I want to have a serious, level-headed discussion about rape jokes, so please keep it civil.
Let me begin by saying two things: first, I think rape is deplorable and hold nothing but contempt for rapists; second, I think rape jokes are freaking hilarious. Not universally of course, but as a form of black comedy, they can bring great humor through well-timed offensiveness. However, I know that it's a popular idea on the Internet that rape jokes are always terrible and that rape is too weighty and sensitive a topic to take so lightly as to joke about it. I definitely respect that opinion, but allow me to illustrate point by point why I don't hold it.
It's all about context: Like I said, I don't think a rape joke is necessarily good or appropriate by the mere merit of being a rape joke. Far from it, in fact. There are certain fora that I personally believe are pretty much universally inappropriate for jokes about rape, particularly those with groups of people you don't know. Twitter I think is one such place since context is often ambiguous, and especially because text isn't great at conveying tone and sarcasm, which I think also eliminates a lot of online text communication. Some areas I do think rape jokes can be appropriate are one-one-one personal interactions if your friends share your interest in offensive humor and comedy, particularly stand-up. The effectiveness, however, is in the hands of the comedian; people like George Carlin and Louis C.K. use rape jokes in such a way to evoke a strong emotional response while at the same time communicating, implicitly or explicitly, that it is just a joke and neither an expression of personal belief nor approval.
Rape jokes are funny because rape is so goddamn awful: They wouldn't be humorous otherwise; as black comedy, their entire point is to offend. I am probably in the 95th percentile in terms of hating rape; I think it's fucking awful. But to say that it is exempt from humor seems to give it more power than it deserves, making it somehow "untouchable". How much worse must rape be than things like racism, murder, the Holocaust, and AIDS to warrant such an exclusion? Maybe it is, I don't know, but the point is that they are all awful and and offensive and that's the point.
There is a very important difference between offending someone and hurting someone: In the words of Penn and Teller (well, just Penn, I guess) nobody has the right not to be offended. By contrast, everyone has the right not to be hurt, or at least I believe so, and rape jokes are actually capable of both. Specifically, they can act as triggers to victims of sexual abuse, prompting panic attacks and extensive emotional trauma in a way that other offensive jokes rarely can. I am of the opinion that in any context where there is a non-negligible chance of someone being hurt by the joke, you shouldn't tell it. "But ddq!" you cry, "what about the stand-up comedy you so adamantly defended?" Well, that's a tricky one, but I sort of think that given the context of stand-up, one should not expect any particular topic to be sacred to the comedian in his or her pursuit of laughs, and that in some cases a comedian's offensive reputation can serve as its own trigger warning. This, I admit is one of my weakest points, and I'd love to hear counter-arguments.
Rape jokes aren't evil, RAPISTS ARE: A common response to this issue is that rape jokes "promote rape culture" or that those who tell them are "rape apologists". Accusations of being "sexist pigs" abound, ignoring actual intent. The one thing that infuriates me the most is those who joke about rape get way more hate than THE ACTUAL FUCKING RAPISTS. Rape is widely under-reported and far too many rapists never see trial for their horrid crimes. Still though, couldn't the prevalence of rape jokes marginalize the horror of rape and increase acceptance of rape in much the same way homophobic humor promoted homophobia? I don't think so, but I could be wrong, so here's my reasoning. Rape is not about wanting to have sex with someone who won't let you. It is an act of power. A rapist seeks to utterly dominate their victim and exert complete control over them through the use of sexual force. The mindset of a rapist is severely disturbed and could arguably be qualified as a mental disease. My point is, no one, no one is going to think "Man, I really want to have sex with that person but they will not let me, but someone made a joke about it so I guess it's just a funny thing that people do! I'll go rape them now!"
On the other hand...: Immediately countering myself, however, I do believe that rape jokes could increase the tolerance of sexism and sexual assault, which is quite different from rape in terms of mindset and action. However, casual sexism is still a major undercurrent in our culture, and it's not something that will go away easily. A product of sociocultural evolution, the perceived divide between the sexes manifests itself not only as sexism, but through many more subtle avenues as well: why there aren't many women in the maths and sciences, why men are promoted to leadership roles, why boys play with Legos and girls play with Barbies. Things biological differences and neurological predispositions do not adequately explain. Both misogyny and extreme feminism miss the point that we're all human beings who deserve respect, but gender is one of many issues that will hopefully be set right in time.
There are dozens of examples of rape joke controversies, especially recently, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to go look them up. Essentially though, my whole argument boils down to my two commandments of personal morality: Don't be a dick, and be excellent to each other. In the context of comedy, I think that in some situation, rape jokes can abide by these two rules. While they should be handled with tact, I don't believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong with rape jokes.