Last Thursday, I went on FX's Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and tried to explain rape culture in a few 15-second sound bytes (fun stuff—if you've never tried it, RUN-DON'T-WALK).
I was in a debate with comedy vet Jim Norton (who's been thoughtful and fair throughout this whole thing, so don't be mean to him), who essentially took the stance that comedy requires absolute freedom in order to function. Comedians joke about difficult issues because it's a "release of tension" for people uncomfortable with those issues. It's "catharsis." No subject should ever be "off limits" and comedians shouldn't be "silenced." And anyway, language doesn't affect culture, so how could rape jokes have an effect on actual rape? Rape is illegal! Everyone hates rape!
Well, that's the fundamental disconnect between us. I believe that the way we speak about things and the type of media we consume profoundly influences how we think about the world.
Let me be clear: I don't believe that previously non-raping audience members are going to take to the streets in a rape mob after hearing one rape joke. That's an absurd and insulting mischaracterization. But I do believe that comedy's current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to (that's contributes—not causes) a culture of young men who don't understand what it means to take this stuff seriously.