Writer Heather Thompson Day narrated how she handled a sexist joke at work and it's the best way to respond.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 17, 2021. It has since been updated.
If women had a nickel for every time a man told them a sexist joke, they'd all be billionaires. According to a survey published by NPR, 81% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment and they all reported verbal harassment to be the most common. Sexist jokes are a key tenet of patriarchy and misogyny. Men love the comfort of a sexist joke because they believe it's the kind of humor that lets them be sexist while also giving them enough leeway to pass it off as a joke, especially if it doesn't elicit their desired reaction.
Out with family when I was 13 and getting ice cream a friend of my uncle says “You can tell a lot about a girl by how she eats ice cream.” I, genuinely not knowing what he was talking about, said “Like what?”— Naomi (@mimiomiomi) November 8, 2019
He didn’t expect to be questioned. I kept pressing. He never answered.
It's almost always a man in a position of power that makes sexist jokes to women. Delivery of a sexist joke almost always follows the same predictable pattern: A man makes a sexist or a sexual "joke" and initiates laughter way before anyone even has a chance to react, in the hope of coaxing others to laugh. Ha ha ha ha … funny … ha ha. It's hilarious right. Ha ha. If you don't laugh at the joke, or are too embarrassed to say anything, they'll accuse you of being too sensitive and a killjoy. When people call men out on their sexist jokes, they pull the parachute and act offended.
I did the same thing to a guy who harassed me on a train. He said some rather disgusting things and I looked him dead in the eyes and said "tell me how you think that's an appropriate thing to say. Explain it to me" he was not happy and got real quiet so I could leave.— Chess Pearson ♿️ (@Captain_Ogilvy) November 8, 2019
Writer Heather Thompson Day shared an incident of her boss making a sexist joke but it was her response to the joke that really stuck with people. Day narrated a story of her working at a radio station, and her boss, who was in his mid-40s, made an inappropriate joke.
"When I was 19 my boss said I should be a phone sex operator & laughed.
I said 'I don't get it'
He said 'it's a joke'
I said 'explain it to me'
& that's how I learned that once sexual harassers have to explain why their inappropriate jokes are funny, they stop laughing."
The tweet was shared more than 125,000 times and liked by 500,000 people. Many people, including men, chimed in, thanking Day for showing them a way to shut up sexist men. Many people shared their own experiences of being subject to sexist jokes and some shared instances where they called people out for making the jokes.
My first internship was in a very professional company. We learned direct questions quickly stop inappropriate workplace comments. Direct eye contact:— LiteFanFun (@LiteFanFun) November 9, 2019
1) I don't understand -- explain it to me.
2) Help me to understand -- repeat it.
3) Can you provide an example?
Men also love to laugh at sexist jokes, and this provides a cocoon for unfunny men to try their hand at being funny without the fear of being shamed for being unfunny. Most men are sexist, and a majority of the subset are just unfunny men validating and comforting each other of their "funniness." It's a vicious cycle of unfunny men bouncing unfunny jokes off of each other. It's actually very funny if you visualize it. A man trying a sexist joke for the first time and eliciting just enough laughs from a sexist group of unfunny men, giving him the confidence to try it on another group of men. The sexist joke never dies because it always reverberates among the same demographic of men. Maybe, that's where the stereotype of men being funny comes from. As one woman succinctly put it: "Please tell me about the last time this worked on an actual woman for you."
YES! At my first full time job, my new boss called me and then made the comment that I had the voice of a phone sex operator. I responded, “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never called one.” His stammering and backpedaling still bring me joy over 20 years later.— Just V (@scribblesnbitsV) November 10, 2019
Heather Thompson Day credited her Dad for teaching her how to respond to inappropriate comments from men. "Don't laugh," he told her. "Ask them to explain the joke. They will stop making them." Many people pointed out that a similar approach could also be used to work "jokes" that are racist and/or homophobic. Forcing people to explain and justify prejudice and bigotry exposes them and that's why it works.
Eventually got to the point where they were like “we’re joking, it’s just fun” and I whistled to be switched out by a male guard on shift and told them to tell the same jokes to him.— Leighann Strollo (@LeighannStrollo) November 8, 2019
I was definitely 20 at most and these were all men over 40 easily except one.
My boss made a joke about recognizing my mom because he probably had sex with her in college. I asked him to explain the joke, in an open office, while making direct contact with the COO, his boss. It took four more months and many incidents for him to be fired.— Ellen Kaulig (@ekaulig) November 9, 2019
If a thing is genuinely a joke it would be easy to explain.— dan sheppard (@ashenfaced) November 9, 2019
This is a tactic more men (myself included) should use when one of the "bros" makes a comment that we find uncomfortable but aren't sure how to call out. Maybe more guys will get the picture that it isn't cool.— Dante (@CartoonsByDante) November 8, 2019
Pro tip: this also works on race "jokes"— Corey (@HowlFromtheCore) November 8, 2019
I've had several coworkers over the years say, "you know how THOSE people are..." expecting me to agree. So I always say, "no, how ARE they?" Please, explain your racism/bigotry/prejudice to all of us.— Erin McCord (@erinmcfavorite) November 8, 2019