Why men should not make sex jokes around their female colleagues

“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.

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18 Responses to Why men should not make sex jokes around their female colleagues

  1. ytakery says:

    Sounds like the worries of an introverted person. As long as all people are expected to function in large groups with extroverted people who have aggressive senses of humour this will happen.

    There is a strong feminist effort to make men ashamed of their sexuality so you may get what you want in time I guess.

    And women in large groups do the opposite with isolated men, and it is indeed very awkward. Since men are supposed to always want sex they feel free to molest you to make points.

    • Stephanie says:

      “There is a strong feminist effort to make men ashamed of their sexuality so you may get what you want in time I guess.”

      This is in no way true. Feminists (like myself) are for gender equality. We don’t want anyone to feel ashamed of their sexuality. I disagree with this article in many ways. One reason because I believe women are not as sensitive as this post make us out to be. Women make these jokes too you know. However there are people out there, men and women, who ARE uncomfortable with it and you should respect them. Also, a work environment had no need for those kinds of jokes. But besides that I disagree because sex is not a topic to shy away from and I am SICK and TIRED of my guy friends ‘censoring’ themselves due to my presence. I just want a sex healthy, sex positive world to live in. HOWEVER. Sexist or violent sex jokes are UNACCEPTABLE and should not be made within the presence of any human being regardless of gender.

      • ytakery says:

        Feminist perspectives vary. Yours is kind certainly, I was more referring to efforts to push things like toxic masculinity, patriarchy, the duluth model ideologies like that which see masculinity and male sexuality as oppressive and violent and which have been used to push laws that support that.

        Some women are more sensitive, some less.I was more making the point that it’s a culture issue, in that a lot of people are way to open with their opinions and jokes. You should be careful and polite with your rougher jokes till you know they’re safe to make, with people like you who enjoy them and not people who hate them. Not just blurt out rudeness to everyone you meet.

        Sex and rape are common parts of our world, and humor covers all subjects. I think more people should be careful that their jokes don’t enable rapists to see rape as a good thing, and don’t enable hostile sexism, and of course be aware of the sensitivity of rape victims. Rapists should never feel that people are supporting them, rape victims should never feel that society hates them.

  2. Merv says:

    The bit about this type of behaviour being exhibited in professional circles concerns me. Luckily I have rarely encountered much of this at work or in social settings, especially in mixed company. As a male I [would] find it difficult not to be taken along with such “banter” however I try not to join in with other unacceptable jokes etc. Believe me this is hard and sometimes I don’t succeed, please don’t give up on your male colleagues/friends.

  3. Great post! When these things come up and you want to address the speaker, whatever you do, don’t be confrontation. If there was a way to subtly ask the speaker why they are using that language or maybe even why it’s appropriate, hopefully this would prompt some introspection and get them to pause (even if it is only for a moment).

    • Margaret says:

      There is a 70 something female and her 37 year old grandson that visited my home for the first time. My husband and another male visitor were there. The woman swore horribly and always brought the male anatomy into the conversation. Frequent and horribly crass. They finally left. I was ambarassed. I asked her a couple of times to stop but she continued. I worked medical in the past and explained that to me it was just an anatomy part. Why would this elderly lady do this? When she came to the food bank she did the same thing. She and her grandson are not educated. Low income, they stopped by to pick up some food they were in need of. She will not be welcomed in my home again. But I wonder why is this crippled female obsessed with this type o conversation?

  4. J says:

    Dear Zinemin,
    I am a man, and I work in academia, and I am not particularly sensitive with comments related to sex. Still, I found your post absolutely shocking. I don’t think I would bear having people joking explicitly about their masturbating habits. And I am saying this when from time to time I make sex jokes myself (let me add in my defence that the sort of jokes I make are very different – in particular, they are gender-symmetric, and rather indirect). I think the last time I made an explicit joke about sex I was in my early twenties and strictly surrounded by close friends.
    You have every right to complain. The sort of comments you describe are childish, tasteless, and disliking them has nothing to do with sense of humour.
    And next time I think of a sex joke I will be extra-careful before saying anything.

  5. Fabio Noviello says:

    Nothing of the kind happening at my institute thankfully(not continuously, at least). I personally complain if someone (man or woman) makes an occasional “joke” that is clearly offensive or demeaning (towards a specific gender, race or whoever…). This does not mean that we might not ALSO joke on sex-related issues (it’s part of life), but in a somewhat more tasteful and adult manner. In this case the women in my group (some of which are friends) are comfortable and joke themselves. Might I add that grown-up man or woman joking about (and watching) internet porn might have an issue or two…?

    • zinemin says:

      I am not entirely sure about this ‘some women are comfortable and joke themselves’. I had only two female colleagues during my entire career who would join in and try to make even more extreme jokes, but I had the strong impression that they were both super-insecure and looking for validation from men. Of course I don’t know if I am right and also if that applies to your colleagues. I think the way you can distinguish this is as follows: if a woman is comfortable and makes her own sex jokes not because she is trying to please the men, but coming from her own sense of humour, these jokes will sometimes feel really uncomfortable for you as a man. That is just how it works with these jokes — they are often not funny for both genders. Sex jokes are such a difficult terrain, and it is so hard for men/women to find out what might be offensive for the opposite gender, that I think the best solution is just to avoid them in mixed company. I also don’t see exactly the argument about ‘sex is a part of life and therefore we joke about it’. I don’t hear people joking about food for example. Why is it exactly sex that is so extremely funny, that even the mention of ‘stripper’ causes a happy chuckling around the table? I just don’t get it. I also enjoy chocolate, but I don’t laugh when someone mentions it.

      • Fabio Noviello says:

        > think the way you can distinguish this is as follows: if a woman is comfortable and >makes her own sex jokes not because she is trying to please the men, but coming from >her own sense of humour, these jokes will sometimes feel really uncomfortable for you >as a man

        . Usually not (in my circles). As for sex being part of life i stand by it.
        I/we also joke about food, the environment, politics, whatever. My circle of friends/colleagues considers sex a normal thing, nothing to get hung up about. Hence eventual jokes are meant to be tasteful. The mention of “stripper”
        around the table (without any context) wouldn’t elicit any response I suppose.

        To be honest I believe your sexist colleagues are boorish. But, thankfully for me (as I said), I have the privilege of consorting with people who do not have a problem with this issue. As an example, last Saturday I attended a concert with a female friend & colleague of mine. We went for drinks afterwards, chatted comfortably for hours &, among many other things, also discussed sex as a natural thing. We’re still friends & will be seeing each other outside work. All I can wish for you is that you’ll encounter friends (including men) with whom you might joke about any topic and feel ok about it. Wish you luck ! 😉

  6. I can absolutely relate to you, though it hasn’t happened to me with the same intensity. Me and my sister (who is also Physics grad student) used to talk about how people use the words/phrases like “pussy”, “being a woman”, “not being a man” etc. to refer to losers, or cowardly. I’ve even had friends have serious conversations on “if women are really better than men in any thing at all” in my presence. Apart from this, sexual jokes that may not always be apt, are also quite common. Everytime I express that these things bother me, there are at least few people, who imply how I don’t have a sense of humor, and how I’m being over-sensitive.

    The same kind of response was given by a friend of my sister, when she shared your post on her facebook after I showed it to her. The idea that men are naturally loose than women is so deep rooted that if there is a man that is proper, he is deemed as abnormal just as how a loose woman would be deemed abnormal. My sister made a good point that if there are so many men that are getting so much sexual actions all the time, then it must be true that there are women out there providing them those sexual actions unless they are all gays (which is again deemed very unmanly). Anyway, it’s just ridiculous if people claim that men are loose; hence, they tend to behave like this. Maybe, it is also the society’s freedom (often even reinforcement) for men to behave that way. I don’t have any problem with loose men (or women), but I do believe everything has it’s own place. It’s one thing to make crude, sexual jokes in the presence of close friends, and another thing to make such jokes, and pass random sexually offensive remarks.

    Take for example if a group of women were talking about periods and its gruesome details during a professional/social settings in the presence of not-entirely-close male friend, then would that be welcomed? I’m referring to periods rather than sex jokes because again society has already put this idea in all of our brains that men welcome sex no matter what the circumstances are (which I don’t believe is true, but looks like a lot of men convince themselves that they do just to seem more manly). Let alone periods, even if a bunch of women were making a poop/fart jokes (which are common among men, but comes out as a crude joke when made by women), I don’t think all men would welcome them that easily.

    Having said so, I mostly just express my resentment and my concern whenever someone makes such jokes unless it’s something that I can let slide. For the same reason, recently I’ve found myself not being able to be close friends with a lot of men and women (who are sensitized to such issues). However, I’m glad to have few but worthy friends, who feel the same way about these issues as I do.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! I totally agree with you. It feels good to be understood. 🙂 I know, it would be really easy also for women to say things that would be extremely uncomfortable for men, in particular regarding the period which men really do not want to hear about.
      And that is exactly what annoys me: Why do the loud, extroverted men constantly talk about the messy parts of their bodily functions, while women never do it? If this was done equally by men and women, I would probably not be bothered by it. I could find jokes about the period and the female view on sex funny as well, but I think it is absolutely not okay to make them in mixed company.
      The stereotypical loose/proper distinction between men and women which annoys me to no end. Several men have already commented to me that I should hurry up and marry my boyfriend, probably with the idea ‘before he runs off’. I find the stupid idea that women are always keen on marrying and have to try to trick their boyfriend into this extremely offensive.

      • Fabio Noviello says:

        Addendum after reading ajeetakhatiwada’s post. I really don’t know what kind of people you are forced to work with. Franky, no-one (men or women) I work with behaves in such a manner.

        As for “poop/fart jokes (which are common among men)”. That’s a tad sexist isn’t it? ….
        Again, not in my circles. And I’m hardly an aristocrat….

  7. Honestly, I go to lunch with a group of predominantly male physicists every day, and for whatever reason, the only time that sex ever comes up is when my girlfriend mentions it. Nor is this something which changed after I started transitioning. Of course, it was extremely common when I was doing my undergraduate degree, so maybe I’m just working with a group of uncommonly civilized gentlemen?

    “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 I would say is not only completely true, but is also at the heart of almost all misogyny, as well as homophobia and transphobia.

    • zinemin says:

      I think you are working with a group of uncommonly civilized gentlemen.:) Or maybe people who are doing hard-core theoretical physics are different. I often notice differences in average personalities between different groups and sub-fields. People doing lots of code development are on average worse.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great thread. Thanks for posting. Agree with much of what has been said.

  9. Mae says:

    Laughing off the jokes is really the only recourse a womencan take in light of these kind of jokes. Other than flipping the tables in them, ‘now why doesnt your having to masterbate to internet porn suprise me?’
    Whereby, all the other guys may chime in in support of the joker until it sounds like a twelve step program:
    ‘my name is jon and im an internet masterbater’
    ‘my name is dan and I masterbate to internet porn’
    ‘my name is pete….etc….etc’
    In short, working in a male dominated field youre going to have to suck it up. Saying anything about your discomfort may lead to resentment and youll likely be ostrasized because of it. I was. I work in the trades. Nowadays I will fake a laugh or a smile if it kills me. Then again, im not a trail blazer. I just want to work.

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