A friend of mine is threatening to tickle his wife. She’s dancing away, squeaking “No, I mean it, stop!” before hiding behind my husband. He backs off, hands raised. “No isn’t a safeword.” He’s laughing as he says it, and most everyone else in the room laughs, too. My husband and I share a look. That wasn’t funny, right?
Now I know he didn’t mean it. I’ve played with him several times now, and watched him at parties. He checks in often, and acts more than responsible in that context. His wife isn’t actually afraid of non-consensual tickling or anything else he might do. Hell, she laughed at the joke.
And yet, I’m uncomfortable. I wonder why everyone else seems to think this is funny. It isn’t that I think he’s a rapist, it’s that the joke seems irresponsible. Not everyone here knows this couple. Not everyone even knows that they are a couple. All a new person or infrequent visitor is going to see in this exchange is a man implying that it’s okay to ignore a “no” if he feels like it. There’s an implication that a bottom or a sub or a woman’s consent only matters as long as a top/dominant/man feels like indulging her. And by laughing, like so many people did, or by keeping quiet, like I did, his audience implied that we were okay with this.
Do I think there was a person in the room who left more likely to rape because of this joke? No, of course not. But what about the other jokes? How many men in bars and clubs will say “your mouth says no, but [I don’t care what the rest of this sentence says, it’s kind of rapey]”, and complain that a woman has no sense of humor when she doesn’t laugh (or sleep with him)? Why are there multiple different t-shirt designs depicting rohypnol as basically a dating aid? Why is any woman who says no to sex at any time, for any reason, accused of teasing or “blue-balling” a man, as though he has a fundamental right to have sex with any available female simply because he wishes to? Any one of these things in isolation is a joke in bad taste. The prevalence of them points to a cultural undercurrent that accepts rape as normal and expected. And a culture that treats rape as the norm is going to produce more rapists.
In the BDSM community, I would have expected more care. Consent gets blurred, sometimes deliberately for scenes, and people will sit down and discuss doing things to each other that would be felony assault in almost any other context. Saying “no is not a safeword,” even in jest, even to someone you know well, suggests that choosing a safeword, defining how and when consent can be given and rescinded, is a right that is not granted to every person participating in a scene. And deciding that one person has more or less right to consent than another? That’s what makes people think rape is okay.
I won’t get into statistics or finer sociological points. Others have done their research and stated it in terms more eloquent than I could. I’m just here to say it’s not funny to joke about rape.
Folks who have said it better include: