Wednesday, March 07, 2012


by Patrick McGann

"When Humor Crosses the Line" originally appeared as a guest post on AAUW Dialog.

For two years, I drew a comic strip that was a spoof of the superhero genre. The strip was called The Saga of Anti-Rape Man and was published on the Men Can Stop Rape website.

In the story, Henry Niemeyer, Anti-Rape Man’s secret — well, not entirely secret — identity, accidentally stumbles into a wing of Sibley Memorial Hospital that is a clandestine feminist laboratory where experiments in creating female superpowers are conducted daily. A bizarre accident occurs — no one can explain how — that results in Henry developing superpowers to prevent rape. The tables are turned on Henry: Instead of being a hypermasculine superhero, his entry into the world of costumed powerhouses was overseen by women with special powers.

When I first conceived of the strip, I had doubts about whether I could pull it off. I worried that there would be too many minefields, too many possibilities that my attempts at humor would offend someone, especially women. I put a lot of thought into how Anti-Rape Man could be funny without offending, and before making them public, I ran the strips by people I trusted to tell me if I had crossed a line. In the two years that I wrote and drew Anti-Rape Man, there was only one negative response to one strip after I posted it on the website.

By writing about Anti-Rape Man, I intend to suggest that humor and responsibility should go together. In other words, we have to consider the effect our humor has on others. I know this goes against the grain. The general expectation is that if you’re the butt of a joke and can’t laugh it off, then you’re the problem. You’re lacking in the “ha-ha” quotient. You’re genetically deficient when it comes to funny genes. You’ve got no comical wherewithal. You’re kind of an uncool nerd. Everyone makes fun of you because you have no sense of humor.

AAUW’s latest study, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, offers insight into this conventional humor dynamic. Almost 2,000 students in grades 7–12 were surveyed, and from the results we learn that students typically don’t harass because they want to date someone (only 3 percent of students) or because they think the person likes it (just 6 percent of respondents). A lot of students — 39 percent of those surveyed — harass because they are trying to be funny. The study refers to them as “misguided comedians.” They may be misguided from our perspective, but from theirs, it seems likely that they know exactly what they want the outcome to be: shared laughter with everyone but the person who’s the butt of the joke. It’s a bonding thing. It’s a way for boys and young men to solidify their standing in a male group (according to the study, most harassers are male). That’s why it happens to someone who’s not part of this kind of group.

Consider the students who are most likely to be harassed:

  • Girls whose bodies are more developed
  • Girls who are very pretty
  • Boys who are not athletic or masculine
  • Girls who are not pretty or feminine
  • Girls or boys who are overweight

The group least likely to be harassed? Boys who are good-looking. Initially, I found this almost comical. I almost laughed about it.

Instead, I thought about my respect for lines. Cartoons are all about lines. Lines form shapes and words, which in turn become characters who speak in cartoon bubbles and say and do things that make us laugh. Sexual harassment is all about lines too. Those of us who work with young men need to discuss with them when humor crosses a line, when it turns into sexual harassment and becomes something harmful. We can help them recognize that it’s possible both to laugh and to respect lines.

* * *

Patrick McGann, Ph.D. has been involved with Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) since the organization’s inception in 1997. Patrick co-authored a sexual assault prevention strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and oversaw the development of the HURTS ONE. AFFECTS ALL. public education campaign for DoD. He regularly gives presentations across the country on engaging men in the prevention of gender-based violence.


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