Earlier this month, news broke that Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida was under investigation by the Department of Justice for allegedly engaging in a sexual relationship with a 17 year old girl and paying for her to travel with him across state lines in violation of federal sex trafficking laws. In Florida, the age of consent is 18 years; with limited exceptions, this means that a child under the age of 18 cannot consent to sexual activity. An adult aged 24 or older who engages in sexual activity with a minor who is 16 or 17 years of age may be charged with statutory rape under Florida law.
Representative Gaetz is known for his inflammatory style. Given his outspoken nature, it was not surprising that shortly after the news of the investigation became public, many people rushed to mock him on social media. In doing so, these individuals failed to acknowledge that if the allegations against Rep. Gaetz are true, there is a very real victim. Jokes about the sexual exploitation of minors — even when aimed at someone that you perceive as a political enemy — are never acceptable.
Rape jokes are not funny, and they never have been. When someone makes a joke about sexual assault — or celebrates a politician being “taken down” because they are alleged to have engaged in sexual violence — it normalizes the idea of sexual assault. If someone makes a joke about rape and no one calls it out, it sends a signal that the joke is acceptable. It tells others that making light of an incredibly traumatic event with a very real victim is fine. It also upholds rape culture — an environment where sexual violence against women is normalized and excused.
Good jokes should punch up, not down. In other words, comedy should be used to critique and dismantle power structures, rather than to harm people who are vulnerable or marginalized. Making a joke at the expense of a teenager who may have been exploited by a person in a position of immense power is the definition of punching down.
By making jokes about the allegations against Rep. Gaetz, we are also in danger of ignoring the very real issues raised by this investigation. In addition to allegedly exploiting a minor, Rep. Gaetz is said to have taken pictures and videos of his sexual partners — and shown them to other legislators while on the House floor. He may have also paid women to travel internationally to engage in sex work, a violation of federal law.
Rep. Gaetz is far from the only politician to have been accused of sexual violence, and at this stage, the allegations against him are just that. He has not been convicted of a crime. When we celebrate a politician’s downfall because they engaged in sexual misconduct (as many have with regard to Governor Andrew Cuomo) or make jokes about their alleged crimes, we trivialize sexual violence and the trauma that victims and survivors endure.
What can we do to stop it? First, don’t make these kinds of jokes (no matter how you feel about that person or their politics). Second, if you hear someone making a joke or a flippant comment about sexual assault, sexual harassment, or other forms of sexual violence, say something. By speaking out, we can change the conversation around sexual violence — and work towards our goal of ending this type of abuse.
As always, if you need help, we are here for you. Our hotline is available 24 hours a day, is free of charge, and can be anonymous. Call anytime at 1-888-832-2272.