Dear Onion Writers: Sexual Abuse Isn’t Funny


I’m a long-time fan of The Onion. I generally find it both intelligent and hilarious, their social and political commentary being more spot-on than that of many serious news sources.

That said, I find it especially disappointing when The Onion takes an all-too-common turn into misogyny. In February, they sparked outrage with a supposedly humorous but hugely insulting tweet calling 9-year-old Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis “kind of a cunt.” And on Tuesday they published a piece of satire about the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl.

Titled “Adolescent Girl Reaching Age Where She Starts Exploring Stepfather’s Body,” the piece seems to use sexual abuse only to elicit cheap, shock-value laughs. What is the clever commentary here? That family sexual abuse is so commonplace it’s become merely a ritual of adolescence? The article’s fictitious guidance counselor is quoted as saying: “It will probably take time for Heather to figure out what does and doesn’t feel good to her stepfather … But it’s all part of growing up, and she should know that she is taking a very important step in life.” Funny? No.

I do believe it’s possible to use humor as a tool to call out and criticize rape culture. Sarah Silverman can do it. But if that’s what this Onion piece is trying to do, it sorely misses the mark. Rather, this piece will certainly be triggering to survivors of incest and sexual assault, and won’t enlighten anyone.

Being both a feminist and a lover of comedy, there have been far too many times I have cringed when a comedian I enjoy and respect surprises me with a rape joke. I think it says a lot about the pervasiveness of rape culture that virtually no source of humor seems free from the occasional ha-ha about sexual violence. Often, feminists who are critical of such “humor” are told to “lighten up,” and to accept that misogyny in comedy as inescapable. But I don’t believe that we should simply have to accept that all comedy—even intelligent, left-leaning satire—is inevitably going to “go there.”

Onion writers, you’re smarter, funnier and better than this. And you owe us an apology.

Photo by Flickr user richard_north under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Deborah Biele says:

    I really agree with this article. I’m 73 and have been a feminist activist since I was 30 and at the moment I am writing a book proposal on modern rape. I know for a fact that women who come from backgrounds where sexual assault went on in their homes don’t find it funny or in any way the kind of topic to be turned into a comedy.

  2. Sarah Silverman, really? Her jokes about rape sound just the same as everybody else’s, from the ones I’ve heard. I’ve never heard any that sound like they’re criticizing rape culture, they sound like they’re for cheap laughs no different than the Onion.

  3. Chelsea Dean says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This topic is very serious and sensitive and does not belong in the same paragraph, story, blog or page with humor. There is nothing simple or funny about it. I work everyday with victims of child sexual assault. They are traumatized by the abuse. I find it very sad that this topic is now in the comedy lineup. It is sickening and makes me ashamed of the writers, and those who authorize it to be published.

  4. Poorly done and edited i’m afraid.

  5. Angi,

    This Onion satire is just that: satire. Satire is often misread, and perhaps that’s what happened here. It definitely isn’t making light of the subject, and I don’t find it misogynistic either. Yes, they should have put a trigger warning in.

    I think you lessen the gravity of the term “rape joke” by comparing the piece to one. The piece rarely evokes humor and, when it does, it is the black, cathartic sort that comes from the mind reconciling the absurdity and familiarity of what is being said. This troubling paradox is at the heart of the piece: everyone knows about sexual abuse, but we rarely put the spotlight on its pervasiveness and its harrowing results. The satire points out how ridiculous our acceptance of this sort of thing is by treating it as if it was commonplace. It highlights how destructive abuse is to young people by using the language employed when discussing constructive stages of child development.

    Sometimes, as feminists, we are the ones who owe an apology. Consider the possibility that you are looking through the Onion’s telescope the wrong way. In the case of this satire, I’m not suggesting you “lighten up”— I’m suggesting you get serious.

    • I agree. There’s no point in which either the victim or the act is made fun of, only the attitudes surrounding a practice that’s disturbingly common. I also resent being lumped in with “Us” needing an apology. I don’t need an apologize and I’ll thank you not to speak on my behalf.

    • Christina Libby says:

      I think I am in this boat for this one. I very often am fighting the “that’s not funny” battle on the side of real wit versus stale shock humor. However, as with a lot of topics that end up on the battlefield of semantics and intent, I read this one as pointing out the victim blaming culture that can be sadly commonplace with young girls and their older abusers. The piece is taking something that I have heard given as an excuse to child abuse when the victim is a girl in her early teens and making it the dominant view point to show how ignorant it is.

    • Wow. Hi. I’m a survivor of 12 years of chronic child abuse and rape by my stepfather. I will never apologize for criticizing this kind of “edgy” “black” “humor.” This is what happened to me, it’s my life, and it’s not a fucking joke. You know who did think it was hilarious? My rapist.

      Most people already consider child abuse and rape to be a kind of joke. It’s a crime seldom acknowledged, strictly hidden from the public eye, and often blamed on the children who are victimized. Men joke constantly about how “easy” abused girls grow up to be. Men joke constantly about how fucked-up girls make the best lays. I have often been the target of “dark” “jokes” about getting raped because supposedly, girls like me are trained from childhood to enjoy it. Abuse victims with PTSD are often treated like they have “PTSD lite” because it was “only” caused by child abuse, not something legitimate and serious, like fighting in a war.

      I know and have spoken with a large number of people who were abused or raped as children, but I don’t know a single one whose rapist was punished with jail time.

      Making a joke about something deadly serious can be legitimate, but not if the subject is already not taken seriously. In this case The Onion is simply aggravating the problem.

  6. You said it all so well. How could the Onion – which grows right here in Portlandia (or close enough by to be enlightened too) would get it so dead wrong ? It’s a measure, I guess, of how much education is still needed – even among intelligent/educated folks – about PTSD and the other painful lifetime effects from which survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffer. The Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence ( is working in that movement of education and prevention.
    Rhonda Case
    Advisor to SAIV

  7. Alison Loris says:

    The Onion is famous for satire that pushes people’s buttons, including those of the earnestly politically correct. That’s why we love it. But to get so caught up in this role that ANY topic that will enrage people is fair game, regardless of the intolerable pain caused to survivors of abuse, wounding and shaming people who have been victimized by joking about what happened to them: no, that is not okay.

    Child sexual abuse is not funny. Ever. Period. Apologize.

  8. I agree that the attempt on the part of the Onion to satirize sexual abuse of any kind is inappropriate and hurtful to victims who are still in the healing process. Nothing funny here.

  9. Automatically equating what you find offensive or should not be joked about (Whether you’re completely right or wrong) with misogyny is a mistake and doesn’t help anyone.

  10. Who can blame The Onion? Truly, look at what is out there speaking loudly about women today–Girl Talk on MTV, Almost any female in Hollywood, MOST allegedly feminist blogs and/or journals, etc., etc., etc. If you add it all up women are 100% sexually starved, men-hungry, bobble-headed idiots.

    Until women start fighting for equality, and by this I mean true equality, we can only blame ourselves for what happens to us. True Equality has very little to do with the Wendy Davis’ fighting for abortions in the 6 month or buying the latest 6 inch heel for $1,000.00 that women can’t get enough of. True Equality has to do with defining what is done to women, stopping it by any means necessary, and guaranteeing women equal rights as promised to us under the Constitution of the United States of America. The only problem is that women are the worse enemy to women. And until we stop diluting the battle for equal rights of women to include color and gender and then forgetting about what we were even fighting for all of this is moot. Political correctness killed the feminist movement too. I will never forget being told that I, as a white Jewish woman, should not strive to be a leader because the feminist movement in the late 1990’s needed a black leader. Bullshit, the feminist movement needed a leader period and instead we got zilch.

    I am old. I am an Andrea Dworkin Feminist. And she, like Martin Luther King Jr. looking down on the ignorant masses holding up Trayvon Martin signs today in Washington and shaking his head in anger because Mr. Martin would be the ENEMY and part of the problem according to Mr. King, is looking at us pointing the finger at The Onion and calling us big fat hypocrites. Until we can make sure the finger of blame cannot be pointed at us let’s stop looking for the enemy when she is looking at us in the mirror.

    • I think once you start arguing that women, and not men, are the true oppressors of women you have ceased being a feminist.

      Reading this screed made me ashamed to call myself a white Jewish second-waver. I don’t care how old you are, using an article about child rape to make a point about how women and murdered black children are the real enemy of feminism is abhorrent.

  11. W. H. Lane says:

    If nothing else, the writers owe us an apology for insulting our intelligence as such.

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