Can Humor Make You Sexist?

Sexist humor might not change who you are, but it can bring out your worst.

Posted Jan 19, 2018

Creative Commons / Pixels
Source: Creative Commons / Pixels

"Will the woman's protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?”

That joke was recently posted online by New Jersey Republican John Carman, who was remarking about an upcoming Women’s March to be held in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, it offended many individuals, one being local constituent Ashley Bennett. Now she holds his elected seat, and he’s out of a job.

Some of the most common questions I hear about humor regard the effect of sexist jokes: Do they make you sexist? Is it possible to laugh at such a joke and not have prejudicial views toward women? These questions are difficult to answer, though often I’m tempted to respond that it shouldn’t matter. At best they make you a jerk, and for individuals like Carman, they may also make you unemployed.

Still, science does have a lot to say about sexism. In his classic paper “More Than Just a Joke,” Western Carolina University psychologist Thomas Ford once presented subjects a series of sexist jokes, like the following: 

“A man and a woman were stranded in an elevator and they knew they were gonna die. The woman turns to the man and says, ‘Make me feel like a woman before I die.’ So he takes off his clothes and says, ‘Fold them!’” 

After hearing these jokes, each subject was given a task. That task was to decide how much money to give to a fictional women’s organization. No actual money was involved, so there was no real commitment. The chosen amount was based purely on perceived worthiness of the organization, and it turns out that donations dropped drastically after the sexist jokes. But only for certain individuals.

Before showing the subjects the jokes, Ford had separated them into two groups: low sexism, and high. That determination was based on a separate survey asking for agreement or disagreement with certain statements like, “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” Those who agreed with such statements were more likely to be categorized as sexist. They were also more likely to reduce the amount of money given to a fictional women’s organization after inappropriate jokes, roughly a 66% drop. Overtly sexist statements didn’t have the same effect. Only jokes.

The strangest thing about this finding is that I’ve heard this joke before. It was shared with me recently by a woman who said she thought it was funny, maybe even silly, but not malicious. At first, this seems contradictory, but only if you ignore another aspect of Ford’s study. It’s something I haven’t shared yet, and it pertains to the low sexism individuals.

It turns out that those who rated low on sexism didn’t give less money like their partners after the jokes. Instead, they gave more. A lot more, almost twice as much.

I love this finding, because it suggests that sexist humor doesn’t change who you are. If anything, it makes you more of the same. If you’re not the kind of person threatened by a woman in power, then a silly joke isn’t going to change that. However, if you’re not…well, let’s hope you’re not a loose-mouthed politician. Or, maybe, let’s hope that you are, and that someone like Ashley Bennett is listening.

Psychologists have known for decades that sexism and prejudice slowly change our perceptions of the world. But it’s easy to forget that we are also responsible for the world we create. Though sexist jokes may empower some to act inappropriately, it also gives strength to those who see it for what it is. Perhaps that’s the most promising message of all.

References

Ford, T., Boxer, C., Armstrong, J., and Edel, J. (2008). More than Just a Joke: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 159-170.