“There is a woman around, so let’s not talk about this”, is something that I never hear from my Norther European/American colleagues.
Probably most people stupidly think that is a good thing, even a sign of equality, of being liberated and grown-up. It is supposed to be funny to joke about sex all the time, during coffee break in the morning, during lunch, and of course at every party and every social outing at my institute. Women are supposed to laugh along and make some jokes themselves to show that they are totally fine with this.
I am getting increasingly sick about this. Let me try to explain why.
- If men joke about female strippers and prostitutes, about internet porn, or about being the receiver of oral sex [yes, that is what people joke about at lunch in my institute] they always transport an over-the-top stereotypical ‘male’ view on sex, in which the men always think about sex, and the women only exist to please the men. They are also “insider-jokes” to members of the male gender, which immediately exclude the women at the table, who do not see what is funny about the existence of prostitutes (at least I can’t see it). When the conversation takes this kind of turn, I always go from relaxed to extremely uncomfortable in 2 seconds. I get really stressed trying to figure out whether they try to provoke me, whether they pretend that I don’t exist, and if I need to react in some way and if yes how. But the worst thing for me is that these jokes remind me of the fact that all these men, with whom I try to have a professional relationship with, probably have some kind of attitude towards woman that might not be ideal and that I really do not want to know about. I do not want to know about the sexism in the head of my male colleagues. I think part of the reason is this effect — it has been shown that women talking to men in a professional setting tend to use part of their brain power to reflect on issues like sexism, and to be stressed about its possiblitiy, even if it doesn’t happen. These kind of jokes make this worse in a non-reversible way. I know exactly which men have made how many jokes about sex and women, and it makes me feel less relaxed when talking to them about science. I cannot help that.
- I am convinced that men would also feel uncomfortable if they went out with a group of women and those women would start explicitely joking about sex from their own perspective. Why can we not all be civil and not subject the opposite gender to this?
- My theory is that the constant joking about sex has to do with a mix of a male superiority complex and inferiority complex. They feel superior to women, but they are always afraid to be inferior to other men, to be less male, less sexual, less virile than them. And this is exactly the problem. This feeling of theirs is stupid, problematic, and should please be hidden from public sight. Their jokes always present male sexuality as if it was something to be extremely proud of (in contrast to being a woman). “So yesterday I was masturbating to some internet porn…” is something I must have heard tens of times. This is supposed to be funny, but to me this translates very simply as: “I am a male and a sexual being, and I am very proud of this.” This annoys me considerably, simply because it is unthinkable that a woman would say the equivalent thing.
“Don’t be such a pussy!” is another very common thing my colleagues say to each other, also if women are around. With each joke, each reference to the female sex as inferior, the principles of patriarchy are reminded to everyone at the table, and if they don’t think about what’s going on, the women feel a little more insecure, the men a bit more scared about appearing female — of course, this is mostly happening unconsciously. It is like advertisement — from the corner of your eye you see a coke advertisement and you feel a litte more positive about the company. It works.
I really wish men could be civil and stop the constant joking and giggling about sex like 10-year olds when women are around. This applies especially to PhD advisors who should try to at least pretend to be grown up.
P. S. To answer the typical objections I get to these thoughts:
(i) This has nothing to do with ‘having a sense of humour’ on my part. It has all to do with ‘having a sense of politeness’ on the part of my male colleagues. The fact that many women laugh along, and tell men they are fine with it, doesn’t prove that the ones complaining must be wrong.
(ii) Yes, I should probably show that I get angry each time this happens, make some witty and sharp and clever response that exposes the problem, or just leave the room. But it is hard to do that if you are in the minority and depend on the other people professionally. I am not in the mood for a fight during most lunch breaks and parties, and I am afraid of overreacting. I also don’t know how to explain the problem of sexism to sexist men, and I am sure they would find it extremely funny if I tried. I am afraid of once again being the idealistic person hitting my head against the brick wall of stereotypes and stupidity. I am not sure if I want to do that to my head. (If any reader has a good advice on how to react, please share.)
(iii) ‘Ironic sexism’ does not exist. That would be just sexism.