“Sexual and gender-based violence is the most extreme form of the global and systemic inequality experienced by women and girls.” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (IDEVAW) and White Ribbon Day are both designed to raise awareness of sexual and gender-based violence experienced by women all over the world. There are obviously many forms of violence – almost all of which affect both men and women. That said, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience some form of physical or sexual violence in their lives, mostly perpetrated by an intimate partner (Unwomen.org). Women are much more likely to endure sexual violence, in particular – every year, approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales alone (Rapecrisis.org.uk).

rape culture & the influence of language

So-called ‘rape jokes’ are a significant part of what many refer to as ‘rape culture’ – ways in which sexual violence is normalised due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Obviously, no one is saying that telling a joke about sexual assault will directly lead to a rape. However, several studies have shown that even just being shown a sexist joke may lead to increased blame attached to victims of rape, acceptance of the desire to rape, and a decreased view of rape as a ‘serious’ problem.

It’s often said that tragedy + time = comedy. Humour can be a valuable coping mechanism and a useful tool in tackling taboo topics, but most people would accept there are times when a joke can go too far. Rape jokes have several detrimental effects, including the normalisation of male sexual violence.And an  ill-timed joke about rape could also be triggering for a victim or a survivor of abuse. Despite this, it seems many people continue to make these remarks – if anything, they may even be becoming more commonplace.

OnePoll surveyed 1,000 nationally representative UK adults on their use of and attitudes towards rape jokes, and on modern usage of the word ‘rape’.

38% of UK adults polled said they hear jokes about sexual assault or sex offenders regularly. The most frequent appeared to be prison rape jokes. 18% of people admitted they’d made this type of joke themselves, with men being roughly twice as likely to do so (24% vs. 11%).

The second-most-common type of jokes were those about certain groups such as Catholic priests assaulting children, and third were jokes about victims or survivors of famous offenders, such as Jimmy Savile.

4% of respondents had gone as far as joking that they would rape someone themselves and 7% said that they heard this type of comment on a regular basis. These comments were much more commonly witnessed by 18-24 year olds, with nearly a quarter (23%) saying they hear them regularly.

You can find aggressive sexual language in the most casual conversations. The F-word and the much-hated C-word are obvious examples, but we seem to be developing more and more vocabulary based on sexual violence as time goes on. The verb ‘rape’ can now be used with a variety of meanings – from ‘Facebook rape’ (Frape) to the slightly more obscure ‘yawn rape’. It’s becoming frequently used as slang for ‘beat’ in some form of competition – this meaning has risen to be the second most popular definition of the word on Urban Dictionary. The adjective ‘rapable’ can even now be used to describe “a person who is attractive enough to make the struggle of raping them worthwhile.”

Nearly half of those polled (48%) knew the term Facebook rape or Frape. 22% had used one or both of the terms themselves and 8% said they hear them regularly. Again this percentage was highest amongst 18-24 year olds, with a staggering 88% saying they were familiar with the term.  59% said that they themselves have used the term and another 14% hear it regularly.

The phrase ‘yawn rape’ was less well known, with only 20% knowing what it meant, while one in ten have used it. Once more though, these figures increased when looking at responses from 18-24 year olds, with 42% knowing the term and 27% admitting to using it.

While 11% of people surveyed had used the word ‘rape’ to mean beat in some form of competition, 16% say they hear the word ‘rape’ used in this context regularly. In this instance it was people in the 25-34 year old age category who were most likely to both use the word in this way (27%) and frequently hear it (36%). Its usage was also more common amongst men (10% vs. 5%).

Overall, 41% admitted they had personally made some kind of joke about sexual assault or offenders, or had flippantly used the word ‘rape’ to mean something less serious. The use of this kind of language varied greatly and correlated with age – 71% of 18-24 year olds said they had made these kinds of jokes or remarks, compared to just 22% of those aged 55+.

public opinion

Most of those surveyed appeared to disapprove of rape jokes, and of the casual use of ‘rape’ with alternate meanings. 86% of people said that rape jokes are insensitive to victims and survivors of abuse. 75% thought they can reinforce negative attitudes towards women and 70% feel they normalise sexual violence. However, male respondents were consistently less likely to agree with these statements, as were 18-24 year olds.

When asked about their feelings towards rape jokes, the most common view our panel held was that at least some of the jokes are disgusting (31%), followed by worrying that other people may find them distressing, at times (27%). Both of these responses were more likely to be given by women. In contrast, 16% sometimes feel these remarks are fine but that others over-react to them, and 14% consider at least some rape jokes to be funny. These reactions were more frequent amongst both men and younger generations.

Much like rape jokes – when we asked what people thought of using the word rape to mean ‘beat’, 19%  sometimes worried that other people might find it distressing. 17% said it was disgusting at least some of the time, but 12% felt it was fine and that others over-react to it.

when is it okay to tell a rape joke?

76% of respondents recognised that hearing rape jokes or casual use of ‘rape’ with an alternate meaning could be distressing for victims or survivors of abuse. This understanding was highest amongst those aged 55+ (85%), but lowest in 18-24 year olds (62%).

Despite the high number of people expressing their disapproval of rape jokes, nearly 1 in 4 (23%) respondents said it’s okay to make at least some of these types of jokes and comments amongst friends. That said, the vast majority of those polled (87%) said they would never make such remarks in front of a friend they knew to be a victim or survivor of abuse. This is yet another question where responses appear to be affected by age – while an overwhelming 94% of respondents aged 55+ said they would never do this, the figure drops significantly to 75% for 18-24 year olds.

However, due to widespread rape myths leading to people blaming victims, the associated stigma, and a multitude of other reasons, it’s estimated that up to 38% of adults who are seriously sexually assaulted tell no one at all. This means some people may inadvertently trigger a traumatic memory for a loved one by making such a remark, even when they think it’s safe to do so, amongst close friends.

These results imply that younger generations are far more likely to make rape jokes and to use sexually violent language in casual conversation. 18-24 year olds also seemed to have less comprehension of the potential impacts that rape culture can have, both on society and on victims and survivors. So is this something that changes as we get older? Or is this a sign of cultural change? Maybe a result of our desensitisation to violent language jokes, in the same way we’ve become accustomed to graphic horror films? Regardless of the reasons, perhaps more needs to be done to raise awareness of and tackle the impacts of rape culture – particularly in young people.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, there are a number of support services you can contact.