I assume people arrive at this conclusion (that rape jokes are never funny) because the act of rape itself is not funny. There seems to be a further idea that if you've never been raped, you can't understand how unfunny it is. This part I don't agree with. I've never been murdered, but I understand that murder is not funny. (Does Harper's understand this? I'm not sure.) I have also never been raped (though I have been sexually assaulted), but I understand that rape is a deadly serious thing.
I also understand that rape -- like murder, or suicide -- is a rich concept and a rich metaphor. I have written poems about rape. If it's not OK to joke about rape, is it OK to write poetry about rape? If jokes about rape are never funny, are poems about rape never beautiful or interesting? (These are serious questions.) I don't think any topic is really taboo -- references to despicable acts (if not those acts themselves, when they really happen in the real world) are often funny. Who hasn't laughed at a joke about 9/11 or the Holocaust? I think jokes are a natural way to process -- a way to think about -- despicable acts, and joking about them doesn't make them less despicable. It can actually help us understand them.
But, as usual, context matters. If you don't actually grasp the seriousness or complexity of rape or murder or terrorism or genocide, it is unlikely that I will find your joke about it funny. If I don't sense that you are aware of the tension between your joke and reality, if there is no tonal register indicating that you have processed that distance and that risk, your joke is probably not funny. In other words, as I tweeted earlier this morning, "Topics aren't the problem, hateful douchebags are."
But I'm open to argument. If you think rape jokes are never funny, tell me why.
UPDATE: Rob Delaney answered this question on Reddit four months ago. I like his answer. Here it is (in response to "Is there any topic that you consider to be taboo"):
Not really. Let's take rape for example. It's not funny. End of discussion. But you can do a funny joke about how people talk about rape, or you can juxtapose it against something else in a way that will evoke laughter and a "new" way of thinking in people who aren't monsters and/or rapists. So it's all about the way the joke is done. Is your motivation/volition to help or shed light in a way that will (if taken to its maximum/mega-extreme) result in LESS rape in the world? Then please, talk and joke about it.UPDATE 2: Dan Boehl pointed me to this list of "15 Rape Jokes That Work." I'm not moved by all of them (though I'm glad that most of them are delivered and presumably written by women), but I do find #14 pretty profound. This is Sarah Silverman, quoted in the NYT:
“I need more rape jokes,” she shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so “edgy” after all. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.”I am in awe of this joke. It is sort of objectively funny, though I didn't laugh out loud; I might have if I had seen her deliver it versus reading it online. But it fires off responses in so many parts of my brain at once. It is horrifying and uncomfortable. It's challenging. It would quite obviously have a totally different (and more frightening) effect if it came from a man. It is meta-humor and meta-culture. It doesn't matter if I "like" it or if I'm offended. It's offensive in the right way. I think it's important that jokes like this exist.