science of us

A Psychological Deconstruction of Masturbation Jokes

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On Thursday, five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct; by Friday, the comedian had issued a statement confirming that “these stories were true.” Many of these women’s stories involve him masturbating in front of them or expressing his wish to do so.

And masturbation has also been a frequent source of comedy material for C.K.; critics have even lauded him for it, calling him “fearless” and praising his so-called vulnerability. The allegations made against C.K., however, cast his masturbation “jokes” in a very different light.

We spoke to Peter McGraw, a behavioral scientist and director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, about the formula that makes masturbation jokes funny (to some) in the first place — and what happens when that formula falls apart.

You’re one of two researchers who’ve developed what you call the “benign violation theory,” which explains why certain jokes are (or aren’t) funny. Can you explain how that works?
The benign violation theory was designed to explain what makes things funny. One of the challenges of trying to understand what makes things funny is that there are a variety of puzzles you have to explain. Not only do you have to explain what makes things funny, but you also have to explain what makes things not funny. There are two ways things are not funny: They’re boring, or they’re offensive.

You also have to be able to explain why the very same thing that some people find funny, other people find boring, and yet other people find offensive. The third puzzle is you have to explain a wide array of things that can be funny. You have to be able to explain why physical comedy is funny and why puns are funny — at least to some people. Prior to the benign violation theory, most scholars used kind of a menu approach. They had one theory for one type of comedy and another theory for another type of comedy. We don’t have multiple theories for fear, one for snakes and another for public speaking.

The short answer is that people are amused by things that are wrong, yet okay; things that are threatening, yet safe; things that don’t make sense, yet make sense. So there’s some underlying notion that the situation violates the way the world ought to be, yet from another perspective it’s acceptable or safe or okay — this violation is benign. What the theory does is take into account the various ways the world can be wrong. So you can violate language norms with puns and wordplay, you can be physically threatening with tickling, and so on.

It also explains the ways humor can fail: it can be totally wrong and thus offensive, or it can be totally okay, and thus boring, or it can sit in that sweet spot between wrong and okay and thus be funny. Laughter is a signal that a situation that seems wrong is actually okay. It’s a way to signal to someone without actually sharing language, which is why laughter can be detected cross-culturally, and why babies before they can even talk can indicate amusement.

Outside the context of the Louis C.K. news, why in general do people find masturbation jokes funny as it pertains to the benign violation theory?
It very clearly has the violation side down. This is the kind of topic polite people don’t talk about. It’s indelicate. There’s some stigma associated with masturbation. It’s kind of embarrassing. You don’t talk about this at a dinner party. What helps make this okay, or at least the potential for a joke, is that it’s something nearly everyone does. It’s a natural part of being human. It’s actually more natural to do it than not do it. You have this thing that has a taboo associated with it, yet it’s not really taboo in the sense that people do it. So you already have the foundation for BVT.

So how does our understanding of Louis C.K.’s masturbation jokes shift with the knowledge of the assaults we now know he committed?
Masturbation is something that is usually done alone, in the privacy of your own home, or it’s done with a partner in a mutually consensual way. The situation with Louis C.K. and others is that these things aren’t being done alone, and they’re not being done in a consensual way, so they’re not mutually pleasurable. It’s not even just indecent — it might be illegal to do the kinds of things he’s doing. And thus this thing goes from being within a normal range of sexual behavior to all of a sudden being deviant and criminal, perhaps. Now it’s not okay. It’s very difficult to make it okay. What you’re highlighting, I think, is that now, with hindsight, those jokes that were once funny — and we know they were funny because we have audiences laughing at them — now seem detestable and gross.

They might be revealing something about this person’s behavior that’s unseemly and disgusting. Especially using power in some way, directly or indirectly.

Does that association (between joke and behavior or character) speak to why some people don’t ever think masturbation jokes are funny?
The way to think about it is what is wrong and what is okay. What’s benign and what’s a violation depends wholly on the perceptions of the audience. Those perceptions depend on a lot of things.

It depends on factors like where you are — are you in a comedy club or are you in a church? Are you hanging out with friends or are you sitting in a staff meeting? It depends on your mood — have you had two of the two-drink minimum? Or are you sitting under fluorescent lights during the day completely sober? It depends on social and cultural norms. Certain things are culturally more or less okay to joke about.

You can see how already there are some people who are like, you know what, polite people don’t discuss what happens in the bedroom. And then when masturbation is being used as a weapon, in this perverse way, then it becomes off-limits at least for some period of time. It’s too soon to joke about that thing, it’s too much.

Is there a gendered component to the typical reaction to masturbation jokes?
There’s some research looking at gender differences in humor production and humor appreciation, and, contrary to stereotype, what that research revealed was that men and women are much more alike than they are different. Women like dirty jokes more than you think they do. An extension of that is that women and men might not react that much differently to these kinds of jokes, but I don’t know of any data on masturbation jokes in particular.

Generally speaking then, do the jokes a person makes reveal something deeper about a person’s behavior and character?
Yes and no. Again, remember that what’s wrong and what’s okay depends on someone’s values, mood, experience, culture, etc. So when someone laughs at a joke or doesn’t laugh at a joke, it does reveal something about that person, at least in that moment in time. People who are racist are more likely to laugh at racist jokes. People who are sexist are more likely to laugh at sexist jokes. They can reveal people’s preferences and values, but they do so imperfectly.

The same is true about willingness to tell a joke — the idea that someone might find it objectionable to tell a joke might reveal something about their values and their experiences and so on. The problem with that is when it comes from a professional standpoint. When you talk to professional comedians they’ll say they care about two things primarily: getting laughs, and changing the way people see the world. So on one hand they’re entertainers, and on the other hand they’re poets. If you give them a choice, and say you can only have one, overwhelmingly comics will choose the laughs, because that’s the currency of comedy. So you have to be a little cautious about over-interpreting what someone says, because they might be saying not what they think is funny, but what the audience will find funny.

It seems too like Louis C.K.’s assumption that the audience will find that topic funny relies on our assumption that he means these things innocently and that no one is being harmed in the process.
Absolutely. One of the things that made Louis so popular was that he talked about things you thought couldn’t be joked about, and he worked very hard to make those violations benign. There’s a really fascinating interview with Louis C.K. and Howard Stern where Louis C.K. talks about this pedophile joke, and he talks about how he felt like he could make the joke funny, but he was failing, and rather than abandon it he kept working at it. Basically he said he had to add this line: “I don’t know what to do with this information, but … ” And once he added that line, and it was clear he was describing this world and not prescribing this world, he was starting to get laughs. But you can boil this story down to the fact that Louis C.K.’s masturbation jokes originally seemed harmless, and then suddenly were associated with something that was actually quite harmful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

A Psychological Deconstruction of Masturbation Jokes