Pranks and Rape Culture

The “posting regularly” thing. I’m trying. 🙂

Today, I want to talk about pranks. I hate them. I hate pranks, prank shows, April Fools, and any other setup where the goal is to humiliate another human without their consent. I get enough humiliation in my life, every time some kid in the bank says, “Mommy, why’s that man wearing a skirt?” (granted, this doesn’t happen like it used to, but it still burns). What I don’t need is extra doses from people who consider themselves my friends.

Specifically, though, what I wanted to discuss was the idea that pranks are a crucial supporting element for rape culture. There’s an innate requirement that one “be a good sport” about being humiliated, and a stronger one on those looking on that they find it funny, and (crucially) that they don’t intervene when a “prank” is being played, because doing so would be being a “spoilsport”. This is a way of reinforcing people’s tendency to be bystanders in the face of cruelty, helping to train us even as small children in how to maintain the rape culture. It also allows us to write off as “pranks” what might otherwise be seen as something dangerous or frightening to another person, training us to question our own judgement in what we see around us: is that guy really attacking that woman, or is it just a “prank”? Was that really racist bullying I just saw, or just youthful hijinks?

It would surprise me not the least little bit to find that people who enjoy playing pranks on others are also people who have a hard time with the concept of consent in other realms. To be “successful”, a prankster cannot seek consent ahead of time, but must hope for the bystanders to keep their noses out of other people’s business while they violate someone’s consent. The excuses made afterwards are similar to those of rapists: I thought they wanted it, nobody spoke up to object, everyone does it.

I don’t think it takes a diagram to show how this kind of behaviour leads to people unwilling to step in when they see someone being bullied or assaulted. We already have a social imperative, perhaps a necessary one in a tightly-packed society such as ours has become, to try not to stick our noses into things that aren’t about us.

13 thoughts on “Pranks and Rape Culture

  1. I see the connection between these things but perhaps there should be some kind of Venn Diagram on the overlap of people who play fairly harmless pranks vs pranksters who violate consent. My Mom and little sisters love to prank people but I wouldn’t put any of them in the category of consent violators because they enjoyed telling me some crazy lie on April Fools day. (For the record, I hate pranks too. My family knows this.)

    Unless of course, your point is that there is an overlap of such people who are using the excuse of prankstering, to violate other people’s consent. I’m not exactly clear on whether or not you meant that.

    • That’s a good point, thank you – it’s a twofold point I’m trying (poorly, evidently!) to make.

      1) That a prank culture is a baby form of rape culture: that the widespread acceptance of bystanding in prank culture leads subtly to a tendency to continue bystanding where it can be really important;

      2) that there is a definite overlap between serial violators of consent and pranksters, but it is an intersection set, not union.

      The main difference, I’d assert, between serial violators of consent and your Mom/sisters is that you are consenting to the pranks and April Fools’ jokes you’re talking about. You’re not harmed by them, and in that context, your consent can be somewhat assumed. Your family probably also know that if you don’t want them to, they need to stop right away, and would if you said something.

      This is also true of any intimate relationship that has good communication lines: there can be an implied consent, which can of course be withdrawn in a moment’s time, between people who know and trust one another well.

      For instance, I have a friend who particularly enjoys being woken up to sexytimes; she therefore extends an explicit – but ongoingly implied – consent to her partner to wake up her with sexy touching. She can’t consent to it before it happens, but she’s made it clear that it’s okay, and thus doesn’t feel like her consent is violated by that person in that circumstance. This is the “implied” part of which i’m speaking.

      For me, on the other hand, this would be a major trigger, so no matter how I trust someone, I will never extend that implied consent to being woken up sexily.

      Does that make it more clear? Thanks for spurring me to talk that out, it’s helped me in formulating a better understanding myself.

  2. Okay, I get it. You’re establishing exactly how these two cultures are linked.
    But one of them, Pranskter culture, (specifically group prankstering) does make the other permissible. After all, the key, to some forms of prankstering, is that others must know about the prank, in order for it to be considered such.
    Private pranskstering is no good,if other people don’t know about it. So simply by participating in it, a person, may be “enabling” rape culture.

  3. Nice post, I hadn’t thought of the consent connection before. One thing that has always bothered me about pranks is when they ignore social context. E.g. I’ve seen pranks like the following on various tv shows –
    – Man goes up to woman on street and starts following her etc. Cos street harassment and stalking of women totally don’t exist!
    – Man dressed as cop pretends to arrest/question… a black man. Racism, what’s that?

    • Funnily enough, Sunil, that’s exactly the situation that prompted the post. Recently, a friend was describing a show he found mostly hilarious (Just for Laughs, a Canadian prank show from Montreal), but it disturbed him when in the one on which they had a fake police officer pull someone over, he wondered how many Black people they’d done this to, and how much fear had been part of that? The police in Montreal aren’t exactly known for their progressive views on race in society, anymore than anywhere else. They also had a guy pretending to notice a woman scratching a car (both plants), on the far side from someone entering that car. The hilarity came from seeing their perplexed scanning of the car for damage, and all I could think was, “invitation to violence”.

  4. I am the person in my social circles that is known as the buzzkill, because unless I know for a fact that someone enjoys being pranked, tricked or otherwise lied to for ‘comedy’, I spoil it, every time. And the grand majority of time, I get thanked by the person I warned.

    This also extends to ‘grand romantic gestures’, like public proposals. Twice I have had knowledge of a public proposal in the offing, and subtly warned the recipient – both times thanked for doing so – once from a woman who welcomed the proposal but hated to cry in public and would have if surprised, and once from a woman who was not ready for that level of commitment in that relationship and thus was able to avoid the public scene and have that conversation in private.

    I would rather be a buzzkill than contribute to coercion in any form.

    • Indeed. I don’t always have the position to be able to make that attempt, but I respect your willingness to do so. And I agree about the Big Romantic Proposal; Liss has pointed out a number of times how coercive it is to be put on the spot by surprise in front of an arena or stadium full of people. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I love this. I’ve thought for a long time that pranks and practical jokes are *only* funny if the other person honestly, genuinely finds them as such–otherwise it’s bullying, and in many cases, even assault.

    For instance, I’ve seen a few pranks that were cute and/or harmlessly baffling. There was one where two motorcyclists outfitted their bikes with half of a car shell, driving along the road together like a single vehicle, until they split at an intersection and drove away, blowing the mind of the driver behind them. On a much smaller scale, one time for April Fool’s, my family prepared a dinner for my dad out of naturally white or pale-colored food and then used blue food coloring on all of it, creating the most bizarrely unappetizing table you’ve ever seen (he wandered through the house laughing and muttering “ewwwww” for a while before consenting to sit down and eat with us). Something like that, which provides a bit of humorous weirdness for people to look at, and doesn’t force them to do anything, can be delightful.

    But pranks that involve making people fear for their life? That physically hurt them? That make them feel stupid? (i.e. Pretty much every YouTube prank channel I’ve heard of) …Yeah, not okay. If one person is laughing, and one person is suffering, that’s not humor; that’s exploitation.

    The YouTube pranksters also seem to (generally) hail from pretty darn privileged backgrounds, and tend to find faking real-life oppression funny, which is a whole boatload of additional problematic garbage.

  6. My uncle was on that Just for Laughs show, and his comments really reinforce what you write – he felt anxious, frightened and then, when it was revealed as a prank, angry.

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