Words in the Wrong Place: Are Sexist Jokes Dangerous?

In 1966, French structuralist Mary Douglas defined dirt as “matter out of place.” How offensive we find matter depends on context: a smear of gravy at the side of a plate can be quite welcome—down the front of our shirt, not so much. Context is important. As with matter, so with words. Mouse can mean a small rodent or a means of controlling a computer. Despite this ambiguity, few people would struggle to understand you if you asked them to use the mouse when seated in front of a laptop.

This kind of contextual effect has been exploited by the comedian Stewart Lee, who has convincingly demonstrated that the degree to which an audience will laugh at superficially puerile humor—the notion of doctoring a road sign for the village of Shilbottle to read Shitbottle—can be modulated merely by the number of times the same gag has been made in succession: the gag quickly becomes tiresome, but eventually circles back to being funny again. Whether we judge Shitbottle hilarious or irritating is, therefore, determined by the context preceding the joke. We can find a more prototypical example in Father Ted, in which a series of improbable events results in the protagonist’s living room being liberally decorated with Nazi memorabilia. In this case, the fact that the context is a comedy show, rather than a documentary, is the salient point. Even without the laughter track, the ludicrousness of the scene would indicate that it’s OK to laugh at the offensive material, even if we don’t find it funny. When Frankie Boyle says that he hopes an individual will get cancer, why are many of us neither upset nor alarmed? Probably because this kind of pronouncement is generally preceded by a horde of similarly crass outpourings that together signal that he’s not being serious. Surely no one would take Boyle’s words at face value, even if they read a transcript of his act?

As I write, Warwick University has just allowed two students to return to the institution. These students had received ten-year bans for their involvement in a private online group chat, which, according to media outlets, “threatened rape.” Google and you will find the screenshots that were eventually passed on to the university. Representative comments include “Sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls,” “I reckon she should be fingered vigorously by her own dad to teach her a lesson” and “I’m going to go all 1945 advancing soviet army on her and rape her in the street whilst everybody watches.” Some of the numerous similar comments have been tagged with emojis, including laughing and winking smileys. While reading the story, my heart almost stopped when I noticed that, without exception, the media I read (e.g. the BBC and various online versions of national newspapers) are running stories about student rape threats. According to the media, students are being allowed back to university despite having threatened to rape women, and women at the university fear for their safety when some of the perpetrators of the threats return in September.

Something is very wrong when the obvious interpretation—namely that these young men were indulging in deliberately crass and offensive interpersonal humor—apparently cannot be spoken or printed. Do I find any of it funny? Not at all, but that is entirely beside the point: the exchanges were not intended for my amusement. Nor, in fact, were the messages intended for the edification of anyone outside the private group, but were screenshotted by a whistleblower, before eventually being made public. Is the content likely to offend many people? Undoubtedly, but perhaps not the members of the group chat themselves. To draw on Mary Douglas, is the real problem with these words that they ended up in the wrong place? In other words, had these exchanges remained in their intended place—a private conversation—how many people would have been upset or offended?

I am not defending these asinine jokers or suggesting that they have done nothing wrong. In fact, in order to understand what’s going on here, we should examine exactly what they might have done wrong. For, although this matter has implications for the lay population’s freedom of speech, it has even more worrying ones for journalists’ and publishers’ obligations to speak the (journalistic) truth. The nature of the evils supposedly committed by the young men is not quite so obvious when one considers that they communicated with each other under the reasonable expectation that their chat would not be made public. Let’s imagine that the messages had remained private—what harm would have been done? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Some might argue that these messages further the propagation of rape culture and that the individuals themselves would be more likely than otherwise to sexually harm women after engaging in these exchanges. That’s certainly plausible, but are there actually reasonable grounds for believing that these kinds of exchanges might make men more dangerous to women?

In fact, there might be: findings show that men who already believe that women are inferior to men and are subsequently exposed to sexist jokes report an increase in hostile sexism and acceptance of rape myths, and even express that they would be more likely to commit rape if they could get away with it. These results should give pause to those who casually dismiss the chat group’s exchanges as harmless banter. However, the harmful effects of exposure to sexist jokes only apply to those who have a pre-existing belief that women are inferior—men who do not hold that view, even those who are benevolently sexist (women are better organizers than men; women are better at cleaning and cooking than men), are unaffected by the potentially worrying consequences of sexist jokes. Also, perhaps men with misogynistic traits simply feel more comfortable being honest about their beliefs after experiencing some sexist jokes in the absence of accompanying opprobrium—this seems at least as plausible as the authors’ conclusion that hearing only four sexist jokes (e.g. How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None, let her do the dishes in the dark) makes men significantly more likely to rape women. There are also a number of methodological problems with these studies, which are beyond the scope of this article. Although it would be premature to conclude that sexist jokes make men more dangerous to women, the fact that there are at least some data consistent with this notion provides grounds for discouraging such behavior. But not at all costs.

If there is such a paucity of convincing evidence to support the idea that misogynistic talk breeds misogyny, why is this view uncritically accepted in so many mainstream media circles? The most obvious answer might be that the causal connection is simply self-evident to many people. A comparison with views on violent films and computer games might be instructive. It seems highly plausible that violent media would make people more violent: so the late twentieth century witnessed many high-profile campaigns to ban video nasties and shoot ’em ups. Psychologists went looking for links between screen violence and aggressive behavior and found them: all manner of aggressive and violent markers increased after participants engaged with screen violence. However, more recent and thoughtful research has examined whether such changes are long-term. It turns out they are not: kids calm down once the game is over. Recent reviews of the effects of violent computer games not only fail to find links between playing such games and violent behaviors, they even suggest that playing such games may lead to decreases in long-term violence. Just because something sounds plausible doesn’t make it true.

While there is no clear-cut evidence that the men’s chat was inherently harmful, the emotional effects on the women who were referred to in the chat exchanges were clearly harmful. One of them told the press, “We were humiliated, as if for sport. These boys were my friends—like my brothers. And they destroyed me.” There can be little doubt that the revelation of close friends having made such comments—whether meant seriously or not—would be upsetting and a gross betrayal for many women. The details of the relationships between the men and women involved are rightly opaque, for privacy reasons, but the horror of some of the women involved at the return of the disgraced men to the university should surely be taken seriously. However, are the men themselves the only bad actors here? What about the whistleblower, who chose to show the screenshots to the targets of the comments? Our feelings about the whistleblower will likely differ depending on whether we assume that the men were credible dangers to women or immature boors. If the former, then the matter should have been reported to the police, in addition to informing the endangered parties. If the latter, then, however well-intentioned the whistleblower was, the most unambiguous harm would have been avoided if he had not exposed the chat.

This isn’t to say that blame for this sordid matter lies at the feet of the whistleblower—not at all—but to raise the question of how best to respond in such cases. If my neighbor makes a racist joke about the postman and I tell the postman what he said, the postman will surely be saddened. If I had not done so, he wouldn’t have felt that way. Reducing the postman’s threat from racism must involve talking to the neighbor or, if matters are more serious, involving the authorities. The public naming and shaming of the individuals involved in the group chat essentially commits them to living under a lifelong cloud, their public shame fully visible to would-be employers, friends and significant others. This is surely at least as blameworthy as privately joking about rape. If the whistleblower was motivated by the belief that Warwick was not responding to the matter strongly enough, so much the worse. This is vigilantism. Bypassing the law to ruin people’s lives when we do not like their behavior is to be actively discouraged.

But let’s imagine that the whistleblower had only sent the screenshots to Warwick University’s vice chancellor, leaving the power to determine the chat group’s fate squarely in the hands of the university. What could the university authorities have done? The men had broken no law and no sensible person could interpret their words as a credible threat without additional, corroborating information. The university has not made a statement as to why they originally imposed bans on the students or why all but one of the bans have since been overturned. It is also unclear if the non-returning student attempted to overturn his lifelong ban.

Perhaps, we should not only discourage people from engaging in misogynistic online chats, but encourage them to use WhatsApp and Messenger as if, to update an ancient adage, they were writing in the plain sight of all people. I leave the reader to ponder the implications of this advice.

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20 comments

  1. The students were essentially “joking” about carrying out hate crimes against specific women on campus. So this isn’t about free speech and privacy but rather another example where, the tirade against “political correctness” is a euphemistic way to suggest it should be okay to be a hateful/horrible/shitty/out of control human being toward another human being:
    This actually reflect a covert – now increasingly overt – desire to put certain people back in their place by dehumanizing them; “free speech” and “privacy” are useful instruments to achieve this goal.

    But freedom is not the only value worth upholding; there are others, such as the equal moral worth and dignity of every human being etc. It is perfectly legitimate to curtail freedoms to protect such values; as another comment suggested, it’s not legal to yell fire in a theater, and it’s the reason for anti-terrorism laws, which constrain or moderate “radical” or “extremist” speech through increased surveillance.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the moral outrage is about the “punishment” and not the lack of humanity displayed by the students who made the comments…

    1. “So this isn’t about free speech and privacy but rather another example where, the tirade against “political correctness” is a euphemistic way to suggest it should be okay to be a hateful/horrible/shitty/out of control human being toward another human being..”

      None of the comments were directed toward another person, they were merely about other people. This is a substantial difference that you are glossing over. Jokes in private, fairly extreme comments never intended to be directed to those they were about operate as jokes, in this context, in large part because they’re not directed at anyone they were about.

  2. I’m pro-free speech and anti-rape, but I am much more anti-rape than pro-free speech. You know, yelling “fire” in a theatre kind of thinking.
    And I find it “funny” how of all things people DON’T or CAN’T agree on, they can ban together and agree that rape “jokes” are funny.
    And it’s only because our culture (all. over. the. world) considers rape as something that has to do with sex, and sex is some kind of entitlement (sex without consent). You are woefully ignorant if you can’t see the broader picture and the plight of women in the world and how rape plays a major role in it.

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    1. This is incoherent nonsense.

      It does not matter if the jokes were funny what matters is that they were not threats and they were private.

      The world considers rape as something to do with sex because it is sex without consent.
      Sex is not some kind of entitlement, I am not even sure what that means.
      What exactly is the plight of women in the world? In the west the plight is to live longer with better healthcare, have better education, and be treated preferentially legally.
      Rape is universally condemmed and despite the claims statistics show it is rare and the incidence is declining. I may be woefully ignorant but to me the broader picture is that women are if anything advantaged rather than disadvantaged relative to men. In this specific case men’s future were severly damaged as a result of private remarks clearly intended as jokes which if they had been women and made equivalent remarks would almost certainly have been ignored.

      I am rather reminded of a story I read with a headline that ISIS had captured all the women in a village as sex slaves. It was a shocking headline but what shocke dme more wa sthat it wa sonly on the thrid paragraph that it wa smentioned that every man in teh village aged fifteen or older had been killed when teh women wer captured. Clearly the headline writer considered a woman raped more important than a man killed. Apparently the author of this comment thinks a private rape joke is a very serious matter and more important than the right to a private life. I don’t.

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      1. “The world” does not consider rape as having something to do with sex. Men, who write the laws and own the resources consider rape as something to do with sex. Consent is just a word that men use to implicate the victim. For the women who are raped, it has to do with violence and is the most repugnant affronts to THEIR HUMAN DIGNITY — affecting close to a BILLION women and girls over their lifetimes.
        These “men” who were joking privately actually NAMED specific women. If you were one of the people they named, how funny would it be?
        So take you blither about legal equality and declining incidences of violence against women, and start reading information that will actually enlighten you. For example,
        http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures

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        1. ““The world” does not consider rape as having something to do with sex. Men, who write the laws and own the resources consider rape as something to do with sex. Consent is just a word that men use to implicate the victim. For the women who are raped, it has to do with violence…”

          Rape has something to do with sex. Literally. It literally has something to do with sex, given that it is forced sex, or sex without consent.

          Is this the hill you want to die on in this argument? If so, why? Why argue against this basic fact of definition?

  3. The real problem is that we have become a society in which sexist persecution of men has not just become the norm but a norm bolstered and supported by an academic discipline which is quite overtly biased and has no interest in whether statements are true or false but just in whether they are aligned to their sexist ideology. The details of the study mentioned in the article are informative. Sexism is judged on a one sided scale so for example misogynistic attitudes are judged on the subjects hypothetical donations to womens charities or allocation of budget to womens organisations. Does this indicate misogyny, or just a reluctance to donate, or a disapproval of womens charities, goals, methods and efficiency? Would there be an effect on donations to male charities? The racist myths scale used scores a believe in undisputedly true statements about rape for example “Girls who are caught cheating on their boyfriends sometimes claim rape” as indicating a believe in rape myths. The truth of this statement is easy to determine by identifying cases of exactly this recorded in press reports. Ther are many other indisputibly true statements similarily classified as myths and many more statements which are judgements about probability and responsibility which have no absolute truth or falsity such as “If a girl initiates kissing or hooking up, she should not be surprised if a guy assumes she wants to have sex.” . This seems to me to have an element of common sense to me not unreasonable and not clearly a myth but a believe in this and many other similar statements is like the belief in true statements taken to indicate rape myth belief.

    This scale is a standard scale used in many studies all of which classify a believe in proofably true statements as an indicator of misogyny and even propensity or support for rape. What is actually happening is a campaign to villify men and classify all interactions between men and women which women dislike or later come to regret as abusive.

    The supposed rape threats from the male students are clearly just outrage humour making hyperbolic statements against current orthodoxy. I remember a ‘joke’ from when i was that age:
    What is green and turns red at the flick of a switch? – a frog in a liquidiser.
    The entire point is that it is directly against everyones believes and morality.
    In a private conversation what they said is or should be entirely acceptable. In public then it would be unaccepsble. What is outrageous us that they were punished at all.

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  4. Rape jokes are not even about sexism. They’re about a type of horrific violence, by one group – nearly always men – against another group, nearly always women. Rape isn’t any funnier than if these “students” were on-line “joking” about conducting a mass shooting against these women, or say Jews. Good god, when will men just fucking grow up and be part of the solution.

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    1. Looking at the immense success of 50 shades of gray, female pornography preferences, and sexual studies it is clear that female rape fantasies are not extremely rare. Clearly fantasizing about rape does not mean one wants it to really happen. What is your argument to deny that same distinction to boys?

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      1. This would be like naming gay men BY NAME, saying you are going to torture them and drag them behind a car to disembowel them and then saying, “Well it’s just a joke and gay men like S&M porn.”
        But boys will be boys.

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    2. You’re a real hero protecting women from rape jokes! Words are violence! 100 grateful virgins will come to sleep with you.

      Oh, wait, I’ve downvoted your comment. You’re not my fucking parent.

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    3. You can make jokes about anything. I remember a funny line from Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore about cancer. The jokes were clearly adolescent and puerile and to me at least not at all funny. However they were very clearly jokes not threats and they were private. When a private joke of very poor taste gets you banned from university then we are in a very poor place.

      I might add hat the point of the jokes was that they were outrageously hyperbole against modern sensibilities and norms. They only made sense because rape and sexual assault is so unnaceptable and condemmed by society.

  5. There has always been something that tickles when you share something outrageous with friends. It is no comment whatsoever on what you really believe. We laugh at the most outrageous standup comics for about the same reason. It is a relief to drop the burden of PC even for a moment, and to even go to very tacky extremes. It’s a bit like kids sharing stolen candy.

  6. Unless there are two of them, I think you will find that Mary Douglas was British – so British in fact that she became Dame Mary Douglas.

      1. Although there were elements of structuralism in Douglas’s work, it’s a big stretch to call her a card-carrying “French structuralist”. She was a critic of Levi-Strauss. And she took the definition of ‘dirt’ from Lord Chesterfield.

  7. “These students had received ten-year bans for their involvement in a private online group chat”

    Private? Private? Privacy no longer exists. Not online, anyway. And not offline either, not in a world of cameras-everywhere, and in which everyone carries a recording device (aka cellphone).

    IF privacy still existed then perhaps one might see the act of making these stupid, tasteless “jokes” public public as a greater offense than expressing these jokes in the first place. Imagine (if you will) someone secretly recording and then making public a video of someone masturbating to images of violent porn: which would be the greater offense?

    But (alas) privacy has become just a memory, as such a thing no longer exists in our world.

    1. It seems the “private” group was missing privacy rules, such as “you can’t share it outside”.

      I keep thinking that we’re losing personal spaces, not just privacy. Somebody can be sitting in a restaurant (which is public space) having a conversation with their friend. Then boom! A complete stranger finds it offensive, films it and posts online with their own interpretation. Restaurants should post signs “No arms, no smartphones”.

      The Soviets prosecuted and persecuted citizens for “wrong” jokes. We’re doomed if people are not allowed to laugh in a manner they please.

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