A subject I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while, but never quite got around to, is that of The Great Rape Joke Controversy™, which flared up on Twitter (again!) the other day – and if you missed the action then I’d heartily recommend that you read Ally Fogg’s take on this latest round of Twittericuffs for its sensible, but sadly all-too-rare, discussion of the issues and the background to this latest rape joke shitstorm.
Rather than pitching in to this debate with yet another batch of musings on the subjective nature of humor, I thought I’d take a different approach and use a bit of science to try and unpick some of the more contentious arguments that tend to get thrown around whenever the rape joke issue rears its ugly head, and as an inveterate states geeks, one that immediately grabbed my attention was a tweet directed at Richard Herring by Sophia McDougall, which reads:
@Herring1967 You know there’s a 1/4 chance the woman had BEEN raped? & that some women in yr audience definitely would’ve been? Still funny?
Could this really be true?
Is there really a 1 in 4 chance that the female heckler to whom Herring directed his contentious putdown may have been raped or that there would have been at least some women in his audience that had been raped?
The underlying argument is, of course, that rape should be considered a taboo subject by comedians because there is high probability that their audience include rape survivors who likely not only to be offended by jokes which deal with or even touch on the subject of rape but who might actually have been so traumatised by the experience of rape to the extent that any unexpected exposure to that subject might have, at the very least, a transient adverse effect on their mental health.
That’s the theory, but is an argument that can be supported with any evidence.
Well, for starters, the suggestion that there is a 1 in 4 chance that Herring’s female heckler may be a rape survivor is complete and utter nonsense.
The 1 in 4 figure given is a classic zombie statistic which was originally derived, back in the 1990’s, as an estimate of the lifetime risk of rape based a small, unscientific, survey of American female college students commissioned by a women’s lifestyle magazine, a grade of evidence that ranks only slightly above pulling numbers out of your own arse. So, even if it had ever been validated scientifically – which it hasn’t – it was still derived from an outdated survey of an unrepresentative sample group in a country other than the UK and cannot, therefore, be cited as an estimate of the lifetime risk of rape for women living in this country.
Based on annual prevalence estimates taken from the British Crime Survey, the raw lifetime risk of rape for women living in England and Wales is approximately 1 in 9, not 1 in 4, but this doesn’t take into account the prevalence of repeat victimisation and when we all for that the figure for lifetime risk drops to between 1 in 11 and 1 in 13, depending on how conservative your estimates for repeat victimisation are. However, ven this figure cannot reasonably be cited as a estimate of the chance that a woman attending a stand-up gig may have been raped – lifetime risk is only a relevant statistic for women who are old enough to have completed a statistical ‘lifetime’, which in terms of rape statistics means that they would need to be aged 60 or over as that is the basis of the standard lifetime risk calculation for rape, which accounts for the fact that the BCS estimate for the prevalence of rape since the age of 16 in its nationally representative weighted sample, is around 1 in 22, around half the lifetime risk derived from annual prevalence rates.
For under the age of 60 then their lifetime risk needs to be modified taking into account both their age and the fact that a woman’s annual risk of being raped varies according to their age, which for women aged between 16 and 19 is around 12-13 in 1,000 but falls sharply once they reach their twenties to between 2 and 3 in 1,000, although women in their mid-late 30s and early 40s exhibit a slightly higher risk of being raped that women in their 20s, after which the risk beings to tail off. So the good news is that if you’re a woman and you’ve made it through your teens without being raped then your lifetime risk has already fallen about around a third.
Age is, however, not the only demographic characteristic that impacts on women’s risk of being raped, even if it is the biggest risk factor.
Income also makes a difference – women who come from low income households are around 3.5 times more likely to be raped than women from households whose income is at, or above, the national average (i.e. median household income).
Marital status is also a significant factor – the annual risk of being raped is around six times higher for divorcees and four times higher for women who are single or separated than it is for women who are married or cohabiting, which probably explains why women in the mid-late 30s and early 40s show a slightly higher risk than women in their 20s.
Even the type of property you live in can make a difference; living in social housing doubles a woman’s risk of rape compared to living in private rented accommodation and this also increases her risk by a factor of 4 when compared to owner occupiers.
The key point to take from this is that whatever the population risk of rape may be for women, the actual likelihood of a particular audience containing one of more rape victims, let alone a particular woman in that audience being rape victim, is heavily dependant on the demographic make-up of that audience – and there are other demographic factors that may easily come into play, such as ethnicity, for which we don’t have any population risk or prevalence estimates.
In the case of rape, as with so many other things, the risk that women face is not evenly distributed across the female population but contingent on factors such as age, social class, lifestyle and other characteristics, and so the chance of an audience at a comedy performance containing a rape survivor who could be traumatised by a reference to rape in the show is similarly contingent on those factors.
So the chance of there being a rape survivor in comedy audience is relatively small and anything but a ‘definite’ unless the gig is an arena show.
That, however, is only half the story – remember, the argument here isn’t just a rape survivor might not see the funny side of a joke that includes a reference to rape or even that such an individual might be offended by the such a joke. The issue here is whether or not comedic references to rape might pose a significant risk of trauma in the somewhat unlikely event that there is rape survivor and it is only in the last five years that an significant research into the prevalence of trauma-related psychiatric disorders in rape survivors has found its way into print.
For our purposes, perhaps the most useful papers to consider are a couple of studies Zinzow et al.; one of which appeared in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2010, the other in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology as recently as May of this year.
Our first paper by Zinzow et al., “Drug- or Alcohol-Facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape in Relationship to Mental Health Among a National Sample of Women.”  is fairly typical of the limited range of epidemiological studies that have looked at, at least in part, the relationship between rape and mental health in women and provides some very valuable information in the form of relative risk ratios for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in relation to the rape tactics adopted by perpetrators:
Women who reported forcible rape (FR) were over three times as likely as nonvictims to meet lifetime criteria for both psychiatric disorders (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Episodes), even while accounting for other rape experiences and revictimization history. FR was associated with significantly higher risk for PTSD and MDE than incapacitated rape (IR), and significantly higher risk for MDE than Drug/Alcohol Facilitated Rape (DAFR) and IR. Therefore, rape tactics did appear to differ in relation to these two common rape-related mental health outcomes. In addition, this was the first study to look at DAFR and IR with respect to mental health correlates. Women reporting a history of DAFR were almost twice as likely as nonvictims to meet criteria for PTSD. However, neither form of substance-involved rape emerged as a significant predictor of MDE.
In terms of definitions, incapacitated rape differs from drug/alcohol facilitated rape is so far as in the former the victim has voluntarily become intoxicated while, in the latter, intoxication is involuntarily, i.e. the victim’s drink was spiked by their assailant, etc.
This is all very useful and important information but, unfortunately, adds very little to the debate surrounding rape-related humour as what it doesn’t give us is any sense of the prevalence of PTSD and other trauma-related disorders amongst rape survivors. For that we need to look at the abstract of Zinzow et al.’s second paper, “Prevalence and risk of psychiatric disorders as a function of variant rape histories: results from a national survey of women.” :
Women with rape histories involving both substance facilitation and forcible tactics reported the highest current prevalence of PTSD (36%), MDE (36%), and AA (20%). Multivariate models demonstrated that this victim group was also at highest risk for psychiatric disorders, after controlling for demographics and childhood and multiple victimization history. Women with substance-facilitated rapes reported higher prevalence of substance abuse in comparison to women with forcible rape histories. Comorbidity between PTSD and other psychiatric disorders was higher among rape victims in comparison to non-rape victims.
These studies are not without their limitations due to their retrospective design and use of self-report measures for both rape and clincial indications, and nether study appears to include controls for women’s history of mental health problems prior to being rape despite the high probability of this being a significant source of confounding for drug and alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, we are at least getting somewhere – for women with a rape history that puts them in the highest risk group for developing trauma-related mental health problems, the prevalence of major disorders (PTSD and MDE) is a little over 1 in , which, if you want to take something positive from these findings, tells us that women are, on the whole, much more robust – psychologically speaking – than the common and rather stereotypical image of rape victims might suggest.
So, even if there is a rape survivor in a comedy audience, the probability that they also have trauma-related psychiatric condition which could potentially be triggered by the use of rape-related humour is, at worst, a little over 1 in 3 but also contingent on the circumstances and manner in which the survivor was raped. That said, we also have to take into the fact that social phobias and social anxiety disorder are also a common symptom of rape-related PTSD and MDE, so this alone may significantly reduce the likelihood that our hypothetical rape survivor at a comedy gig with have either of those conditions.
So what should we take from all this evidence?
Well, in the context of the public debate surrounding rape-related humour, the ‘rape survivor in the audience’ argument is all almost thrown into the debate in the assumption that its a debate-ending argument. Comedians are in the business of entertaining people and making them laugh, not traumatising members of the audience – well most are, although I wouldn’t personally care to vouch for the likes of Andrew Dice Clay on that front – so it follows, automatically, that subjects that could cause harm, rather than just offensive, should be taken off the comedic menu.
What the evidence actually tells us, however, is that that particular argument is nowhere near as strong as its proponents suppose and, in its most commonly used form, based entirely on an exaggeration of the risks derived from unvalidated and wholly unreliable zombie statistics.
More generally, what I’d suggest you consider carefully in terms of the ongoing public discourse around rape is the fact that although the causal link between rape and major psychiatric disorders such as PTSD and MDE was firmly established back in the mid 1970s, it wasn’t until the beginning of this century that epidemiological studies that sought to evaluate the prevalence and risk of PTSD in rape survivors begin to appear and that, if you look at the context in which this gap in the research base occurred, there is more to this delay in properly investigating the relationship between rape and trauma-related psychiatric injury than just cultural misogyny or official indifference toward rape victims. The stereotypical image of the traumatised rape survivor that emerged from the earliest studies of what then called ‘rape trauma syndrome’ presented rape campaigners and rape support organisations with a very potent, emotive and believable image of rape victims on which to hang their campaign activities, demands for changes to the law and improvements in law enforcement practices and demands for increased funding for victim support services, so much so that no one really thought to seriously question just how closely this image might reflect the reality of rape victims’ actual experiences until it became apparent, in the 1990s, that public acceptance of this image was creating a problem in the criminal justice system for women who didn’t exhibit obvious signs of severe trauma.
Only when it became apparent that the credibility afforded to rape victims by investigators, prosecutors and juries was being adversely affected by unrealistic expectations of how a rape victim should behave that were derived, in part, from the trauma stereotype – although pre-existing stereotypes are also, of course, a major issue – did anyone seriously begin to question just how valid this stereotype is and, by extension, how common PTSD and other major psychiatric disorders are amongst rape survivors.
Rape is an extremely complex phenomenon, a fact that is all to easily lost in the ideologically driven black and white noise that takes up far too much of the public discourse surrounding rap, and the drowning out of important nuances, complexities and subtleties in that debate can have serious, if wholly intended, consequences particularly when beliefs, assumptions and unverified theories are allowed to dominate the debate to the exclusion of an consideration of the evidence.
Next time out, I’ll be taking a look at the main bone of contention – the ‘rape joke’ – and examining what psychology of laughter can tell about the nature of rape-related humour and why the blanket assertion that rape can never be a legitimate source of humour may not only be wrong but, in some cases, potentially harmful.
1. Zinzow HM, Resnick HS, McCauley JL, Amstadter AB, Ruggiero KJ, Kilpatrick DG. Drug- or Alcohol-Facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape in Relationship to Mental Health Among a National Sample of Women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2010 25: 2217
2. Zinzow HM, Resnick HS, McCauley JL, Amstadter AB, Ruggiero KJ, Kilpatrick DG. Prevalence and risk of psychiatric disorders as a function of variant rape histories: results from a national survey of women. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2012 Jun;47(6):893-902. Epub 2011 May 21.