For lots of people, dirty, off-color, vulgar, crude or inappropriate humor has no place in entertainment, social interactions or any part of day to day life. The only trouble is that humor and laughter play almost as important a role in human life as sex and sexuality, which tend to be the subject of such “lowbrow” humor.
Swedenborg explains why laughter is important based on its correspondential meaning. In the context of the biblical story of Sarah laughing at the announcement that she would have a child in her old age, Swedenborg explains that laughter represents affection for truth or inversely falsity (Gen. 18:12, Arcana Coelestia 2072). Within the context of that story, Sarah’s laughter is a response to the contradiction between the truth of her old age and the promise that she would bare a child. Humor often comes from a place of trying to rationalize the information we take in from the world around us. Laughter can spring up whether we see an inconsistency or when we see something that perfectly represents our experience. Humor is funny that way.
The tricky thing about comedy and humor is that appearances and even falsities can seem “true” and be the foundation for jokes. This is especially true when jokes are based on things like gender, race, or sex, which are very personal and individual topics. Although dirty jokes often fall into the harmful category, is there a time and place where dirty jokes are acceptable if not useful?
In one of his spiritual experiences, Swedenborg tells a story of speaking with some spirits who love adultery. Swedenborg shares jokes with them about adultery and its connection to animals like pigs. The spirits all have a grand old time until they see a visual representation of their affection, which is terrifying and unpleasant (Conjugial Love 521).
This image illustrates the idea that thoughts and words create spiritual spheres. These can be negative or positive and are part of the connection between humans and spirits (Spiritual Experiences 4140). This connection means that people who already have an affection for adultery are within the sphere of lust and probably will find crude sex jokes funnier than those not in that sphere.
This idea is supported by a study whose goal was to find out if “dirty jokes” were effective pick-up lines for men to use on women. One of their discoveries was that women who had no problem with “casual sex” and perhaps were even looking for that kind of short-term relationship found dirty jokes to be funnier than other women (Burriss, 2018).
Coming down from the spiritual idea of spheres, there is a much more concrete problem with raunchy jokes. In a 2017 poll, it was found that men who told crude jokes in the workplace were five times more likely to participate in other forms of sexual harassment. Not only that, but the culture of dirty jokes in the workplace is simply one more barrier for women who are building their careers. There is a pressure to join the club and fit in by laughing along, but these jokes are only symptoms of the underlying sexism which they perpetuate.
Women (and men) who are in a workplace where dirty jokes are used as a sign of power and a way of building community are caught at an unpleasant crossroads: laugh at a sexist joke to avoid peer backlash or hold to their values risking their professional success (Fessler, 2017). This type of sexism is easily laughed off by all involved, even those who can recognize it as sexist humor, which is what makes it so insidious.
Considering the gender of both the teller and listener of a dirty joke adds another layer to the conversation. In a 2001 study into humor as a indicator of status and hierarchy, it was concluded that humor is used by men mostly for “differentiating” while women’s humor is mostly “cohesion-building”. It will have to be a topic of another whole essay, but it seems that there must be a correlation between that conclusion and the idea that in general, men both tell and appreciate dirty jokes more than women (Robinson, Smith-Lovin, 2001).
But sex jokes don’t have to be bad. They don’t have to be sexist and they can create opportunities for conversations. In fact, sex joke cartoons have been recommended as conversation starters and ice breakers in sexological education (Adams, 1974). Laughter naturally relieves tension and there are universal truths around sex and sexuality that can be humorous without being offensive. It is a fine line to tread but I think it is possible. Even in Swedenborgian descriptions of adultery and actions contrary to conjugial love, sex jokes seem to never be mentioned (Synnestvedt, 2018).
In another of Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences, he discovers that two people who both laugh at a bawdy joke may end up on opposite sides of the good to evil spectrum because of their intentions in telling the joke (True Christian Religion 523). Swedenborg himself tells a dirty joke during the first experience mentioned (CL 521). It all depends on whether the laughter is coming from a place of affection for truth or falsity. Whether we are telling the joke to relieve tension or share an experience or to show dominance over other people or make them uncomfortable.
Sexual humor can be extremely inappropriate and harmful but I don’t think that all “dirty jokes” need to be condemned. By noticing what type of humor we find amusing and the kind of jokes we tolerate others telling we can question why we are laughing.
Adams, W. (1974). The Use of Sexual Humor in Teaching Human Sexuality at the University Level. The Family Coordinator, 23(4), 365-368. doi:10.2307/583111
Burriss, R. (2018, August 2). Is a Dirty Joke a Good Pickup Line? Retrieved October 30, 2018, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/attraction-evolved/201808/is-dirty-joke-good-pickup-line
Fessler, L. (2017, December 28). The Damning Big-Picture Consequences of Making Crude Jokes at Work. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from Quartz at Work: https://qz.com/work/1167257/new-york-times-survey-shows-that-dirty-jokes-are-linked-to-sexual-harassment/
Robinson, D., & Smith-Lovin, L. (2001). Getting a Laugh: Gender, Status, and Humor in Task Discussions. Social Forces, 80(1), 123-158. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2675534
Synnestvedt. (n.d.). Key Terms from Conjugial Love & Types, Degrees and Scales of Sexual Immorality. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from Moodle: http://brynathynonline.org/pluginfile.php/101495/mod_resource/content/1/Synnestvedt%20-%20Key%20Terms%20and%20Scale%20of%20Sexual%20Immorality.pdf