Something that I just saw in my Facebook feed brings to mind a complaint I have about an argument that frequently comes up against many of the things I stand for. In cases addressing things like sexual freedom and sex work; in discussing issues such as rape and social expectations about personal safety; in discussions about people’s rights to choose the right birth control or even the right to choose how much clothing or make up to wear, people often respond:

“Yes, you should have that freedom, in an Ideal World, but we don’t live in that Ideal World.”

This statement is usually preceded or followed by that person’s idea of what should be restricted in order to deal with the fact that we don’t live in this “Ideal World.” Some of these restrictions are suggestions for laws and some are suggestions about self-restriction for individuals or social groups. From anti-provocative clothing rants to debates over if laws should allow people to prance around their yards naked, the “Ideal World” argument is used to argue for restricting healthy (or unhealthy, but not harmful to others) human behaviors, especially human behaviors related to sexuality (and this argument doesn’t seem to favor one side over the other, as it is used as an argument in favor of ignoring sex education that advocates consent over rape-defense as well as an argument in favor of banning pornography – it gets used all over the opinionated, multi-dimensional spectrum).

This is a horrible argument. Restricting behavior because we don’t live in an “Ideal World,” for that behavior to exist in, is a ridiculous argument for or against anything. We don’t live in an “Ideal World” for nearly anything that you do nearly any day of your life, ever, to exist in (I only used the term “nearly,” there, because I don’t like absolutes if they aren’t within a proper mathematical expression and/or are a part of scientific laws – so by “nearly anything,” I really mean “anything” and by “nearly any”, I really mean “any”). We don’t live in an “Ideal World” for you to walk your dog in (there aren’t poop buckets and shovels conveniently placed in easily accessible locations, everywhere, in every park and on every street corner); we don’t live in an “Ideal World” for you to wander the wilds in (lions might eat you or zombies or something else that would be a horrifying creature to be eaten by); we don’t even live in an “Ideal World” for you to age in (aging seems to have a strong correlation with dying).

Part of this is because there is no clear definition for this kind of thing. Who’s ideal are you concerned about, anyway? Who gets to define what is ideal and how the hell is that person going to address every single detail of everything, everywhere, in order to define such a thing? And, in the event that this ideal conflicts with the ideal of another, is it still ideal, because of who said it is ideal, or is there some sort of new ideal, set by the standard of the conflicting party? Does such a scenario cause a social implosion akin to matter coming into contact with anti-matter? Or, does the ideal suddenly become Schrodinger’s ideal, simultaneously being ideal and not ideal, at the same time?! (Yes, I absolutely, intentionally, misused the Schrodinger analogy for the purpose of that joke and I am 100% pleased with it, because it made me giggle to myself – neener, fellow nerd folk, neener).  The ideal social environment is either unknowable or is an absolute impossibility (unless we delve into the concept of existence being perfection, which is a poorly constructed argument used to excuse a number of things, in philosophy, including the existence of a deity or islands). Trying to get people to modify behavior because their behavior doesn’t exist in a social vacuum is misguided and it certainly doesn’t help us work towards an environment in which those behaviors can safely exist.

In fact, the very idea that not living in an environment suited for something warrants banning that thing that should be a part of an individual’s rights to make their own choices, is patronizing and basically means that we can’t tolerate teaching ourselves, as a society, to behave responsibly. Thus, we must treat ourselves and each other like perpetually irresponsible children, who need to be protected from ourselves and the horrifying, doggie bag shortaged, zombie and lion risk containing (possibly, with one of those being more risky than the other), aging and dying, non-ideal world out there, in such a way that our protection actually interferes with our own well-being and self-expression (including self-expression that contains horrifying run-on sentences and commentaries in parentheses that might contribute to the expression becoming increasingly more confusing, much to the confusion and dismay of the reader while simultaneously entertaining the author, for no particular reason).

So, if we don’t live in an “Ideal World” so that pornography is always filled with fully willing and consenting and enthusiastic participants, let’s allow pornography to exist and work on ridding ourselves of the flaws in our social structure that keep us farther away from this ideal goal.

If we don’t live in an “Ideal World” where people should be able to be naked on their own property, without having to worry about an attack on them, then let’s not restrict the naked people, but, instead, lets fix the stupid social norms that we have that discriminate against them or might cause them harm.

Dis-empowering people over a concern that we “don’t live in an Ideal World” has never made sense. We will never live in an “Ideal World,” but, damn it, we can get a hell of a lot closer to an ideal if we try to fix the problems that make it less ideal, instead of penalizing those who challenge the environment that facilitates those problems (so let me watch and make my porn in peace, OK, even when zombies are involved).

Last night, when I was playing, of all things, World of Warcraft, a game that I enjoy when I can dedicate some time to relaxing, I went on a quest more serious than any I have ever done in my entire life of gaming: A quest to decide if a rape joke was funny. Not only was this a serious quest inspired by something that happened in-game, but it was because I had made a comment about something that happens regularly in gaming. So, before I tell you all about rape jokes, let me give you a little gaming back ground, to help you understand the example I’m about to use.

In gaming, especially in MMOs, it is really common to get quests to save a population of people represented by non-player characters (NPCs), who face an extreme situation that they need help out of. Usually, though, your quest has a kind of minimum requirement. If you have a quest to vaccinate bears from disease, your quest might only require you to do 7; if you have a quest to save drowning military personnel, your quest may only require that you save 8; if you have a quest to stop the perpetuation of stupid myths about men, women, and family archetypes, once you’ve changed the views of 10 people, you’re done and can turn in your quest. The rest of the diseased bears, drowning victims and sexist douchebags are left to suffer whatever horrifying fate you were asked to save some of them from, because MMOs don’t account for over-achievers. In fact, not only does the quest not make you save more than a certain number, in some cases you *can’t* do more than the number needed after you’ve saved your requirement, due to an equipment limitation. Also, you’re in a game where a few million other people need enough NPCs to save, too, which is probably why some games have that limitation. If someone saved everyone, then everyone else has to wait for more drowning soldiers to respawn before they can finish their quest.

Also, many MMOs have “guilds,” who consist of the people that you regularly cooperate with, in-game, to obtain social perks, to bullshit with while you’re blowing up enemies and to share resources with. So, while I was saving drowning victims, last night, in an area that I was new to, I commented to the guild about how these quests where you save only a few people is basically one that implies that the people you leave behind are screwed. It is an unstated fact, but the fact becomes pretty apparent, to me, while I’m playing. In response, one of my guild mates said that the people over at Penny Arcade had made a comic about that and someone else commented that it had caused a bit of an internet skirmish. So, I began searching on the internet about this comic that I had missed, which my friends informed me was called “Dickwolves.” (Note: This “Dickwolves” thing happened in 2010 – bear in mind some time has passed since then. I don’t wish to revive this controversy for the people involved, I am using it as an example).

So, I’m going to leave that conversation, for a moment, and jump to another experience, and we’ll get back to the Penny Arcade comic, in a moment. A couple years ago, I was visiting a guy friend in Seattle, and he wanted to take me to a movie. So, we went to see The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, because I had heard all kinds of things about it, and I had seen the other movie options available, at the time. I hadn’t realized, though, that there would be a couple scenes that I found disturbing. Once the first rape scene began, I became very tense and felt like I was going to cry. My friend, who’s a very perceptive person, apparently, took notice. I survived the scene, but I was upset as the movie progressed. When the next rape scene was about the happen, my friend leaned over and quietly gave me a warning, so I was able to leave during just that scene, and then return when I thought it was safe. That was very kind of my friend. I don’t have a problem with movies existing that have violent content, or even content with violent sex scenes. However, it is nice when people give me a warning. That’s a polite thing to do. In fact, it is nice when most people are aware enough to help me not have to deal with small mental meltdowns. Because, sometimes, there are things that remind me of what happened to me and while other people are watching a scene in a movie, I have to re-live the worst experience of my entire life.

So, imagine, for a moment, that you’re in an environment where there are lots of people who are familiar with the movie, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Next, imagine that you find out that there are people selling shirts that say, “team Nils Bjurman,” referencing the rapist in the movie. Would that make you feel uncomfortable? Admittedly, Bjurman is a fictional character, but these T-shirts are meant for real people. Suddenly, the fictional character, who was a part of one of the most uncomfortable parts of the film can be represented, right in front of you, in real life, on a real person. Obviously, any person who would want a shirt like that is well within their rights to do so. But, just as nice as it is for someone to give a person a warning about risks before they witness something that could be painful to them, it is mean to force others to deal with witnessing that thing, intentionally. That isn’t to say that anyone who would wear a “team Nils Bjurman” shirt is a bad person, but their shirt does have an impact on others that probably shouldn’t be ignored.

So, back to the Penny Arcade fiasco. Penny Arcade had a comic in which a character, one like what you would play in an MMO, is addressed by an NPC who is apparently the kind he’s supposed to save for his quest. The NPC describes the conditions that he is stuck in (NPCs in danger commonly say things related to the quest, that are designed to inspire empathy), he says, “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” The response of the player character, though, was to dismiss him because, well, he’s fulfilled his quota that the quest required. The original comic was funny, and given the unlikelihood of a person reading the comic identifying with the dickwolves’ captive, it was at least somewhat well done. When I saw it, I instantly recognized it was exactly in-line with what I was commenting on to my friends in my guild. Even the most horrible situation in an MMO can result in that kind of problem. The Penny Arcade comic was trying to highlight that. So, what was the most horrible thing they could think of at the moment? The dickwolves that rape, obviously.

This comic, though, was found to be offensive by many people who feel that rape jokes shouldn’t be made. And so the Penny Arcade guys did a couple things, one of which was probably a bad move. First, they made a comic about the offensive comic and how they felt about the response.

It used to be common for people to ask, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” And, until very recently, people thought it was a profound joke, because chickens lay eggs and chickens come from eggs. For a very long time, people argued that joking about rape would desensitize people to rape, making them more likely to be comfortable with it. Being a rapist, they claimed, would probably make it easier to find rape funny. Which came first, the rapist or the rape joke? The second Penny Arcade comic, which referred to the first, addressed only this problem, but ignored much of the rest of the commentary about what they had done.

Then, they made a T-Shirt (and apparently a pennant), that looked like a school mascot emblazoned, team logo shirt that might be worn by someone in college or high school, and it supported (can you guess?) Dickwolves! Yes, they made a “team Dickwolves” T-Shirt.

While Penny Arcade did not take down the comics that people found offensive, they did eventually take down the Dickwolves T-Shirt. But, they didn’t seem to like it. It seems that someone did manage to make some good points, but their reasoning for taking it down, they said, was to keep people from feeling uncomfortable. The didn’t, however, acknowledge that maybe that shirt was tasteless or maybe there was an element of something not-quite-right with it.

Now, I did notice, in the conversations I saw, a lot of people complaining about censorship. So, I’m going to make a brief note on that. When someone censors themselves, it is OK. Along with the right to freedom of speech, we also have the right to self-censorship. We especially have a right to self-censorship when not censoring ourselves might allow us to continue with selling something that might be considered a mistake. No controlling body stepped in and forced Penny Arcade to remove the shirt. They chose to do that, themselves.

I also want to note that I don’t have anything against Penny Arcade and I hope that people don’t angry-face-on-the-internet at them for something they did a few years ago that they probably hoped was past them, by now. I used them as an example because it was a perfect example for what I keep encountering in the conversations online about rape jokes. When people ask if a rape joke can be funny, there are several schools of thought. Two schools are completely opposed to each other and represent the extreme:

  1. NO, rape jokes are never funny.
  2. Yes, rape jokes are funny and we shouldn’t complain about comedians.

Most people, though, seem to land somewhere in between those.

Last year, Daniel Tosh made this comment to his audience a while after a girl heckled him about a rape joke: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

That joke brought the reality of rape out of the funny for a lot of people. Would it be funny if the girl got raped, right then? No, and most people seemed to realize that. The reality was, Tosh’s joke labeled the woman as a victim, right there, and real people as her attackers. That’s not funny, anymore. That brings the joke about something horrible into a possible reality of something horrible. I would have felt pretty uncomfortable, too, if I had witnessed it.

Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade managed to make a joke about rape, that was not set in reality, that was funny and that we could use to reasonably view something as horrifying, but keep our distance from it, so that it could be seen as funny. BUT, they also put an element of that joke into a reality that made people wear the label as supporters of the actual horrifying thing.

So, what makes a rape joke something to be concerned about or something that we can laugh at? Well, it seems that at least one thing that comes into play is that joke’s proximity to reality. Famously, George Carlin commented that anything can be funny. “Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd,” was Carlin’s proof that rape can be funny. Just prior to that, though, Carlin said that he thinks rape is hilarious, in his lead-in to that joke. But, his example was a joke about rape in a fantasy context. It was put in a safe place, where we don’t have to identify with it; where it didn’t have a real form; where the horrifying nature of rape is a part of what made the joke funny.

Also last year, after Todd Akin made his comments about rape, The Renegade Raging Grannies, a local group, came up with this clever song. It, too, was a rape joke. It was a rape joke that made fun of the horrifying nature of what Akin had said, and that is what made it funny. Here are the lyrics, from their website:

“Legitimate rape” is great birth control.
So says Todd Akin, and he oughta know.
If we are raped we can rest unafraid,
‘Cause we can’t get pregnant if forcibly laid.

Our female bodies are clever that way,
We only get pregnant when we say “okay.”
Doctors have told him, so it must be so,
The stork only comes if we don’t say “No!”

Rape won’t make babies and that is a fact;
There’s no global warming; the Earth’s really flat.
We heard it on FOX News so it must be true.
Well, Mr. Akin, we say “FUCK YOU!”

So, rape jokes can be funny, but there’s reason to examine why many rape jokes should be avoided. It isn’t because people want to tell you what to say (an accusation that Carlin made), it is because it is more polite to not put people into the uncomfortable position of seeing it as a personal reality. Much like it is polite not to force someone to witness something that is a serious reminder of a traumatic experience, or to help prevent that. Essentially, you can joke about anything you like, including rape, but don’t actually be a Dickwolf.

Every year, it seems, people in the North American (specifically, the U. S.) culture, look forward to the Superbowl as a cultural tradition. Even people who don’t enjoy watching football throughout the year will tune in to the event and many tune in just because of the famous advertising campaigns which are launched during the Superbowl. After the Superbowl, there are, then, reviews of the commercials to talk about what was the funniest and there are reviews of the ads to find out which were the most sexist. And, traditionally (however sad that is), many of them are sexist.

I watched the Superbowl because Sushi Fairy* and some of his family invited me to watch it with them. It was a good time to be around awesome people, for me, and while I can’t sit through a Football game and give it my complete attention, I was able to pay attention to most of it, get some reading done and see all the commercials that I cared about. There was one commercial that, as soon as I saw it, I knew I was going to get emails about. I even commented to the people I was with about what I thought was problematic with the commercial, and I logged into Facebook, anticipating what messages I would get related to it.

What I was expecting was an email that would ask if this commercial was a violation of someone’s space – was it a sexual assault or some sexual violation? I didn’t expect the question in those words, because that’s not how people usually write to me about these things. Since I have spoken about topics such as sexual assault and sexual harassment, before, and because my approach is not based on reactionary ideas, and because I train people to not harm others and because I teach people how to deal with the crisis of facing a potential sexual assault or being sexually assaulted, many people ask me for input on various situations that they think might be sexual assault. I was expecting emails that might have been even so extreme to suggest a Superbowl not-quite-rape commercial. Fortunately, that’s not what I got. In fact, the question was so well asked, I suspect the person had an idea of what the right answer was, but just wanted to be sure. So, I decided to write about it, right away, even in my sleep-deprived state, right now.

I’m betting, right now, that most of you are trying to guess at which commercial I’m talking about. Some of you might think I’m talking about the godaddy commercial, from a company which is notorious for sexually provocative commercials. Though their commercial, this year, reinforced horrible stereotypes, that’s not the one. Some of you might think it is the single boy prom commercial, where a boy drives a an Audi to prom, without a date, and then kisses the prom queen, seemingly without consent, and then got a black eye for it. While that does have some problematic moments, that’s also not it. Here’s part of the message I received, a little while ago:

I don’t know if you watched the Superbowl, but there was an ad that bothered me. Having woken up after a one-night stand, a guy tries to sneak out, but first tries to take his shirt off of the girl sleeping in the bed. It is his shirt, but she’s unable to set her limits when she is sleeping. Is he doing something wrong?

I like this question! It offers a situation that opens up communication, about something people can identify with, without making it confrontational. The reality is, that commercial was uncomfortable, but most people are unlikely to know why, because the situation is one that many people identify with. The one-night stand is a commonly referenced aspect of our culture. We see it as something people do, and we see it (rightly so) as a healthy aspect of human sexuality. So, let’s give this situation some serious thought.

First, let’s consider the context implied in the commercial. The young man seems to wake up in a strange place, under strange conditions, presumably unaware of exactly what happened the night before. It is assumed that they had a good time, but since he seems mildly confused and panicked, the scene is already set in the uncomfortable shadow of the unknown. With one side of a pair of handcuffs still dangling from his wrist, he prepares to go, realizes that his T-shirt is still on the person, in bed, who apparently put the handcuffs on him, and he wants his shirt. So far, there’s really not any indication of malicious or horrifying behavior, but there is a hint of unawareness. In most one-night stands, the topic of sexual boundaries isn’t necessarily discussed, unless it comes up while the sex is happening. But, we don’t actually know what the boundaries were in this commercial. Since only one side of the handcuffs are still on the guy, we can assume something was mentioned about boundaries, because we think he probably consented to the cuffs being put on (but we don’t know, really).

But sexual boundaries while having sex don’t necessarily extend to boundaries when one is asleep. Many people don’t like to be bothered or touched, when they are sleeping. It is also not a common practice to talk about boundaries and sleep before people are in a sexual experience together and probably not before sleeping together after the sexual experience. So, it is unlikely that he had prior permission to remove the shirt from her. While removing the shirt is not, itself, sexually violating her, it is violating her in that there’s no reason to believe that she gave him permission to handle her body, while she was sleeping.

When I saw the commercial, I said something to the others in the room to the effect of, “why doesn’t he just wake her up?” To which Sushi Fairy’s friend said, “because he’s trying to sneak out.” I knew that, of course, but I didn’t clarify my question, because it was a bad time for the discussion that would necessarily develop. Basically, he’s already had sex with her, but even with that level of intimacy that he’s experienced with her, he can’t be bothered to face her, in his awkward-post unplanned sex experience, to wake her up to get his property. He wants to sneak out because, in our culture, that’s what you do to deal with post-sex regret.

But that tendency is maladaptive. We actually don’t have a post-sex discussion trend, we don’t know how to deal with post-sex. Even the kink community doesn’t talk about how to safely deal with casual sex. We do have a very rational movement to encourage people to talk about sex and STIs before having sex, but that movement isn’t very strong and it often ignores the fact that people thinking in-the-moment, while intensely sexually driven, are unlikely to talk about it, beforehand. If they’re very well informed, they might talk about condoms, or they might assume that condoms will be used and then use them. But, they’re not likely to discuss the details of sex and STIs. That means that there’s sexual aftercare that should be done, but that people are likely to be opposed to: The after-sex conversation.

In an ideal World, this would not be necessary, but in the World where people have sex and don’t plan ahead, this is very important. You have to talk about what you did. You need to know about when the person was last tested for STIs. You need to talk about protection you used and how to deal with it (disposing of condoms properly is generally a good idea, and worth talking about). If you had full, heterosexual intercourse, you need to talk about pregnancy risk. And, especially, if people were intoxicated, you should probably talk about what happened, because finding out later that something ethically shady or unpleasant for someone occurred would be worse if you waited, rather than talking about it right then, and letting the person know that their safety and concerns are important and valid. The conversation of “where do we go from here?” is also a reasonable conversation to have, even if the answer to that is, “I can’t see you again,” or, “I really just wanted sex, and I should have told you that’s all I wanted, before, but that was my mistake, sorry!”

I realize that such expectations are likely to seem extreme, to many people, but if we are to take our sexuality seriously and if we want to be sexually healthy individuals, we need to be able to ethically and rationally respond to our sexual experiences. Taking responsibility for one’s sexual actions is not a Bad Thing ™. Sneaking out of someone’s house after a one-night stand is not taking responsibility from one’s sexual actions, it is avoiding the responsibility.

So, this is more than just about who owns the shirt and how he didn’t have permission (I’m guessing) to touch and expose a sleeping person. This is about responsibility for all of one’s actions and avoiding being a person who is willing to not only avoid their responsibility to the person they had sex with, but doing so while violating that person in some manner.

Before people’s panties get in a bunch, bear in mind that:

  1. I’m not calling this rape or sexual assault. I know how many in the community like to claim that people are crying ‘rape’ when they aren’t, so I wanted to put that out there. There’s not enough information in the commercial to see the full context of what happened. The advertisers left that open to interpretation.
  2. If she gave him permission before going to sleep to take the shirt off of her while she was sleeping, then there is nothing wrong with what the commercial portrayed, based on what was in the commercial.
  3. It is a new and controversial idea to question what the norms are after a one-night-stand. I’m aware of that, but I think the conversation needs to be had.
  4. I have no problem with one-night-stands, when everybody is a consenting adult.
  5. I acknowledge that there’s a hint that the couple in the commercial were intoxicated, but since nothing told me to what degree, I won’t bother discussing alcohol, sex and consent, right now, other than to say if someone is more than mildly intoxicated, the odds are high that they can’t actually give informed consent because their judgement might be impaired. I didn’t see a reason to assume that applied in the story conveyed by the commercial.

I’m really glad that the person who first asked me about the commercial did so in a thoughtful way. This is one of those elements of culture that are worth questioning, but are also hard to question. We often examine what has now been termed rape culture, but we do it in clear terms, using black-and-white scenarios, not the grey area scenarios that commonly exist. These scenarios, where there’s some question as to what, exactly, happened, are some of the most useful examples we can discuss.

 

*For those who don’t know, Sushi Fairy is someone I’m in a relationship with who I refer to with a pet name to try to help him maintain his privacy.

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