentally subject themselves to something that offends or harms them in any way, as you unfortunately experienced.”

    And, without rallying your troops, dismissing/shaming the protestor, or otherwise calling more attention to the issue, leave it at that.

    Of course, it’s your call as to whether posting warnings is truly necessary. Penny Arcade never did, and that’s okay. But it’s a nice olive branch. Short of that, a polite reply acknowledging the protestor’s pain/concern, and affirming that your content isn’t for everybody will suffice.

  2. Make sincere apologies if you wish to apologize, not passive-aggressive ones.
  3. Avoid making t-shirts that factionalize people into teams. We have enough division and clashing of cultures in the world, and your need to self-aggrandize is not charming.
  1. January 31, 2012 at 2:48 am

    Great post. Thanks for referencing me.

    I have a special place in my dark heart for Shakesville. I can’t BEAR it!

    I of course am banned from commenting there. So it is good to see some intelligent critique of what is, as you suggest, quite a powerful and pernicious set of ideas.

    • January 31, 2012 at 2:55 am

      You’re most welcome, and thanks for commenting on my maiden post! Your tumblr is a trip. Male privilege is definitely a real thing and is well-lampooned at QRG.

  2. MichaelWStory
    February 1, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I think you have raised an important point here; many people have peculiar psychological quirks which cause them mental pain when certain images or topics are raised, but what’s interesting is that the response to those concerns depends on your being a member of a vocal victim group.

    For example, who ever considers that coverage of African conflicts which makes the front cover of magazines (and therefore unavoidable to anybody walking down a high street) will be triggering to the large number of war refugees living in the UK, or indeed the effect on PTSD affected Afghanistan vets of seeing their terrible memories repeated on the 6 o’clock news?

    I think there is a terrible danger that when one group so decisively seizes control of public debate, all other perspectives disappear.

    • compromisesforaholes
      February 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks, Michael! I love your analogy with the African conflicts. Ever notice how those who seek to control the terms of the debate use cudgels like how the expression of certain ideas is “unsafe?” So many bad things are done in the name of “security.” I consider myself a feminist (believe it or not) and I think Shakesville puts a terrible face on the cause when it uses this argument, not only because the argument doesn’t hold up, and not only because too often I think they mistakenly conflate being cavalier/edgy with implicit endorsement of terrible things, but also because I believe people should be allowed to be disturbing, or offensive. Blue Velvet and Louis CK aren’t for everybody, but there is zero proof that they make the world less safe. When you try to make an idea “objectively bad” and prove that it causes such great harm, you’re going to need to make a very strong case before I finally say, “you’re right, people shouldn’t express that idea in public.” Advocating terrorism – there’s a bad idea. This was not that. Thanks for your comment!

  1. February 2, 2012 at 2:15 am

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