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Humor is a good thing, isn’t it? We appreciate if people have a ‘good sense of humor’ and it feels good to have a laugh. But what happens if humor turns out to have negative consequences? What if what is funny for some people hurts others?

Imagine you are in a pub with a group of male and female friends. At some point somebody starts telling jokes of the type ‘Why do women have small hands?’. Common sense may suggest that this is harmless banter or teasing. However, research conducted by myself and Dr Tendayi Viki indicates that a combination of pre-existing sexist attitudes  and being exposed to sexist jokes may lead men to become more likely to rape women, particularly if the surrounding circumstances are ambiguous. Moreover, some of our older research shows that the exposure to sexist jokes can also increase blame directed at rape victims.

We conducted two studies in which male participants completed the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. Then, half of the participants read a number of sexist jokes while the other half read a number of non-sexist jokes. In the final step, all participant responded to five scenarios, describing ambiguous situations leading to what would legally constitute a rape of the female protagonist by the male protagonist, and indicated whether they would act similarly to the man in each scenario.

The more the men in our sample agreed with statements such as ‘Once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash’ or ‘Many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances’, the more likely they were to also report that they would act like the male protagonist in the abovementioned scenarios. Moreover, our male participants reported a higher inclination to rape after having been exposed to a series of sexist (vs. non-sexist) jokes. What our results further show, is the particularly detrimental combination of men who hold highly hostile attitudes towards women (vs. men who do not), who have been exposed to sexist jokes (vs. non-sexist jokes). These men report the highest likelihood of raping.

Our research has some limitations. For example, for ethical reasons, we can only measure the inclination to rape via a self-report questionnaire. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that humor may not be as harmless as it is often portrayed. Making ‘just a joke’ can have devastating consequences for the target of the joke. In particular the combination of negative attitudes towards the target of the joke (in our case women) and the content of the joke (in our case humorous but nevertheless sexist statements) can amplify tendencies to aggress against the target of the joke. Even worse, other research has shown that people with negative attitudes towards women tend to be more likely to repeat sexist jokes to others. Thus, it is easy to create a circle of hostility, discrimination or even violence. And that’s no joke.

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