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[Please be aware this post discusses “rape jokes” and might be triggering or offensive for that reason.]

A while ago, I was introduced to a friend of a friend in a pub during a party.  The women who’d introduced us disappeared off to the bar, and we two guys were left standing together, smiling sheepishly and searching for something to say. I was just about to ask how he knew our mutual friends (no-one said ice-breakers had to be original…) when he gestured towards them and made a joke about putting Rohypnol in their drinks.  What depressed me most about this incident was the polite, eager smile with which he made the remark, as if he’d solved a slightly awkward social moment by finding a topic upon which we could both agree without question.  It could have been the Ashes, the weather or real ale, but he’d decided on a rape joke as the safest option.  After all, I might not have been a cricket fan.

About a week later I wandered into the kitchen at another party (I know, quite the social life, me) and found introductions going on again.  A couple of newly-met partygoers had just discovered they’d taken the same university module at different times, taught by the same lecturer, and it turned out I knew her too.  One of the guys offered us both a beer from his own stash and joked that he thought the lecturer was a lesbian, but she probably just needed raping to sort her out.

Better critics than me have written (on sites like Shakesville and Feministe) about how “rape jokes” perpetuate a culture of violence and objectification towards women, how they normalise a destructive model of sex and why they’re offensive even if the speaker doesn’t “mean” them. In this post I want to consider a specific aspect of these situations: the fact that the people involved had only just met each other.

For a start, this undermines one justification often made for such comments: that they’re just “banter” between mates who know that none of them believe these things about women.  On the contrary, in these cases they were made as a way to start a conversation between men who didn’t know each other, a conversational gambit to break the ice and keep a social situation running smoothly.  I was taken aback in both cases because someone I didn’t know had assumed they were safe comments to make, based on my gender.  I couldn’t decide whether it was more or less unpleasant because it seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the women in question, but it didn’t: they were being used simply as ciphers whose abuse was intended to work as a token of male bonding.  (I came across a copy of Lorna Hutson’s The Usurer’s Daughter on my bookshelf the next day, and remembered why the idea seemed so familiar.)

Less extreme examples occur all the time, with sexism used as the small change of male interactions.  At root it all assumes that the most basic element of male identity is hostility to women.  You may not know anything about a guy, but you can always reach out to him by denigrating another gender.  This is why I think writing off sexism and misogyny between men as “banter” is a mistake, and one which harms men themselves.  Apart from the issue of how private discourse has an impact on our public space, it offers men a bleak and corrosive vision of their own masculinity.  Their experience of being a man is reduced to a single hostile meaning, and their sexuality is co-opted as a means of degrading other people.  It asserts that the baseline fact about them is a contempt for women, and the only solidarity they can expect is based on shared aggression.  These kind of comments don’t assume relationships between men, they are attempts to create them, and in doing so to define what being a man might mean.  On offer is a rotten definition, and one which I think we should all refuse.

None of this is terribly new, and two anecdotes hardly constitute proof – nor do I think this is the most important thing to say about “rape jokes” or the strongest reason not to make them! – but I wanted to offer these reflections and ask if they make sense to others.  I’d like to hear if people think I’ve got it wrong, if I’m missing the point, or if there’s another perspective which would be more useful.  As with a lot of posts in Quite Irregular, this is a thinking in progress…