Are sexist jokes harmless? The ball-and-chain jokes about wives and mothers in laws, the comments about women's body parts, the hardy-har-har about blondes who have no brains? Are these harmless or are they actually a form of abuse?
These are some of the questions that have come up since I wrote my piece two weeks ago about non-contact sexual abuse. Can jokes be abuse? But they are just so "normal"? How can that be abuse?
Consider this: What some of us may have been taught is "normal": a family sits around the table for shabbat lunch. the men of the family -- father, uncle, brother-in-law, all busy telling jokes are about women, about men and sex. about women's bodies, about women's dumbness or stupidity or lack of common sense. Meanwhile, the women are serving and the men are sitting. Men get to deliver opinions and women get to be servers. The house may even have a rule that men get served first. And at the same time, girls who are too opinionated are called "provocative", or "annoying", or "chutzpahdik" or "disrespectful". And their bodies are commented on during all this. Whose skirt is too short. Which women in synagogue wore skirts that were too short. Who gained weight or lost weight. Who should go on a diet. Who should be losing weight. Who "looks great". This is what is happening in the house.
Consider the experience of the 10 year old girl in all this. What is she experiencing about her body? About what it means to get attention? About what it means to be correct as a woman? What is going through her mind? What kind of relationships is she developing with her body? With her sexuality? With men? With power and voice? What is she internalizing? What kinds of relationships might she eventually have with boys and men? What kinds of body issues might she have?
Now imagine this: The girl desperately wants her smart, charismatic father to love her and admire her. She wants to be in his circle. she tried having opinions but got punished for that. so she tries another tack. she makes a sexist joke. She makes the kind of joke her father would make about, say, Kim Kardashian's ass. She knows it is considered funny, even if she doesn't really get why. But she is smart enough to know how to fit in and get some attention. The father looks at her, stunned, and then laughs in pride. Later he will say that she is his smartest daughter. Almost like a boy. She is like his vicarious son. She is so smart.
What has this girl internalized? Think about it.
When is a joke not just a joke but part of a culture of sexual abuse? Even when there is no actual touching involved......
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org