All Joking Aside? Taking Stock of Sexual Humour at Work

Is it ever appropriate to crack sex jokes at work?  I hope so - since I’ve been known to do it on occasion.  But a recent one-liner made by a Canadian parliamentarian has prompted me to interrogate my risque behaviour, and reflect on the line that divides harmless suggestive bantering from sleazy unwanted innuendos. 

When it comes to erotic talk at the office, is one person’s discomfort another person’s delight? 

If so, how to tell the difference?  And what should be the consequences when we get our signals crossed?

Take, for example, conservative MP James Bezan’s recent blunder.  In May of this year, Bezan was posing for a picture with liberal MP Sherry Romanado and a third person at a fundraiser event when he quipped, “This isn’t my idea of a threesome.”  The incident led to Romanado making a complaint, which triggered a human resources investigation.  While the final report found the joke did not constitute sexual harassment, Bezan nonetheless claims he has apologized multiple times, and took the initiative to undergo sensitivity training.  In early December, having apparently received advance notice that Romanado was going to issue a statement, Bezan publicly acknowledged in the House of Commons that he had made an “inappropriate and insensitive comment,” and apologized.  Romando responded a few hours later, stating, “[Bezan] publicly made inappropriate, humiliating and unwanted comments to me that were sexual in nature.  These comments have caused me great stress and have negatively affected my work environment.” She has since stated that she is not sure she accepts Bezan’s apology.

The media response to the scandal was mixed.  Montreal Gazette columnist Allison Hanes situated the incident on a patriarchal “continuum of contempt” with derogatory humour on the mild side, and the December 6th massacre on the extreme.  However, most of the opeds portrayed Romanado’s statement as overreaction or political opportunism, and her decision to go public as ill-conceived.  Robyn Urback’s CBC provides a nuanced commentary condemning the joke as  “boorish” “offensive,” “dumb,” “rude” and “oafish.”  But she also suggests that by turning the incident into a public spectacle, Romanado has implicitly (if unwittingly) conflated predatory abuse with an inappropriate comment. 

While it is hard for me to empathize with Romanado’s stated feelings, as a feminist, I don’t feel comfortable second-guessing her claims of deep distress.  There is, after all, a long misogynist history of dismissing a woman’s complaint of mistreatment as overly-sensitive, manipulative, or dramatic.  So let’s take her statement at face value:  Romanado felt harmed by the joke, and it has interfered with her work. 

Does that mean that all threesome jokes (and their ilk) are forever off the boardroom table?

I ask because I made one very recently.  At the time, I was participating in a workplace training that involves group activities across faculty and staff at my university.  We were given an assignment that could be accomplished in either groups of two or three.  I had already committed to working with one male colleague, when another female colleague asked me if we could work together.  Imagining myself being clever and coy, I went to the first colleague and asked him if he’d like to have a threesome with us.  He laughed, and joked back, “it depends on how we arrange it.”   My reading (which admittedly is biased and self-interested) is that his reaction and reply indicate that he did not feel humiliated or unnerved by the comment.  The hope is that he experienced it as a welcome departure from office etiquette.  We have since conversed, and are collaborating on a separate project together outside of this training, so I’m hoping that means he is not suffering in silence.  But of course, I could be wrong. 

Some might argue that because of our different identities -- he’s a white guy, I’m a racialized woman -- it does not carry the same impact as a threesome joke on Parliament Hill launched by a male colleague.  After all, there is now a documented history of female politicians having been subjected to harassment, abuse and misogynist epithets, including by fellow politicians.  On the other hand, it could also be possible that my comment did wound him, but that he does not feel entitled or safe to make a complaint, because of masculine and heterosexist codes that assume men should always be up for some naughty talk.  Furthermore, I’m faculty while he is staff.  Although that should not mean anything inherently, in practice, an unstated hierarchy has repeatedly been observed that privileges professors in the university context.  

Given the complexity of power, the safe bet would be to simply refrain from sex jokes of any stripe at the office.  That way, you avoid all possibilities of offending someone, or in the extreme, inadvertently hurting them and creating a hostile work environment.  And what’s the cost of this risk-averse strategy?  A bit of fun.  A moment of frisson.  No big sacrifice.

Except for me, it is a big sacrifice.  And it’s big both for political reasons, and for pleasure-centred ones.

From a political perspective, I question why humour “of a sexual nature” is exceptionalized as carrying particularly noxious power.  Jokes can often fall flat, or accidentally offend, regardless of the type.  For example, I was recently at a university reception, which included light appetizers.  A colleague observed me indulging in a second helping of the shrimp canapes and said something along the lines of, “You’ve never grown out of that starving student phase when faced with free food, have you?”  I interpreted the comment as friendly teasing, and chuckled in agreement.  But if I were a different person, the joke could have been experienced as an affront to my position as faculty.  It could have felt shaming, implying that the behaviour was uncouth.  It could even have had a long term effect on me, fostering insecurity and self-consciousness in future interactions with that colleague, or at faculty parties generally.  But what would be the remedy?  I can’t imagine anyone treating the comment as worthy of an official complaint.  There was nothing sexual about it, and it does not clearly invoke any of the recognized grounds of discrimination.  Nonetheless, it could have deeply injured.  Shall we stamp out all teasing at the workplace to avoid this?

I suggest that the appropriateness or inappropriateness of any type of humour, sexual or not, should be determined by the context.  The level of friendliness and familiarity between the parties, personality, identity and respective power relations will make a difference as to whether a joke is an amusing interaction, or an intrusive one.  And of course, we will have miscommunication and misfires.  But I hope when these gaffes happen, there will be space for redress and apologies. A skilled mediator or counselor could facilitate the conversation in certain cases, providing tools for improved future communication. And if unwelcome attempts at humour persist, then they should be recognized as harassment or bullying, and treated accordingly. 

Furthermore, while I grant that there is a history of women being undermined at work through their sexualization, prescribing a puritanical code of conduct may not be the solution.  If we treat sex talk as inherently harmful, and any woman subject to it as having been victimized, we may be entrenching the very patriarchal ideology we are trying to resist.  In this worldview, women are implicitly cast as sexually modest creatures, and any woman who enjoys, or indulges in, off-colour humour must be a slut, suffering false consciousness, or at least a traitor to her sex.  

My last point focuses on pleasure, and is maybe my most tentative, but here goes:  there is a hedonic cost to sanitizing the workplace.   Sexual jokes can, for example, lead to true love... or at least some enjoyable hookups.  As Laura Kipnis suggests, sex talk can also be a source of creativity and inspiration.  The enjoyment (and often surprise) of suggestive humour -- for those of us who like it -- can make us laugh, break tension, put a spring in our step, or disrupt the tedium of a dry work day.  I realize that by arguing against an outright ban, I am accepting that people will sometimes make mistakes, like Bezan did, and subject others to the harm of unwanted humour.   But given that all communication (whether humorous or not) risks inadvertently distressing others, why should the occasional sex joke be singled out?  For some of us, mutually enjoyable sexual banter at work is experienced as an intrinsic good, which need not have any value but the fleeting pleasure of the moment.