Danish male soldiers claim that they have more respect for women than do their American counterparts. Yet, misogynist and homophobic humor pervade both military cultures (see Gilman 2016). These prejudicial attitudes are not restricted to fun-making, but extend to harassment and violent behavior. Humor is a powerful hegemonic mechanism for socialization and gender policing because the joke frame trivializes the message, however repugnant or controversial. As Beate Slok-Andersen notes, humor makes military service more fun, lightens the mood, and supports social bonds; however, it also contributes to the socialization of soldiers, helping make them "recognizable as military subjects; as insiders to the military profession." Joking reinforces that real soldiers inhabit sexually dominant male bodies, regardless of a military's actual demographics or policies.
The humor in both militaries clarifies that to succeed and ultimately belong, one has to live up to a narrow definition of masculinity. The Danish male soldiers in this study were drafted conscripts. The women, by contrast, served voluntarily. Because women joined out of their own volition, many women may have felt a greater motivation than did their male counterparts to participate appropriately in order to belong, even if it meant accepting the rampant sexist joking. In the U.S. context, military service is voluntary. Since troops select to join, many feel that they do not have grounds to criticize or reject something for which they volunteered. This adds to the pressure on troops who may not fit well because of gender or sexual identity, skill, or ideological positioning. Furthermore, the Danish conscripts served for four months. Though the training during this period was physically taxing, the social dimension was similar to a camp setting: people who don't know each other develop social bonds by spending intensive time together for a short duration. Humor contributed to fostering connection and making the four months fun. By contrast, those serving in the U.S. military serve multi-year terms, and in the last two decades, the majority deployed to war zones. Whether social bonds are formed and whether one is deemed warrior-worthy therefore has much higher costs in the U.S. setting.
The butt of the jokes described by Slok-Andersen's are situated symbolically in various sexual positions; however, the power is clearly associated with the joker rather than the jokee. As Alan Dundes and Carl Pagter explain, the goal of much sexual humor between hetero sexualmen is to "humiliate one's opponent by depriving him of his masculinity, that is, to feminize him." Phallic aggression or symbolic anal penetration in humor expresses the ultimate feminization (Dundes and Pagter 1991: 320). Humor contributes to the reification of the always fragile social hierarchies tied to masculinity that require continual reinforcement. Proof of how well one belongs in the masculine environment of the military, regardless of one's gender, can be performed through demonstrations of being skillful, tough, emotionally stoic, or jocularly dominant. Despite these ongoing tests, the same joking that contributes to power contests also forges social bonds that are supposed to be equitable, emblemized in the solidarity and mutual support expected of a 'band of brothers.'
As with the Danish example, men in the U.S. military share a great deal of physical, social, and emotional intimacy. Yet, they are not supposed to "touch each other's instruments." But where is the line? In my interviews, men described jokes that involved men placing their naked genitals on other men. Relatedly, John Paul Willis and Jay Mechling (2015) analyze a playful test of sexuality common in U.S. military settings, a...