Relax, rape comedians, your freedom of speech is safe

It’s time to strengthen our demands around rape jokes.

Rape jokes enable rape culture. But when feminists speak out against such jokes, it’s very common for people to respond with aggrieved bleating about their “freedom of speech”.

One response to we use a lot to this is that freedom from rape trumps freedom of speech.

But by using this response, we’re buying in to the assumption that freedom of speech is at risk. That’s in itself risky – all that can ensue now is an argument about which freedoms are “more important”, which reduces “the right to not be raped” to a mere bargaining chip that can be traded off against other desirable features of society.

Let’s be honest about what we’re asking here. We’re not asking for anything that would compromise the right to freedom of speech, in the proper sense of the ability to speak without being hassled by the government. We’re not calling for any exercise of state power – a ban on rape jokes or police action against people who tell them.

Instead we’re asking, as human beings, that other human beings behave in a manner that’s respectful and considerate. Telling rape jokes isn’t a crime, but it’s a jerk thing to do. Everyone is free to be a jerk if they wish. Everyone is free to point out jerkish behaviour when they see it.

A social prohibition against telling rape jokes is no different to the social prohibitions against spreading gossip, being false, or mocking someone’s appearance. Our general agreement that these are not nice things to do doesn’t compromise anyone’s freedom of speech. Anyone is free to do them, but there are social consequences – people will think less of you, and you’ll probably lose friends.

All we ask is that rape jokes be treated the same as any other jerk behaviour. That you, ally, react the same way to a rape joke as you would to an unkind comment about a mutual acquaintance. That everyone who exercises their right to tell rape jokes does so in the knowledge that people will think less of them, and they’ll probably lose friends.

The freedom of speech argument is a distraction, and buying into it weakens our demands. There is no conflict between freedom from rape and freedom of speech. Our real conflict is the conflict between freedom from rape and rape culture. And that doesn’t undermine freedom of speech at all.