Q: Why haven’t any women ever gone to the moon?

A: It doesn’t need cleaning yet!

Do you find that amusing? According to a newly published study, men who laugh at sexist and anti-gay jokes are mostly doing so because they are deeply insecure about their own manhood.

Laughing at such jokes helps them defend, restore or reaffirm their masculinity.

“Women and gay men symbolize femininity, the antithesis of masculinity. Thus, by expressing disdain or prejudice against women and gay men, men higher in precarious manhood beliefs can distance themselves from the traits they want to disconfirm in themselves”, writes a research team led by Western Carolina University psychologist Emma O’Connor.

People initiate and enjoy disparagement humor more when they feel their social identity is being threatened. Interestingly, masculinity threat is unique to the sexist and anti-gay jokes; it did not emerge for anti-Muslim and neutral jokes.

The study, conducted at Western Carolina University, used a two-pronged experiment involving 387 heterosexual men. After providing informed consent, they completed two allegedly separate and unrelated studies.

First, participants completed online questionnaires designed to assess their social attitudes and levels of potential prejudice and antagonism against women and gay men. Second, the types of humor (Sexist Jokes, Anti-Gay Jokes, Anti-Muslim Jokes, and Neutral Jokes) they preferred were tested and whether the men believed their jokes would help others get an accurate assessment of their personality.

O’Connor also pointed out that gender norms create pressure for men to behave in gender-consistent ways. For instance, work settings where women occupy positions of authority might inherently trigger masculinity threat for men higher in precarious manhood beliefs and thus sexist joking.

The researchers encourage workplace environments to help prevent sexist jokes and teasing, commonly experienced types of sexual harassment that women experience in the workplace.

“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” write O’Connor and her colleagues, Thomas Ford and Noely Banos.

By making a novel discovery of the psychological functions of sexist and anti-gay humor in social settings, the researchers hope the findings will help create a better understanding about the kinds of situations in which sexist and anti-gay jokes occur.

The study’s findings were published in Springer’s April edition of the journal Sex Roles.