“She has no sense of humour.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Or, if you are a woman, you might have had a remark like that directed at you: “Where’s your sense of humour?”
If anyone has ever said that to you, I will bet that a vivid memory of the type of situation that elicited it has sprung into your mind, along with some unpleasant emotions.
It turns out that I have no sense of humour. Here is a story of an experience that reminded me of that fact.
Recently, I was at a meeting of a community organization. I am thrilled to be getting to know my new community, and have been reaching out and meeting people through a number of different venues. Although I am new to these different groups because we have just moved to the area, I have found people to be pleasant and welcoming. It has been interesting and fun making new acquaintances and participating in local activities that in the past I simply did not have time for.
The group of people at this particular meeting included people from diverse work backgrounds. Usually the participation is about one third female and two thirds male, with about half being retired people and the rest still working. However, on this occasion, it happened that I was the only woman present.
As everyone bustled about getting ready to start the meeting, I noticed 'Frank' approaching others in the room and showing them a piece of paper. I wondered whether it might be a recent bit of correspondence, or maybe a community announcement of some sort. Soon enough, Frank came around to my side of the room and showed the piece of paper to the person beside me. Curious, I glanced sideways to see what the notice was about. Frank adjusted the angle of the paper so it was easy for both of us to see.
It was a crude joke about women’s boobs. Frank was grinning, looking for a reaction.
I was stunned. In this time of heightened awareness of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and with all the recent media coverage of entertainment and film industry “big names” being called out for sexual assault, how could anyone think that it was okay to pass around dirty jokes about women’s bodies?
This is not a new situation for me, of course. Being a woman who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s, I remember that this kind of male behaviour in groups was more the norm than the exception in the past. As I often found myself in mostly male groups (because I was a skier and an active outdoors person, and because I climbed the education and career ladders to a level where women were rare), I learned to grin and bear it much of the time. I didn’t want to be tagged as a troublemaker, a prude, or someone with no sense of humour. I wanted to fit in.
I am also a lifelong feminist. Over time, I developed more confidence and began to speak out about sexist and male bullying behaviour. In one of my career positions, I initiated a sexual violence awareness campaign and led the development of a sexual violence policy in our workplace.
So how did I respond to Frank’s ‘joke’?
I would like to report that I spoke out and said, “Frank, jokes like this make me feel uncomfortable. They are not appropriate at our meetings.” I would like to say that the others in the room (all men) spoke up and supported me. But that is not what happened.
I looked at the piece of paper and said nothing.
Old habits kicked in. There was a tone of suppressed hilarity in the room that evening, and to me the dynamics felt very uncomfortable. I felt voiceless, and like the butt of the joke.
I was really angry, just boiling. I was angry at myself for not speaking out. I was angry about all of the men in the room who said nothing and let Frank get away with this behaviour. And I was angry with all the Franks of the world who feel they have the right to use sexism to put down, humiliate, and exclude others.
I tried to understand why I and the others present had behaved the way we did.
In rationalizing my own behaviour, I can say that I was a new person in this group, the only woman, and possibly the youngest, and therefore in a position of low social influence. I have been socialized throughout my life to know ‘a woman’s place,’ even though I also have fought against sexism throughout my life. As far as sexist jokes go, this particular one was quite mild, even kind of cute. I didn’t want to be seen as making a big deal about something that is trivial compared to the horror of sexual assault that so many women experience. In an uncomfortable social situation, it is easier to remain silent. I didn’t want to embarrass Frank (!!).
As far as the behaviour of the rest of the people in the room went, I wondered why none of the men had the courage to say something. Several of them are professionals for whom this sort of thing certainly would not be tolerated in their workplaces, so they must have known that it was was not appropriate. The chair of the meeting has the designated authority to manage the conduct of people at the meeting, but he said nothing. I speculated that perhaps this kind of sexist joke sharing has been the norm in this group, and if that is the case, perhaps also racist jokes. If so, why would I want to be part of such a group?
Frank is elderly and is the most long-standing member of the group. Perhaps the other men were afraid to challenge Frank because of his senior status. And then I felt mad at myself all over again for expecting the male members to speak up when I didn't have the courage to do so.
And what about Frank? Is he really so out of touch that he innocently thought the joke was funny and just wanted to share it with us? Perhaps, steeped in a lifetime of white male privilege, he actually believes that women have no place attending such meetings, and that women in their role as wives should simply serve as adjuncts and supports to male-run groups. Perhaps this was his passive-aggressive way of putting me (and all women) in our place.
Days later, I still feel angry about it. I am still trying to decide what to do about it, because being silenced is not an acceptable option.
It's just a little thing, but if I and the other members of this group lack the courage to deal with the little things, how are we ever going to make progress on the big things like sexual assault, rape culture, the glass ceiling, and the fact that women in Canada today who are working full time only earn 74.2% of what full-time working men earn? I am filled with admiration for women and men who have spoken out as part of the #MeToo movement.
But, too bad that I have no sense of humour.