It’s normal to hide dirty jokes from children

By Dan

Riding on a bus with a whole bunch of grade-school children sitting behind you really limits a conversation; at least that’s what a friend of mine, who I will call “Steve,” and I thought when it happened to us.
Sitting there, aware of the huge number of impressionable minds surrounding us, using sexual innuendo was one of the primary sources of humor in our conversations, was suddenly stripped away. It was scary when we realized how speechless we had become for fear of warping some innocent fifth-graders into a dark and twisted version of ourselves.
Sure, they were probably going to end up like us anyway, laughing naughtily at comments like “So, where did you hide the cucumber?”
Indeed, the pure quantity of raunchy and crude humor that has slipped into the average conversation in which I am involved was startling when I considered it. A simple comment taken out of context has been known to elicit squeals of enjoyable discomfort. In retrospect, raunchy and crude humor seems to have its purpose. It works to probe (anyone with the kind of mind I’m talking about here should give the proper squeal at the word “probe” or even at the word “squeal.” That’s a “Deliverance” reference there, folks) the limits of proper conversations that one could engage in with new people. However, as time has worn on and the limits have become well-demarcated, the need for these kind of jokes slips away, and they are simply there as a form of off-color humor.
One begins to wonder: Who finds these jokes funny? Joking about sexual behavior or acts, the main focus of this kind of humor, isn’t something that is by any means limited to college students. Most of us picked it up in high school, or at least fully understood the jokes for the first time in high school. The jokes don’t disappear upon graduation from college either, as one can tell by watching most any comedy show or stand-up comedian in action.
I think it is also limiting to say that the jokes are a branching off from the ubiquitousness of sexuality in our culture. Anyone who has taken an introductory anthropology course could tell you that there are numerous cultures in which sexual jokes are present without the massive amount of sex in the media that Americans face.
Why this kind of joke is so prevalent is not something that I could even pretend to understand. However, why we Americans try to hide such forms of humor from youth is something that I think I could take a stab at. First of all, the kind of protection that we provide differs from age group to age group, in something akin to a bell curve. Around the very young, numerous adults don’t moderate the sexual content of their humor because they know that little children will have no clue what the jokes are about or why they are funny. However, as children grow, their ability to understand such humor and the fundamental acts and feelings behind it become more mature. It is at this point that we begin to hide children from what is considered adult humor.
We don’t make the kinds of jokes that we make in private with our friends, and when children do make sexual jokes, we scold them for being crude. As children continue to age, though, our protection of them again becomes lenient, until they finally hit the point when their parents tell a dirty joke around them or to them.
I’m sure that all of you know what I’m talking about, and, at least for me, it came as something of a shock, very much like hearing my parents swear in front of me as part of normal conversation. That dirty joke is almost akin to a rite of passage, a recognition by adults that a child has become one of them and can understand their humor. If, however, their ascendancy into this level of adulthood is for the most part simply a matter of time, why do we hinder younger children in their progression toward this plateau?
We do so, in my opinion, for a somewhat contradictory reason. We do so because we feel that good manners dictate that one does not tell such jokes. However, we are being, in a very real sense, hypocritical because in some situations, in order to not tell such jokes would involve retiring from a conversation completely, and that is considered bad manners as well.
Whether or not this contradiction exists, however, one can certainly not debate the fact that for most of us, we are somewhat ashamed of ourselves for engaging in this kind of humor. Even when joking around with my friends, there are still boundaries that we are not supposed to cross, though I tend to do so often and with relish.
Even if we don’t cross over the line though, there are times when someone, usually “Jason,” will blurt out, “That’s so bad. I can’t believe you just said that,” or “Tammy” will simply shake her head and roll her eyes. All of us know that what we are joking about is considered rude by the polite manners of our society.
In the end, the humor won’t stop. We enjoy joking about sex and its relevant parts, probably because it makes it easier to handle something that in American culture tends to be very taboo. Also, our protection of the young will continue because we at least consciously want to try to have them grow up without the bad habits that we have developed.
In the final analysis, however, it seems somewhat futile. They will pick it up from their friends, or some crude college student will explain it to them. In retrospect, it seems almost worthless for Steve and I to have clammed up and kept our raunchy jokes from the young’uns riding the bus with us that day. Heck, I’ll bet they probably could have come up with some jokes involving cucumbers that would have shocked even us.
This column ran in the April 7th issue of the Brown Daily Herald at Brown University.