No laughing matter

According to recent psychological research, sexist jokes make sexist people

“What’s the difference between a bitch and a whore? A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you.”

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According to recent psychological research, it is possible that after reading this joke you are more likely to accept violence against women.

It seems intuitive that finding sexist jokes funny indicates something about your attitude to women; indeed it’s a theory that dates back to Freud. But can sexist jokes actively promote discrimination, rather than just reflecting societal attitudes?

To answer this question, studies published in Current Research in Social Psychology and the Journal of Interpersonal Violence exposed male university students to either sexist jokes, or non-sexist jokes. The two groups were then given rape proclivity tests, which described a rape scenario (without using the term ‘rape’) and asked the subjects how likely they would be to act as the assailant did in the scenario.

In both studies, men exposed to sexist jokes were more likely to sympathise with the actions of the rapist. The Current Research article also revealed that this tendency extended to other areas; groups exposed to sexist jokes were more likely to blame the victim, to consider rape a less serious offence, and to recommend shorter jail sentences.

The psychologists explained this effect through ‘prejudiced norm theory’, which emphasises the role of humour in normalising discriminatory attitudes. According to the theory, prejudicial views implied by jokes are less likely to be critically examined because they are received in the context of ‘entertainment’. In these studies, sexist jokes were thought to reinforce the kinds of norms that make it easier for people to act in a hostile manner towards women. Other studies have similarly shown that men are more likely to tolerate scenarios of workplace harassment after reading sexist jokes. For anyone who has objected to dodgy examples of ‘humour’ only to be told, “it’s only a joke”, this Trojan horse-like description of jokes is likely to ring true.

Both studies, however, found this disturbing effect could be moderated by altering certain key factors. No amount of sexist jokes could make stranger rape scenarios seem palatable, unlike the scenarios that described date rape. In other words, the effects of sexist jokes only appeared to operate in rape scenarios that are still, unfortunately, confusing to some people—think Todd Akin and his concept of “legitimate rape”.

Furthermore, people that found sexist jokes actively unfunny or ‘aversive’ appeared to be immune to the effects of sexist jokes. If they thought critically about the joke, the unconscious biases carried by it did not affect their judgement of the rape scenarios.

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