Third Floor, Ladies’ Lingerie

It’s an old joke. Much like the “dirty old man” jokes that were commonplace years ago, this harkens back to the days of fancy department stores with elevator operators who would announce what Macy’s had for sale as the door opened on each floor. And Professor Richard Ned Lebow, told it.

Those two words — the speaker remembers saying “ladies’ lingerie,” a passenger who was offended recalls hearing “women’s lingerie” — have turned into the latest exemplar in the academy of political correctness gone wild.

The episode, which has not been previously reported, occurred last month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association. Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King’s College London and the 2014 recipient of ISA’s distinguished scholar award, made the remark after someone in his elevator called out to ask for floor requests.

Not funny? Fair enough. You don’t have to find somebody else’s joke a knee-slapper. In fact, you can find it pretty bad, stupid, even awful. But Simona Sharoni found it more than she could take.

Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, took offense. As she recounted in a formal complaint lodged less than four hours later, Lebow “said, with a smile on his face, ‘women’s lingerie,’ and all his buddies laughed. After they walked out, the woman standing next to me turned to me and said, ‘I wonder if we should have told them that it is no longer acceptable to make these jokes!’ It took me a while to figure out that this man thought it was funny to make a reference to men shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn’t confront him. . . . As a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy, I am quite shaken by this incident.”

There is no such thing as a “survivor” of sexual harrassment. No one ever lost their life because of sexual harrassment, and given Sharoni’s sensibilities, it seems likely that whatever she endured was of lesser harm than an emotional paper cut. But “ladies’ lingerie” blew her mind. Granted, that may not have taken much.

Is it “no longer acceptable” to make the “ladies’ lingerie” joke? Says who? Why? What about the old joke was the equivalent of [insert your most horrifying and exhausting gender assertion]? Is there not a ladies’ lingerie department anymore? Do women run in terror from Victoria’s Secret? What issue is there at all? What issue makes this old joke problematic?

But Lebow, trying not to needlessly ruffle the feathers of this Yankee gender studies prof, tried to smooth things over.

Lebow, informed of the complaint, wrote what he said was intended to be a conciliatory response, assuring Sharoni that “I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable” and suggested that Sharoni, born in Romania and raised in Israel, may have “interpreted my remark out of context.”

So he’s woke, but even so, maybe she went off the deep end on this one?

“Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women,” Lebow wrote. “As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous — and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee — you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both.”

Ah, silly boy with his misplaced confidence that the ethics committee won’t have its head firmly planted in a hairless butt.

ISA Executive Director Mark Boyer informed Lebow that the disciplinary committee had found his elevator remarks “offensive and inappropriate.” An even “more serious violation,” Boyer said, was “that you chose to reach out to Prof. Sharoni, and termed her complaint ‘frivolous.’ ”

This is reminiscent of those who argue that one can no longer call a woman unhinged, even if she’s completely unhinged, because she’s a she. No complaint by a woman can be “termed” frivolous, even if it’s utterly frivolous. It denies her lived experience and erases her personhood. You can’t make this shit up.

Even so, academic sensibilities no longer have room for jokes or tolerance. More importantly, calling a facially ridiculous complaint frivolous is, in itself, sufficient offense to deserve castigation.

This episode reflects not only a generational and cultural divide but also the unfortunate intersection of two prickly personalities with the bad luck to be stuck in the same elevator. She shouldn’t have leaped to file a grievance; he shouldn’t have added fuel by labeling her charge “frivolous.”

Missing from this delicate “balance” is that it was just a joke, an old, utterly banal, joke. That saying “ladies’ lingerie” was something worthy of taking offense at all finds no place in the analysis, and that Lebow is called “prickly” for calling the complaint frivolous for no better reason than no male can question a female’s complaint is nuts.

Ladies’ lingerie? There may not be any phrase, any old joke, that doesn’t offend someone with the passionate desire to wallow in misery and female victimhood. That some particularly sensitive gender studies prof loses her mind over something so uncontroversial isn’t a reflection of toxic masculinity, but one prof’s desire to find reasons to be outraged.

But the message of the International Studies Association is clear: it doesn’t matter what some women take offense to. If you don’t want to be exiled from academia, apologize, repent and never again mention their ladies’ lingerie.

45 thoughts on “Third Floor, Ladies’ Lingerie

  1. wilbur

    So the lesson learned is to just announce “Sporting goods and menswear”. Gets the same chuckle and no collateral damage. I’ve used it on the elevator at the Pretrial Detention Center when I have the pleasure of visiting the lockup. Even the inmates like it (the joke, not the PTD).

    I specialize in the old and utterly banal.

    1. SHG Post author

      Oh sure, connect males with sports because women don’t play sports at all, you shitlord.

      1. delurking

        Ahem. Coming from the guy who wrote “head firmly planted in a hairless butt”, your criticism of xis stereotyping is hard to credit. We all know what you were implying.

  2. DaveL

    Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, took offense.

    Hopefully, she got some pure offense. The stuff you get on the street has been stepped on by dealers and suppliers. By the time it gets to you, it’s mostly self-righteousness and political agenda.

  3. REvers

    “Simona Sharoni, professor of women’s and gender studies….”

    Want to bet gender doesn’t include male?

  4. Justin

    It almost seems like women are so desperate to be respected that they behave in a way that’s difficult to respect.

    I’m honestly curious what they think would have happened if they told her her complaint had been noted and left it at that. Even if you can understand how someone might be offended, if you can also see where the other person was joking, why is the default to give the offended individual a pound of flesh?

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, bear in mind this isn’t all women, but a particular cohort. That said, does there come a point when the proper response to a complaint about a joke is “grow the fuck up”?

  5. Richard Kopf


    I bet Lebow said “After you” to Sharoni when the elevator door opened. Beast.


    1. SHG Post author

      If he had, it would have been in the complaint, unless she was too shaken to hear it because her head was spinning.

      1. B. McLeod

        Well, as a survivor of sexual harassment, I’m sure she already knows that all men everywhere are after her.

        1. SHG Post author

          They do seem to have an uncanny knack of being an uncontrollable sex magnet to the opposite gender.

    1. SHG Post author

      Did I ever tell the story about my blind friend who was met at the gangplank of a cruise ship with a wheel chair because the ship noted he was “physically challenged”?

  6. Raccoon Strait

    When one is in the business of climbing upon soapboxes and screaming, and one is short of soapboxes, then one builds soapboxes out of whatever scrap is laying around. Some of those scrap soapboxes will be good soapboxes, and some of them will be bad soapboxes. That the soapbox builder will climb aboard soapboxes and scream, whether it is a good soapbox or a bad soapbox, is what the 1st Amendment is all about. Shame on that ethics committee for listening to a bad soapbox screech. Their desire to ‘appear’ woke will come back to haunt them, when they actually wake up.

  7. Weebs

    I went to Merrimack College back in the 80s (go Warriors!) and I’m fairly certain we didn’t have a women’s and gender studies program back then.

    Times they are a-changin’.

      1. Weebs

        Business, so kinda worthless I guess.

        I missed on out on the rich, diverse education possible with a degree in Women’s Studies.

  8. PaulaMarie Susi

    I remember the elevator operators! I guess I’m just getting cranky(er) in my old-ish age, but I – a middle-aged, cis-gendered, straight woman – yearn for the good ol’ pre-woke days when my guy/girl friends could tell a raunchy joke that we ALL would find hilarious (and if you didn’t, you could just tell them to STFU) or say wildly sexist shit without wondering who would be offended or it becoming a fucking lawsuit. I bet she yells at the guy who’s polite enough to hold the door open for her. Trust me, you’ll know if I find something personally offensive, and it won’t begin with with “Susi vs. some random asshole”. Don’t we have real social injustice to worry about? Just my OG feminist 2 cents.

    1. SHG Post author

      We live in a world where getting home unarrested, unbeaten and alive was a pretty good day. We were allowed to tell jokes, sexist or gallows, and I’ll be damned if anybody takes that away.

  9. cjrian

    Acceptable forms of speech? What is that?
    To be more accurate, replace acceptable with Fashionable.
    Fashion, like PC mis-culture, changes minute to minute.
    Fashion, like PC mis-culture, embraces what it hated this morning.
    Fashion, like PC mis-culture, is determined by the diktats of a select few “wise ones”

    Fashion, like PC mis-culture, is utterly ignored by most

      1. cthulhu

        Somehow I doubt that My Sharoni was wearing frilly nylon panties. Lebow might be confident enough to try it though.

        1. SHG Post author

          Imagine what a surprise it would have been had they both gotten off on the floor for ladies’ lingerie!

  10. JRP

    What if he wasnt talking about women wearing the lingerie at all?

    She needs to be carful or she will offend someone farther up the victim hierarchy.

  11. j a higginbotham

    As an aside, she did a stint at the Evergreen State College and her PhD thesis is on Conflict Analysis and Resolution (George Mason University).

    ubi sub ubi

  12. Dan Hull

    Dang. I say “wanna get lucky?” on elevators 3 or 4 times a day. Since 1990 or so. And just to broads, too. Stick a fork in me.

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