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Responding to sexist jokes and comments

You and some mates are having a good time at a party.


Theres a fair bit of alcohol around, but no-one is particularly drunk.
The conversation turns to footy, and discussion about a particular player
whos a whiz on the field. This player is also the centre of considerable media
attention regarding an alleged sexual assault of a young female fan of the club.
Someone who you dont know very well but whos a close friend of a couple of your
mates at the party joins the conversation and says Shame that he got tangled
up in this stupid sex scandal, hes got to learn to pull his head in. But what
should these club groupies expect if they chase after these players
wearing next to nothing? What are you thinking at this point?
What are you feeling? What could you say?
Responding to sexist jokes and comments focuses on what you can do in situations such as this, when a
friend, family member, acquaintance, stranger or work colleague makes a comment or joke that sexualises
or objectifies women or which supports an attitude or belief that condones mens violence against
women. Hopefully, after reading this resource you might feel a little more prepared, energised and
confident to speak up in these situations, in ways that are likely to be helpful.
The objectification and sexualisation of women, linked to mens sense of entitlement and their very real
unearned privileges, is at the core of mens violence against women. The perpetuation of gender
stereotypes not only serve to denigrate and dehumanise women, but also to maintain mens genderbased power.

Sense of entitlement and unearned privilege


We see mens sense of entitlement and unearned privilege In many ways, both powerful and subtle. We
see it in:
- the continued sexualisation and objectification of women in advertising to sell products,
- the pornography industry, both in how it is structured, and the normalisation of increasingly violent
forms of pornography,
- the almost complete lack of men involved in the child-care industry,
- how so many well-meaning fathers in heterosexual relationships, even when both parents are in the paid
work force, see the times when they are the primary carer as an opportunity to give their partner a
break,
- the way in which mothers can so easily be blamed and made to feel guilty for not doing a good enough
job, when fathers just need to carry their infant in a sling and immediately be praised as Oh, isnt he a
good man!,
- the harsh judgement given to women who wish to conceive into their early or mid-forties, and in the
absolute silence given to the research showing the risks of child disability as a result of men conceiving at
this or later ages,
- the gender differentiation that starts so early and so insidiously, resulting in young men being afraid to
act outside of the hyper-masculine norm due to fear of being labelled gay, and
- how men use violence, in large part, because they feel entitled to put their own feelings and wants at the
centre, and talk themselves into believing that they are the victim when their entitlements are not met.
Unfortunately, not enough men see these things the burden on understanding, monitoring and
transforming mens entitlement and unearned privilege still falls almost totally on women.

Eroding mens objectification of women


Responding to sexist jokes and comments, thoughtfully and skilfully, is one thing that men (and women)
can do to erode mens objectification of women. Taking opportunities to respond to violence-supporting
attitudes and beliefs can also be powerful in eroding the ways in which our culture implicitly condones
and excuses family and domestic violence.
There are still some prevalent societal myths that provide a platform for mens continued use of family
and domestic violence, such as that:
- men perpetrate rape because they cannot control their need for sex,
- women falsify or exaggerate their claims of rape or sexual assault, or
- domestic violence can be excused if it results from a temporary loss of control, or if the perpetrator
truly regrets what they have done.
See the VicHealth National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey for more
information.
This resource is not only relevant for addressing mens violence against women. It can also be of use in
responding to jokes and comments reflecting homophobia/homonegativity, heteronormativity, racism
and other forms of prejudice and oppression. Indeed, much of the literature used to inform this resource
comes from the anti-racism field.

Reasons for responding to jokes and comments


The temptation when responding to a sexist joke or comment is to get into a combative stance with the
person who made the joke/statement, to try to change that persons opinion. This might not, however, be
the most helpful objective to have in mind, unless its in the context of a one to one conversation (and
even here, being combative might only entrench that persons attitudes).
Often, there is an audience to the joke or comment. Some of those who are listening might be feeling
uncomfortable like you are, at least to some degree. A skilful and appropriate response might help these
listeners to feel that their discomfort is legitimised and warranted. Furthermore, it might embolden one or
two to respond in a similar situation in the future, especially if you have helped to show them how they
can respond without losing face or acceptance amongst their peers (more on this later).
Of course, other listeners (and depending on the context, possibly the majority) might not feel any
discomfort at all over the comment or joke. However, your response can help them to take a step closer
to feeling this discomfort, so that maybe next time when a sexist joke or comment is made, they have a
niggly thought or feeling even if only fleeting.
There is some research which suggests that those who do feel uncomfortable with prejudiced jokes,
comments or views tend to believe that relatively few others have similar attitudes to themselves. This
underestimation of congruency with how some of their peers are thinking and feeling can lead them to
stay quiet. This research also shows that those with the most prejudiced views over-estimate how many
others think the way they do, leading them to be more confident and bolder in speaking out. The result is
that peoples perceptions of the social norms concerning the issue in question tend to become skewed
towards the more prejudiced end.

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Shifting social norms


Responding to sexist jokes and comments is therefore an opportunity to help those who are concerned to
realise that they are not alone in how they feel, making it more likely that they too will express their
concerns. It can also help others to take a step closer to becoming concerned. Over time, this can help to
shift social norms in a positive direction. This is perhaps the most important objective when responding to
these jokes and comments.
But even if one does not want to think too strategically about it, there is an important ethical dimension
to propel us to respond. As the vast majority of intimate partner violence is conducted by men, silence on
behalf of men when these jokes and comments are made is very telling. As Victorian social work academic
Bob Pease argues, even if most men arent perpetrators of intimate partner violence, they are
perpetuators through remaining silent.

Barriers to responding
Its often our doubts, hesitations and fears that prevent us from responding, more so than trying to figure
out what to say. When the moment arrives, we can become flooded with thoughts and emotions, and its
important to know what they are for each of us. A whole lot of issues might affect how we think and feel
in these moments, and sometimes we can identify our patterned inner responses that get in the way of
speaking up.
Some of the most common and impacting barriers are:
- fear of losing social group identity and our social relationships, and of not fitting in*,
- fear of losing friendships,
- desire to be liked,
- dislike of conflict, and desire to avoid tension,
- the risk of being dismissed as a lefty, greenie or a guardian of politically correct speech,
- the perception that action would not be effective having low self-confidence of being able to say the
right thing, or lack of confidence that saying the right thing will make a difference,
- not wanting to judge, or be seen as judging, the person who made the joke or comment,
- managing the anxiety and nervousness associated with responding, and
- hesitation due to self-realisation of not being squeaky clean in how one treats women a feeling of
hypocrisy in responding to others when one has work to do on oneself.
* The Australian anti-racism scholar Bernard Guerin writes about the
social functions of peoples everyday racist talk. He suggests that people
make racist comments, in part, as a way of confirming their membership
of a social group of peers, based on perceived attitudes concerning racism,
nationalism, socio-political values, etc. Challenging a racist joke or
comment can be a big ask in this context, as the person would need to
overcome their fear of being seen as someone who does not fit in with the
group and of risking their sense of belonging (and in some circumstances,
this fear might be warranted).

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It is important that you are sensitive to and aware of the barriers that apply to you. This will enable you to
predict these barriers, and to think about how to counter them. Reflecting on these barriers and making
plans to address them can help you to respond next time you encounter a relevant situation.
What happened last time when you had an opportunity to respond? What thoughts and feelings came up
for you? What things made you hesitate?

Enablers for responding


Despite the emotions, barriers and negative self-talk that might get in the way of responding, there are
some powerful enablers that can help you to overcome these. Its important to think about what will work
for you in this respect. It could be to remind yourself:
- of why responding is important,
- what women might want you to do in that situation, including women who have been directly affected
by mens violence,
- that changing the attitudes or views of the person who made the joke or comment is not the main goal,
but rather to help others to focus on their discontent with what was said,
- how disappointed you felt the last time you let an opportunity slip without responding, and
- that the nervousness you might experience when responding is small in comparison to the fear that
women face due to mens objectification and use of violence against them.

Using our privilege to be allies


Reminding ourselves of how we can use our privilege to be allies to women, GLBTI communities, or
oppressed ethnic communities, can be a powerful motivator. This can take courage in the moment, and
while it is important to not downplay this courage, it also needs to be placed in context of the suffering
experienced by those we are advocating for.
I remember once at a smallish, open-air concert, hearing a folk-jazz performer introduce the bands
next song. He was explaining how he wrote this song about the break up of a relationship, and how
his former girlfriend left him for another woman, pausing before saying this to accentuate the point.
He and the vast majority of the audience laughed. I didnt as even though the performer meant no
harm through what he said, I could immediately see that his story and the audiences response
reflected heteronormative and homophobic views. I wished later that I had shouted out once the
laughter began to die down Would we have all laughed if she left you for another man?
It would not have been an easy thing to say undoubtedly some in the audience would have seen
my interjection as rude, or as taking things too seriously at a concert. But if at the time I had have
thought about my heterosexist privilege, and that probably at least 10-15% of the audience were
lesbian, gay, transgender folk or intersex, and how uncomfortable they might have been feeling at
that time, I might have responded.
My nervousness about responding would have felt relatively small compared to the ongoing
struggles faced by these people to have themselves, their sexuality and their rainbow families
legitimised.

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Characteristics of helpful responding


There are no absolutely right ways to respond for all situations. The most important thing is to give it a go
unless you feel that doing so might make yourself or others less safe. There are occasional situations
when it might be best not to respond, for fear of aggravating the man who made the comment and what
that aggravation might mean for those affected by his behaviour.
Here are some suggestions:
- be calm and low key, for example, uhmmm, I dont know John, I reckon she should be able to wear
what she likes and not get assaulted,
- take a respectful, rather than self-righteous and combative approach,
- perhaps dont persist for too long, - it might be enough to respond in a way that creates some discomfort
and to then leave it there, rather than attempt to keep going with the issue which might lead to the
discomfort dissipating or defensiveness building,
- focus on what was said, rather than on the characteristics of the person who said it prepare for the fact
that you might get a defensive response, and dont let this suck you into a battle, as otherwise the
conflict will take centre stage rather than what you said about the comment or joke,
- use humour, for example, Hey Bob, sounds like you think were a bunch of cave men!*,
- ask questions, rather than make statements, such as what makes you say that?; questions can
sometimes lead to openness, or some space for the conversation to move into,
- appeal to the persons egalitarian self-image where possible, for example, Im surprised to hear you say
that, because Ive always thought of you as someone who is very open-minded, and
- describe how the comment or joke makes you feel. For example, It makes me uncomfortable to hear
that because

* A response like this makes it obvious that you are not comfortable with what
is being said, and communicates that the persons joke or comment reflects
attitudes or opinions that are becoming outdated. Through this, you are helping
to establish perceptions of more positive social norms, and reframing the
persons joke or comment as something thats no longer reflecting current
opinions.

Good luck! It can help to have a friend or colleague to share your experiences with, to reflect on your
efforts to speak up, and to support each other.
If you miss an opportunity to speak up, or let it pass because of nervousness or other barriers, dont be
too hard on yourself. Learn from the experience, and use it to prepare for next time.

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Responding to sexist jokes and comments


Further reading
Speak Up! Responding to everyday racism
XY online
Bob Pease (2010). Undoing privilege: unearned advantage in a divided world. Zed Books.
Guerin, B. (2003). Combating prejudice and racism: New interventions from a functional analysis of racist
language. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 29-45.
Guerin, B. (2005). Combating everyday racial discrimination without assuming racists or racism: New
intervention ideas from a contextual analysis. Behavior and Social Issues, 14, 46-69.
Review of bystander approaches in support of preventing race-based discrimination.

This resource was originally developed for the Western Region Health Centre
(Melbourne) by No To Violence Male Family Violence Prevention Association.

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