The other day as I was going through the sloth tag on Tumblr looking for some cute sloth pictures – like so many other people do, I’m sure – and I saw something that was unlike anything I had expected. I anticipated pages and pages of cute sloth images, and those were definitely readily available, but I never expected to see anything that would make me uncomfortable in a tag that should be full of images of cute animals. Among the cute photos were sloth memes with added rape “joke” text. These posts were tagged and created with the intention of being jokes, but I found them to be anything but funny. “#rape #lol” are two tags that should never be used on the same post. Being pretty well versed in internet memes and feminist issues, I was surprised that this wasn’t something I had heard about before, so I did a quick Google search to find out some more information.
Googling the terms “rape sloth” came up with a lot of pages where you could see and create more memes but I was surprised that there were no critical blog posts. I did find a page on Know Your Meme which included some history about the meme which is only a little bit over a year old. The image on the meme, a close up of a sloth that looks like it is whispering into the ear of a model, is a photograph by Terry Richardson who is notorious for his questionable history of sexual harassment and possibly assault. Not all of the sloth memes are explicitly rape jokes. Many others include text that is incredibly sexually patriarchal, most of which include vulgar actions involving a penis.
I find that usually the internet is full of activists looking for something like this to constructively criticize, so it was shocking to me that no one had jumped on this in the year-plus that it has been circulating the internet. I was curious as to whether the people posting these memes understood their negative impact. I did an experiment and sent a handful of Tumblr users the following message politely explaining why the meme is harmful and requested that they take it down: “Your sloth image is incredibly offensive. It turns a very serious and traumatic experience into a joke, and it’s not funny. You should consider removing it out of respect for survivors of sexual violence.”
Two people said that they understood, were sorry and would remove the post. It seems as if they are not familiar with the concept of rape culture and did not mean to offend anyone. Although, there were others who did not give nearly as positive a response. It is shocking to me that people, gender aside, are completely oblivious to how something as minor as an image on Tumblr can be incredibly harmful to our society as a whole.
One person replied to me with “And you should consider fucking off.” I can assure you, I did not consider it. Another replied with, “Sweetheart, I will not dive into the numerous reasons this message is incredibly moronic. If rape sloth is really causing you this much stress, then you may have bigger problems. Perhaps you should delete your Tumblr, stay off the internet, throw your television out the window, turn off the lights and call it a life. PS. sorry you got raped.” When I replied with a more in-depth explanation, they responded with, “You’re wasting your time sending me these messages. I do not care.”
Although my message was rather polite, they responded with complete hostility. This person assumes that just because I care about sexual assault survivors, that I must have been raped, which is a wild assumption. Sexual violence issues are not just those of survivors; they are issues that impact everyone, which is why it is important to educate people and teach them to care if they don’t already. If this person was actually sorry about sexual violence, they would have no problem removing the post without an argument. It is obvious that they aren’t the least bit concerned with this, and I personally find that more offensive than the image itself. The one thing this user was almost right about was that I have bigger problems. The bigger problem is the impact these memes have on rape culture on a larger scale. That is a huge problem, but it won’t be solved as long as we ignore details such as rape “jokes”.