Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Joking About Sex: Who's Laughing More?

What's feminine and what's masculine when it comes to sex and comedy?

Lenny Bruce used to do a routine where he asked how many men in the audience had ever had a blow job. The majority of men raised their hands.

Then he asked how many women had given blow jobs, and no woman put her hand up.

Bruce looked around the audience and concluded "Somebody's lying."

Women, of course, are conditioned not to admit to performing any sort of sexual activity, especially one involving pleasure at the expense of procreation. But even more outré, more unacceptable, is for women to admit to wanting such an activity performed on them. Talking a woman into administering oral sex seems to be one thing, perfectly acceptable to most men.

What's feminine and what's masculine when it comes to sex and comedy?

When stand-up comic Diane Hartman's husband tells her that belching and swearing aren't ladylike, she replies "Neither is a blow job, but you don't complain about that..."

But for a woman to demand reciprocal treatment? Ask a man to go down on her? It's enough to make you laugh. It's also enough to lead to a whole sub-category of women's sexual humor. There are scores of cunnilingus jokes told by women to other women, with the underlying understanding that men just don't understand. Whatever the reason, it is a curiously pervasive genre of joke.

Laughter can ease anxiety, fight disease, and build bonds—though used the wrong way, it can also break them.

Listen to Deanne Stillman in her play "Girls in Suits at Lunch." One of her characters suggests "instead of prenuptial agreements, you could urge paranoid clients to have sex contracts. The groom relinquishes all claim to his wife's body if cunnilingus is not performed on the wedding night." Columnist Cynthia Heimel suggests that if you find a man who likes to go down on you, "treat him well. Feed him caviar and expensive brandy and don't let your girlfriends catch a glimpse of him."

Diane Hartman, when talking about her horror at the idea of being out in a public wearing a panty-shield that breathes, says that such a contraption had to be designed by a man. "If I woman had designed it, she wouldn't have made it breathe, after all. She would have put little tongues in there or something..." The women in the audience laugh, screech, bang the table in recognition. They can't believe she said this out loud.

One joke popular when I was an undergraduate in a cold climate was the following: "A guy and a girl get a flat tire one blizzardy night. The guy goes out to change the tire but he has no gloves and after a while his hands start to get blue, so he comes back into the car. 'Put your hands between my thighs and that'll warm them up,' invites the girl. He does, and pretty soon his hands recover and he goes back outside. After a while longer, his hands get cold again and once again she suggests that he warm them between her thighs. He does so, and returns to finish putting on the spare. When he comes back into the car triumphant, she looks at him and asks 'Aren't your ears cold?'"

A joke included in Truly Tasteless Jokes is a revision of an old fairytale. "Little Red Riding Hood goes out into the forest, but this time she's hiding a .44 in her package of goodies, ready for action. The wolf follows her into the woods and grabs her from behind. 'Now that I've got you I'm going to **** you until dawn,' he growls. But Little Red Riding Hood pulls out the .44, holds it to his head and announces calmly, 'No you're not. You're going to eat me like the story said'".

This is one of the only jokes I've come across that puts the female in the violently assertive position, demanding oral sex backed up by threats of violence.

Such joking remarks are infused through women's everyday conversation, of course. When one woman, who had recently decided that she was gay rather than bisexual, was setting up a straight friend of hers with an old boyfriend, the friend, delighted, looked up and said, "Oh, and if he was your boyfriend, you must have trained him correctly! How marvelous!"  

Male jokes about cunnilingus are tedious repetitions concerning saltiness and discomfort, reinforcing the idea of the male's unwillingness to perform this act. It is no surprise then that Stillman should suggest making cunnilingus part of the contract--until that time, however, joking about it might help to make women's desires public without making anybody feel too badly about it.

As with a number of other sticky subjects, introducing the idea through humor might increase the possibility of change.

Another joke, popular when I was in college, had a senior woman chatting up an enthusiastic and handsome, if unsophisticated, new freshman. After they've been talking a while, she asks him "Do you know the difference between tortellini and cunnilingus?" "No," he replies. "Good," she says, "Let's go to dinner."

This joke is interesting because it has the woman playing on the man's naiveté, and procuring his sexual favors by bribing him with dinner. When I've repeated this story to men, they tell me a version of this joke involving a male boss and new female secretary--and they tell me that their version is the "right" one.

This in itself is curious--the male listeners are frustrated by the form of the joke being violated, they insist, rather than by the change in the power positions. They are terribly earnest and sincere as they attempt to correct me, and have the full weight of authority behind them as they attempt to convince me that the joke doesn't work with a woman in the inviting position. When women hear the joke, in contrast, they don't question the premise. They just laugh. They "get it" without any hesitation, just as I did when it was first told to me.

No woman I know has ever complained that the joke doesn't sound "right"--since that complaint seems to belong only to men, I have to conclude that it is a male reaction to the sexual dynamics of a situation in which they find themselves uncomfortable.

Being uncomfortable in the situation, they try not to remedy their own discomfort ("Why does this make me feel so bad? Can I do anything to make myself feel better--such as go down on my girlfriend once in a while so that I don't sound like all the jerks in these jokes?") but instead try to make the situation appear "unnatural" and so in need of correction ("That joke isn't funny. Women are plenty satisfied with what they get and it's men who really need to ask for oral sex. The way you tell the story just isn't funny--you can see that I'm not laughing which is proof that the joke isn't funny--because no woman really feels that way. I know my girlfriend doesn't want anything else, despite what she says").

The answer to this is, of course; "not only do real men eat quiche--real men eat anything."

As Lenny Bruce might have said, somebody's not quite telling the truth...

Adapted from THEY USED TO CALL ME SNOW WHITE, BUT I DRIFTED

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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