YESTERDAY we learned Michael Gove isn’t funny. To allay any doubts about his lack of comedic skill, he used his appearance on Radio 4’s 60th anniversary Today show to remind us how easy it is to get a joke wrong. I’m going to lay my cards on the table early: I don’t think white heterosexual dudes in positions of power have any business scoring laughs at the expense of sexual assault.

“Sometimes I think that coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom” he began.

“John goes way past groping!”, Lord Kinnock continued.

“You just pray that you emerge with your dignity intact, but the broader point is that, yes, you can make a fool of yourself” followed Gove.

John Humphrys laughed and said nothing.Telling that the ensuing headlines weren’t, “Presenter lauded for challenging rape joke”. Why rock the boat when you’re lucky enough to be in it?

Did you hear the one about the MP, a Lord and a radio presenter? Everyone had a jolly nice time, and a good laugh at the expense of women.

It’s funny to them because transposing themselves into that scenario is absurd. Three powerful straight guys who would never find themselves in a rapist’s bedroom. Three powerful straight guys who’ve never had to worry about their sexual safety when alone with another man.

Gove later apologised for his “clumsy attempt at humour”. Apologising not because he joked about a sensitive subject, but because the joke didn’t land. Many were quick to defend him, claiming comedy as the last bastion free speech. Let me say this without ambiguity: If you put more effort into defending a man’s freedom to make rape jokes, than into challenging myths they rely on, you’re part of the problem.

I find a lot of things funny, despite being a feminist. I know how comforting it is to think of us as the fun police, enemies of free speech with a censorial agenda. Once upon a time, I had a job as close to that as you can get. I was the comedy editor of a popular magazine, which meant deep immersion in the world of what does and doesn’t work in humour. Given that the majority of comics are guys, and guys who like to provoke, you end up sitting through an excruciatingly large number of rape jokes. And I can assure you, against the landscape of endemic sexual assault — those jokes were mostly shit. The audiences generally agreed. Yet they remain a favourite in the comic’s playbook.

I say mostly, because every once in a while, someone uses humour to explode an idea open for our consideration. They use it to throw an aspect of rape culture into sharp relief. They get on stage and talk about rape and make you think. That’s what good jokes do.

The good jokes called attention to how awful rape is. They called attention to how our culture protects perpetrators and silences victims. They didn’t underline the stereotypes and myths that normalise sexual assault, making it harder for survivors to seek justice. They used comedy as a means of exposing sexual assault for what it is, an abuse of power, and dismantled the beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate it.

AND guess what? Most of the comics landing these jokes were women. People like Adrienne Truscott with her show Asking for It, delivered in just a denim jacket and heels, with a can of beer and a rape whistle. Or Zoe Coombs Marr who did an hour delivering sexist jokes disguised as a male comic. People most likely to have had some experience of assault. It should come as no great surprise to anyone that the group of people dropping massive clangers are those least likely to be raped.

Of course we need to laugh at social taboos. Humour helps us to process difficult things. It gives us a means of social critique. It helps us to bond. It confirms us as part of group. But that doesn’t mean all jokes about social taboos or injustice are helpful or should be tolerated.

The Gove joke wasn’t doing anything clever. It was an affirmation of identity and status. This sort of back-patting sleazy frat-boy humour that functions a social lubricant. The sort that affirms a position as part of an in-group this doesn’t happen to. The sort of joke that underlines that they are not women, not the punchline. It was a joke that punches down at victims, rather than upwards to the perpetrator.

This joke, like most rape jokes, rely on stereotypes. They make us laugh at, not with, the affected group. Most avoid deep-digging into the subject. Most show little effort applied to saying something thoughtful. It’s the laziest form of humour because the culture does all the heavy lifting for you. And when one in five of the women in your audience are likely to have been victims of your subject matter, it’s unfeeling and tone-deaf.

But what about free speech?

Go ahead. Say what you want to say. But know that free speech doesn’t exempt you from feedback and think about what you’re trying to do with humour.

Are you contributing to the problem or the solution? Are you trivialising assault or drawing attention to the damage it does? Are you talking about something you’ve experienced, or about a group you know little about? Does the joke put you closer to the victim or the perpetrator?

The number one predictor of if a joke is any good is if it’s funny. Usually, we determine that by how many people laugh and clap their hands when you tell it.

You can make a rape joke, but we don’t have to laugh. And if half your audience doesn’t find it funny, it’s probably not a very good joke to begin with. If you tell it anyway, you’re probably in the wrong job.