Why Boner Jokes Aren’t Funny (Even When They Are)

Once upon a time, when I was a baby geologist overseeing my very first municipal water well installation, there was a problem with the rig and the drillers and I all stood around yakking for a bit while we waited for some widget to arrive.

These drillers worked a 3 weeks on, 10 days off kind of schedule, and they were due to go home as soon as we finished the job. This particular well wasn’t finished until we hit bedrock, so as the on-site geologist it was actually my job to say when their vacation started. So we were joking around about how long it’d be before I let them leave, and what they were going to do when they got home. I was the only woman on site – women geologists aren’t rare, but drilling is much more male-dominated than software development and I’ve never actually worked with a female driller or drillhand.

One of the items on the hilarious agenda was for each of the drillers to stop off at a different driller’s place on the way home, to be shown a good time by the lady of the house.

This conversational turn presented me with three options. I could shut things down. I could play along by identifying with the other women in the conversation, thereby casting myself as an object to be traded. Or I could play along by identifying with my colleagues. So I said that if I made them stay on site an extra day, they could go to my house that night and my boyfriend would really treat ’em right.

The drillers shut up and went back to work.

Of course my choice of response is not the point here. The point is that even though I am generally a crude sort of person who thinks boner jokes are one of the pinnacles of human achievement, and at the time I was willing to overlook the whole “tee hee our wives are swappable objects” thing for the sake of fitting in, there was still no way for me to participate in that conversation as an equal. The men were able to bond with each other and blow off some steam while the best I could hope for was to be the awkward conversation-stopper.

I’m reminded of this story today because part of the internet is once again going apeshit about a man’s sacred right to make dongle jokes at professional conferences. If you are not connected to the community going apeshit today, you can just fill in the incident, response, subsequent Twitter death threats, etc. from your imagination and it’ll be close enough. If you are aware of the incident and you’re dying to discuss the specifics I’m sure you can find plenty of other places to do so.

It’s certainly possible to talk about sex or make silly lewd puns in a way that allows people of all genders and sexual orientations to participate. In my experience, though, inclusive crudity is surprisingly rare. Outside of specifically cultivated queer/feminist/sensitive circles, mixed-gender lewd conversations just never seem to have a comfortable space for anyone other than straight cis men (and the occasional “girls only” conversations don’t have space for anyone other than straight cis women).

Experience has taught me that most people divide their humor into bins of polite/crude, rather than inclusive/excluding. If someone I don’t know is telling an innocuous dick joke at a professional conference, it’s more likely that he simply thinks a certain level of crudity is acceptable than that he has a good grasp of the difference between dirty puns and misogynist/objectifying tropes. If I indicate that I’m okay with inclusive crude humor, chances are good that I will soon be listening to a bunch of straight-man-only dirty jokes and it’s a no-win situation for me – time to choose between a shit-smeared lemon and an empty plate! It is much easier to just insist that everything stays polite. But, you know, if more people were careful about telling only the inclusive kind of dirty joke, maybe that could change.

Obviously there are lots of other reasons that people might be bothered by stupid dongle jokes, some gendered, some not. We keep professional environments professional to create a comfortable, productive working environment for everyone even if they are just old-fashioned prudes. I just wanted to highlight one of the ways that crude humor can be specifically a gender issue, even when it seems innocuous, and not just a matter of individual prudishness.

(Edited 3/22 to make my conclusions more explicit.)

Comments

  1. Lab Lemming wrote:

    It’s a big internet, but a sad fact that it requires searching to find…
    http://www.wallisdrilling.com.au/LatestNews.aspx

  2. Silver Fox wrote:

    @ Lab Lemming. Wow!

    @Maria Not ever seen a woman driller, though have had occasion to work with a drill helper on a core rig who was a woman. Once.

  3. Maria wrote:

    Re: the article, does using “females” as a noun in place of “women” have the same creepy connotation in Australia that it does in the US?

    It twigs me out something terrible when someone does that, but I don’t think there’s a reason for that other than that the usage is strongly associated with sexist subcultures.

  4. erica wrote:

    Appreciated this too.

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