When I first heard about the sexual abuse scandal going on at Penn State, I was shocked, probably because I’m always shocked to hear that someone has inappropriately touched a child. No matter how pervasive this problem is, it’s no laughing matter, despite what football fans and the Internet at large seem to think.
The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has long been fodder for comedians (and “comedians”), so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that jokes (or “jokes”) about the drama at Penn State are already flying around online message boards and being shared via cell phone. I know, because my uncle, a football fan in Pennsylvania, sent me some via text:
“Okay, so if an older woman likes younger men she’s called a cougar… so does that make an older man that likes little boys a Nittany Lion? LMAO.”
Wow, I thought. I wasn’t sure how to respond. On a purely technical level, it’s a good joke. And it’s meant to say something negative about child abusers. Or so you think when you give it a casual read.
But then a second text came in:
“What time is football practice over at Penn State? When the big hand touches the little hand.”
I wrote back simply, “OMG.”
And then I got a third text:
“The Penn State coaches were at Wal*Mart. They heard boys underwear was half off!”
And that’s when it fully dawned on me: little boys being touched without their consent is not a joke.
I don’t entirely blame people who chuckle offhandedly when they hear these types of jokes — after all, there were tons of them going around about Michael Jackson’s supposed proclivities as well — but sending a barrage of them, or collecting them on a website, is a bit offensive. I know my uncle didn’t think for a second that when he sent those jokes he might be mocking a child — and that’s the point. We think these jokes attack the molester, and they sort of do, but they make light of sexual abuse in general, as well.
What I find fascinating about the perpetuation of all of these jokes is the idea that men feel that somehow they have to be jocular about sexual molestation, as if joking about it makes the idea of something so horrible more bearable. That’s a common philosophy in comedy, but usually for a comedian to be able to talk about something so edgy — to pass — they have to have gone through it. I highly doubt the majority of the people sharing these Penn State jokes know what it’s like to be raped in a shower by an older man who is supposed to be helping you.
Then again, there is a chance that the men — and women, too, of course — that share these jokes have been abused. Studies suggest that 16% of males and 27% of females in the West are sexually abused in some way as children. (Some studies report even higher numbers.) According to prevent-abuse-now.com, “40 percent of sexual offenders and 76 percent of serial rapists report they were sexually abused as youngsters.” Additionally, “The suicide rate among sexually abused boys was 1½ to 14 times higher, and reports of multiple substance abuse among sixth-grade boys who were molested was 12 to 40 times greater.”
So this is serious business. Not to mention the fact that comedy = tragedy + time, not tragedy + knee jerk, blockhead reaction.
That’s not to say that topical humor always fails, because we know it doesn’t. But some of these jokes are kinder to the victims than others, and the jokes that don’t come from a place of sympathy for the victim are particularly disturbing. They’re meant to bully the molester, to tarnish his image, yes, but they also re-victimize the victims. For example: “Did you hear that McDonald’s is introducing the McSandusky Burger? It’s a piece of old meat between fresh buns.”
No child who was abused wants to be reduced to a punchline about fresh buns.
Social media is a driving force in comedy, for sure, and these types of jokes are always popular on Twitter, as are bits about celebrities who’ve just died, no matter how inappropriate. Slacktory published a post on Saturday called Here Are Your “Andy Rooney Died” Twitter Jokes, and the only decent one in the bunch is from Donni Saphire, who wrote, “Heard about the guy who died, huh? Wanna tweet a quip about his memorable traits, do you? It’s too late. The story broke hours ago. DON’T.”
I think that’s a great policy to follow when it comes to child rape, too, don’t you?
As a comedian, I believe that no topic is entirely off-limits if it’s done well, but it’s so hard to talk about child sexual abuse in a way that’s funny unless you’ve been through it yourself. Maybe it’s time to stop sending texts, guys. Really.