Sunday, January 19, 2014

Does television normalize rape culture? Probably not

It's very common to blame society's problems on the entertainment industry. We see it all the time, and the association usually goes something like this: a television show or film promotes some sort of bad behavior and Americans, too stupid to think for themselves, believe that said behavior is now acceptable because they saw it on their favorite sitcom.

In just the last two years, the entertainment industry has been wrongly blamed for school shootings, underage drinking, obesity, and all other sorts of moral maladies. The link is almost always bullshit, because there often isn't enough evidence to blame our favorite sources of entertainment for our poor choices. Some feminists, too, have taken to this type of argument, accusing popular television shows of promoting rape culture, and they're just as wrong for using it.

Writing at PolicyMic, Elizabeth Plank argued earlier this week that rape culture is everywhere, citing examples from popular sitcoms as evidence.

Among the most common places rape culture hides is in comedy. Rape jokes may seem innocuous, but when they're told over and over again on mainstream television, there's nothing benign about them.

The examples she cites, linked in a YouTube video, don't actually seem to make light of rape, unless simply using the word "rape" in a joke counts, which it really shouldn't. Context matters, after all. But let's assume these prime time shows contain vulgar, disparaging jokes about rape victims. Reading the opening paragraph of the piece got me thinking about how you could demonstrate scientifically that offensive comedy might encourage someone to commit rape or make the public less critical of it. Plank cites a handful of studies which claim to find a link between the two, but after looking up the research, the association seems awfully flimsy.

The social sciences are plagued by a number of well known problems. They are regularly criticized for not being rigorous enough. The results of research in these fields are often highly subjective and difficult to quantify, to the point that researchers in other fields want the National Science Foundation to stop funding social science research. In addition, social scientists have been accused of being ideologically biased and engaging in group think--by other social scientists. These studies of the link between humor and rape culture are perfect examples of why the social sciences have a credibility issue.

In her piece, Plank cites four such studies, all self-reported surveys conducted on college campuses. Studies of this kind are problematic for several reasons. They're usually small surveys of college students, so the results can't necessarily be applied to a wider population, all American men in this case. And...they're surveys. The results are only reliable if the surveys filled out by the study participants are accurate, which the researchers have no way of confirming. They can't determine if sitcoms "normalize the behavior of rapists," as Plank argues. They know this, too. The authors of the first paper Plank cites admit that "our research does not provide conclusive evidence that exposure to sexist jokes results in an increase in the occurrence of actual rapes." The authors also concede that men respond differently to sexist jokes as they age; the older they get, the less likely they are to appreciate sexist humor. Plank mentions neither of these important qualifications her article.

But the limited usefulness of these studies isn't the only problem. For many years, the reported number of rape cases has been declining. Some experts have questioned the dramatic decline in the statistics, claiming that many rape cases are never reported. But as the downward trend continues and women become more willing to work with law enforcement, it's likely that the trend is real.

This is really good news, but it also debunks the feminist argument that humor on television is normalizing rape, since it's really difficult to normalize a crime that is drastically declining. In fact, given the available evidence (and a research grant), I could probably crank out a study showing that rape jokes on TV reinforce society's growing disdain for rape.

I'm only being mildly cynical when I say that. Research suggests that one of humor's functions is to relieve anxiety. Life is often painful and unpredictable, and one of the ways we deal with that fact is by laughing about it. So maybe Plank is correct to link comedy and rape but she has the relationship backwards. Rape and other violent crimes are unfortunate parts of life. And while we don't approve of them, we deal with them in part by making jokes, sometimes even offensive jokes.

Rape is a terrible crime and it shouldn't be trivialized. But if anyone is trivializing it, it's the people who perpetuate this silly idea that Americans don't take rape seriously because of what they see on TV. It's certainly true that the media we consume can affect how we view the world. But similar to the people who blame school shootings on video games and childhood obesity on junk food advertising, feminists are giving television way too much credit for a crime with a variety of complex causes.

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