A new study in the journal Sex Roles confirms that the more insecure that heterosexual men are about their masculinity, the more likely they are to use anti-gay and sexist humor in an attempt to shore it up.
The study, from researchers at Western Carolina University, assessed how heterosexual men responded to various forms of humor when they felt their masculinity was being questioned. The men who placed more value on how they conform to expectations of masculinity were more likely to embrace humor that denigrated women and gay men if they felt they had to prove that their masculinity was in check. And they even admitted that’s what they were doing.
“Precarious manhood beliefs” (PMB) is a term used to define how rigidly men feel compelled to conform to traditional masculine roles. Those with a high PMB are more likely to be sensitive to threats to their masculinity, and to respond to those threats with anxiety and attempts to reassert their masculinity.
In the study, the men were told to imagine they were being hired to be comedy writers. First they had to take a personality inventory, which was used to inform some of the participants that they had registered as being more suitable to prefer “male-oriented” or “female-oriented” forms of comedy. Then they were asked to rate what kind of jokes they thought were funny, including sexist jokes, anti-gay jokes, anti-Muslim jokes, and some neutral jokes.
Men with a high PMB score who were told they were more suited for “female-oriented” comedy were significantly more likely to find the sexist and anti-gay jokes funnier. The effect did not translate to the anti-Muslim and neutral jokes, indicating that it was a direct response to the perceived threat to their masculinity. High-PMB men who were not told they were more suited for “female-oriented” comedy were more likely to find them funny than the low-PMB men, but they did not show the same spike.
The researchers replicated the study and added a new component in the second experiment. Participants were asked whether their responses to the jokes would help a prospective manager “form a more accurate impression” of their personality.
Not only were the results nearly identical, but the added variable also confirmed that the participating men were intentionally trying to correct impressions of their masculinity. As the study explains, “When men who scored higher in precarious manhood beliefs experienced a threat to their masculinity, they believed their ratings of sexist and anti-gay jokes, but not anti-Muslim jokes or non-disparaging neutral jokes, would help their hypothetical manager form a more accurate impression of them.” The higher their PMB score — i.e., the more rigid their conformity to masculinity — the more likely the threatened men were to believe their responses to the jokes denigrating femininity would improve a manager’s impression of them.
The study specifically examined humor that researchers defined as “anti-gay,” not necessarily other types of jokes about men of any sexual orientation who may not adhere to societal expectations about gender norms.
Lead researcher Emma O’Connor told ThinkProgress she thought it was important to study why some men engage in this type of humor because it helps explain “how disparaging humor is used as a way to express subtle prejudice and discrimination and how these men in particular may use expressions of prejudice as a way to defend and reaffirm their threatened masculinity.”
She cautioned that this effect can not be generalized to all men, as it was only demonstrated in those who “view their masculinity as unstable or in need of defense.” Indeed, the results seem to suggest that men with low PMB scores who were (arbitrarily) told they were more oriented toward female comedy were the least likely to find the sexist and anti-gay jokes funny. Apparently doubling down on being comfortable or approving with femininity, they may not have even felt “threatened” by the association.
These results have implications beyond just comedy writing. The study offers, as an example, that the findings could be incorporated into a work setting where women occupy positions of authority, which might inherently trigger a masculinity threat and thus denigrating joking and similar forms of sexual harassment:
By understanding men’s need to affirm masculinity as a motive for engaging in sexist humor, managers could more effectively respond to incidents of sexist humor as they occur, and possibly even prevent it. 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.
O’Connor also pointed out that humor is often considered “a socially acceptable vehicle of expressing discrimination.” Sexist and anti-gay humor “may be used as a way to subtly express prejudice” against women and gay men. This, in turn, can have what the study calls “unique deleterious social consequences,” such as fostering the acceptance and perpetration of discrimination against women and the LGBT community.
Finding ways to respond to this kind of humor or at least recognize what’s provoking it could go a long way to reducing various forms of bigotry throughout society.