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Dirty jokes

Dara Purvis - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Wednesday August 23, 2006

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I try not to let myself write columns on the same subject one after another. After writing a weekly column for as long as I have, overlap is inevitable, but usually I try to space out discussions of individual issues relating to the same general topic. But I have had several incidents recently that prompt this latest retread, so I hope any of my readers who are not receptive to feminist discussion (yes, they apparently do exist) will forgive the new iteration.

The thing that has gotten under my skin is exemplified by something that happened while I was out for a meal with some new acquaintances. One of the members of the group started to make a slightly off-color joke in reference to a story of his own dating life with which he had just been regaling us. Suddenly another member of the group broke in, saying “Hey, we’re in mixed company.” Apparently my presence as the only female at the table made that joke suddenly unacceptable.

A few other facts should be noted to give the proper background. The person telling the story and I had been out socially several times before, and thus he knew that I would not find his joke offensive, would think it was funny, and would likely respond with a similar ribaldry of my own. (Due to several of my past jobs, including giving HIV tests and sexual health counseling, as well as teaching sexual education to junior high school students while in college, I am unusually comfortable talking about sexuality—in the abstract at least—in public. I also have the sense of humor of a fourteen-year-old boy, and thus find all dirty jokes hilarious.) And to be fair, my hackles had already been raised, as the man attempting to intervene on my behalf had told me earlier in the meal that he thought the television show “Hell’s Kitchen” was so popular because men enjoyed the competition and host Gordon Ramsay’s frequent expletive-laden blowups at contestants, while women liked it because it was about cooking.

But what some people might see as a show of genteel behavior annoys me as rather bald chauvinism, no matter how well-intentioned. The same dispute came up in a much more extreme form at another meal out, when I got into an argument with a friend of mine about whether pornography should be legal. The friend argued that it should be illegal, that pornography was degrading to women, and that he was being a better protector of women than I, the self-professed feminist, was.

There is harm in well-intentioned chauvinism and in a perceived need by males to “protect” women from behavior that is regarded as harmless or even enjoyable to men. I agree that pornography is, in practice, almost always degrading to women. But I don’t think there is anything inherently degrading to women in pornography, either from producing or more importantly consuming it. And I think that refusing to recognize the ongoing implicit subordination of women, however good the intention, does more harm than good.

Forgive the jump into nerdy legal parallels, but, well, I’m a law student. There was a Supreme Court case in 1908 called Muller v. Oregon that upheld an Oregon labor law that prohibited women from working more than 10 hours a day. There was at the time an extremely strong protection of the so-called fundamental freedom of contract—under this theory, the state telling you that you can’t, say, contract to sell your kidney for $5 is unconstitutional. (The understanding, while never explicitly overruled, has been significantly curtailed, as evidenced by now-accepted institutions such as the minimum wage.) The result of this belief was that virtually every single law passed with the intention of helping American workers, such as minimum wage or maximum hour laws, was struck down. The pragmatic result of Muller was therefore good: For once, the courts said it was okay for the state to want to protect workers against the unceasing demands for profit that would happily sacrifice their health in order to squeeze a bit more money out of them.

The justification for the protection, however, was rank sexism at its worst. The Court’s opinion went on at length about the supposed differences between the sexes that meant that women were disabled and hobbled in ways that men were not—that working ten hours a day in a bakery would injure women in a way that it would not injure men. And because women were uniquely dependent upon men, they relied upon their male protectors to prevent them from doing harm to themselves by working too much.

Was working incredibly long hours a bad thing for most women? Yes, probably. But the core justification was not “working incredibly long hours for low pay is a bad thing”—it was “women must be protected from this.” In Muller, “this” was work. I’ll only briefly note the laughable hypocrisy of saying work would harm women, when women were expected to exclusively perform all household tasks. Let’s be realistic and acknowledge that the “work” the Muller court was concerned with was really “work outside the home.”

In the same way, arguing against pornography or not making dirty jokes in front of females is another form of protection: “Women must be protected from sex.” My would-be savior at dinner, after all, was not saying “that joke isn’t appropriate to make in front of people you don’t know very well.” There were other new acquaintances—friends of mine, as it happens—in the group. But they were male. And so the admonition was the reference to my presence, which made our gathering “mixed company” and suddenly made the joke unacceptable.

I have to say, there is an odd sense of old-fashioned sexism that I get from such circumstances. Had I not been at dinner, I think the dirty joke would have passed without remark. The intention is to exclude women from a particular type of conversation. And I recognize it is a bit odd to complain about my exclusion from juvenile locker-room type talk, but it is a form of bonding, a form of camaraderie. And if women are excluded from it entirely, it is just one more room we are shut out of.

Obviously, there are complications involving the intersection of sexuality and social circumstances. I am not saying that my vast library of dirty jokes should be recited in all settings. There are all sorts of environments in which my sense of humor is inappropriate—but it is inappropriate because of the setting itself, not because of the gender of people present. When we act as though sex is somehow intrinsically bad for women—as though everything from pornography to dirty jokes offends all womanly sensibilities and should only be aired in locker rooms and cigar smoke-filled back rooms—we perpetuate a well-intentioned and watered-down version of the same chauvinism that says women can’t handle working outside the home.