Thanks to Lauren for letting me guest post here. My plan is to rip apart a joke, which I’ll indicate first, thus starting a (possibly) long tradition of ruining everyone’s fun.
Man and woman are intimate in bed. Man feels that things are “heating up” but woman then doesn’t want to have intercourse.
Woman tells him he’s not in touch enough with her emotional needs for her to fill his physical ones. (1)
He then creates a scenario with a surprise ending, constructed to parallel his earlier frustration, and we imagine (?) giving him pleasure in the revenge. The details involve taking her shopping, lavishing her with clothing and accessories, far beyond her expectations, and responding to the eventuality of checking out and actually buying the stuff with “I don’t feel like it” and the sneeringly analogous “You’re not in touch enough with my financial needs… for me to fulfill your shopping needs…”
There are so many things wrong with this, it’s hard to begin. Part of my frustration is that the analogy’s failings are subtle, and threaten at first to stand up to critical deconstruction. But subtle wrongs make for the most painful struggles. They’re the easiest for people to miss and accept, and thus the hardest fights to expose and rectify.
Before diving into the analogy, I want to look at a comment tossed off near the start (without emphasis) that I found to be significant.
After the woman’s comment about obstacles to intimacy in (1), the man tells the listener, “Realizing that nothing was going to happen that night, I went to sleep.”
The devaluing of his partner here is extreme. Not necessarily uncommon, but extreme.
Working with the assumption that neither partner is using the other for impersonal gratification, physical intimacy is a two way exchange, creating a warmth that is basic to emotional health. I am not suggesting that the drive to complete the “final act” of intercourse and orgasm isn’t a genuinely felt desire, but what that experience provides doesn’t remotely compare with the crucial needs served when we receive love, warmth, and real connection.
That the woman didn’t want to be penetrated (which could depend on many factors including fear of pregnancy or a sense of boundary violation in a world where women are still devalued and denied many forms of integrity) can and should be understood in terms other than “not putting out”. Viewing her as a tease frames the entire intimate encounter as existing solely for the man’s enjoyment.
Not that the man counts for nothing at all. If this frustration is unbearable to him, he’s free to talk to her about it, maybe ask her to let him know in advance if she’s just feeling cuddly but doesn’t want to go “all the way”. It may be that she doesn’t always know how things will go ahead of time, but giving her a chance to express that at least lets him know she’s not taking his experience lightly or messing with him for sport.
The man in the story, however, seems to work with the assumption that his needs are the only factor involved. “No sex” translates into “Nothing is going to happen”: forget the intimacy they’d shared to that point. Further, when the woman expresses the implied pain in not being emotionally understood enough to feel comfortable with opening up to him physically, he doesn’t even consider trying to build a connection with her by working toward trust and communication. He simply abandons her to the aftermath of the conflict, preferring unconsciousness to the company of his partner: to the work, which should be a labor of love, of building the intimacy they’re so clearly missing.
On to the analogy.
The idea seems to be that he would build up to the moment of a big purchase and bring her crashing down at the last second, in an effort to duplicate his experience in bed.
My first complaint about the analogy is that her pain was conceived in revenge, while his was the result of a natural process getting sidetracked by understandable reluctance involving an extremely personal choice.
This is assuming that the woman is interacting in earnest, and isn’t just toying with him. Granted there are likely women out there who do that sort of thing. But I am a woman, and I am the one responding to this joke. I happen not to play these sorts of games and so am speaking from that perspective, addressing what this kind of humor does to a person who brings her true self to the world, including her lover.
Next, he compares shopping with petting (please excuse the dated term: I’m avoiding “foreplay” because of its suggestion of intent), purchase with penetration and orgasm, and emotions with finances.
Unless he’s up for standing around in a (gag) department store all day just to see her model cute outfits, the shopping/petting analogy is just a lie.
“I don’t feel like it” is a stretch to imagine at checkout. Maybe “I was just shopping for fun” could fly. Clearly he was aware of his own intent from the start and his withholding this information from her is recreational torment for the purpose of delivering that sarcastic mimic of her earlier attempt at connection.
His attempt to compare his finances to her emotions comes closest to legitimacy. Certainly he shouldn’t have to ruin himself financially for her shopping pleasure any more than she should have to ruin herself emotionally for his sexual pleasure.
But this last connection is a little more sinister, maybe that being part of what gives the joke its twisted punch.
Doesn’t the attitude still linger in our culture that a man’s purchases entitle him to a woman’s body? Is there a suggestion here that her being “deprived” of fashion trappings is the consequence of depriving him of some action? Are we to feel that she deserves this punch of disappointment, humiliation, and deprivation? (Granted, it’s the deprivation of a luxury item, but then so was his, assuming him to have at least one good hand.)
And I can’t help but wonder why the joke included her interest in an item she didn’t seem to have use for. The simple answer seems to be “to paint her as crass, as lacking in character, as a user”. But I then wonder further, “to paint whom? Just the woman in the joke? All women? A typical woman? Any woman who’s ever refused a man who happens to be enjoying the joke?
Jokes are a product of and a contribution to our culture, transmitting attitudes as they reach their listeners, which makes me lean toward the broader interpretations. And the contribution this joke makes to our culture is pretty revolting. It makes light of a woman’s need for connection, attempts slight of hand to deliver what’s presented as just due, paints her as a viper and leaves her abandoned twice in the telling.
Told, I’m heartbroken to report, by a woman.
Note: since writing this, I’ve spoken with that woman, and am at least encouraged to hear that she didn’t write the joke and didn’t even relate to it fully. Still, I think jokes are much more important than they seem, and needed to address this one. I’m often uncomfortable with the license joke-tellers sometimes take in suggesting or assuming a derogatory notion, and then hiding behind the vague medium when called on it. Thus my new hobby of public joke deconstruction.
- More on Orgasm Science by Lauren May 17, 2005
- Responding to Raising Children in Our Way-Past-Gender Society. by Mikey June 4, 2007
- Drunk women can consent to sex by Jill March 27, 2007
- Purity or Integrity? by Jill January 18, 2007
- Sex Ed for the Stroller Set by Jill November 17, 2005