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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

This article was originally published here.