The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.



1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

[guest post] Debunking Some Skeptic Myths About Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

This guest post was written by my friend HJ Hornbeck and discusses a talk on sexual assault given by social psychologist Carol Tavris at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this past July. 


Carol Tavris’ talk came at the worst time for me, as well as the best. I’m too busy at the moment to give it a proper fisk, because I’m preparing a lecture on sexual assault. I’ll see if I can aim for two birds, but for now her talk deserves at least a point-form response with minimal proof-reading.

Some background first, though. If I can crib from her TAM 2014 bio,

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and author whose work focuses on critical thinking and the criticism of pseudoscience in psychology, among other topics. Her articles, book reviews and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. Many of these essays and reviews are available in Psychobabble and Biobunk: Using psychological science to think critically about popular psychology. Dr. Tavris is coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts–a book that has become something of a bible, dare we say, of the skeptical movement.

So she’s a pretty cool, smart skeptic. The title of her talk did raise a few eyebrows, though–why was a conference notorious for havingsexual assault problem hosting “Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations”? Still it didn’t attract much attention…

until the live-Tweets arrived.

They’re terrible, by and large, but most of them come from people who are already terrible on this topic. This was a talk given at a conference where the management has historically taken out extra liability insurance to deal with the risk posed by one of its keynote speakers. There’s a certain motivation for the attendees to pull out every dismissive, permissive, victim-blaming message possible from a talk on rape. The tribalism in the tweets is not subtle. I could give a talk on rape myths in front of that audience, and the Twitter feed would still be terrible.

So I’ll wait to see whether the talk is released to a general audience.

I had much the same opinion as Stephanie Zvan; critiquing something you only have a fragmentary record of would only lead to disaster, so it was better to wait and see.

Well, I waited. I saw. And my goodness, what a disaster.

[Read more…]

About That “Laughing at Male Victims of Violence” Video

[Content note: domestic/intimate partner violence]

In response to the Rodger shooting, which I wrote about in my previous post, some people have been sharing this video, which I’ve seen captioned as “Watch what happens when a man abuses a woman in public and vice versa.”

The video is a sort of public experiment. A hidden camera records what happens when a man starts getting abusive towards a woman he is with, grabbing and shoving her as she tells him to get his hands off of her. Bystanders confront the man and call the police. But when the genders are flipped and the woman is the one threatening the man and pushing him around, people either laugh or ignore it.

I won’t get into how exquisitely gauche it is to post this link, usually without commentary as though it presumably speaks for itself, in response to a post where people are attempting to discuss misogyny and how it caused the murders of six people and the injury of seven more*. (While I am sometimes able to convince people that their arguments are bad, I’m not sure I am able to teach them the sort of basic empathy that most people master in grade school.)

First of all, men who post this link in response to discussions of misogyny (I haven’t personally seen a non-man do this) prove nothing but the fact that they are so uncomfortable with discussions about violence against women that they need to turn them all into discussions about violence against men. As I have noted before, it is sometimes a good idea to learn how to tolerate a moderate amount of discomfort so you can understand where it’s coming from. This is one of those times.

Second, the idea that this video could possibly be a rebuttal to a claim like “normative masculinity is harmful and leads to the oppression of women and to tragedies like the UCSB shooting” is so simplistic and flawed that it really goes to show how little these folks have bothered to engage with critiques of gender roles and with feminism as a whole.

When I see that video, I don’t see any evidence against my opinions about gender. I see evidence in support of them.

We do not have a culture that encourages women to commit violence against men, but we do have a culture that treats female violence against men, when it does happen, as a joke. Why? Gendered norms. Our descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and can never be physically harmed by them, and our prescriptive norms say that men should be stronger than women and should never allow themselves to be physically harmed by them.

For reference: descriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world is and what people do. Prescriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world should be and what people should do. Both types of norms are prevalent in sexist thinking, and they are taught and articulated both implicitly and explicitly to children from birth.

The distinction between the two is important. Our descriptive norms about male strength are partially correct, but only in the sense that, on average, people categorized as male are physically stronger in their upper bodies than people categorized as women. And there are plenty of exceptions, and violence can still be committed by a physically weaker person against a physically stronger one.

But prescriptive norms, as I mentioned, are not about objective reality (insofar as such a thing exists, of course) but rather about dominant beliefs about how things should be, whether they necessarily are that way or not. (But people do tend to believe that their prescriptive norms reflect reality, and most people do seem to not recognize the difference between these two types of norms.) Prescriptive norms are values. People may justify them in various ways, but they will not usually be able to present “evidence” for them, because they are not based on evidence. For example, some people tell me that I shouldn’t lift weights because then I’ll become stronger than many men, and men will not be attracted to a woman who’s stronger than them, and being attractive to men is presumably something I care about. Of course, I already am stronger than many men, and some of those men are even attracted to me, and some of those men are even attracted to me partially because of my physical strength. In this way, many prescriptive gender norms fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.

Let’s take the analysis back up one level and see how it applies to men who are assaulted by women. Descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and are able to defend themselves against them, which is why a common reaction to male victims is disbelief and dismissal. These descriptive norms are incompatible with the idea of a man being hurt by a woman, so believing him when he says he has would require revising or rejecting those beliefs. But it’s difficult for many people to revise or reject their deep-seeded beliefs, and gendered norms tend to be especially deep-seeded because they are so prevalent, so casual, and taught at such a young age. So, neglecting to seriously interrogate their beliefs about gender, many people disbelieve or dismiss male victims.

Prescriptive norms, meanwhile, are responsible for two other horrible reactions that male victims sometimes face: blame and ridicule. If men ought to be stronger than women and able to defend themselves against assault by them, and this particular man failed to do so, then the assault was his fault. If the mere idea of men being unable to defend themselves against women is ridiculous, then male victims will be ridiculed. Together, descriptive and prescriptive norms about masculinity and strength prevent men who are assaulted by women from being taken seriously and helped.

Back up another level. Why do some people think that the treatment of male survivors of violence is some sort of “counterpoint” to feminist initiatives to prevent violence against women? Because a key component of sexism is oppositional thinking. Namely: men are women are opposites. Men and women play a “game” in which men “win” by “getting” sex and women “lose” by “giving” sex. Anything that’s “good” for women is “bad” for men and vice versa. Giving women more rights–the same rights that men already have–somehow entails “taking” rights or freedoms away from men. Sexism is a zero-sum game.

To people who think this way, it is inconceivable that feminists who are fighting to stop violence against women still care about violence against men and do not want to condone or encourage it. To them, there is no other reason someone would focus on violence against women–not because that’s what they best know how to combat, not because they have personal experience and therefore a personal stake in fixing the problem, not because women are overwhelmingly more likely to be raped, seriously injured, or murdered by men than vice versa. No. The only possible reason must be because they want men to be hurt by women. That’s why they’re trying to stop women from being hurt by men.

This is oppositional thinking exemplified.

In fact, those who fight against the gender roles that perpetuate male violence against women are also helping to stop the mistreatment of male survivors of violence, because these problems stem from the exact same faulty thinking. As I’ve shown, male victims are disbelieved, dismissed, blamed, and ridiculed because men are expected to be strong, stoic, basically invincible. Some people may be more interested in working with non-male survivors and others may be more interested in working with male survivors, but everyone who understands the problem accurately is fighting descriptive and prescriptive norms about gender.

Feminism, by the way, combats both types of norms. The feminist movement has been instrumental in challenging many presumptions about how the world actually works (i.e. women are more emotional than men, women are bad at math, men are “naturally” more interested in sex than women, “virginity” is a thing that exists, etc.) and many presumptions about how the world should work (i.e. women should be “virgins” until marriage, men should not cry or express negative emotions besides anger, women should not have casual sex, etc.).

This, then, is the irony of posting links like this video as some sort of annoying “Checkmate, feminists!” gotcha thing. You may not realize it, but we’re actually fighting the same battle. You’re just so inept that you keep hitting me with friendly fire.

While norms about male strength are addressed and discussed by many feminists of all genders, more men need to recognize these norms as inaccurate and harmful, and challenge them. I see very few of the men who are most concerned about male victims of female violence doing this, probably because they’re not ultimately interested in losing their male privilege. I see no “men’s rights” activism around this issue. All I really see right now is a lot of men*** trying to get in the way of the people who are working to help all survivors of violence, and all human beings.


*This may end up requiring another post to explain since there’s been so much pushback, but I am continuing to call the Rodger shooting an example of misogynistic violence even though men were also killed. His misogyny precipitated the attack. He intended (and tried) to get into a sorority house and kill the women there. Because they were in his way or because he was so full of fury and violence or for whatever other reason we’ll never know, he also killed some men. Their deaths are as much a tragedy as anyone else’s, and no, it does not in any way diminish that tragedy to accurately identify the motivation for Rodger’s attack.

**Many women who attack men are actually acting in self-defense–a fact which is often ignored when the women are non-white, trans, and especially both. Examples include Yakiri Rubi RubioCeCe McDonald, and Marissa Alexander. The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project details the problem here. While men who are truly the victims of violence by women deserve justice, the intersections of racism and transphobia unjustly criminalize many women who were actually acting in self-defense, many of whom were already survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence. Many advocates for male victims conveniently ignore this fact.

***But, of course, Not All Men. Just so we’re clear. I just wanted to make sure I included that in this post somewhere. For the sake of clarity.


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Some Evidence Against Shame and Stigma as Weight Loss Motivators

[Content note: weight/size stigma and discrimination]

It is considered self-evident by plenty of people that shaming fat people for being fat gets them to stop being fat. That’s why a common reaction to body/fat positivity campaigns is that they’re going to make people think it’s “okay” to be fat. As opposed to…not okay.

However, even if we begin with the presumption that it’s a net good for fat people to stop being fat, research evidence is rapidly piling up that suggests that shaming and stigmatizing them won’t work. In fact, it may have exactly the opposite effect.

In a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors provide this overview of research on this topic:

Media attention to obesity has increased dramatically (Saguy & Almeling, 2008), as has discrimination against overweight and obese individuals (Andreyeva, Puhl, & Brownell, 2008). Overweight individuals are often portrayed in the media as lazy, weak willed, and self-indulgent (Puhl & Heuer, 2009), and as a drain on the nation’s resources (Begley, 2012). Because stigma can be a potent source of social control (Phelan, Link, & Dovidio, 2008), some authors have suggested that stigmatizing obesity may encourage people to lose weight (Bayer, 2008, Callahan, 2013 and Heinberg et al., 2001), and policies that utilize potentially stigmatizing elements (e.g., BMI report cards) are becoming more prevalent (Vogel, 2011). Little evidence exists, however, that stigmatizing obesity promotes weight loss. In fact, among overweight individuals, experiencing weight-stigmatization is associated with greater reports of maladaptive eating behaviors (e.g., Haines et al., 2006 and Puhl and Brownell, 2006), increased motivation to avoid exercise (Vartanian & Novak, 2008; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2010), and poorer weight loss outcomes among adults in a weight-loss program (Wott & Carels, 2010; but see Latner, Wilson, Jackson, & Stunkard, 2009). Furthermore, experimentally activating weight stereotypes decreased overweight women’s self-efficacy for exercise and dietary control (Seacat & Mickelson, 2009). Collectively, these findings suggest that stigmatizing obesity has negative behavioral consequences that may increase, rather than decrease the weight of overweight individuals.

The paper also reviews research suggesting that the reason this happens is because of something called identity threat. When an individual has an identity that they know is stigmatized and something happens that triggers their awareness of that (such as a joke about the identity or a person who invokes negative stereotypes about it), the individual may experience negative effects. Some of these are physical, such as increased physiological stress response. Some are psychological, such as feelings of shame or anxiety. The person may try to act in ways that “compensate” for the flaws others may perceive in them or avoid situations in which people might think poorly of them (for an overweight person, this may include eating with people or going to the gym).

In theory, all this stress, anxiety, and effort depletes cognitive resources available for other activities that require what is known as executive function–mental tasks such as regulating emotions, setting goals, using short-term memory, and so on. Research has shown that when people of various stigmatized categories are reminded of those stigmas and stereotypes, their cognitive performance on a variety of tasks worsens.

The researchers in this study hypothesized that feeling identity threat would decrease participants’ ability to subsequently regulate their food intake. Specifically, they tested whether or not exposure to news articles about weight stigma would actually increase the amount of calories participants consumed. They believed that the participants who would be most affected would be those who believe themselves to be overweight, regardless of their actual weight, because they would be the ones who would feel identity threat when reminded that weight stigma exists.

The participants were 93 female college students (45% White, 24% Latina, 18% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% African American, 10% other races). Prior to the study, they had filled out a survey that included a few questions about weight (the rest were just there to hide the purpose of the survey). When they arrived at the study, they were told that the purpose was “to examine correspondence among verbal, nonverbal, and physiological signals.”

They were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the test condition, they read an article called “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job,” which was compiled from actual news stories and described the discrimination that overweight people may face in the workplace. In the control condition, the participants read a nearly-identical article that was about smoking rather than weight.

Afterward, they were led to another room and asked to wait for the experimenter to return. The rooms had bowls of snacks that had been weighed prior to the study, and the participants had the opportunity to eat some of the snacks while they waited for 10 minutes. They were then asked to return to the previous room to complete a final questionnaire.

One of the measures on the questionnaire was called “self-efficacy for dietary control.” Self-efficacy refers to one’s sense of having the ability to do something and control one’s outcomes in that domain. This particular measure assessed the extent to which participants felt they could control their eating, avoid unhealthy foods, and so on. Various studies suggest that having a sense of self-efficacy is more important in terms of actual behavior than other factors, such as believing that the behavior is healthy or important. (For instance, here’s an example involving elderly people and exercise.)

The results were pronounced. In the weight stigma condition, women who perceived themselves to be overweight ate significantly more calories than those who did not perceive themselves as overweight. In the control condition, there was no significant difference:

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

The interaction between perceived weight and article type.

Furthermore, women who perceived themselves as overweight had significantly lower self-efficacy for dietary control in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition, while women who did not perceive themselves as overweight actually had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

This means that, within the context of this experiment, women who perceive themselves as overweight increase their food intake in response to hearing about stigma against overweight people and feel less capable of controlling their food intake. The very people being targeted by this information in ways many people think are helpful are actually being harmed by it, not only in the obvious emotional sense but even in their ability to control what they eat.

One really notable finding in this study is that actual weight did not correlate with either calories consumed or self-efficacy in either condition. Perceived weight was the relevant variable. I’ve often heard people argue against the body positivity movement because but if fat people don’t think they’re fat then how will they ever stop being fat?! Ironically, the women who did not perceive themselves as overweight had higher self-efficacy in the weight stigma condition than in the control condition.

One weakness of this study is that it is unclear whether or not the participants who increased their food intake did so consciously–or deliberately. If it was unconscious and not deliberate, then this finding may fit with previous findings about identity threat. If not, it’s still an important finding, but it’s probably easier to get people to change mental processes that are conscious and deliberate as opposed to those that are subconscious and unintentional. It’s also possible (though probably unlikely) that the women in the weight stigma condition purposefully ate more as a sort of symbolic protest. Oh, you’re going to fire me because of what I do with my own body? Well, fuck you, I’ll eat as much as I want.

Another limitation is that the type of stigmatization invoked in this experiment isn’t quite what overweight people might actually experience in their day-to-day lives. While articles like the one used in the study are common, the idea behind stigmatizing people so that they lose weight is usually more direct: for instance, telling them they need to lose weight, penalizing them for being overweight, and so on. Telling a study participant that they’re fat and ugly and need to lose weight would probably never pass an IRB review, but it would be a more naturalistic scenario, unfortunately.

While the sample used in this study is more racially diverse than many other samples in psychology studies, that really isn’t saying much. The researchers did not discuss any racial disparities in the data, but that would be an interesting direction for future studies. Also, all of the participants were young women, so it’s unclear how well this generalizes to older women and men of all ages.

With research like this, it’s important to remember that the findings should be interpreted much in the way that the statement “consent is sexy” should be interpreted. Namely, you should get consent because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s “sexy.” Likewise, you should refrain from shaming and stigmatizing fat people because it’s the right thing to do, not because shaming and stigmatizing them doesn’t work anyway. Activists rightly criticize research like this for suggesting the implication that we should stop shaming fat people because it doesn’t get them to lose weight, rather than because it’s a shitty thing to do. That said, I don’t think that’s an implication that the researchers mean to give. We should conduct, support, and read research about how human motivation works (and how everything else works) because it’s important to know. This is just one piece of that puzzle.

It is my hope, though, that studies like this will work where “don’t be an asshole” won’t. The most important thing to me is for people to stop stigmatizing and discriminating against fat people, whatever the reason they stop doing it, because it’s harmful and needs to stop. Then maybe we can make these people understand why they were wrong to do it.

However, this research also opens up a lot of tricky questions. If shaming people who are overweight did actually help them lose weight, would more people think that this is an okay thing to do? If shaming people who do things that most of us would consider Definitely Bad, like rape or theft or even saying racist things, worked, would that be okay to do? Many would probably say yes to the latter but no to the former.

What is clear, though, is that human motivation (and reasoning in general) often works in ways that seem counterintuitive. You might think that people would respond to the stimulus of “being overweight can cost you your job” with “well I’d better stop being overweight, then!” But that’s not necessarily the case.


Major, B., Hunger, J.M., Bunyan, D.P., Miller, C.T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51: 74-80.

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

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

“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.