Society for Medical Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper, based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork at a clinic specializing in the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of HPV-related anal disease, explores the uses and experiences of humor and joking to better understand how providers and patients navigate interactions centered around a stigmatized disease in a taboo body part. Drawing on anthropological theories of humor as well as affect theory, this paper argues that humor serves at least three important roles in this clinical setting. First, humor works as a means to speak about “the unspeakable” aspects of anal disease and its diagnosis, including the very nature of performing or undergoing a high resolution anoscopy (HRA) exam. Second, providers sometimes use humor as a de-sexualization strategy in an effort to preserve the medical nature of the exam, especially in response to overtly sexual joking from patients. Third, humor and joking amongst providers acts as a coping strategy for extraordinary occurrences in the clinic, such as uncontrollable bodily functions that sometimes occur during the exam. This last type of humor is never directed at patients, but instead at the awkward situations themselves, which often involve providers intimately encountering “gross” sights, sounds, and smells. The paper concludes with some thoughts about the importance of increasing attention to humor and joking among medical anthropologists.