Turns out that women can take a joke. Almost all of them (because who wants to speak in absolutes, right?) have a sense of humor, and even most of the ones who don’t can identify a joke on paper and in situ, either by careful (if speedy) grammatical analysis or by gauging the reactions of the people around them. In fact, sometimes women joke with each other, in public, in front of people, even in front of men. There is plenty, plenty of evidence that belies the common complaint that women don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t take a joke. And yet, this unsupported factoid has legs within the skeptical movement, and trots itself out every time a woman complains about a sexist or misogynist joke appearing in the skeptical discourse and asks people to cut it out.
Defensiveness ensues. And accusations, and lots of things, all revolving around the topics of It Is Perfectly Fine to Tell This Joke and I Don’t Really Mean It It’s Just to Be Funny and How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke? Let’s pick these apart one by one.
How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke?
Women can tell that it’s a joke. (See first paragraph.) But pretending that they can’t is a deflection strategy that enables men to criticize women for their behavior instead of taking responsibility for their own. The thing is that the women just don’t think the joke is funny. Their reasons for not thinking a sexist joke is funny include (but are not limited to) that they are hurt or embarrassed by jokes at their expense, that sexist jokes told in an environment of mostly men perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women, and that dismissing a woman as having no sense of humor is just another way to silence her (by shaming her, by inventing a flaw and then criticizing her for having it, usually in front of a group).
I Don’t Really Mean It It’s Just to Be Funny
If you don’t really mean to hurt or embarrass the women in your skeptical group, perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women, or dismiss women’s concerns by shaming them, why are you telling the joke? What is so important about that arrangement of words that trumps the avoidance of those three (or more) significant drawbacks? If you are telling a joke despite these negative effects just because it will make the male majority of skeptics laugh and make you look good, then, well, you’ve demonstrated that you care more about preserving the male majority/dominance of the skeptical movement than making skepticism a place for women too, and have revealed your actual priorities. Before you protest that Skepticism Without Humor is too bleak to contemplate, remember that most jokes are not sexist jokes. There are plenty of other opportunities to make jokes that do not require a person for a punching bag.
It Is Perfectly Fine to Tell This Joke
Translated: I’m gonna tell this joke because I wanna, so screw you. What exactly do you mean when you say that it’s “perfectly fine” to tell this joke? That you claim the right to do it no matter what? No one is disputing that. But “perfectly fine” does not mean “because I want to no matter what,” particularly in a community with more than one viewpoint. Women actually do have perspectives on things, and their version of living in the world is perfectly legitimate, even if you’ve never thought about their point of view before, or considered that their experiences might be different from yours. What you consider acceptable teasing is not universal–not even among the skeptical community–and you don’t set the standards of what experience is and means. Also, it’s not “perfectly fine” to tell sexist jokes if it is hurting your public image in society at large or hampering stated goals of making the skeptical community more diverse, or more relevant to problems that affect the lives of people who may not be you. It’s not “perfectly fine” to tell a joke if people are calling you out for being a jerk after you do so. The fact that they are complaining belies the idea of “perfectly fine.” So if you are telling a joke because you want to, say so, or because you are mad at the way “women always…” or some such, admit it.
If you honestly were in complete ignorance that a joke you made was going to be a sexist, hurtful, stereotype-perpetuating joke before you made it, and it is revealed to you as such upon delivery, apologize. And then learn from the experience. And then stop telling women they can’t take a joke when they refuse to accept your garbage as their own, and stop trying to silence them with statements that are laughably untrue. And if they laugh first at your joke, and then ask you to cut it out, it doesn’t make them hypocrites. Funny doesn’t trump acting like a decent human being.