Toward a Humor-Positive Feminism: Lessons from the Sex Wars

This piece will be appearing in the next issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Comedy Issue, No. 17

To support the Los Angeles Review of Books and receive the next issue, donate to our fund drive today or become a member


Laughs exude from all our mouths.”
Hélène Cixous 

Comedy, you broke my heart.”
Lindy West


IN A BIT about sexual violence in his 2010 concert film Hilarious (recorded in 2009), the now-infamous Louis C.K. says: “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” I was delighted when I first encountered this joke on Jezebel in July 2012 in a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke.” Lindy West was responding to the social media controversy surrounding American comedian Daniel Tosh, who had recently taunted a female heckler with gang rape. West’s insightful essay later led to a 2013 TV debate with comedian Jim Norton as well as her best-selling memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, where she describes the fallout of becoming one of the United States’s best-known feminist comedy commentators, including her subsequent, painful decision to stop going to comedy shows.

In “How to Make a Rape Joke,” West wondered whether it is ever okay to approach sexual violence with humor. She wrote that she understood and respected those, like the woman who called out Tosh, for whom it wasn’t, categorically. The sexual assault of women poses a special problem for comedy, she reasoned, because it is an expression of structural discrimination against women. That is, unlike misfortunes such as cancer and dead babies known to befall people at random, if you’re a woman, not only do you face a one in three chance of becoming a target of sexual violence, but you will also likely be held at least partly responsible for it. To illustrate the inappropriateness of jokes about this kind of a situation, she drew a comic analogy between patriarchal society and a place where people are regularly mangled by defective threshing machines and then blamed for their own deaths: “If you care […] about humans not getting threshed to death, then wouldn’t you rather just stick with, I don’t know, your new material on barley chaff (hey, learn to drive, barley chaff!)?” Compassion about a culturally loaded form of suffering would seem, automatically and intuitively, to preclude humor about it. Yet West’s own humorous reframing demonstrated what she ultimately decided: that you could be funny about sexual violence if you “DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.” In particular, Louis C.K.’s rape joke then earned West’s stamp of approval because, in her words:

[It] is making fun of rapists — specifically the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else’s body like you’re hungry and it’s a delicious hoagie. The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.

Though her recent New York Times piece “Why Men Aren’t Funny” makes it clear that West now regards her defense of Louis C.K. as a relic, her sharp distinction between acceptable and unacceptable jokes in “How to Make a Rape Joke” set the standard for mainstream feminist discussions of comedy for a good five years.

While I find West compelling, in my own efforts to navigate the contemporary feminist ethics of humor throughout this period, I’ve been resisting the impulse to draw limits. Instead, I’ve been looking back to the debates over sexuality that were central to North American feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the so-called sex wars, feminists agreed that sexuality had always been held in a patriarchal stranglehold but disagreed about what to do about it. The Women Against Pornography saw explicit sexual representations as the very basest mechanisms of female sexual oppression and so focused their energy on educating the public about their harms and prosecuting pornographers. By contrast, sex-positive feminists, as they came to be known, claimed that trying to shut down or cordon off unacceptable expressions of sexuality only exacerbated the problem. They argued that the history of criminalization and widespread fear of any sex but the reproductive, romantic, married kind had not only led to the marginalization of sex workers, lesbians, gay men, trans people, and many other so-called sexual deviants, but also cast sexuality as such into the shadows. Targeting pornography was therefore counterproductive. As Susie Bright, vocal defender of the sex-positivity movement and founder of the first women-run erotic magazine, put it:

porn [can be] sexist. So are all commercial media. [Singling out porn for criticism is] like tasting several glasses of salt water and insisting only one of them is salty. The difference with porn is that it is people fucking, and we live in a world that cannot tolerate that image in public.

Sex-positive feminists actively chose not to contribute to this climate of moral panic, focusing instead on unearthing the deeply embedded mainstream prejudices around sexual practices and fantasies. Instead of turning away, they faced sexuality head on, acknowledging debts to the small minority of people — sexologists, fetishists, queers, sex workers, erotic performers, and indeed pornographers — who had already begun exploring human sexuality in all its complexity, often with little socioeconomic support and at the risk of criminal charges. By many accounts, it was this unabashed approach to sex that led to the development and popularization of safe-sex protocols and consent education later in the 1980s.

There are of course, limits to the comparison of sex and humor, especially given that the impact of hetero-patriarchy on sex is much more immediately visible. Nevertheless, I would suggest that sexuality and humor are not merely analogous, but are in fact overlapping categories of feminist experience. Both are understood to be culturally coded but with powerful bases in the body. Like sex, laughter has historically been considered an unruly instinct, even by the very philosophers who have most rigorously examined it. As scholars like Anca Parvulescu, John Morreall, and Linda Mizejewski have variously shown, the stigma of humor, like that of sex, has been intricately interwoven with its designation as an irrational impulse and with gendered and racialized notions of embodiment. Moreover, there is a shared double standard regarding both laughter and sex: both have been imagined, paradoxically, as things that men have to cajole “respectable” (implicitly white, cisgendered, pretty, heterosexual) women to do and, at the same time, as things that transgressive women instinctively want to do, in excess. The dangers of both sex and humor have been encapsulated in the figure of a woman open-mouthed and out of control. In the early ’80s, the influential sexuality scholar Gayle Rubin observed that the most common symptom of our culture’s general fear of sex, or “sex negativity” as she called it, is the very impulse “to draw and maintain an imaginary line between good and bad sex.” That is, while various mainstream discourses of sex differ from one another in terms of the value systems they deploy and their level of overt misogyny, their views of sex are, ultimately, remarkably uniform: “Most of the discourses on sex, be they religious, psychiatric, popular, or political, delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as sanctifiable, safe, healthy, mature, legal, or politically correct” and, once the lines are drawn, “[o]nly sex acts on the good side […] are accorded moral complexity.” Wary of simply rerouting sexual shame, sex-positive feminists instead actively cultivated a nonjudgmental stance.

This might seem the worst possible moment to advocate for an equivalent form of humor positivity, let alone with reference to a joke about sexual violence by Louis C.K. In the wake of the public exposure of numerous celebrity serial sexual abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, the viral #MeToo campaign has uncovered thousands of male harassers and abusers, and pointed to millions of others as yet unnamed. Since C.K. confirmed reports of his nonconsensual exhibitionism, some of the feminist anger and despair that was already rippling across popular and social media is being directed specifically at the industry that gave him his power. Many mainstream feminists, not least West herself, feel more prepared now than ever to throw the bathwater of comedy out along with the many baby-men who have been cavorting in it. Yet, as I see it, it is precisely in the context of our well-justified outrage that humor positivity is most needed. Humor is a vital, elusive, and continually evolving aspect of human experience. Like sex, it has repeatedly served oppressive ends, but it is no more essentially or necessarily discriminatory an impulse than sexuality is. It is undoubtedly important that we probe and resist the misogynist culture of mainstream comedy. At the same time I propose a change in the way we personally and collectively engage with the material this industry trades in — that is, the jokes themselves.

How might we ensure compatibility between the jokes we hear or make and the tools and concepts that shape our responses? How can we prevent our resistance to certain jokes from reproducing the (historically patriarchal) marginalization and stigmatization of the desire to laugh? If we get used to approaching jokes with trepidation, expecting offense, how might that wariness affect our political movements? In the current feminist conversation, these questions have begun to be raised in, for instance, Cynthia Willett, Julie Willett, and Yael D. Sherman’s “The Seriously Erotic Politics of Feminist Laughter,” Jack Halberstam’s “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma,” Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai’s “Comedy Has Issues,” and Berlant’s “The Predator and the Jokester.” My sense is that what we especially need now are some clear and concrete principles and practices for humor-positive feminism. Here are three lines of inquiry that I hope may help us to develop a richer set of responses to comedy going forward.


Can we develop a more complex and flexible view of humors power dynamics?

One of the major contributions of sex-positive feminism to our current understanding of sexuality was the recognition of seemingly counterintuitive forms of agency from below. Sex-positive feminists showed us the through line between the patriarchal suspicion of sexuality and certain feminist critiques of sexual exploitation. Though the fear of sex was originally and widely promulgated in medical, religious, and legal discourses, some of the alternative schemas of anti-porn feminists heightened the idea that most sex is inherently terrifying. For instance, Catharine MacKinnon’s view that “the social relation between the sexes is organized so that men may dominate and women must submit and this relation is sexual — in fact, is sex” — while it helpfully exposes sexual violence as a structural problem — also makes it impossible to distinguish consensual heterosexuality from rape. Sex-positive feminists turned to the less moralistic disciplinary frameworks of sexology, sociology, and anthropology. Inspired in part by the subversive theories of power of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, they insisted that saying yes or no to sexual contact, including sexual domination, was a fundamental form of sexual participation. Moreover, they saw that the patterns of giving, taking, and sharing power through sex are much more various and unpredictable than — and sometimes run counter to — the arrangements delimited by basic socioeconomic and patriarchal paradigms.

A first step for developing a similarly nuanced take on the power relations entailed in humor could be examining and loosening up our often-unconscious obsession with the cruelty of laughter. In the philosophy of humor there are at least three ways of characterizing laughter, which can help to parse the differences between various jokes, as well as modes of delivery and reception. Today humor philosophers are most convinced by the idea, first fully elaborated in the 18th century, that laughter is a response to incongruity: something familiar suddenly looks strange, and the resulting sense of surprise pleases us. Another branch of humor theory draws on psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious. Relief theorists, most famously Freud, have emphasized the way that jokes, like dreams, trick us into considering ideas that we normally repress: laughter specifically manifests the giddiness of released inhibitions. These two modern theories of humor are largely compatible. Amusement does not necessarily degrade its objects but may imaginatively reframe or transform them, circulating power between tellers, laughers, and their objects in any number of ways.

The oldest and still most popular notion of humor, however, is one that presupposes and depends on hierarchical and unidirectional power relations. Superiority theory perceives laughter as the expression of unexpected pleasure at discovering our own excellence relative to the things we laugh at. In Thomas Hobbes’s famous formulation, “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” Superiority theory initially emerged alongside and is consistent with explicitly elitist political ideologies. It may be the only theory of humor children instinctively grasp: even at an early age, the phrase “That’s not funny!” is understood to mean not what it literally implies — “What you’ve said is not amusing to me and could never amuse anyone” — but rather “That hurts my feelings.” For kids, joking about the wrong thing is an ethical violation; it simply moots the possibility of laughing. These days, distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable jokes seem to put a modern, grown-up face on superiority theory. But jokes labeled as “offensive” or “inappropriate” are determined to be “not funny” in more or less the same way that kids mean it. The tropes that oppose “punching up” to “punching down,” coined in the early 1990s by the feminist satirist Molly Ivins, have been crucial in the popularization and liberalization of superiority theory. Those phrases also put a deceptively simple spatial spin on the relative socioeconomic power of laughers and objects. Reinforcing a David and Goliath moral code, the tropes imply that jokes are crucially aggressive in form, but that in some cases violence is justified. It’s okay — heroic even — to take on a bigger meaner guy, but undoubtedly a bad thing to pick on someone littler and weaker than you.

Of course, jokes can be hurtful, sometimes intentionally so. However, taking cues from sex-positive feminists, we might want to stop simply assuming that they are. Just as consensual sexual relations of domination and submission may look like abuse to those who don’t understand the rules, so might some apparently mean jokes. Think of insult comedy or a roast, where the target welcomes the jokes that really sting. But the larger and more important point is that, more than any other factor, our theories of humor will determine our perception of any joke and of the social and political arenas in which they are being made. Keeping our minds open to the possibility that surprise or relief rather than aggression may be the primary affect or intention will better equip us to see the various, potentially contradictory, facets of any comic provocation. Mainstream feminist critics have specific reasons for rejecting jokes about sexual violence: for some survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress, the power dynamics of humor and of assault can sometimes feel so painfully intertwined that certain jokes are experienced as violations akin to the initial trauma. Yet it is precisely because the very perception of aggression can recharge past suffering that it seems important to remember humor’s other impulses. Recently, artists like Emma Cooper, Heather Jordan Ross, Adrienne Truscott, and Vanessa Place are turning to humor expressly in an effort to destigmatize the experiences of sexual assault survivors and change the tone of our conversation. How might a more general focus on humor as incongruity or relief also help to reduce the frequency or intensity of fight-or-flight responses and open up new aesthetic, therapeutic, and political prospects?


Can we develop a more thoroughgoing and flexible view of the rhetorical and performative aspects of humor?

In recent years, I’ve often been surprised to hear irony or ambiguity denounced in feminist humor criticism, as though it would be possible, if people would just say what they really mean, to be assured of a perfectly direct transmission of ideas or a fully inclusive joke. For example, in her study of the dangers of rape jokes, Lara Cox reiterates the superiority theory view that the pleasure of irony depends on “the idea that there is someone out there who won’t ‘get’ the nonliteral nature of the utterance” — and these dupes are “the joke’s ‘butts’ or ‘targets.’” In his study of race humor, Simon Weaver distinguishes between polysemous jokes, which inadvertently reinforce racism, and clear jokes, whose antiracist message cannot be mistaken. I worry that such arguments seem to disavow the fundamental slipperiness of language. Contributing in their own way to North American sex positivity, Frenchpoststructuralist feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous underscored that words have never been equipped for transparent representation. While many jokes do depend on linguistic play, comedians are not responsible for the essential arbitrariness of their medium. Words will always interact and impinge on one another; signification will always be subjectively, historically, and politically inflected, by both speakers and listeners, in myriad ways. Reminding ourselves of the basic wildness of language — and the range of meanings and identities that this wildness makes imaginable, especially in jokes — can temper our anxiety about the inevitability of misinterpretation.

At the same time, let’s attend more carefully to the theatricality of humor, including the jokes and quips that bubble up spontaneously as part of ordinary conversation. In particular, stand-up comedians are in character even when they speak as themselves, and many comedians regularly adopt multiple personas, some of whom channel views that they find especially awful or absurd. Very often these views are already in the air, and the comedian, by giving voice to popular perceptions, hopes to draw fresh attention to them. Moreover, comedians tend not to put on and take off these various personas like so many hats, but rather to alternate and layer them, turning some up and others down, as if each one was a different translucent projection on a dimmer switch. These uneven amplifications of characterization actually generate the dialogic structure of comic performance, as stand-up scholar Ian Brodie explains: “The audience is expected to try to determine what is true [that is, closest to what the comedian generally thinks] and what is play. The comedian[’s] […] aim is […] to deliver whatever will pay off with laughter.” Staying conscious of these shifts will help us to recognize that the most challenging moments — those moments when we don’t know quite where to locate a comedian’s values and commitments — are not incidental but central to the interpersonal dynamics of stand-up comedy.


How can we expand our theories of laughters social conditions and effects?

Our most definitive and intense experiences of laughter tend to be in groups of three or more. For most of us, sex and humor are different in this respect. And humor theorists have written very engagingly about the feelings of communion potentially generated through laughter. Ted Cohen writes, for example, that laughing together “is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realization of a desperate hope. It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.” However, as Robert Provine and others argue, we have so much more to learn about humor’s social aspirations, from the vantage of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and many other disciplines besides. Feminists will have a lot to contribute to this inquiry, not least because we know to be skeptical of any account of collective social experience that neglects to factor in the uneven distribution of socioeconomic resources and respect and because we are acutely aware of the likelihood of exclusion and humiliation within any diverse group, and the likelihood that these bad feelings will remain invisible to the most entitled people in the room.

As we help to flesh out our understanding of the social benefits and costs of humor, however, I hope we will get better at waiting for the initial wash of feeling to pass before assigning political positions and moral values to jokes, their tellers, and our own and others’ responses. Drawing on the insights of cultural studies, some pro-porn feminists have recently been exploring the consumers’ prerogative in shaping their reception of any sexual representation, regardless of its intended public. In an essay called “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta,” Jane Ward contemplates her taste for mainstream porn and proposes that,

We need […] a means of “queering” porn that doesn’t rely on filmmakers to deliver to us imagery already stamped with the queer seal of approval, and that doesn’t automatically equate queer viewers with queer viewing. […] Can we watch sexist porn and still have feminist orgasms?

Many of the most successful comedians purposely write material that can reach very different audiences. What if we were to recognize that as listeners or consumers of jokes we have a comparable level of freedom in determining a joke’s meaning, of finding a place from which the joke can be funny to us? Adapting Ward’s question, we might consider: “Can we have a feminist laugh at a discriminatory joke?” Especially given the current state of US and world politics, some humor researchers have been perturbed to discover that certain satires appeal to both progressive and conservative viewers alike. But if humor, like sex, can make strange bedfellows, that capacity to bring people together may be something not — or not only — to fear, but also something to maximize strategically and even celebrate. Even when we’re laughing for different reasons, couldn’t the fact that we’re doing so across too-familiar divides be invigorating in unpredictable ways?

To consider how humor-positive feminism might differ from the censuring approach that is dominant now, let’s return to C.K.’s 2009 joke. It starts with a basic prohibition — “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone” — then follows with a rationalization of nonconsensual sex that completely overrides that prohibition: “Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The statements contradict one another and the speaker’s casual diction suggests that he has made a habit of justifying acts of criminal violence. In 2012, West’s superiority theory of humor dictated that her central critical task was to work out who was most hurt by this crazy illogic and determine whether or not that hurt was deserved. She implicitly centered the shift in C.K.’s delivery from one statement to the next, reading these lines as a joke that mocked the perpetrator-persona’s twisted thinking. Feminists had permission to laugh, and in fact wanted to laugh, she argued then, because we felt confident that all of us, including C.K. himself, were not just much nicer but also much smarter than the asshole he was briefly inhabiting on stage. However, C.K.’s recent confirmed sexual misconduct has thoroughly destroyed this version of the joke by eroding the distinction between C.K.’s own voice and that of his perpetrator-persona. As playful distance has given way to painful alignment, the liberal superiority theory must seek a new target. From this vantage, the 2009 joke — insofar as it can still be construed as an utterance capable of eliciting laughter — has to be recognized for what it actually always was: a trivialization of rape.

When West was writing “How to Make a Rape Joke” in 2012, C.K. was appreciated by feminists for regularly raising difficult questions about white heterosexual male privilege. This status provided an important touchstone for West’s feeling that his rape joke, unlike many others, was critical of rape culture: “Louis CK has spent 20 years making it very publicly clear that he is on the side of making things better.” Already by the time she was writing her memoir, however, West had stopped actively defending this joke — “I should have been harder on Louis CK, whom I basically let off on a technicality.” In recent weeks, C.K. has been made a symbol of one of the most insidiously misogynist formal features of confessional stand-up comedy: the way the whole audience is made to share in the comedian’s personal shame. According to this revised binary feminist view, everyone who ever laughed at this joke bears some responsibility for pain it may have caused to assault survivors and for contributing to rape culture.

But is it necessary — or advisable — to turn against our desire to laugh, even as we shift our attention away from C.K. himself? A humor-positive feminist frame invites us to remember the other laughs that we have lost now that C.K. and his perpetrator-persona are not fully distinguishable. We can see that it was previously available as a relief joke that provocatively illustrated the kind of exceptionalism to which we are all capable of falling prey. And as an explicitly anti-sexist incongruity joke, about the tendency of oft-repeated prohibitions to become empty slogans, especially where endemic, shame-inducing patterns of sexual violence are concerned. Paradoxically, though C.K.’s long history of abuse has destroyed his credibility as a critic of the ineffectiveness of liberal platitudes, it also proves the urgent necessity of the kind of critique he was trying to offer.

In December 2017, as I write this, a humor-positive frame also allows us to turn C.K.’s lines into a dark feminist superiority joke that, instead of stressing our own pain and disappointment, capitalizes on the situational irony here. This once-celebrated self-exposer has been exposed as yet another man with a consent problem. That is, since his accusers bravely went public and Louis C.K. affirmed their reports, the coyness of the original lines may be unraveled through a revenge joke: like a deranged wooden puppet, the comedian punches up at himself much harder than he intends. Feminist humorist Jill Gutowitz effectively put this metajoke into circulation when she posted links to C.K. telling a variety of rape jokes over the years, including the one discussed here, below the Tweet: “Surprised about Louis CK? Here’s every time he told us, to our faces, that he was a creep.” Because righteousness isn’t my favorite flavor, I don’t find this new version of the joke as funny as the one I thought that C.K. was telling in 2009. But I do like knowing that it’s going around.


Danielle Bobker is associate professor in the English Department at Concordia University in Montreal, where she is also co-organizer of a working group on Feminism and Controversial Humor.