A study has confirmed what we guessed all along: men who crack sexist or homophobic jokes are insecure about themselves.
According to new research, such disparaging jokes are a way for some men to reaffirm their shaky sense of self, especially when they feel their masculinity is being threatened.
The same goes for men who find these offensive jokes funny (when, spoiler: they don’t remotely make us smile).
According to study author Emma O’Connor, of the Western Carolina University, disparaging humour is often about enhancing one’s own social identity by “positively distinguishing one’s in-group from a disparaged out-group”.
To understand how this plays out in the context of sexist and homophobic jokes, the research team conducted two experiments involving almost 400 heterosexual men.
Participants completed online questionnaires designed to test their social attitudes and personalities and their prejudice levels and antagonism against gay men and women.
The men were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash”.
The types of humour they preferred were also tested, and whether the men believed their take on humour would help others form a more accurate impression about them.
The findings suggest that sexist and homophobic jokes provide self-affirmation to men who are more insecure about their perceived “masculinity”.
This is especially the case when they feel that their masculinity, as defined by the typical gender norms assigned to men, is being challenged or threatened.
“Men higher in precarious manhood beliefs expressed amusement with sexist and anti-gay humour in response to a masculinity threat because they believe it reaffirms an accurate, more masculine impression of them,” O’Connor explained.
“It appears that by showing amusement with sexist and anti-gay humour, such men can distance themselves from the traits they want to disconfirm.”
The researchers hope the findings will help create a better understanding about the kinds of situations in which sexist and homophobic jokes occur, and ultimately prevent them from being used, for instance, in the workplace.
“Work settings where women occupy positions of authority might inherently trigger masculinity threats for men higher in precarious manhood beliefs and thus sexist joking,” said O’Connor, who pointed out that sexist jokes and teasing are the most common forms of sexual harassment that women experience in the workplace.
“Given the social protection afforded to humour as a medium for communicating disparagement, it is possible that men use sexist humour in the workplace as a ‘safe’ way to reaffirm their threatened masculinity.”
She said that managers who understand how and why this happens are able to more effectively handle and even prevent incidences of sexist humour.
“For instance, they might more closely monitor workplace settings that could trigger masculinity threats and subsequent sexist joking, or they might attempt to reduce the extent to which men perceive masculinity threats in those settings in the first place,” she said.
Of course, while men may tell these jokes because they feel their masculinity is threatened, we can’t forget that these jokes exist in the first place due to deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, heteronormative culture and sexism - but that’s a whole other study.
The results are published in full in the journal Sex Roles.