LET THE record reflect that even Dave Portnoy — the trash-mouthed commandant of the website Barstool Sports — knows that there are certain times when you shouldn’t make certain jokes.
This was proven on a night earlier this month, when Barstool, which equally celebrates sports and the male id, was holding an installment of its “Barstool Blackout Tour,’’ a traveling dance party with lasers and black lights, for Northeastern students at the House of Blues. A campus protest group that called itself Knockout Barstool held a competing event: an open-mic rally against rape, protesting Barstool’s general way of degrading women, and in particular, some off-color jokes that Portnoy has made under the pen name “El Presidente.’’ (Example: “We don’t condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties. . . However if a chick passes out that’s a gray area.’’)
Portnoy showed up, intending to take the microphone himself and offer a half-satirical, half-serious response: Naming a few comedians, for instance, who have joked about rape, with little consequence. But then he saw that women were sharing real, painful stories about sexual assault. So instead, he stayed silent, and watched.
“It was kind of emotional,’’ Portnoy told me last week. “We’re just as anti-rape as they are. . . It’s not our intent, with jokes, to poke fun at rape victims.’’
This is not to say that Portnoy has any intent of changing his ways, or his website. For one thing, there’s too much money at stake; dumb frat humor sells plenty of ads, and the “Blackout Tour’’ — named for the black lights, Portnoy says — is on a lucrative swing through campuses nationwide. It hits Boston College on March 28, the same night as the campus Take Back the Night rally, and a group of BC students has launched a petition against “condoning the rape culture that Barstool Sports blog perpetuates,’’ and is working on launching an inter-university effort to stigmatize rape jokes once and for all.
In a way, these women’s groups can thank Barstool for the opening. When it comes to sexual assault on campus, it’s amazing how little has changed over the years, and how wrongheaded some rape-prevention messaging remains. As Knockout organizer Anna Siembor points out, advice is often directed at precisely the wrong person: “Don’t drink too much and walk out by yourself, girl, don’t wear a short skirt. . . instead of saying, ‘Hey, if someone’s passed out, don’t have sex with them.’ ’’ She’s right, too, that slut jokes don’t exactly help the cause of treating women with respect.
But declaring a subject off limits for jokes doesn’t quite get to the heart of the problem. When culture evolves, humor does, too - there are certain straightforwardly racist jokes you could have made in polite company 50 years ago, but not today, and that’s a good thing. But verboten subjects make for cutting humor, and satire is much harder to police. If Chris Rock makes a subversive, knowing joke about race, and some racist finds it funny for the wrong reason, who’s to blame?
No one would ever mistake Barstool Sports for a bastion of sophisticated humor. Still, Portnoy’s defense is the same: Barstool satirizes a certain type of guy, and our readers are much smarter than our content. Some of the comments on his site suggest otherwise, but I’m guessing, on balance, he’s right. At the very least, his readers understand that the jokes they can type into comment boxes, under pen names like “DudeManBro’’ and “Longpole the Clown,’’ have little to do with what they’d say to an actual woman in real life.
The same goes for Portnoy himself. On Barstool Sports, his method of opposing rape is to make a brief disclaimer, followed by a rape joke. As “El Presidente,’’ he has called the campus protesters “lunatics’’ and “ugly dykes.’’ In person, he’s better than that, but he could do more. What if, at that Northeastern anti-rape rally, he had stepped up to the microphone and given an honest message of solidarity - the kind that Barstool readers would have heard? Would he have lost all credibility with his frat-boy followers? No way. Remember? They’re smarter than that.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.