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** Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence, jokes about rape and death by overdose.

DISCLAIMER: I am not suggesting this in any way, shape or form. The idea below is raised purely for rhetorical purposes.

[Some context for the non-geeky reader:

In August, the gamer webcomic Penny Arcade (probably the most influential geek/gamer lifestyle icons in the world) posted this comic about the mercenary elements of “heroism” in online games. They received some pretty reasonably-expressed critiques (representative sample linked) about the use of rape for comic effect, and possibly some others.

They posted this follow-up, whose third panel features some of the most blatant straw-manning I’ve ever seen. And yes, I get that it’s meant as a joke, and an aggressive reaffirmation of the fact that they do go to extremes and exaggerate. I’m not dumb. But there’s more to it than they’re admitting… and they were duly called on it.

To which they have responded verbally (bottom post) with the old “there’s worse out there, why make a fuss about this” line (as though they weren’t fuelling the fuss themselves with intentionally inflammatory responses), but also by producing a T-shirt which makes the mythical rape-beasts of the original strip the mascots for a team playing an unspecified sport.]

Setting aside the fact that we know there actually do exist groups of young men who do treat rape as a team sport (and a joke), here’s why making “Dickwolves” sports tops is an appallingly toxic thing to do.

Mike Krahulik (“Gabe”) has spoken openly about the pain and trauma of having a beloved family member die of an overdose of drugs and how deeply it has affected him.

How would he feel if he were to walk into PAX to see large numbers of people in a sports top with the logo of a fictional rival team to the Dickwolves – the “Dead Junkies”? Perhaps a stylised corpse head with a syringe in its eyeball?

Clearly, anyone who did that would be not only a smartarse but a scumbag. After all, it is not fair to push those kinds of buttons simply to make a point – or rather, a gesture – in a different argument (about gender equality and rape culture).

So my question is, how is that different from what Krahulik and Holkins have done to survivors of rape – who are more numerous, and who continue to be vulnerable to repetitions of the trauma? (This would be analogous to mocking dead overdose victims in the presence of a family who have not only already lost one child, but have another whose future is uncertain.)

They have put a term which is now inextricably associated with rape-as-joke on a mass-produced T-shirt – and worse, one which will be widely worn at PAX events (supposedly “welcoming”, “inclusive” geek community events).

True, they have another point they want to make (about their initial remark being dependent for its meaning on rape being an awful thing, and how that context appears to have been lost; and the wider propensity for the internet to miss the point; and also, dicks are funny hee hee hee). Their point is fundamentally flawed: they don’t get to define the lives and contexts of their millions of readers; and they are more than a little arrogant to assert that they shouldn’t have to take into account the undeniable fact that a great many of those people are rape or sexual assault survivors. (We’re really not talking a niche group here; and given the gravity of the trauma, I don’t think it’d matter if we were. There are more rape survivors than war veterans, or families of lynching victims, or relatives of OD deaths, and we wouldn’t treat any of those groups with this kind of casual contempt.)

But even if their point was valid, that still doesn’t justify pressing the trauma button (or the “rape-is-amusing” button) on the thousands if not millions of people who will see these garments during their lifespan. Any more than parading a Team Dead Junkies T-shirt in front of Krahulik and his family would be educational, or worth the yuks.

The irony? You’d find the people objecting to Team Dickwolves (and being dismissed by the PA guys, and abused by their fanbois) up front in the Krahuliks’ defence if you tried anything of the sort.

Trauma isn’t funny. Kind of by definition. Being indifferent to the knowledge that your actions may trigger PTSD in large numbers of people – members of a community you actively build in other ways, and for whom you are both lodestone and touchstone – for the sake of a fleeting kick is a shameful thing to do. (Not to mention creating widespread postive reinforcement for the one-in-sixteen men who will admit to raping as long as you only describe the actions themselves, and don’t actually use the R-word, because hey, it’s all in fun, and everybody’s a little bit shonky when they’re trying to get some, and if you don’t actually get dragged into court it can’t have been THAT bad, right?)

The most disappointing thing for me is that these two guys are perfectly capable of sophisticated nuance and real humanitarianism. They are smart. They know the size of their audience, and they must have some inkling of the percentages of those people who are survivors of this sort of violence. But they can’t do the basic maths to think about the number of survivors whose mood, or day, or mental health they assault; or the numbers of scumbags who will take everything they’ve done – even the first two panels of that second comic – as all part of the joke rapists play on the people they rape: the “we pretend this is bad, but I can do this and get away with it and not even care how you feel, ha ha” joke, with the sports top as the punchline.

You’d really think there’d be a little more distaste for that sort of bullying from the geek crowd.

Or at least a little more intelligence.

We deserve better from two such major icons of geek culture; and if we don’t get it, we need to find better icons.


A polite way of saying someone is not only in denial, but has selected their own backside as the inadequate-hiding-place of choice. And is usually talking out their rear end as a result.

You heard it here first!

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Prejudging a person – assuming that anything is automatically true about them – on the basis of their membership of any involuntary grouping (gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, age, eye colour, nostril size, pinky-toe length…) is wrong. Here in the simplest possible form are the main reasons why.

First, most such assertions are made on very shaky ground. Pretty much every major study that has claimed to show substantial differences in innate ability between different groups has been challenged extensively. One study that claimed to show that Asians were academically smarter than whites, who were smarter than blacks, was shown to be deeply flawed because it wasn’t comparing apples with apples: the academic environments in which each group was learning were completely different, with the Japanese segment in the study operating in a context where education is valued and schools and teachers are respected – less the case for the white American cohort, and less again for the African-American segment. As a comparison of different education systems, it might have been useful; as a comparison of relative “innate” racial ability, it was a crock.

Nor is it even possible to establish an adequately controlled, fair, “apples-to-apples” group – anybody’s physical, emotional and psychological development takes place in a culture which loads them with preconceptions about who can achieve what. The power of these expectations is attested to by a study which was done in which four groups, two of men and two of women, did a maths test. All four groups did exactly the same test, but two of the groups (one male, one female) were told beforehand that the test had been “specially designed so that women could do it as easily as men”. When the results came in, the two male groups had done about as well as each other, and so had the group of women who had been told that they could. Only the group of women who were still operating under normal cultural expectations about their own performance did significantly differently than the others – and not surprisingly, they did worse. About as much worse as women normally do on those sorts of tests.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? And calls into question the extensive system of rationalisation called “evolutionary psychology”. What happens to all those arguments about “men had to measure distance and count prey animals, so they’re better at maths and maps” when in point of fact men aren’t necessarily better at those things?

But maybe in some cases there are genuine population-level differences in capability. For instance, for generations African-Americans were bred (like livestock!) for strength. (Yes, forced marriages and impregnations. Hooray for white “civilisation”. Not to say that slaves didn’t trick their “owners”, but that the attempt was even made… gross.) So let’s allow hypothetically that perhaps there is some truth to the argument that African-Americans tend to be physically superior to whites. (Anyone who argues in parallel that surviving as a slave selects for lower intelligence, however, is clearly not thinking the thing through. I’m not conceding that one, even hypothetically.) Let’s allow further that this tendency is genetic and not a product of the culture and the physical environment in which people grow up. If the difference is the result of several generations of selective breeding, doesn’t that rather suggest that even genetic differences can and will change over time, as cultures shift and start selecting for different things?

The clincher

Even if we set aside all arguments about whether significant differences in innate ability really exist, and if so what causes them and how fixed they actually are, and accept the assertion that at the population level people of group A will tend to be better at X than people of group B, or less “Y” or whatever… that still means absolutely nothing when it comes to dealing with any given individual.

For instance, if you believe that women are innately better at emotional stuff than men (and I have seen extraordinary emotional skill from men, both good and deeply, manipulatively bad; but I digress), and you encounter a man who bucks the trend… do you pretend he is an emotional klutz, or do you treat him as someone with good emotional skills?

And until you know which he is, aren’t you better off withholding judgment and remaining open to all possibilities until you have adequate information?

And further, and more radically, if you actively want men to have some degree of emotional competence… and you take on board what we’ve learned about the power of negative expectations to limit achievement… aren’t you far better off abstaining from making generalised pronunciations about “men are emotional idiots”?

In other words, a culture which genuinely wants all its members to achieve the most they can will be very careful about accepting generalisations about one group being not as whatever-quality-is-under-discussion as another, even if there is some evidence that it might presently be true, because the only thing making it true might be that self-fulfilling expectation.

While there is always value in analysing the current big picture – and if you’re interested in justice, it is essential to be able to say that group X is not pulling its weight relative to group Y, or is benefiting more, et cetera – such comments need to be phrased in ways that limit the generalisation appropriately and emphasise the possibility of change.

Insistence on blanket assertions that “women just can’t read maps” or “Aboriginal people can’t manage more than a Certificate 1” (made quite seriously by a senior Australian public servant – to an Aboriginal professor!) is therefore not only moronic. It is actively sabotaging the people about whom it is made. And therefore it is wrong in every sense of the word.

More reading (to be updated as I find my old link collection):


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (blog here) has some useful discussions of false snap judgments as well as accurate ones

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