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How to reopen a wound

by erik on February 5th, 2011

WARNING: This post deals with sexual assault.

Penny Arcade’s “Dickwolves” controversy has been discussed to death on the interwebs for months now. There’s been a lot of discussion.

But something seems missing in the responses from Mike and Jerry, the creators of Penny Arcade. They talk about their disapproval of rape, their confidence in their own funniness, and their right to free expression. But they never address what, to me, should be a core concern for them… something which, at the very least, is worth addressing:

Their art has traumatized people.

So let’s look at the mechanism by which that happens. On August 11th of last year, Penny Arcade posted a comic featuring a rape joke1:

Ragged slave man:

The incontrovertible fact about this comic, which Mike and Jerry have never really addressed, is that many rape survivors are traumatized by depictions like this.

Not offended2, traumatized.

Rape survivors will read this comic. Some of them will experience flashbacks to their rapes. Their schedules will be disturbed, maybe for a few minutes, maybe for a few hours. Depending on when and how their rape happened, what ensued, and what other triggers are present, maybe longer. Instead of simply reading a funny comic about gaming during lunch, they will read this comic and need to spend some time doing self care to get them back to the point where they can do their jobs, or take care of their kids, or whatever they were doing. Some will go right back to work and put it out of their minds. Some will go to the unisex bathroom and cry–quietly, so as not to alert their coworkers–for 20 minutes.

Again, that this happens sometimes is an incontrovertible fact. It is one of many normal behaviors for someone who has been raped.

People attempted to explain this to Mike and Jerry. But I don’t think the message got through, because they responded by defending their sense of humor, defending their right to free speech, and continuing to make jokes about rape, and jokes about the rape survivors’ complaints.

Notably, they created this t-shirt for themselves and their readers:

Now I understand that this t-shirt is satire, and I think satire is vital to a free society. But I also thing satirists have the same responsibility as anyone else to understand and take into account the practical effects of their actions.

Who would wear a shirt like this? The target audience seems to be “people who think rape jokes are not a big deal”, right? So again, while being staunchly “anti-rape”, Penny Arcade is encouraging people who think rape jokes are no big deal to advertise that fact widely and publicly within the Penny Arcade community, with the blessing of the community leaders.

For those gamers who were traumatized by the original comic, they will now be re-traumatized again and again and again by people wearing this shirt whenever they attend a gaming event. Not everyone, but some people. This, again, is an incontrovertible fact: some survivors will be seriously traumatized by these shirts.

Now, Penny Arcade removed the shirts from their store, after selling them for several months, supposedly because they wanted people to feel safe at their gaming conference, PAX. Yet Mike said he’d still be wearing his to the conference:

And still, as recently as yesterday, they continue to defend their right to express themselves freely:

“when it comes to expression nothing is off the table. It is the creator’s prerogative to create something – even something grotesque – out of anything they can find”

I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. I support their free expression. But why haven’t they responded to the fact that their art is hurting a small group of already suffering people? Why do you say “if you don’t like it don’t read it”? How are rape jokes more important to you than having rape survivors as welcome members of your readership?

1 Some people have suggested that absurd gameplay mechanics, not rape, are not the punchline of this joke. But if the punchline is “Quest Complete”, and the subtext of that line is “I did what I came for, and I am going to leave you here to be raped” then rape is very much at the center of what makes the joke “punch”.

2 It is irresponsible to lump together people being “offended” and people being “hurt” into the same group. Sometimes Christians are offended by atheist billboards. Sometimes meat eaters are offended by the suggestion that eating meat is wrong. “Offended” means that someone’s ideas are distasteful to you. Offense is academic. Sexism is not about being defended, it is about society holding women back. It is about fairness and suffering, not offense.

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  1. Adam Ca permalink

    This changed my mind, because it had never factored in too much for me. The vocal angry rape culture argument turned me off completely, I hated the side that disliked the comic because they were just arguing something I didn’t get and that didn’t(doesn’t) make any sense to me.

    What does make sense is that the comic hurt people, and didn’t need to, the joke could have been done another way and the response is unecessary. Nobody should wear the dickwolves shirt to PAX, it’s just cruel to those who love PA but are personally hurt by the reminder of whatever trauma they had. We can argue it’s not societies problem, that they need to move past that damage so that a funny online comic doesn’t bug them, but come on, I think we can give a little bit more of a damn than that.

    In my opinion, Mike didn’t agree with it being pulled, but everyone else did. Sigh.

    Anyway, thank you for the blog post and bringing a rational idea that makes sense, that isn’t full of loud angry neckbeard calling. I really think that if we had more arguments like this that the point would be more respected.

  2. Mark permalink

    Oh come on already there are like 6 blogs daily ust filled with quotes and anything that is not in quotation has already been said somewhere before. Just let it go.

  3. M.S.Shikonah permalink

    I’ve been following up on this whole debacle too, and I’ve got to say that over the last few days, supporters of both sides have done/said some very stupid and defensive things.

    Of course, as public figures, Gabe and Tycho have done a bad job of defending some of the decisions they’ve made, or in the case of the latter, haven’t really defended them at all. However, the other side, the traumatized and offended, hasn’t really made an effective point that I think is key to understanding these reactions. I’m not excusing anyone, because things have been much nastier than called for, but I still think it’s an important point:

    It’s important for us as a society to think of the masses and our fellow beings, but through all the controversy, there’s been no public mention of anyone who was actually traumatized by this comic, or the shirts. Granted, the whole event has probably stirred up some nasty feelings, but not the actual targets behind said event. That doesn’t make it okay, but it can’t be denied that this oversight explains why the “defenders” are brushing off all the criticisms. When all the comments and statements include things like, “Now, I personally found nothing wrong with the original comic, but…” or “I haven’t been triggered by this, but others could/will be, so…” they tend to be quickly nullified, whether the point being made is good or less so.

    Now, the people Gabe mentioned who’ve sent him personal, rational emails could very well be these affected people; but until someone (preferably several, because we all know what happens when the community thinks someone’s lying) actually comes forth and says “YES, this severely hurt ME,” very few from the “other side” will be willing to listen to claims of what could happen, regardless of the validity of this potential.

    Still, the more rabid fans should still be horribly ashamed of themselves and their hurtful actions; if there’s anything PA should speak out on, it’s how much they can’t and won’t tolerate that sort of animosity. I’d say they should apologize to all the survivors and people that were hurt by this, but they clearly don’t share the same views, and any more attempts would likely come off as more sarcastic and false.

  4. Adam: Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad this post helped.

    The truth is, none of the ideas or the “rationality” I put down here are new to the discussion. This post from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville says everything I’ve said here, but she did it on August 13th of last year.

    I think there are two major differences between my post and hers that we should be aware of when we’re talking about the impact of various parts of this discussion.

    1) She spends a good part of her introduction discussions Sociology, and Sociology is scene as “bullshit” by many people. The very notion of “culture” as it is used in the feminist community is widely disparaged. Even though she goes on to make almost the exact same points that I made above, I think many readers have already stopped listening by that point because of the Sociology issue.

    2) She’s a woman. I’ve been actively trying to be a better feminist for more than 5 years now, and I still turn down the volume a little whenever women are talking. There are still ideas that most feminist women “just get” that feel “irrational” to me. For me, if a feminist woman is saying it and it sounds irrational, I consider that a red flag that i’m probably missing something important. Particularly if it’s a writer from an publication as prestigious as Shakesville. It’s a constant battle, and something we have to actively compensate for.

    So, again, thanks for reading and continuing to take the time to work on these issues… and I’m glad I could put this in a way that made it easier to digest, but please don’t just say “the previous writers made me angry, and seemed irrational” and leave it at that.

    For one thing, I guarantee that it will be worth your time to try to push through those feelings and really try to listen to those feminist writers who to you sound angry and irrational. Some (most?) of the most powerful intellectual experiences I’ve had in the last few years have come from that practice.

    And for another, I think those people deserve to be listened to.

    Also, if you come across stuff that seems that way, feel free to email me and I can respond here… I really like digging into these difficult ideas.

  5. M.S.: Thank you for your comment. Please be careful though… your comment, and any comment demanding “proof” of trauma, has some pretty nasty company. During this Penny Arcade controversy, @HoodedMiracle demanded proof that Courtney Stanton was raped before he would accept her arguments.

    Now, what you’re doing is different. You’re asking for proof of my second hand knowledge that rape jokes trigger rape survivors. Ironically, dealing with this attitude of “well, prove it or didn’t happen” is both one of the most traumatic things about being a rape survivor, and can be very triggering.

    So, please be more careful.

    That said, I’m going to do some research for you, and for my own curiosity, to see if anyone posted a specific account that they were triggered. I will also look into the psychology literature and other discussion online about triggering so you can have more information about how people are triggered, which seems to be what you’re asking for. I’ll get back to you.

  6. ladynerd permalink


    When you read something on Shakesville and feel the urge to tune it out, that’s just your bullshit detector going off. I’m a woman, and it happens to me too. And it’s not because I’m somehow a self-hating woman who has embraced the patriarchy or something, I just genuinely think that the people at Shakesville have very little of value to say and prefer to stick to other, more private, feminist spaces with less poisonous atmospheres.

    On the topic of your post, you make some good points, but I think the biggest problem I have with it is that you are making certain assumptions that I don’t think are true. Namely, that

    1. At least one person was hurt (not just offended) by the comic
    2. At least one person was hurt (not just offended) by the shirt, and…
    3. If at least one person was hurt by the shirt, this occurred BEFORE (or unconnected to) Shakesville and friends deciding that it was a “team rapist” shirt and repeating that interpretation to anyone who’d listen, effectively ensuring that some percentage of rape survivors would see the shirt and think “rape”.

    I’ve read many blog entries on both sides of this debate, and these three assumptions are consistently repeated on the anti-PA side. I call them assumptions because… well… every critique of the comic that I have read so far is framed in terms of “well, SOMEONE could be triggered”, or “this comic has hurt SOME people”, or at best, “I am a rape victim, and this did not trigger me, BUT…”

    Now, I understand that people might not want to come forward, but this debate really hinges on whether people were hurt, and if so, by whom? By Penny Arcade? By the 4channers and other internet trolls who’ve latched onto the PA cause? Or by Shakesville itself?

    In #3 above, I mention the Shakesville’s reinterpretation of the shirt. Without any kind of context, it’s just a dick joke. Immature, but hardly triggering. In context, outside the world of Shakesville, it’s… still basically a dick joke. As far as I can tell, Gabe and Tycho created a ridiculous monster (a wolf with phalluses for limbs) which became popular within their community, in part because of the criticism they received. Because people liked it and found it funny, they put it on a shirt. Hysterical* feminists then decided that it meant something completely different and demanded an apology. It is possible that rape victims were triggered after learning that the shirt should be read as supporting rapists, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that anyone was triggered or hurt in any way before that interpretation was popularised.

    * Being hysterical does not invalidate their arguments. It is, however, extremely annoying.

  7. M.S.Shikonah permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my overly-long thought process, and for looking into some extra research for/with me. I appreciate the effort, and your reasonable nature, which has been oh, so rare, during this whole debacle. Anything that will allow me to better understand the underlying psychology of this whole kerfuffle is very much appreciated.

    Still, allow me to clarify: If it seems that I’m asking for proof that these things negatively affect people, or that PA’s comic and the ensuing onslaught could hurt somebody, I apologize. That’s not at all my intention. I understand that there are some very touchy issues out there, and that they tend to rub people in very different ways. PTSD (and anything related) is very serious, and those who fight it should be applauded, not assaulted.

    I understand how vicious the internet and its anonymity can make people, which is why I wouldn’t want anybody to just wander into the fray alone; safety in numbers, especially when dealing with these types of issues, is key. If those who were, themselves, negatively affected by PA’s strip or their merchandise would rally and speak up, it would vastly help their case. That particular conflict with Courtney Stanton is precisely why I bring up the “Prove it or else it didn’t happen, now go away” defense that many of PA’s defenders seem to be employing.

    The problem lies in that, for THIS comic, everyone is aware that people COULD be negatively affected, but nobody seems to’ve actually BEEN negatively affected. And while it may be a bit harsh to suggest that people don’t care unless something has actually hurt someone, if one is willing to engage this particular community of gamers and PA fans, then those would appear to be the rules of their field, as they’ve already demonstrated.

    I don’t support it by any means, and as a matter of fact, I find that view despicable. But I do see that it’s how the majority of the defenders operate and pressuring them otherwise would be like arguing with an aggressive brick wall that is already predisposed to disagree with and, in some instances, even hate you. It’s a battle that should be fought, but not with an opponent that won’t aide the cause; if one side is largely unwilling to be engaged intelligently by the other, then there’s nothing anyone can do but move on to more efficient pastures.

    Hopefully, the situation ceases to evolve, and we who are most curious can look back on these events and piece together the puzzle of what went wrong, and whether there were, truly, any correct answers. (Also forgive me for sending another train rambling down these mental tracks, but rarely does such a genuinely thought-provoking instance come on a scale so many can directly relate to.)

  8. Andy permalink

    I am very disappointed to see this argument raised again. Mike already debunked it with his gut response, but I’ll see if I can explain why I believe it doesn’t hold in this case.

    Just to be clear, the argument goes something like this:

    1) Given: People were triggered by this comic
    2) Given: That caused them trauma/pain/etc.
    3) Given: PA is responsible for the comic
    4) Argument: PA is responsible for the trauma
    5) Argument: PA should apologize

    I take exception with this argument on two fronts. First, it ignores the question of responsibility on the part of PA readers, and Second, if propagated, the conclusion would have a chilling effect on free expression; especially free expression involving difficult subject matter and satire.

    Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m some kind of apologist, please hear me out.

    When I opened my Sega CD many years before, there was a large warning inside: “WARNING: THIS DEVICE MAY CAUSE SEIZURES. DO NOT USE IF YOU SUFFER FROM EPILEPSY OF ANY KIND…”

    Now, if an epileptic opened that box, saw the warning, played anyway, and suffered a seizure, SEGA WOULD NOT BE RESPONSIBLE. It’s the same with PA. If you go to THEIR WEBSITE, VOLUNTARILY, and you suffer trauma, it’s your own fault. On the other hand if they were walking down the street, pushing bilboards of the comic into people’s faces, the responsibility clearly lies with them.

    This is not about ‘blaming the victim’, it’s about personal responsibility. If the viewers read Cyanide and Happiness, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, The Warehouse, or a number of other dark or satirical comics, I’d say the same thing.

    Nobody forced anyone to click on that link, nobody forced anyone else to read the comic. In fact, it was a feminist blog that sent the most people most likely to trigger to PA to read the comic. Think about that for a second, if you will.

    If you were traumatized, that is a very bad thing, and I’m sorry for you, in the same way that I’d be sorry for the chemist who doesn’t wear a face-guard, or the skateboarder who doesn’t wear kneepads.

    I know I’m going to get a lot of shit from people who don’t understand the difference between blaming the victim, and personal responsibility, so let me give two more examples:

    Blaming the Victim: Man in Atlanta says a racial slur in a ghetto downtown and gets beaten. When he goes to the police, they say “Well, you shouldn’t have said that.”

    Personal Responsibility: Person with peanut allergy doesn’t check the label on a Fruit & Nut bar and has a reaction. Doctor says “Next time, check the label before you eat a Fruit & Nut bar”

  9. Robin permalink

    This is just one woman’s personal opinion. This is probably the best thought out the whole kerfuffle that I’ve seen.

    I really don’t think that Mike and Jerry are bad people, they inadvertently got themselves into something huge. Triggers and Rape Culture, aren’t easy concepts to understand. I experienced triggers for years before I knew what they were.

    Mike and Jerry could have handled the situation better. I really wish they would have reined in their fans earlier. If someone on your side of an issue goes by the name “teamrape” it’s seriously time to think about your side of the debate.

    Personally, the sixth slave comic didn’t hurt me; however, the follow up comic is another story. The second comic didn’t trigger anything, but it did make me nauseous. It was crass, dismissive, and ridiculously mansplainy. At this point, the first comic isn’t really the problem. It’s the second comic, the shirt, and subsequent fan behavior that bothers me.

  10. Shannon permalink

    M.S.: This point has been made elsewhere, but I think the serious hurt revolves as much or more around PA’s response to the situation as the original comic. I do wish there was more commentary about people’s personal reactions to the material, but all I can do is share my own.

    I don’t know if that’s the kind of “proof” you’re looking for, but I appreciate that you and Erik seem keen to explore the actual psychology of this and not just the rhetoric. It’s refreshing.


    The original Shakesville critique was laced with the author’s own admissions that she has zero sense of humor about rape jokes anymore. Penny Arcade saw fit to write a response comic after either seeing the critique, or actually receiving mail from people with the same tired-of-this-it’s-not-funny viewpoint.

    I’m a rape survivor, and I do have some serious vestigial PTSD issues. I thought the original comic was funny. I get that rape was not the point of the comic, and that was enough for me, because I didn’t find it personally upsetting. I can easily see, though, how other people would, so I wasn’t too surprised to hear that there was some blowback. I didn’t find it a terribly memorable comic on its own though.

    However, I was personally insulted by the response comic (it all went wrong in the third panel), because it WAS a strawman argument. As a woman I’m sensitive to “rape culture” because even though it’s an overused and often misapplied phrase, it does exist. And so when they put pen to tablet and wrote down, in that last panel, the sarcastic, throwaway, “if this comic made you a rapist, don’t rape” admonition, it became personal to me. They went out of their way to bring their fight to me at that point, since I do have a horse in that race.

    I was downright livid about the shirts. And remember, I laughed at the original comic. But I too took it as a “Team Rapist” piece, since I can’t possibly imagine anyone getting excited about, spending actual money on, and then excitedly wearing a Dickwolves shirt if they’re not already a raging misogynist. It falls squarely into the same camp for me as assholes who wear “it’s not going to suck itself” shirts.

    Note that I’m not arguing that they should or should not make it. I think the decision to print it was moronic, but I can also choose to take my business elsewhere. And to not be around anyone who would want one. Which brings me to…

    PAX has been my hands-down favorite con since I wandered to the first one in 2004. I’ve gone as press support, I’ve demoed games for major developers there, I’ve dragged my husband there, and I’m now faced with the possibility of having to avoid it if I want to avoid Dickwolves dudebros.

    I was momentarily encouraged when they pulled the shirts from the store, but when Mike said he’d be wearing his there, I was pretty much forced, if I wanted to respect my own don’t-spend-money-to-hang-around-disrespectful-assholes boundaries, to write off PAX.

    To address your negatively-affected query, I know beyond a doubt that roving bands of Team Dickwolvers at PAX will ruin my to-date-completely-positive experience. I’ve gone to great lengths to cut people out of my life who are aggressive toward women, so while the shirts will make them easy to identify, it will also bring up parts of my existence that I definitely have no interest in reliving every time I look around.

    This controversy, and especially the disgusting threats ricocheting around Twitter, have really seemed to divide the PA readers into two camps… and quite frankly, seeing that Mike basically didn’t give a shit about all the rape threats against dissenters on Twitter until someone threatened HIS family makes me feel that my safety at PAX is now in my own hands.

    Mike’s shown through his actions he doesn’t really care and is willing to actively encourage the trolls, and Jerry’s demonstrated that he’d rather stay out of the whole fray, leaving me, a loyal female reader, on my own as far as physical safety. What happens if Mike decides to draw another Dickwolves comic at a panel, and “inadvertently” rally the assholes? Do I argue with people making shitty comments and possibly become a target? Do I keep my mouth shut and let people perpetuate rape culture unchallenged? Do I carry a knife at the con? Do I choose to not go anywhere in downtown Seattle without my 6′7″ husband to protect me? Those are scenarios I don’t want to be forced to entertain. They’re scenarios that, as a female, I now have to consider if I plan to attend.

    So no more PAX for me.


    tl;dr version:

    I’m a rape survivor. I laughed at the first comic. But PA’s handling of the situation since then has been so abysmal, so personally insulting, that unless there is some sea change in their viewpoint on all this, I can’t feel safe at PAX and don’t want to give them another cent of my money.

    Again, I’m really glad to see some genuine curiosity going on here. Thanks Erik.

  11. ladynerd: Thanks for your comments.

    everyone is aware that people COULD be negatively affected

    I don’t think that’s true. Most people seem to think that the only people negatively affected were “crazy feminists” who got their panties in a bunch for no reason other than being crazy feminists.

    but nobody seems to’ve actually BEEN negatively affected

    I’m surprised. You zeroed in on a valid flaw in my argument (we know people are traumatized by rape jokes, but there’s no evidence in this case!) and yet you jump to an even more absurd conclusion. According to you, because no rape survivors created a blog and posted an account of their panic attacks, then no one was affected!

    Are you really totally unaware of the reasons why a rape survivor might not want to put that sort of story down in writing on the internet amidst a hotbed of pro-rape-joke anti-feminist fervor? Kathy Sierra ring a bell? Do you really think the set of women gaming bloggers is actually representative of the entire population of women?

    And anyway, I don’t think it matters one bit whether any individual person was *actually* triggered by this specific rape joke.

    For one thing, the Penny Arcade community has already been naturally selected over many years to be a certain composition. Women are aggressively pushed out, as they are from nearly all gaming communities. Many/most rape survivors probably bailed on Penny Arcade years ago. You’re probably right there aren’t many people left to be triggered.

    It’s the same phenomenon at play when Mike proudly jokes with his wife about rape on Twitter as evidence that he is a friend to Women. Obviously a woman who would marry him is relatively indifferent to his particular brand of sexist bullshit. Why would those women whom he’s abraded in the past have stuck around?

    Honestly, I think it’s too late for the Penny Arcade community to ever be welcoming to the general population of women. But I didn’t really write the post for Penny Arcade. I have no illusions that they would ever read this. Mike already said he was done. I wrote this post for the people in MY community, who might be starting new spaces that still have a chance to be safe for rape survivors.

    What it boils down to for me is this: As people have pointed out, almost anything can be a trigger, from rape jokes to paint colors. Obviously trying to never trigger anyone ever is a fools errand. But rape jokes seem like a pretty easy place to start. Are they really worth it? Are rape jokes so important to you that it’s worth even a handful of rape survivors having this experience?

    What if it’s only one woman, who is flashing back for 5 minutes, out of 10,000 readers. Is it worth it?

  12. Andy: 1) there was no trigger warning on the comic. Subscribers to Penny Arcade did not have the choice to not read the rape joke.

    2) The sad truth is that rape survivors DO take responsibility for being triggered. Anyone triggered by PA will have to make the choice whether to keep reading. That is as it should be. If you REALLY want to put something out there that hurts people, then I will not stand in your way. I’m just trying to make sure that people are aware of the ways in which their work can hurt people.

    You talk as if I am some sort of judge who is going to put Mike and Jerry in jail. I’m just a dude on the internet who is trying to tell a story about the ways in which people hurt people.

  13. Robin: Thanks for the compliment. I agree the original comic doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem. Honestly, I think there are ways to read it as a condemnation of rape culture. But their response was just bad. Mike saying he was wearing the t-shirt to the conference was what really made my skin crawl.

  14. Shannon: Thanks for sharing your experience. Ugh. Honestly, I’ve never been to PAX or any gaming-related con, but it’s such a bummer that PA has let down the community in this way.

    Hopefully other conference organizers are reading about this situation though, and learning. It’s often easier for people to stretch their beliefs when it’s not their neck that’s on the chopping block. Maybe we’ll start seeing some more progressive standards coming out of con organizers. I know from the Geek Feminism blog about the Con Anti-Harassment Project, so hopefully we’ll start seeing more cons adopting their policy. :-/

  15. Shannon permalink

    I hope that a better overall con culture will come out of this too. The thing I fear is that when policies have to be implemented from above, they’re perceived as boilerplate or a straight-out buzzkill. How many workkplaces have sexual harassment policies? How many women don’t bother to report “minor” incidents because it’s still more trouble, between retaliation and being branded as a “bitch” or a “troublemaker”, than it’s worth?

    The nice thing about PAX up to now is that the welcoming culture it has had was organic- they didn’t just tell people to be inclusive or print it on page 27 of the program. Inclusiveness, the idea that we’re all gamers, reigned supreme. But now that they’ve basically pitted different segments of their readership against each other, I don’t know if that will be the case anymore, and a “policy” won’t fix that… only real leadership will.

    I do hope other cons will take the community-building aspect more seriously though, because that was why PAX has had such die-hard fans. The lesson here is to keep everyone playing for the same team, and not to pit those devoted fans against each other.

  16. Robin permalink

    Shannon pretty said everything that I was trying to say, but more eloquently than I could. I haven’t been raped, but I was molested when I was a kid and sexually assaulted when I was a teenager. I can’t exactly claim to have the same experience, but I have deep empathy for what survivors go through and share a few symptoms. I can laugh at some rape jokes and be appalled by others. It depends on if it’s a funny joke. The first comic wasn’t really a rape joke, the second comic was. The first comic was kind of funny. The second was just mis aimed and absolutely disgusting.

    Erik, thanks a lot for this post. I’ve been following this mess for a while and have had thoughts and opinions, but this is the first time I felt safe sharing them. You seem like a good dude. The first comic could definitely be seen as a condemnation of rape culture, which makes this all the more frustrating. I believe that Mike and Jerry have the ability to understand where their critics are coming from, they just don’t want to because it’s an uncomfortable subject. I think they just perceived the initial, legitimate criticism as hostile and responded with more hostility and confusion. Expecting Shakesville to explain Feminism is sort of like asking Beethoven to explain music theory. You might be able to understand the actual words that are being said, but the concept needs to be simplified for newbies. Too bad googling is so complicated.

    Mike’s response has been pretty bad. If he wears that shirt, he’s encouraging everyone else to wear it. It might be a matter of free speech for him, but I can guarantee it’s just a symbol of willful misogyny for at least two other people who will wear it. For better or worse, he’s a leader in nerd culture. People will, and have been, following his example. It’s painfully ironic that Wil Wheaton’s “Don’t be a Dick” law came from PAX in the first place. It seems that Mike wasn’t listening.

  17. ladynerd permalink


    As I said, I can understand why people would not come forward, although in this particular situation, I would like to point out that Shakesville readers frequently DO describe instances of being triggered in other threads. I remember reading multiple such stories on threads about airport security (e.g. being triggered while experiencing or watching a patdown) and healthcare experiences (e.g. being triggered driving past the hospital after a traumatic experience there). Such stories are conspicuously absent here.

    This is relevant because I think the main thing stopping Penny Arcade from properly apologising to anyone is the fact that they and most of their allies cannot imagine ANYONE being triggered by a fleeting mention of rape that was both intentionally divorced from reality and not the point of the joke. If there’s no one to apologise TO, a further apology seems unnecessary (and would be terribly dishonest, so would certainly cause more offence).

    Another thing to consider: as many people have pointed out, there is no way to put a trigger warning on every possible trigger. There is, however, one particular trigger that stands out: war. Consider that Penny Arcade’s target demographic consists primarily of young men. Consider that this is also the target demographic of the US military. Consider that 1 in 8 US soldiers come back from the war with PTSD. That’s a lot of Penny Arcade readers. Considering how often war, violence, the loss of a friend, and other potential triggers feature in Penny Arcade’s comics, often in a graphic form (that is, more than a fleeting reference), it is VERY likely that current or former soldiers have been hurt by it. Hurt hurt, crying in the bathroom hurt, not just offended. So, given that we have (very likely) victims here who may well be reluctant to come forward, should PA do something? And do these faceless triggered soldiers deserve an apology?

  18. Andy permalink

    @Robin I think Mike’s trigger warning ‘joke’ was crass and dismissive. The dickwolves shirt was a bad move, but the second comic seems to be classic miscommunication. When Mike and Jerry got emails accusing them of being rape apologists and promoting rape culture, they had no idea where these terms were coming from, or what they meant, but they were still correct in believing that the first comic neither promoted rape culture, or made them rape apologists.

    People seem to forget that they were being accused of supporting rapists, and yes, I get the difference between direct support and contributing to rape culture, but in the end, either one places the accused on the side of ‘team rape’. PA was NOT guilty of supporting rape culture, the accusation was absurd, so they made a comic mocking the fact that some people thought that they actually had to explain this by showing Gabe and Tycho doing a horrendous job of explaining it. Mike and Jerry know that the comic was mansplainy, they made it mansplainy on purpose, because it was ridiculous that they should have to apologize for something they didn’t do, not because they were making fun of rape victims. If you can’t see that from where you sit, then maybe you can use that knowledge of your limited perspective to understand how understandable it is that their perspective on rape culture and where you’re coming from is limited too. I’m not just making this shit up, it’s pretty damn clear from the newspost and from their subsequent posts. They did not see themselves as mocking rape victims. They were defending themselves against having to defend themselves for something they didn’t do.

    Same shit with the dickwolves shirt. It’s abundantly clear that the dickwolves shirt was not intended as an F-You to rape survivors. It was a poorly-chosen F-You to people who dont’ get satire and overreact to art they don’t understand. I still think that, given the context of the greater argument raging, it was a DUMB, STUPID move, and they should have known that a lot of people would see it as just an attack on rape victims, and maybe at the time they just didn’t care, because really, how much can you care about people who willfully misunderstand you? In the end though, many of their one-time advocates misunderstood that as well, or just saw it as a dick move and PA is getting some deserved (and undeserved) flack for that.

  19. Andy permalink

    Andy: 1) there was no trigger warning on the comic. Subscribers to Penny Arcade did not have the choice to not read the rape joke.

    And there shouldn’t be. Your second sentence proves that. They were SUBSCRIBERS to a comic that has a history of making rape jokes. If you’re a subscriber, you signed up. I agree with the other commenter who pointed out that a core issue here is “how public is public.” I maintain that a website is less public than the highway, and closer to your backyard. Nobody can see what’s in your back yard unless they come onto your property. The comic isn’t even on the index page of, the newspost always is. That’s two clicks to get to the comic. The viewers ABSOLUTELY had the choice to read the joke about morality, which included a reference to rape.

    2) The sad truth is that rape survivors DO take responsibility for being triggered. Anyone triggered by PA will have to make the choice whether to keep reading. That is as it should be.

    AMEN. That’s not a sad truth. That’s like saying ‘the sad truth is that people with peanut allergy DO take responsibility for not reading food labels products with “Nuts” in the title’. People who are triggered by rape, blood, cutting, explosions, and probably other things SHOULD NOT KEEP READING. That’s not a good or a bad statement, it’s not pro or anti-PA, it’s just a fact. They should also not read a number of other webcomics, books, watch certain movies. It should not be a sad truth that someone suffering from PTSD should take responsibility for watching Full Metal Jacket and triggering.

    You’ve made the assertion that trigger victims are not responsible for triggering on media that they voluntarily consume. You haven’t backed that up with any reasonable argument.

    “If you REALLY want to put something out there that hurts people, then I will not stand in your way. I’m just trying to make sure that people are aware of the ways in which their work can hurt people.”

    I think this is a poor attack on PA. This statement says, in effect, “PA wanted to put something out there that hurts people.” I think that’s bullshit. I would agree with this statement “PA wants to produce provocative comics and commentary. In doing so, they know they will offend some readers.”

    I think I would also agree with this statement “Mike and Jerry probably did not realize that there are people out there who can suffer uncontrollable psychological trauma when they observe depictions of rape, violence, or other extreme acts.”

    The statement that you’re making that I disagree with is this one: “Mike and Jerry have a responsibility to put trigger warnings above every comic they make.”

    That’s co-opting their art. That’s like saying “You can paint pictures of X, but you have to put them in red frames. Pictures of Y have to be in yellow frames. ALWAYS. Otherwise people who come to your Explicit Art Gallery might be traumatized.”

    “You talk as if I am some sort of judge who is going to put Mike and Jerry in jail. I’m just a dude on the internet who is trying to tell a story about the ways in which people hurt people.”

    I don’t think that you personally are going to put Mike and Jerry in jail. I think that your story rings false.

    Mike and Jerry moved people to think about morality and how it’s being expressed in video games with “The Sixth Sense”. The conclusion drawn is, I think one that will make the gaming community more aware of itself, and more appreciative of better morality structures in games.

    Your post here is likely to make people agree with you, that artists should self-censor, and that will make those people more likely to support legislation or even just a culture in which freedom of expression is harmfully constrained.

  20. Andy permalink


    Those are some good points. Once I found an explanation of triggers on the internet, it made sense to me. I think that for many PA supporters it didn’t make sense, possibly because they were still feeling defensive, but nevertheless, they really don’t get it. Hopefully, with some reasoned blog posts and comments, they will. Combat-induced PTSD triggers seem much easier for people to get, so I’m glad that they keep getting brought up.

    I also appreciate your discussion of where trigger warnings are appropriate. Suffering from PTSD, from any source, and triggering must really, really suck. I can’t imagine walking around unsure of when I’m going to have a terrible psychological episode. That’s pretty damn awful. I also can’t imagine suffering from epilepsy. I knew a kid in college who loved video games and had epilepsy. One afternoon we found him in the arcade on the floor in front of a sniper game where you keep one eye in the scope and one on the screen. “Damn” I thought, “the game has a warning right on it, but I guess he played anyway.”

    I guess the difference is the warning. An epileptic seizure is not an intuitive result (in my mind) from playing one kind of arcade game, when it is not the result from playing another, so I would say that it’s good that the warning is there.

    On the other hand, triggering is not an intuitive result of reading a comic for most people. For people who have triggers, I think that triggering is an intuitive result from reading a comic about video games, which are full of violence, sex, and even (to a lesser extent) rape, and video game culture.

    Incidentally, it makes me sad to think that people have ever been crying in a bathroom because of a trigger. I don’t think Mike and Jerry need to apologize, but I do think, in fact, I know, that if someone came up to them at PAX and said, “I was in the bathroom crying because a comic caused me to relive this terrible experience”, they would be be sad to hear that too.

  21. Andy permalink


    I’m open to the idea that the 2nd comic was a straw-man argument.

    I’m not sure that Mike and Jerry necessarily _intended_ to make a straw-man argument, it seems more likely, from their other comments, that they actually didn’t understand the distinction between being accused of promoting rape culture, and promoting rapists. If so, then yeah, it’s an unintentional straw-man; The allegation is that they promoted rape culture, they defend themselves from an allegation of encouraging rapists. The fact that they actually did neither becomes moot because the end result is that… well, I’m lost there

    It’s also possible that they decided that the distinction between “your joke reinforces rape culture (which leads to more rapes)” and “your joke leads to more rapes, i.e. more rapists” was disingenuous, and not worth perpetuating. If so, the comic is their way of saying “It doesn’t matter how many jumps there are between promoting rape culture and creating rapists, you’ve drawn the line very clearly, and we’re not going to pretend that that’s not where it ends.” If that’s the case, then it wasn’t a straw-man, it was them making a point with a very common trope: “Let’s take this to the logical extreme and see if it makes sense.”

    Again, it doesn’t. Before Mike opened his mouth and blew off the idea that triggers exits, (and then did it again on his own site) they had done nothing to promote rape culture, or encourage rapists.

  22. M.S.Shikonah permalink

    Shannon: I completely agree with your views, and understand why you have them. It’s completely rational, and I have nothing on which I disagree with you.

    Erik:To further clarify, I don’t mean to say that I don’t think anybody could’ve been or actually was affected by anything in this debacle. That’s a rather close-minded thing to have in one’s head, and it should be immediately destroyed. Whether it be from the original comic or from the ensuing fray (and the latter is more likely, which is a tragic irony), I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, was very negatively impacted on a, well, traumatic level.

    However, my point is that such people are a very crucial piece to this whole puzzle, who have not yet been heard. You ask if it’d be worth it for one woman of 10,000 to come forth – and yes, yes it would. Not because she, or even HE, would be attacked and assaulted by the defending community, but because it would help people move beyond the hypothetical scope that they seem to be enshrouded in.

    What I mean to say is that, as of now, this argument looks largely to be a battle of ethics and ideologies, not one of real-time actions, reactions, and consequences – and this I mean strictly in reference to the warring sides of the communities. We agree that PA has officially washed their hands of the whole matter, but this battle seems to keep raging through the masses, and if nobody comes forth to attach a more personal account of how they were impacted, the defending PA community will be less likely to make a more personal investment in the issue and realize where they’ve been glaringly wrong.

    I’m not calling for proof; I don’t need it. But the more I examine it, the more I notice that without this same “proof” I find it unlikely that PA’s defenders, or PA themselves, will ever come to see what was wrong with their reactions to the initial criticism. Their argument against “Someone could be hurt,” seems to be “Yeah, but nobody was, so chill out.”

    Their lack of reaction when people were openly assaulted (until it turned on them) is something nobody can defend, so that’s not a point of debate or contemplation.

    Again, thanks to you both for the time to think about and delve into this issue maturely; I certainly think it’ll be a valid lesson for all involved, and spectators alike.

  23. Shannon permalink


    I hear you. I think a lot of the confusion in all this is what exactly the phrase “rape culture” means- and since everyone has a different explanation, it’s ridiculously easy to get into fights about it.

    As I see it, “rape culture” isn’t necessarily about celebrating rape, although sadly that is part of it… it’s a culture where rape is seen as common and somewhat inevitable in certain situations. A lot of people think that rape culture only describes the celebration of sexual violence, so it’s a polarizing phrase.

    I don’t think that Penny Arcade has been defending rape culture, but I think they’re perpetuating it. I don’t use that as damning, discussion-ending criticism of them. I’ve survived multiple assaults, and I still perpetuate rape culture too.

    When I choose to wear sneakers instead of cute shoes on a night out, because you never know when you might have to run or fight, I’m supporting rape culture because I’m making the assumption that a rape attempt is an everyday, common event that I need to plan for. When I shake my head at a news story about a drunk woman being assaulted in a stranger’s car, I’m perpetuating rape culture by thinking that only women who make bad decisions get raped. When hear a guy in a bar call his girlfriend a stupid whore and don’t intervene because I don’t want him to beat me up, I’m supporting rape culture because I’m allowing him to think that acting that way, even in public, is acceptable and that people around him support his actions.

    Rape culture isn’t about people going around saying “yay rape!” It’s about acting like sexual violence is a common and normal part of society, possibly making light of it (that’s where the second comic went off the rails), and making comments and decisions that reinforce that.

    I don’t think PA are rape apologists, and I don’t argue that they’re directly responsible for what the trolls are putting out there, but when people taking up your cause are creating accounts like @teamrape, threatening critics with rape and murder, and doing it all in your name, it’s probably time to evaluate the message you’re sending to people.

    Here’s a good, non-Shakesville intro to the idea of rape culture.

  24. Andy permalink

    Hah, yeah, I finally found that link after hitting wikipedia, shakesville, and some article about Ben Roethlisberger, but thanks for it anyway, if I hadn’t found it by now, I would sorely be needing it.

    I hope you won’t mind answering two questions I have about rape culture that don’t seem to be answered by that page, or by any other I’ve found so far.

    1) What are the boundaries of rape culture?

    What I mean is, it seems to me that rape culture is a subset of any larger culture, and defines how that culture views rape, the act, the assailants, the victims, justice, the path to justice, etc. By that definition, I could also isolate “marriage culture” as the ways that different societies or supercultures deal with marriage, marriage roles, divorce etc.

    By this definition, though, there are multiple ‘rape cultures’, and some could be net positive, i.e. a society in which rape and the perpetrators are universally condemned, and victims are respected and cared for.

    Examples like those you give above, though, and the Marshall site, seem to take a different tack. I get the sense that the definition is more restricted to anything that perpetuates the idea that rape is normal.

    If that’s the case, then it is from there that my second question arises:

    2) Do all incidents of rape culture, by virtue of being part of a greater whole, lead to increased incidents of rape.

    and I guess, closely tied to 2, but I don’t want to lump too much together.

    3) Do all incidents of rape culture, by virtue of being part of a greater whole, lead to increased fear and pain among rape victims and people who see themselves as potential rape victims.

    In the interest of full disclosure, the thing that spawned this line of questions in my own head, is the fact that I FEEL like I’m hearing two incompatible arguments, particularly at shakesville, but also elsewhere:

    1) Accusing PA of promoting rape culture isn’t the same as saying that they encouraged rapists.

    2) Promoting the rape culture leads to increased incidence of rape.

    It’s possible that this has framed my questions in a way that is unhelpful, and if so, I’m open to re-framing. Well, at least I think I am.

  25. Andy permalink


    I thought people asking for proof of someone having actually been triggered by the comic were just assholes, so I’m really glad that you expanded upon your point. It’s very easy to dismiss arguments made on purely hypothetical grounds, and everyone does it regularly. It’s a rational short-cut that arrives at the correct conclusion more often than not.

    That said, anyone actually saying that they had been triggered would bring the entirety of this disaster (and the hordes of parasitic trolls) down on their heads, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

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