Sexist jokes often are dismissed or excused as harmless fun. Yet they have real, negative effects in the world. They are linked to sexist and violent behaviour, they worsen gender inequalities, and they increase tolerance for violence against women.
1. There is a link between making sexist jokes, sexist and violence-supportive attitudes, and willingness to use violence against women.
Among men, there are correlations between making sexist jokes, being tolerant of violence against women, and using violence against women. Putting this another way, the men who make sexist and rape jokes, and the men who enjoy them, are more likely to also be the men who sexually harass and rape women.
- There are correlations among men between enjoying sexist humour and acceptance of myths about rape, self-reported likelihood of forcing someone into sex, and actual physical, sexual, and psychological aggression (Ryan & Kanjorski, 1998);
- There are correlations between finding sexist jokes funny and feeling distant from women. In one study, both men and women were more amused by sexist humor the less they identified with -- the more they felt psychologically distant from -- women as a group (Kochersberger, Ford, Woodzicka, Romero-Sanchez, & Carretero-Dios, 2014);
- Experimental studies also find that when men see male peers behave in sexually harassing or sexist ways towards women, they are more likely themselves to tell sexual jokes to an unknown woman (Angelone, Hirschman, Suniga, Armey, & Armelie, 2005).
2. Sexist jokes reinforce and worsen gender inequalities.
Sexist jokes have an impact on women, as the research shows. For example, sexist jokes can:
- Make women feel unwelcome in particular workplaces or other settings;
- Activate ‘stereotype threat’, in which women are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group;
- Trigger women to objectify themselves (see themselves only as objects) and engage in more body surveillance (Thomas E Ford, Woodzicka, Petit, Richardson, & Lappi, 2015).
Sexist jokes also have an impact on men – on their sexist attitudes and behaviours. Exposure to sexist jokes can promote men’s sexist prejudice against women. For example;
- In a study involving two experiments, sexist humour led to the ‘release’ of prejudice. In the first, after exposure to sexist jokes, men would donate only lower amounts of money to a women’s organisation. In the second, after exposure to sexist jokes, men were more willing to cut the budget of a women’s organisation relative to other organisations. These effects did not occur among men exposed instead to non-humourous sexist statements or neutral jokes (Thomas E. Ford, Boxer, Armstrong, & Edel, 2008).
Some people believe that humour can ‘soften’ sexism or that sexism in the form of jokes is not as bad as non-humourous expressions of sexism. On the contrary, there is evidence that humor can make sexist messages more dangerous and difficult to confront than serious remarks.
- In the two experiments above, sexist jokes had a greater negative impact than non-humourous sexist statements (Thomas E. Ford et al., 2008).
- Another experimental study compared women’s perceptions of, and responses to, a sexist remark delivered as a joke and as a serious statement. When delivered as a joke, women were less likely to see the speaker as sexist, and thus also less likely to confront the remark. Moreover, when sexism was delivered as a ‘joke’, it increased tolerance of sexist behavior perpetrated against an individual woman and sexual harassment more generally (Mallett, Ford, & Woodzicka, 2016).
3. Exposure to sexist and violence-supportive jokes increases men’s tolerance and support for violence against women.
Sexist jokes have an impact on men’s violent attitudes and behaviours.
The research shows that exposure to sexist humor, particularly humor related to sexual assault (rape jokes), can increase men’s acceptance of rape and their victim-blaming; their ‘rape proclivity’, that is, their self-reported willingness to rape a woman; and their actual aggression towards women.
Various experimental studies demonstrate the impacts of sexist and rape jokes among men. Exposure to sexist humor, particularly humor related to sexual assault, can increase men’s aggression towards and tendency to discriminate against women (Thomas E. Ford et al., 2008; Viki, Thomae, Cullen, & Fernandez, 2007).
- Male students who read sexist jokes then were more likely to blame the victim and to report higher proclivity to rape, in vignettes or hypothetical scenarios of acquaintance rape (but not stranger rape) (Viki et al., 2007);
- Among men already high in hostile sexism (that is, with hostile sexist attitudes), hearing sexist jokes by a women increased their self-reported willingness to rape a woman. For moderately violent rape scenarios this increase was greater if a woman rather than a man told the sexist jokes, but for highly violent rape scenarios the sex of the joke teller made no difference. In short, “sexist humor, particularly when initiated by women, fosters a social context of tolerance of sexism among men high in hostile sexism” (Romero-Sánchez, Carretero-Dios, Megías, Moya, & Ford, 2017).
- Males exposed to sexist jokes show higher levels of rape proclivity in comparison to males exposed to non-sexist jokes. And this is especially true of men who score high on measures of hostile sexism (Thomae & Viki, 2013).
4. Jokes and humour can have positive or negative effects
The problem is not with jokes in themselves. Jokes and humour can be valuable tools in challenging sexism and gender inequality. They can be used to reinforce, or to subvert, rape culture (Strain, Martens, & Saucier, 2016).
In fact, anti-sexist jokes can motivate collective action for gender equality. An experimental study found that exposure to subversive humour against sexism increased men’s and women’s inclination to participate in action to challenge gender inequalities (Riquelme, Carretero-Dios, Megías, & Romero-Sánchez, 2020).
5. There are effective ways to challenge sexist and rape jokes
If you hear a sexist or violence-supportive joke, there are effective ways you can challenge it. I explore these as part of a discussion of challenging everyday sexism, here.
Here are some further responses to typical defences of sexist humour
- “It’s only joking.” Response:
- Jokes have real-world impacts.
- We’re all for humour. But some jokes are not okay. And you already know this. For example, you wouldn’t make jokes putting down Jewish people, because you recognise that such jokes can feed into wider bigotry against them. The same is true for jokes about women – they feed into bigotry, discrimination, and violence.
- “High profile comedian XX makes these jokes. People think they’re funny. Why can’t I make them too?” Response:
- Sure, some people will laugh at offensive things. That doesn’t mean they’re acceptable.
- Sexism is still a routine part of our culture, so some people still find sexist jokes funny. That doesn’t mean they’re okay. And one day, we will be appalled that anyone thought they were funny.
Further thoughts are welcome.
Other discussions of sexist and rape jokes include:
- Miri, Does sexist humor matter: A review of the research, May 1 2013
- Solnit, If rape jokes are finally funny it’s because they’re targeting rape culture, August 10 2015
Angelone, D. J., Hirschman, R., Suniga, S., Armey, M., & Armelie, A. (2005). The Influence of Peer Interactions on Sexually Oriented Joke Telling. Sex Roles, 52(3-4), 187-199.
Ford, T. E., Boxer, C. F., Armstrong, J., & Edel, J. R. (2008). More Than “Just a Joke”: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 159-170. 10.1177/0146167207310022
Ford, T. E., Woodzicka, J. A., Petit, W. E., Richardson, K., & Lappi, S. K. (2015). Sexist Humor as a Trigger of State Self-Objectification in Women. Humor, 28(2), 253-269.
Kochersberger, A. O., Ford, T. E., Woodzicka, J. A., Romero-Sanchez, M., & Carretero-Dios, H. (2014). The Role of Identification with Women as a Determinant of Amusement with Sexist Humor. Humor, 27(3), 441-460.
Mallett, R. K., Ford, T. E., & Woodzicka, J. A. (2016). What Did He Mean by That? Humor Decreases Attributions of Sexism and Confrontation of Sexist Jokes. Sex Roles, 75(5-6), 272-284.
Riquelme, A. R., Carretero-Dios, H., Megías, J. L., & Romero-Sánchez, M. (2020). Joking for Gender Equality: Subversive Humor Against Sexism Motivates Collective Action in Men and Women with Weaker Feminist Identity. Sex Roles. doi:10.1007/s11199-020-01154-w
Romero-Sánchez, M., Carretero-Dios, H., Megías, J. L., Moya, M., & Ford, T. E. (2017). Sexist Humor and Rape Proclivity: The Moderating Role of Joke Teller Gender and Severity of Sexual Assault. Violence against women, 23(8), 951-972.
Ryan, K. M., & Kanjorski, J. (1998). The Enjoyment of Sexist Humor, Rape Attitudes, and Relationship Aggression in College Students. Sex Roles, 38(9-10), 743-756.
Strain, M. L., Martens, A. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2016). “Rape Is the New Black”: Humor’s Potential for Reinforcing and Subverting Rape Culture. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(1), 86.
Thomae, M., & Viki, G. T. (2013). Why Did the Woman Cross the Road? The Effect of Sexist Humor on Men's Rape Proclivity. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 7(3), 250.
Viki, G. T., 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.
For academic studies and research on sexist and violence-supportive humour and its impacts, see https://xyonline.net/books/bibliography/38-humour/bibliography
Image source: Ashley Fairbanks @ziibiing, https://www.empoweredtogether.com.au/sexist-and-rape-jokes-how-do-they-contribute-to-a-culture-of-sexual-violence/