IntersectionalityFeminism 101 How to Handle Sexist Jokes and Your Friends Who Find Them Funny

How to Handle Sexist Jokes and Your Friends Who Find Them Funny

Sexist jokes are not funny and I’m not laughing. In fact, they are offensive to women.

Sexist jokes are not funny and I’m not laughing

“I don’t find this funny at all. In fact, it is offensive to women”

A few months ago, I uttered this very line in a WhatsApp group in response to a series of sexist, misogynist and bigoted “jokes” that had been posted. Rape jokes, domestic abuse jokes, jokes on the LGBTQ community, and jokes about male rape survivors, were some of the topics that were played off for laughs. I figured since everyone in that group (including the person who frequently posted such jokes) were close friends of mine, I would be heard and respected. I was wrong.  

In a span of three days, that person told me that my convictions drove men away; that I was hormonal; I didn’t have a sense of humor and that I was a feminist (as our Bollywood heroines can attest, it’s apparently the worst insult anyone can think of). I lost friends and was left shaking from the verbal onslaught. It also left me questioning.

Was I wrong? Should jokes not be taken seriously?

How is it funny when it’s not funny?

It took me a while before I worked up enough courage to voice my distaste at this person’s behavior, his jokes included. Earlier he had told a woman who objected to his sexist comments to not get her panties “twisted in a bunch“. It led to a fight between the two of them that was also public. I excused my silence at the time because I thought it wasn’t my battle to fight.

But I realized over time that every time I was forced to read that constant barrage of sexist jokes (sometimes they were just pictures of naked women serving men in compromising positions), I was left feeling exhausted and chipped away.

Psychologist Derald Sue, from Columbia University defines microaggression as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” The rise of the internet has created many spaces that are hostile and oppressive for women and minorities. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?

How to broach the subject, influence people and not lose friends…

In the course of our conversation, he asked me to list the number of men who found me attractive. He wanted names and proof. He accused me of having an eating disorder and being too thin. My virginity suddenly became a topic of discussion. I was told I was a prude. I was also told that I was so sexually repressed, that if a man were to so much as touch me, I would explode. All of this was in response to me telling him that he needed to keep his sexist jokes to himself.

No one likes to be told that they are sexist or bigoted. It makes them defensive. Looking back, I realize that while my intentions were right, my execution went askew. Here’s what I learnt from that day:

  • Do NOT lose your temper

The troll was baiting me and while I knew it, I still got myself baited. I wasn’t able to separate my hurt feelings and thus couldn’t articulate why sexist jokes are demeaning to women (and even men). The moment I lost my temper, I lost the plot.

  • Facts are key to sensitive discussions

In my gut, I knew I was right but I didn’t have facts to support my conviction. When I told him I was uncomfortable with the constant objectification of women within the group, he asked me if I was on my period (does it make sense now why I lost my temper though?). When faced with outright hostility, it helps to be logical and work with facts. Maybe you won’t be able to change the mindset of the troll but it is possible to get through to people who are also listening. Don’t lose them.

  • Be personal

Sometimes it works when we make a situation personal. Explain how derogatory comments can affect someone who is marginalized (for example: Your rape/domestic abuse jokes can be a trigger to victims; Using gay as a slur will further isolate someone who is closeted; What if this group has people that have suffered from domestic abuse you don’t know about?).

  • Know when it’s a lost cause

The person told me that women needed to grow some balls and stop whining (funny, because in my experience, penises are extremely sensitive). He accused me of ‘playing the victim’. His friend who was also part of the group posted on my Facebook wall that I needed medical help, over and over again until I threatened to report him.  I finally left the group when I accepted this interminable truth: if someone is unwilling to respect your opinions and demeans you, then they are not your friend. Cut. Them. Out.

  • Reacting to individuals who reach out to you

Over time some people within the group reached out to me on separate occasions. The simple truth is that most people don’t even know that they are being sexist while quoting that monologue from Pyaar Ka Panchnama (you know which one). It is important for us to be patient and explain why making fun of a marginalized group is akin to kicking a puppy that is already hurt. Talk to them. Don’t talk at them.

There are success stories too…

A few weeks after I left my WhatsApp group, one of my best friends spoke up against a series of bigoted jokes in her WhatsApp group. While the original poster defended her joke, my friend was quickly supported by another woman. A thoughtful discussion about gender roles and representation of women in the media followed suit. My friend swears that to this day not a single sexist joke has entered the group. If more people started standing up against such behavior, the tide will change.

You don’t have to laugh

In recent years, comedians like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumar, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Aziz Ansari and many more have used to comedy to battle sexism and homophobia in society. Their very existence proves that the world enjoys a more inclusive brand of humor. Invoke them. Amy Poehler once said, Girls, if a boy says something that isn’t funny, you don’t have to laugh.” And she was right.

Also read: The Joke’s On You? Let Me Laugh: On Being A Feminist Killjoy

Featured Image Credit: NUS Women’s Department


  1. Sam says:

    Very weIl written! Sexist jokes are never to be taken lightly. Sometimes the fear of isolation keeps us from questioning them. But our small actions can make a lot of differences which makes them worth doing.

  2. CClarke says:

    Ms. Subramanian, you have courage. I hope you continue to stand up to bullies of both sexes. I stand with you, because I know that rape jokes dehumanize everyone. Rape is about power more than it is about sex. The strong rape the weak because the strong want to dominate. Rape jokes celebrate an imbalance of power, where one person controls another person who does not consent. In addition, rape jokes make sex a violent act, whereas it is actually a beautiful consensual act. Women are human beings entitled to the same rights as men. No one made men superior to women, and it’s time for women to stand up for ourselves. Thanks for being on the front lines for equality.

  3. This happened recently in one of the Whatsapp group and I spoke out against it… While there were a few people who did speak out against the sexist comment, there were others who continued to defend their act in the name of “Freedom of Expression”… Finally the group has come up with a list of Do’s and Don’ts…

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