Does Calling It a Joke Make Sexism More Acceptable?

What some call "locker room banter" others straightforwardly call sexism.

Posted Oct 11, 2016

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

In the second presidential debate, Donald Trump attributed the remarks about groping and gawking at women in his infamous hot mic recording from "Access Hollywood" to “locker-room talk." But new research suggests that the type of “humor” represented in this type of banter is more than just humor. Perhaps without realizing it, men who express themes of domination, objectification, and superiority over women in their humor have stepped onto sexist territory.

Loyola University psychologist Robyn Mallett and colleagues (2016) found that jokes about women that represent “playful, demeaning, group-based comments cloaked in humor...are among the most common ways that women experience sexism in the workplace and other settings” (p. 272). Sexist humor, they go on to note, is “humor that denigrates, demeans, stereotypes, oppresses, or objectifies women” (p. 272). It is a form of subtle, “modern” sexism that masks a demeaning view of women in what may be socially acceptable terms.

Like other forms of humor that target a particular type of person, the effect of such humor on listeners depends its conformity to a set of stereotypes. Also like any form of denigrating humor, its effect on the listeners it targets is to inflict shame and feelings of inferiority. The targets become placed in an uncertain position because it is difficult to retaliate to this humor without sounding like a bad sport.

Mallett and her team conducted two experiments to investigate whether humor would, as they predicted, mitigate the effect of sexist language. Using reactions to a message delivered via text, the researchers asked women to rate the sexism of a joke compared to their reactions to a serious, equally sexist, statement.

In the humorous condition, a man and woman were said to be stranded in an elevator from which there would be no escape. The woman asks the man to “make me feel like a woman before I die.” He takes off his clothes, and then says to her “Fold them.” In the serious condition, the man simply states that he thinks it is a woman’s role to do household chores, like laundry, for a man. The women in the study responded to the message and then rated the speaker’s level of sexism. These text responses themselves were analyzed for the degree to which they represented confrontation.

As predicted, women in the joke condition rated their male partners as less sexist than did women in the serious condition. In the humorous condition, the women were also less likely to confront the man for expressing a sexist attitude. Most women took the humorous comment as reflecting no ill intent in comparison to serious statements of sexism, to which the women were more likely to respond with sarcasm or the expression of opposing beliefs.

In the second study, the researchers decided to throw the woman’s own sexist attitudes into the equation. In addition to the text messaging paradigm, the researchers evaluated tolerance of sexism as well as tolerance of sexual harassment. Participants responded to one of two scenarios—in the first, a humorous situation was used to communicate the message that a woman’s role is to do chores, and in the second, men and women together played a prank on a friend. Participants rated the extent to which the behavior in the two scenarios was offensive, and the difference provided a measure of tolerance of sexism. Tapping into their attitudes, the participants also rated their own tolerance of sexual harassment, such as whether a woman’s “no” means “yes” in a sexual situation.

As it turned out, sexist women were more accepting of sexist humor.

Together, the two studies provided support for the effect of sexist humor on female listeners: Women who hear a man tell a sexist joke are left to wonder whether it’s sexism or a failed attempt at humor. Perhaps as a result of this ambiguity, women become less likely to confront a man who is "joking" than one who simply blurts out a sexist comment. Surprisingly, women who hear a man make a sexist joke don’t seem turned off by him, and are willing to continue a conversation with him. For women who themselves adopt sexist attitudes, there is even greater likelihood that they will develop a “blind spot” (p. 281) toward a sexist male, whether joking or serious.

We can now see why "locker-room humor" involving sexist attitudes toward women is so pernicious: Not only do these jokes perpetuate sexist stereotypes, but when women are privy to such jokes, they’re not really sure what to do. Confront the man, and seem like someone from the “P.C. Police,” or just go along with it? By letting it go, their silence conveys approval, allowing the sexist humor to continue unchecked. Women who themselves hold sexist attitudes are even less likely to confront sexism, even when portrayed in a serious light.

It would have been interesting to see how men would respond to expressions of sexist humor by other men: Would they perceive such jokes as sexist and, more to the point, would they confront the men who make them? Imagine a scenario in which Billy Bush, in the videotape, had disagrees with Trump instead of going along with him. What if he didn’t laugh, didn’t encourage him, and ended the conversation in disgust?

When we let sexist—or other “ist” jokes—go by, we become complicit in the attitudes that spawn and perpetuate them. For women, it’s a no-win situation: You may not feel that you can challenge or confront the man who tells jokes in which your gender is the target. However, recognizing that a sexist joke is still sexist is at least a way that you gain control over your own response.


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. doi:10.1007/s11199-016-0605-2

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016