Jokes are supposed to be funny—they’re meant to tickle us, and make us smirk and giggle. They shouldn’t be overtly offensive or demean a subsection of society, be it women, homosexuals, or any other group. Homophobic or sexist jokes may seem like “no big deal” on the surface but their underlying message is ultimately very damaging, whether or not that’s their intention. So, why do some people think nothing of telling off-color jokes?
Well, according to a recent study, “Restoring Threatened Masculinity: The Appeal of Sexist and Anti-Gay Humor,” there’s a genuine reason that some guys resort to this type of humor. It has everything to do with how they perceive themselves.
The research, from Western Carolina University, surveyed 387 straight men to determine their personalities, social views, and the type of humor that they preferred. The results suggest that there is an underlying reason that many men turn to anti-gay or sexist jokes. That is that men tended to use these harmful comments as a defense mechanism when they felt that their masculinity was being threatened in some way.
“Men higher in precarious manhood beliefs expressed amusement with sexist and anti-gay humor in response to a masculinity threat because they believe it reaffirms an accurate, more masculine impression of them,” explains Emma O’Connor, of the Western Carolina University, who led the study. “It appears that by showing amusement with sexist and anti-gay humor, such men can distance themselves from the traits they want to disconfirm.”
In plain English: When some men feel that they are not living up to the norms that are generally associated with masculinity, they may well indulge in these jokes. By mocking a particular group—be it women, gay people, immigrants, or the disabled—they are asserting themselves as “different” or “other.” When they laugh at the expense of these groups, what they are really trying to convey is that they share no common ground with them. They are asserting their identity—male and straight.
But wait, why would people use jokes to do this? It’s pretty simple: The major characteristic that sets humor apart from other types of communication is that you can “get away with” more when you say things in the form of a joke. “Given the social protection afforded to humor as a medium for communicating disparagement, it is possible that men use sexist humor in the workplace as a ‘safe’ way to reaffirm their threatened masculinity,” explains O’Connor.
In the workplace, these comments and jokes can often constitute harassment, which is why they need to be prevented. For example, sexist jokes about women can be used to undermine females in a professional setting. O’Connor also noted that managers and bosses have a duty to keep a close eye on what happens within their work. It is also hoped that further research into the use of this detrimental humor will help to prevent it.
If you’ve been affected by sexual harassment in the workplace, please visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where there’s a wealth of information and helpful resources.
And on a lighter note, if you’re a fan of humor, we’re pretty sure you’ll find these clean jokes not at all offensive—and pretty hilarious too.