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Does Sexist Humor Matter? A Review of the Research

[Content note: sexual assault]

When people call out sexist humor, they’re often informed that “it’s just a joke.” While some seem to believe that humor inhabits a special dimension of the universe in which things don’t “really mean” anything, psychologists tend to disagree.

There are many, many reasons sexist humor matters. It hurts people, first of all. Beyond that, it may activate stereotype threat or generally make women feel unwelcome in spaces dominated by men. But it can also have effects on those who consume and enjoy it. Here, I’m going to examine one particular piece of that puzzle: sexist humor and men’s attitudes toward sexual violence.

An early study examined men’s enjoyment of sexist jokes and found a correlation between how funny they found the jokes and the degree to which they accepted myths about rape (such as that women lie about rape or that some women deserve to be raped), how likely they claimed to be to rape someone, and all sorts of measures of aggression (Ryan & Kanjorski, 1998). Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.

If you’re curious about the types of jokes used in the study, here are a few examples: “Why did the woman cross the road?–Hey!! What’s she doing out of the kitchen?” “What’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?–A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you.” “What’s the difference between a woman and a light bulb?–You can unscrew the light bulb.”

Ha, ha, ha.

So anyway, that was a correlative study. It provides no evidence that sexist humor causes men to become more likely to rape someone or to accept rape myths to a greater extent.

So that’s useless, right? Not really. Women/feminists who dislike sexist jokes often claim that it’s evidence that the person who’s telling them is a sexist, to which they’re told that “IT’S JUST A JOKE GOD STOP BEING SO SERIOUS.” However, whether or not one causes the other, there’s good evidence that they tend to co-occur. (For you stats nerds, the correlation between enjoyment of sexist humor and acceptance of rape myths was .39, p<.01).

Later studies expanded upon the work of Ryan and Kanjorski both theoretically and methodologically. In their 2007 study, Viki et al. cited what’s known as Prejudicial Norm Theory to explain the possible effects of sexist humor:

Prejudiced Norm Theory (Ford & Ferguson, 2004) argues that prejudiced jokes activate a conversational rule of levity, resulting in a non-serious mindset on the part of the receiver, which prevents the message from being interpreted critically. By switching to a non-serious mindset, the recipient of the joke essentially accepts the local norm implied by the joke. As such, when exposed to prejudiced jokes people may begin to accept the norm of prejudice implied by the joke. This may result in greater personal tolerance of discrimination.

The authors then cite a bunch of fascinating studies on the effects of sexist humor on men’s tolerance of sexism in general, to which I may return in a later post. But the gist of that is that being exposed to sexist humor may make men more likely to accept sexist behavior, such as harassment, especially for men who score high on measures of hostile sexism. Remember when I talked about myths about man-hating feminists and discussed the distinction between hostile and benevolent sexism? That comes up again and again in these sorts of studies.

So, returning to Prejudiced Norm Theory. If prejudiced jokes can cause people to accept–to however marginally greater a degree–actual prejudice, what does this mean with regards to sexual assault and the various biases, such as victim-blaming, that go along with it?

That’s what Viki et al. examined experimentally. Male students were randomly assigned to either read a few sexist jokes or a few non-sexist jokes. They then read one of two vignettes–one in which a woman is raped after going home from a party with a man she met there, and another in which a woman is raped by a stranger while walking home alone at night. The participants then answered a bunch of questions about the extent to which they blame the woman for what happened, how likely they might be to act the same way as the man in the vignette (rape proclivity), how much they think the woman ended up enjoying the situation, and, finally, how long the jail sentence should be for the man if he were found guilty of rape.

To summarize, it was a 2 x 2 design; each participant was assigned to one of four conditions: sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette, non-sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, or non-sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette.

The results were, to put it mildly, interesting. Rape proclivity was about the same for the stranger rape conditions; there was no significant difference between the self-reported rape proclivity of the participants who read the sexist jokes and the ones who read the non-sexist jokes.

But for the acquaintance rape condition, the participants who read sexist jokes reported a significantly higher proclivity to rape.

The same effect happened for victim-blaming. In the acquaintance rape condition, participants who read sexist jokes were significantly more likely to blame the woman in the vignette for her own rape. In the stranger rape condition, there was no significant difference. And likewise for recommended sentence length: participants in the sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition recommended a shorter jail sentence than those in the non-sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition.

Predictably, in general, rape proclivity and victim-blaming were both higher in the acquaintance rape conditions than in the stranger rape conditions.

In a later study, Romero-Sánchez et al. (2010) replicated these results and added two additional variables: ambivalent sexism and aversiveness of sexist humor. This second measure was meant to examine the degree to which the participants found the sexist jokes aversive–didn’t like them. The researchers hypothesized that aversiveness would be a moderating variable–men who found the jokes very aversive wouldn’t differ in rape proclivity regardless of what type of jokes they read, because reading sexist jokes wouldn’t increase their rape proclivity scores.

They were right. In fact, people with high aversiveness to sexist humor actually seemed to report a slightly lower proclivity to rape in the sexist joke condition, although it’s unclear whether or not this effect reached significance. The researchers also examined hostile sexism as a variable. They found that while participants high in hostile sexism reported greater rape proclivity overall, there was no interaction between hostile sexism scores and type of joke.

So, what does this mean? First, a cautionary note about self-reported rape proclivity. These measures typically ask participants how likely they would be to behave like the person in the vignette–that is, to rape someone–assuming they could get away with it. In reality, they may not be willing to take that chance. They may also find that despite their intention to rape someone, in reality, they may not be able to go through with it. They may also be responding in a biased way, assuming perhaps that the experimenter shares their beliefs and wanting to conform to what they perceive to be the norm. The authors of all of these studies are careful to state that they do not wish to imply that exposure to sexist humor necessarily causes sexual assault. Of course, it may, but no ethical study could possibly determine that for certain.

It’s important to note, too, that many rapists rape because they believe they can get away with it. In this sense, rape as a crime is not like murder or theft. With murder or theft, everyone generally knows that if there’s enough evidence to show that the suspect is guilty, then they will be convicted. With rape, many people realize that even clearly-guilty suspects often go free because the defense was able to discredit the victim somehow. So the hypothetical “Would you do it if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” question might not be entirely hypothetical.

So, again, these studies do not show that being exposed to and/or enjoying sexist humor makes men rape people. They do suggest, though, that sexist humor may cause men to be more accepting of rape, to blame the victim more, and to treat rape as a crime less seriously by assigning a shorter jail sentence to a hypothetical rapist. They also show that, in general, enjoyment of such humor is correlated with acceptance of rape myths and endorsement of hostile sexism, or misogyny, and that men who have a strong distaste for such humor may not experience these effects. Finally, they show that it’s not stranger rape we should be worried about when it comes to sexist humor–it’s beliefs about acquaintance rape that seem to be affected, and people are more likely to blame the victim in these situations as is. These are also the majority of rapes.

To put it simply, reading and enjoying sexist jokes can change how you think about certain things–perhaps without you even realizing it. This is far from a novel concept in social psychology, but many people seem to have trouble accepting it when it comes to pesky stuff like sexism. Do all those sexist jokes you hear all over the place–on TV, in your office, from your friends at a party–really matter? It appears so.

An interesting future study might include some sort of behavioral component, perhaps assessing a male participant’s response to a female confederate who discloses having been sexually assaulted. That sexist jokes affect attitudes may seem like common sense, but if a study could ethically show that they also affect behavior, that would have even more important implications. A neurological component might be interesting, too. Do people show a different neural response while reading a vignette about sexual assault if they’ve been reading sexist jokes versus non-sexist jokes? I’m not a neuroscientist, so I have no fucking idea, but it’s interesting to think about.

As last time, let me know if you have any specific questions about these papers, since only one of them is freely available as a PDF. Also let me know if any of the psych/stats jargon was incomprehensible and I’ll try to make it less so. :)

Romero-Sánchez, M., Durán, M., Carretero-Dios, H., Megías, J. L., & Moya, M. (2010). Exposure to sexist humor and rape proclivity: The moderator effect of aversiveness ratings. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(12), 2339–50. doi:10.1177/0886260509354884

Ryan, K., & Kanjorski, J. (1998). The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles, 38(9-10), 743-756. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1018868913615

Viki, G., Thomae, M., Cullen, A., & Fernandez, H. (2007). The effect of sexist humor and type of rape on men’s self-reported rape proclivity and victim blame. Current Research in Social Psychology, 13(10), 122–132. Retrieved from http://www.uiowa.edu/~grpproc/crisp/crisp13_10.pdf

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    Just had to say that I never understand the ‘it’s just a joke!’ mentality, and I say that as someone who used to write funny comics. Jokes are statements, and part of the reason people laugh at them is when they feel the joke is saying something true about life. There does exist totally non sequitur humor but that’s rarely the mainstay of comedy.

    All said, some great studies. I thought everything was pretty readable and, thanks to living in a university town I can probably get my hands on the studies that aren’t available in pdf.

  2. says

    Great summary, very interesting.

    I feel that I have trouble accepting that all sexist humor is bad. A line I’ve drawn in the past is that sexist humor is fine if the joke is that the persona or character making the joke is a terrible person. But I’m not sure that this is the correct line to draw. I imagine it would be very difficult to research subtle differences in sexist jokes because a lot of it is so subjective.

      • says

        I am not very good at thinking of examples, so I looked at random Cyanide and Happiness comics, and here’s a example on my third try: http://www.explosm.net/comics/2972/ (it’s not particularly sexist, but I hope it conveys the idea)

        What makes me very uneasy is that the jokes you listed could be interpreted this way as well. The persona who says “What’s she doing out of the kitchen?” is a terrible person, and that could be the joke. And yet it still correlates with belief in rape myths. I find this really disturbing.

        • says

          Yeah, I don’t think that comic is quite what you’re talking about, but in general that’s what’s known as “ironic” sexism/bigotry and it requires walking a very, very fine line and knowing your audience.

          In general, if someone makes an “ironic” sexist joke and people get upset, their response to that is very telling. If they go “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean it that way but I’m really sorry I upset you,” that’s different from what usually happens, which is that they go “BUT I WAS JUST BEING ~IRONIC~ I MEAN OBVIOUSLY I DON’T REALLY BELIEVE THAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ME BETTER THAN THAT.”

          • says

            Yeah, I know my example wasn’t very good. It’s much easier to find a good joke about a plain jerk than a sexist jerk, because plain jerks are more universally reviled.

            I wonder if there is any utility in telling people how to do ironic jokes right. Have the sexist character do something completely idiotic and be embarrassed, I don’t know. Thinking of jokes is hard, it’s easier to not have a sense of humor.

  3. says

    Thanks for writing this. Awesome summary of the research. Well written, well sourced, good caveats. I wouldn’t have even known about this otherwise. I love pieces like this. Keep them coming!

    • says

      Yup!

      1. Why did the woman cross the road?—Hey! ! What’s she doing out of the kitchen?
      2. Why do girls have three holes?—So you can carry them like a 6-pack.
      3. What do sorority girls do first thing in the morning?—Walk home.
      4. Three women were granted one wish each by a genie. The first woman said, “I wish I was the smartest woman in the world.” And POOF, it came to be. The second woman said, “I wish I was ten times smarte r than the smartest woman in the world.” And POOF, this too came to be. The third woman said, “I wish I was twenty times smarte r than the smartest woman in the world.” . . . And POOF, she was a man.
      5. What’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?—A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you.
      6. Why did Saddam Hussien kill his wife?—He caught her drinking Bush and eating Quail.
      7. Superman was flying around one day and he was really horny. “Well,” he says, “I know that Wonder Woman is lying out there on the beach.” So he flew on down and, sure enough there was Wonder Woman, sprawled out naked on the beach. He took a flying leap and it was WHAM-BAM! !! Wonder Woman sat up and said, What the hell was that?” The Invisible Man said, . . . “I don’t know, but he just reamed out my asshole!”
      8. What’s the difference between a woman and a light bulb?—You can unscrew the light bulb.
      9. A drunk yelled at a bartender, “Get me another drink and one for the douche bag at the end of the bar too.” The bartender, feeling sorry for the woman at the end of the bar, told the drunk not to address a lady in that way. But the drunk continued to yell and to call the woman a douche bag. Finally, the bartender gave up on getting the drunk to shut up and made him a drink and then walked toward the lady at the other end of the bar. Fee ling embarrassed, he told the woman that she might as well take the drink from the asshole. The woman paused for a moment and then said, “Very well then . . . bring me a vinegar and water please.”
      10. What’s the difference between like and love?—Spit and swallow.

      • says

        Hmmmm…..I wish they could have come up with a better list.

        I also wish they could have used a control group who were told non-sexist jokes.

        • says

          Me too, but that’s what the later studies did. (I can find you the jokes from those, too, if you’d like.) I included this first one because I wanted to show how the theories and methodology have evolved just over the past 15 years or so; that paper still cites Freud in its introduction.

          • says

            Oh yes, I would like! In fact, I wouldn’t mind if you kept blogging on this topic forever and ever, though I know that’s just slightly unrealistic and demanding. :-) The psychology of humor, especially when it comes to offensive jokes, will never stop fascinating me. I really want this Kickstarter to get funded, but it almost certainly won’t at this point.

          • says

            No problem! Here are the jokes used in the Viki study:

            Non-Sexist Jokes

            1. Psychiatrist: What’s your problem?
            Patient: I think I’m a chicken.
            Psychiatrist: How long has this been going on?
            Patient: Ever since I was an egg!

            2. How do you know when elephants have had sex in your house? The trash can liners are missing!

            3. What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack… “Damn!” A skydiver goes “Damn!” … whack.

            4. Why was the leper stopped for speeding? He couldn’t take his foot off the accelerator!

            Sexist Jokes

            1. Why are women like carpets? If you lay them properly the first time, you can walk all over them for years.

            2. Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!

            3. How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.

            4. What is the best thing about a blowjob? Ten minutes silence.

            Here’s how they were selected:

            These jokes were selected on the basis of pilot research conducted by Viki et al. (2006). In this pilot study, twenty-four men were asked to rate 57 jokes in terms of their funniness and sexism. We selected eight jokes out of the pool of the 57 rated jokes (see Appendix). These jokes were similar in terms of funniness ratings, but distinct in terms of sexism ratings. The four selected sexist jokes were rated as equally funny (M = 4.17, SD = 2.26) to the four non-sexist jokes (M = 4.13, SD = 1.52), F (1, 23) = 0.513, ns. However, the sexist jokes were rated as being significantly more sexist (M = 7.40, SD = 1.77) than the non-sexist jokes (M = 1.29, SD = .61), F (1, 23) = 93.93, p< .001.

          • says

            As for the third study, it was done in Spain and used a scale that was developed in Spanish to assess humor:

            The jokes used in each of the experimental conditions (four in the
            sexist joke condition and four in the nonsexist joke condition) were taken from the Escala de Apreciación del Humor, EAHU (Humor Appreciation Scale; Carretero-Dios, Pérez, & Buela-Casal, 2009). The EAHU is a scale with 32 items (jokes or graphic cartoons), which are answered using two 5-point Likert scales from 0 (not funny/no aversiveness) to 4 (very funny/ strong aversiveness). This scale has adequate psychometric properties to assess six empirically isolated factors (Carretero-Dios et al., 2009). For the present study, we selected the four items that form the woman disparagement humor factor in the EAHU for the sexist joke condition (funniness Cronbach’s a = .59, aversiveness Cronbach’s a = .72). For the nonsexist condition, we selected four other elements among the items that represent neutral content jokes in the EAHU (funniness Cronbach’s a = .69, aversiveness Cronbach’s a = .59).

            So, I could probably find the jokes themselves if I tried, but they might not be in English. :P

            That does indeed look like a cool Kickstarter.

          • rumblestiltsken says

            I had steered clear of that kickstarter because the video seemed to be a bunch of comedians complaining that everyone wants to limit their speech and were humourless fascists.

            Did I misinterpret the promos?

  4. smrnda says

    This is kind of in response to Miller,but I felt it could just be more a general comment. I find sometimes you can have a character in comedy who is a genuine sexist ass (or any other sort of prejudice) and the joke is how ignorant, bigoted and ridiculous, callous and obnoxious they are. This only works if the work has sufficient context so that we know that the Person Behind the Comedy doesn’t really hold those particular views. It’s possible, but it takes a level of skill and awareness to pull it off, and it only works when you can tell from the overall feel of the work whose side the comic is on. It’s not impossible to have an Unsympathetic character, but this requires the ability to develop context.

    One place where this style doesn’t work is stand-up. Stand up is about the most decontenxtualized form of comedy there is, since you just have one person on a stage in a situation where the audience isn’t likely to have any notion of who the person is, what they stand for or anything about them. Being ‘ironic’ requires that people can tell what’s characteristic of you and what’s not, and when your irony doesn’t work, it’s probably because you haven’t really established that the views you’re expressing aren’t your own.

    • says

      There are pitfalls in TV shows too. It annoyed me how everyone would excuse Dr. House because he was supposed to be a jerk. The thing is, House is secretly a sympathetic character. Viewers don’t like him, but they do think he’s awesome. (I still kept watching House anyway…)

  5. sw says

    So much of a joke depends on the way that the person interprets it. To me, “what’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?—A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you” isn’t a sexist joke at it’s core, it’s a joke making fun of bitter men that call women “bitches” and “whores”.

    Also, I’m a bit confused by

    myths about rape (such as that women lie about rape

    It seems to me that the idea that some women lie about rape is not a myth. Certainly almost all reports are genuine, but false reporting clearly exists, as it does for any crime.

    • says

      Well, the actual scale used has a bunch of items, and one of them asks the participant to estimate the percentage of women who report rape who are lying about it. It also assess other myths about rape, such as that women who get raped in certain situations were asking for it, that women could resist a rapist if they “really want to,” that deep-down women want to get raped, that drunk women should be considered “fair game,” and so on. If you want to see the whole scale, it’s on page 7 or 223 (depending on which numbering you go by) of this paper: http://www.excellenceforchildandyouth.ca/sites/default/files/meas_attach/Burt_1980.pdf

      So, really what I should’ve said there in the bit that you quoted is that women frequently or typically lie about rape, but because the Rape Myth Acceptance Scale is, well, a scale, subjects who put some sort of reasonably low percentage for that question will have a lower score on the scale.

      The actual false report rate seems to be 2%, by the way, from what I gather. But there’s a lot of disagreement on that figure.

  6. Brecht says

    ‘The participants then answered a bunch of questions about the extent to which they blame the woman for what happened, how likely they might be to act the same way as the man in the vignette (rape proclivity), how much they think the woman ended up enjoying the situation, and, finally, how long the jail sentence should be for the man if he were found guilty of rape.’

    The problem here is that we are being asked to accept that what people _report_ they would do is the same thing as what they would _actually_ do in a real-life situation. I don’t doubt those two things can align nicely, though–I’m just pointing out that we shouldn’t be too willing to accept this at face value. It can be a scientifically dubious way at trying to figure out rape proclivity (not that the alternative–a ‘rape gene’–has fared much better).

    • says

      Sure. I addressed this:

      So, what does this mean? First, a cautionary note about self-reported rape proclivity. These measures typically ask participants how likely they would be to behave like the person in the vignette–that is, to rape someone–assuming they could get away with it. In reality, they may not be willing to take that chance. They may also find that despite their intention to rape someone, in reality, they may not be able to go through with it. They may also be responding in a biased way, assuming perhaps that the experimenter shares their beliefs and wanting to conform to what they perceive to be the norm. The authors of all of these studies are careful to state that they do not wish to imply that exposure to sexist humor necessarily causes sexual assault. Of course, it may, but no ethical study could possibly determine that for certain.

      It’s important to note, too, that many rapists rape because they believe they can get away with it. In this sense, rape as a crime is not like murder or theft. With murder or theft, everyone generally knows that if there’s enough evidence to show that the suspect is guilty, then they will be convicted. With rape, many people realize that even clearly-guilty suspects often go free because the defense was able to discredit the victim somehow. So the hypothetical “Would you do it if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” question might not be entirely hypothetical.

      As I mentioned, the researchers are careful to state these caveats, so I wouldn’t say that they expect you to assume at face value that these things correlate perfectly.

  7. Dileep says

    Was there any research which measured the acceptance of misogynistic behavior by men, before and after reading sexist jokes ? not exactly another control group with non sexist jokes. Also how the answer changes when asked in groups or individually ?

  8. Gerry Damen says

    I’m in a discussion about sexism and the infuence of sexist joke. I referred to this blog and I quoted a bit of it. The other party does not see the problem, instead he says that because of the words ‘may’ and “suggest.”

    What I quoted was this: “They do suggest, though, that sexist humor may cause men to be more accepting of rape, to blame the victim more, and to treat rape as a crime less seriously by assigning a shorter jail sentence to a hypothetical rapist.”

    His reasoning is that suggests and my imply that it can also mean there is nothing there, actually, that most likelely there is nothing there because otherwise the wording would have been explicit.

    Can you shed light on this?

    • says

      Scientists use language like “suggest” and “may” because, in social science, evidence can rarely “prove” a hypothesis definitively. It can only strongly support hypotheses.

      But when you look at lots of research in the aggregate, you inevitably start to see patterns. There is strong evidence that humor influences attitudes and opinions.

      Tell your friend that it would’ve been irresponsible for the authors of a single study to avoid words like “suggest” and “may” in favor of stronger language. The results of that particular study are pretty clear, though.

      • GD says

        As I cannot reach you in any other way, I had to log in to ask you this question. I did not know that my surname would be displayed. Can you please change that? I gave a link to this post in a discussion on a journalists blog. He now has dedicated a whole post to me and my humorless, feminist tyranny. It’s rather awful. I don’t want to be identified quite as easy and I do want to make sure he knows what you have written (and then I have to give a source). Also, this person is NOT my friend. I think him rather scary and abusive of his journalists power.

  9. avigdor weber says

    i am just curious as to how you feel when someone make sexist jokes about men…..example “women are crazy and men are stupid, but women are crazy because men are stupid”
    why do you as a feminist and teacher not recognize the fact that this stuff occurs on both sides of this stupid line between men and women. we don’t like the jokes either….. men are taught that they are less than or useless offs and men accept it and say right on, yes you are right be patient with us men we aren’t as gifted as you women are.

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