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Dick Jokes and DevOps, Redux

Last week, I wrote “Dick Jokes and DevOps” after someone was called out for making a dick joke on a devops mailing list. Although the reaction was largely positive, some valid criticisms highlighted flaws in the piece that I hope to correct in revisiting the topic.

The first suggestion that I may have done something wrong was a comment on Twitter:

I really think THAT is sexist. “we must protect the delicate womens!”

She wasn’t alone. Comments from others (male and female) complained that “crude” was being equated with “sexist”, and that it shouldn’t be assumed that all dick jokes were offensive to all women.

I felt a bit bad about this, as it wasn’t where I was coming from when I wrote the post. Nonetheless, you see what I wrote, not what I was thinking when I did it, so I figured the problem must be somewhere on the page. Sure enough, when I re-read it with that interpretation in mind, I saw that I did draw the issue along gender lines – fairly explicitly at the top of the post, still implicitly towards the end. Mea culpa.

Another criticism concerned my choice not to link to the original mailing list thread. While that choice was motivated by a desire to avoid reviving a thread that had run its course, the comments it provoked were interesting. People were unhappy that they couldn’t look at the joke and make their own judgement about whether or not it was offensive.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but I see a certain symmetry in these two criticisms. The first group was concerned that I was judging what they would be offended by, while the second group was concerned that I was denying them the power to judge what other people should be offended by. I’ll blame my framing for both these concerns, and hope that this restatement brings a few more people on-side.

It’s Not A Gender Thing

I don’t think that all women want or need to be protected from seeing dick jokes. Beyond fundamental biological needs, like eating and breathing, I don’t think there’s much that is true of all women, or all men, or all people.

I know women who are comfortable hearing and making obscene jokes anywhere, any time. I know men who feel the same way.

I know men who are uncomfortable hearing crude jokes anywhere, any time. I know women who feel the same way.

I know people of all stripes who are comfortable discussing some things in a close group of friends, but uncomfortable having the exact same discussions in other contexts.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these positions has any bearing upon one’s ability to operate a computer.

It’s Not About Protecting Another Group

Everyone gets to own their own offence – it’s condescending and disempowering to behave as though they need you to step in on their behalf. Beyond that, if they weren’t actually offended in the first place you will have created a problem where none existed. Don’t be offended for somebody else.

I opened the original post by describing the dick joke as “pretty benign”. Doesn’t that mean I was being offended on behalf of some unidentified others?


Although I wasn’t offended by the content of the joke, I was offended by the context – making the joke on a professional mailing list of nearly 800 people who have come together “to discuss technology, process and enabling harmonious DevOps.”1

A Gender-Neutral Frame

Here’s two gender-neutral reasons why dick jokes have no place in a devops discussion:

1) They’re off-topic

Dick jokes are not intrinsic to building or maintaining software, infrastructures, or teams. This is not a value judgement, and it says nothing about whether dick jokes are good, bad, or otherwise.

2) They alienate part of the audience

Some people on the list don’t appreciate dick jokes. There are a range of reasons for this, none of which should matter to you. They joined the list to discuss devops – you did, too. The barrier to participation should be no higher than a desire to talk about that topic, and enabling the discussion is the most important thing we can do.

That’s it.

Note that people who love dick jokes are just as welcome in the discussion as people who loathe them, and people without a strong opinion either way. When you leave the dick jokes out of the conversation, nobody needs to know or care where you stand.

Tell Me I’m Wrong

Telling dick jokes doesn’t make you sexist, but insisting on your right to tell dick jokes when you know they’re alienating your audience is the act of an asshole. Don’t act like an asshole. You’re better than that.

I struggle to see why this issue is contentious, and yet it seems to be. If you think I’m wrong, I will appreciate your good-faith effort to explain why.