In a California university, a professor circulates a memo to faculty proposing a faculty-student conference room outfitted with an inflatable Madonna doll and a waterbed, for innovative conferences with women students. When he is reprimanded by the university’s faculty representative on sexual harassment, he calls her a “nasty, scheming, backstabbing bitch.” The waterbed memo, he says, was only a joke (Wilson, 1995).

A 7-year-old boy comes home from summer day camp and eagerly tells his mother a farmer’s daughter joke: the farmer “stuffs razor blades up her pussy to hurt these guys when they do it with her. The three guys are American, Indian, and Polish” (Arcana, 1994).

In describing the sexual humor of U. S. southern women, folklorist Rayna Green (1977) tells of the time her sister, observing their grand­mother stepping out of the bathtub, commented that the hair on the older woman’s privates was getting rather sparse. Granny retorted, “Grass don’t grow on a racetrack” (p. 31).

What do these incidents have in common? Each could be described

Much of the content of this chapter appears in somewhat different form in my 1995 book Talking Difference: On Gender and Language. (London: Sage).

as “only joking.” Whether you consider them funny or outrageous (indeed, whether you classify them as humor at all) depends on your interpretation of their meaning and the speakers’ intentions—what you believe the speakers were trying to do.

People use humor every day in ways that have many implications for the social construction of sexuality. When they tell a dirty joke, use a flip remark as an assertion of sexual autonomy, or express sexual hostility with a smile and the disclaimer, “just kidding,” people use humor to teach, re­create, and sometimes to subvert gender norms. A social constructionist approach tells us that to understand sexuality we must look to its creation in culture, including the most mundane, taken-for-granted aspects of cul­ture. In this chapter I will explore how people talk about sexuality in everyday interaction. I will first review how a social constructionist ap­proach to gender allows us to conceptualize gender as a system of social relations rather than an attribute of individuals. I will then focus on how people use humor in everyday life to negotiate sexual meanings and un­derstandings.