“The Gossip of Ideology: Sexual Jokes and the Tumescence of Power”

Sunday, November 29, 2020


M/C Journal

Edited by Paul Denvir and E. Sean Rintel

Vol. 6 No. 5 (2003): Joke

The Gossip of Ideology
Sexual Jokes and the Tumescence of Power
• Bill Mohr
DOI: https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2251

How to Cite
Mohr, B. (2003). The Gossip of Ideology: Sexual Jokes and the Tumescence of Power.
M/C Journal, 6(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2251

A discourse, according to Alan Sekula, is “an arena of information exchange, that is a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity.”1 Sekula immediately qualifies his definition by pointing out that “the notion of discourse is a notion of limits,” and arguing that “it is this limiting function that determines the very possibility of meaning.” In the capacity of testing the acceptable limits of any possible subject, jokes often reveal contradictions or ambivalent feelings about the meaning of power relations. This seems especially true about jokes involving sexual or erotic situations. In this paper, I will examine several jokes about sex that I have heard at one point or another, and consider how these jokes reveal the ideological dialogue interwoven in phallogocentric power.

For many years I made my living in Los Angeles as a blueprint machine operator in an architectural office and as a typesetter for weekly newspapers. All machines eventually break down, and repair workers are often welcome simply because they provide a different face within the routine. Since repair workers are moving from site to site, they are also in a position to pass on the latest economic rumor about another company, or to repeat a joke that someone has just told them. These jokes can range from a variant of the three-guys-on-an-island routine to a story about the Pope being driven to Yankees Stadium in a limousine. I am not especially good at remembering jokes, but the following one stands out, in part because I was surprised that the repairman felt comfortable enough about the work environment he was in to tell me the joke. In retrospect, I guess he looked at the five-to-one ratio of men to women in the production department and figured that there were equivalent odds in anyone being bothered by telling me the following joke:

A man’s at a party and he starts talking with a very beautiful woman. After about a half-hour of bantering and chit-chat, the man says, “Would you sleep with me if I gave you ten million dollars?” The woman looks at the man, pauses, and says, “Ten million for one night? Well, yes,” she says. “How about a million dollars?” says the man? “Maybe,” says the woman. “How about a hundred dollars?” says the man. “No way,” says the woman. “What do you think I am? A whore?” “Oh, we’ve already established that,” says the man. “We’re just quibbling about the price.”

The man who told me this joke as he fixed the typesetting equipment I worked on thought this was fairly funny, and I remember trying not to make it look as if I were smiling instead of scowling at what seemed to me a fairly nasty joke. As hostile humor goes, it could perhaps be conceded that it is fairly successful. The effectiveness of the joke aside, what impressed me was the sincerity with which he told the joke. It seemed as though the put-down told some kind of truth that he was not able to find expressed in any other way. The stereotype that the joke is built in is the assumption that all women are mercenary in regards to their sexual behavior: underneath the veneer of sexual attraction is a process of coy bargaining. The joke suggests that men and women might as well drop all pretension that any other motives are at work. In “quibbling about the price,” the repair person’s joke is attempting to reestablish the exchange of commodities in a capitalist society in terms of gendered domination. At its core, the above joke is meant to attack women who believe that they have any power in their lives other than sexual availability.

One crucial aspect of these jokes as thumbnail sketches of domination is that they serve as information that revolves through a culture with the casual insouciance of rumors. At the time, it Did not occur to me to ask the repairman where he had first heard the joke, though he probably would have said from somebody working at the place where he had been. If I had contacted that person, I no doubt would have been referred to yet another person. Even if I had managed to find a print version of the joke, it probably would not have an individual’s name attached to it. In circulating without specific attribution in regards to authorship, the anonymity of jokes allows them to function as the gossip of ideology. If, as Alan Sinfield suggests, the point of ideology is to make an explanation of social reality plausible,2 sexual jokes in particular repeat categorical ideas, e.g., all women are basically prostitutes in terms of their sexual agency, and make the implausible believable. If the purpose of ideology is to make the logic of a social system cohere, jokes point up imperfections in the arrangements, and allow us to estimate how much change would have to occur for the flaws in that logic to become acceptable, if not at least somewhat more tolerable. Jokes permit us to express our doubts about the distribution of power or to suppress incipient doubts, and in quelling them, mold the energy of doubt into more acceptable projections of normativity.

Given that ideology is fundamentally patriarchal, most sex jokes are about the disproportionate relations of power, control and authority. Male fears about the interminable unreliability of their value as reproductive agents are a large part of the trumpery of social life that provides the foundation for jokes about sex. For men, part of the baggage they lug around as that trumpery is a concern about the size of their penis. Phallic jokes almost always involve an objectification of women. A co-worker at the same newspaper where I heard the first joke told me the following one at the tail end of a fourteen hour shift.

I have to confess that I laughed more at this one, and I will not use exhaustion as an excuse. A man is taking a walk with his new wife, and up ahead he sees her first husband walking towards them. As they start to pass each other, the ex-husband says, “Hey, how does it feel to be with used goods?” “Very lovely,” replies the new husband, “once I get past the used part.”

The male gaze in this joke is focused completely on the genitals of all three of the characters. The woman is portrayed as common property, and her worth is only gauged in relationship to the transience of phallic power. The woman in this joke doesn’t even get to protest her status, but even when the woman is given the punch line, as in the following joke, the sexual agency at the core of the joke is portrayed as gratifying the ideological assumptions of power and possession. A woman gets into bed with her new husband on their wedding night, and says, “I’ve got something to tell you, dear.” “What’s that, sweetheart?” “I want you to be very gentle. I’m still a virgin.” “That’s can’t be possible,” the husband says. “You’ve been married three times before me.” “Well,” says the wife, “The first husband was a gynecologist, he just like to look at it. The second was a psychiatrist. He just liked to talk about it. The third was a veterinarian. He just coughed up hairballs.”

I would rate this as a far better joke than the first two, in part because it has a stronger coil of a starting point. Jokes, like poems, have their own peculiar logic, and jokes often work best when they begin with an absurd situation. A woman still being a virgin as she starts her fourth marriage is a blatantly absurd proposition, and yet and yet that which appears to be contradictory is quickly explained by involving the absurd amount of power we cede to those at the top of the masculine pyramid. The first three husbands would all seem to be at the summit of discourse in that they are trained as doctors, and theoretically are potent agents of domination. The absurdity of the joke’s initial proposition is a necessary component for pointing up how the contingency of the desire for erotic pleasure meets its limits in the imbalance of power created by male control of professional life. The joke plays out the full ramifications of the power of the male gaze in objectifying women. In contrast, the woman’s power in this joke is only in the passivity of her virginity. If the men are not able to have erections, the woman does not assert herself either in that she gives no indication that she enjoyed in the slightest degree the cunnilingus of the poem’s final punch line.

Perhaps the most insidious part of sexual jokes is that it’s very hard to resist their allure. We might regard ourselves as seeing through all the machinations of an interpellative society, and yet in spite of intellectual insights, can find ourselves enjoying humor that is effective only because it is playing off stereotypes of gender and power to which we are very susceptible. A huge number of jokes are about the costs and rewards of sexual power, and to that extent are the jagged nodes of domination. As with gossip, the distortions are repeated one person at a time. The cumulative effect of this circulation is to close off or limit the possibilities of other ways of organizing social life. Jokes, in that sense, contain and control the discourse generated by the doubts that ideology inherently raises. If laughter mutes these doubts, it also springs the traps that power sets for itself and us in maintaining its grip on the comedy of life.

Citation reference for this article
MLA Style
• Mohr, Bill. “The Gossip of Ideology” M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture
APA Style
• Mohr, B. (2003, Nov 10). The Gossip of Ideology. M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 6,

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