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Restoring Threatened Masculinity, One Joke at a Time

New research considers the psychology of sexist humor.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Forrest Cavale/Unsplash)

Here’s a joke: Is Google male or female? Female, because it doesn’t let you finish a sentence before making a suggestion.

Find that amusing, guys? Making a mental note to share it with your friends on the golf course or at the barber shop? If so, you might want to think again: All you are doing is demonstrating your fundamental insecurity.

According to a newly published study, sexist and anti-gay jokes are particularly amusing to men who feel their manhood is tenuous and threatened. Laughing at such jokes helps them “defend and restore their threatened masculinity,” writes a research team led by Western Carolina University psychologist Emma O’Connor.

Who knew “Take my wife … please!” had a subtext?

The study consisted of two experiments, the first of which featured 166 heterosexual male Americans recruited online. They first responded to a series of statements designed to measure their level of sexism and the extent to which they view masculinity as precarious. (“It is fairly easy for a man to lose his status as a man” was one such statement; participants rated it on a scale from one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree).

Then, in what they were told was an unrelated study, participants were asked to imagine they had just been hired by “a comedy streaming company” to create customized feeds of humorous clips. They rated themselves on 20 personality dimensions, purportedly to help the company determine what types of customers they should be paired with.

Approximately half were told their personality rating “is very close to the average score for women, suggesting that you might have a more feminine personality and humor styles.” The others received no information about their personality score.

All were then assigned to read 20 jokes and determine which were the funniest. Five of these were explicitly sexist (“Why haven’t any woman gone to the moon? It doesn’t need cleaning yet”). Others were anti-gay, anti-Muslim, or neutral.

The researchers found the greater a man’s belief that masculinity is a precarious trait, the funnier he rated the sexist and anti-gay jokes. Importantly, this pattern was only found when the men had their masculinity threatened (by being told their humor style was feminine). Also importantly, it was not found for anti-Muslim or neutral jokes.

The second study, featuring 221 straight guys, replicated the results of the first. In addition, it found threatened men responded positively to the sexist or homophobic humor “because they believed it would restore an accurate impression of them — i.e., it would reaffirm their masculinity,” write O’Connor and her colleagues Thomas Ford and Noely Banos.

These results suggest settings where men might perceive their masculinity is threatened — such as a workplace run by a female manager — provide fertile ground for sexist humor. Since the wisecracker can always retreat to the “I was just kidding!” defense, these jokes become a relatively safe way for anxious men to assert their manliness.

So these guys will probably be around for a long time — until our culture adopts a new, more nuanced way of thinking about masculinity. While that’s unfortunate for the women (and non-sexist men) who have to listen to them, the situation isn’t as bad as it might be: This sort of humor would surely be a lot more prevalent had the presidential election gone the other way.