I’m not going to spend too much time rehashing the Daniel Tosh rape joke thing, but I’d like to offer this quick rule of thumb on the subject of, “Can rape ever be a topic for jokes?”
It goes like this: If a person in your audience who has raped somebody heard the joke, would they feel like what they’ve done is normal and not really that big of a deal? If the answer to that question is “yes,” (like if your bit involves saying, "How can a rape joke not be funny?") then your joke is shitty and you shouldn’t make it. You’re not transgressing against societal norms — you’re reinforcing them, because society likes to tell people who’ve been raped that it’s not a big deal, that it’s their fault, that it wasn’t really rape because nobody jumped out of the bushes and hit ‘em with a brick, that they totally know [homeboy] and he would never rape anybody. Your joke isn’t pushing boundaries or challenging the status quo — it’s reinforcing the status quo.
Which isn’t to say that a joke that deals with the topic of rape should never come out of a comic’s mouth, which is what people who start thinking they’re the second coming of George Carlin and steadfast supporters of free speech hear, I guess. The jokes just need to be fucking great, and they need to legitimately challenge the way we think about this stuff.
Watch this Louis CK bit. Anybody in the audience who’s actually raped somebody isn’t going to walk away from that feeling supported. It actually challenges the way we talk and think about rape, and — check it — it’s still funny. Donald Glover has a bit that I can’t find online about how he, as a dude, realized that when he’s out, zero percent of his day is spent thinking about how not to get raped. It’s funny and effective, and the joke is on a society that doesn’t afford that luxury to women. (Both of those guys have said some shitty, offensive things on this subject, too, which demonstrates that it is really hard to talk about and people should consider that when making jokes.)
Because ultimately, your jokes do have implications in people’s real lives. People who’ve actually been raped come away from stuff like the Tosh bit feeling much more alone in the world; people who’ve actually committed rape are more likely to be able to convince themselves that what they did wasn’t a big deal, that it’s not real rape. And if you’re cool with those things, then you are at the top of the list of complete fucking hackjob tools. That’s free speech. If you defend that shit, what is it you’re defending?