Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says that West's posts hit a raw nerve with some men unused to being questioned.
"Whenever we see people pushing back and saying, 'You have to start being accountable to women in your audience, and I'm going to start making you accountable with this piece,' only then is it necessary for people to be defensive," she says. "Anytime someone is in a position of privilege and they have unearned benefits by virtue of that privilege, when you take those unearned benefits away, to them it feels like you're taking something unfairly."
Sound too strong for a discussion about jokes? Comedian and psychology instructor Wheeler has a routine in his act, drawing on his academic studies, that shows just how deeply comedy -- and gender roles -- can cut, while also making a point about rape jokes.
"I do a fair amount of my routine on how bad people are about communicating about sex," he says. "I talk a lot about how men in particular, not through any fault of their own, are just really pretty bad at sex because nobody really teaches them anything, we have this expectation of competence on their part, and they sort of watch porn and figure, 'OK, I know what I'm doing.' And we have lots of data that shows there are a lot of women who are in heterosexual relationships who are pretty sexually unsatisfied," he says.
As he reels off some jokes about the issue, he can see the men in the audience squirm while the women cheer. At which point he will stop and address the men.
"I'll say, 'I'm sorry, is a comedian saying something that's making you uncomfortable? Maybe I should tell some rape jokes so we can all relax,'" he says.
Women appreciate the role reversal, he says.
"I've had multiple female comedians come up to me after my set and shake my hand and say, 'I want to thank you for doing that, because when I do that, it's too easy for them to dismiss as me just being a bitch. But when you do it, there's really nowhere to hide,'" he says. "So it's not that comedy is right or wrong, it's how you're using it."
Still, there are comedians concerned that essays like West's can have a chilling effect on comedy. They worry that they'll have to censor themselves, and that clubs will err on the side of caution.
Roseanne Barr, while defending West's opinion, pointed out that comedians have to be allowed to fail if they're going to learn the trade -- and that includes telling rape jokes.
"Comedy clubs are a testing ground for comics, and the freedom to be bad and to be offensive are part of the training process itself," she wrote in the Daily Beast. "Free speech can be messy and bloody and offensive; if you aren't prepared for the grossout, stay out of comedy clubs that birth comics like Sam Kinison and Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Bill Hicks."
Barr added that telling rape jokes got her into trouble on at least one occasion.
"I was not allowed to work in a popular comedy club in Denver in 1980 because I told rape jokes," she wrote. "Some women, delicate flowers that they were, took the utmost offense to my presence and my directness."
But comedian Adam Christing, who runs a firm called Clean Comedians ("Laughter you can trust"), points out that to succeed, you have to know your audience. After all, the First Amendment doesn't just give you the right of free speech; it also gives your audience -- or your client -- the right to react to your speech.
"You look at the words 'show business,' and business is the longer word," he says. Clean Comedians supplies a lot of talent for corporate retreats, and some clients have gone over material line-by-line, he points out. "In recent years, (it's been said) that the new prophets are comedians, and I love that. But read the Old Testament -- there are very few prophets and most of them got stoned."
Even the most outrageous comedians know their audience, says Wheeler. After all, without their support, the room is as silent as a tomb when it should be rocking with laughter.
It's an easy lesson to forget, especially these days, when many prospective comedians are trying their hand on the Internet -- which means the entire world is judging. After one of West's attackers was, in turn, flamed on Twitter, he asked if she could intercede. "I was just trying to make Jim Norton laugh," he said.
As with any edgy comedy, context is everything. Even the most offensive material can be hilarious with the right comedian and the right audience. (Just watch "The Aristocrats" for many examples.) As West noted in her column, rape jokes can be funny -- with a certain self-awareness, attitude and intelligence. It's just that too many comedians take shortcuts straight to hostility and parrot "eighth-generation versions of Anthony Jeselnik," she says.
Some comedians are reassessing. Patton Oswalt, who once defended rape jokes on censorship grounds, has now reconsidered. "I've read enough viewpoints, and spoken to enough of my female friends (comedians and noncomedians) to know it isn't some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catch-phrase," he wrote on his blog. "I'm a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change."
Which is all that West is asking.
"It's a process and it's an art, and people who love the art want the art to get better, and that's where I'm at," she says. "I just want it to evolve and I want it to feel less exclusionary to people like me. And there are a lot of people like me."