One of the blog’s readers doing research on peoples’ approaches to sexuality sent me a mail titled “Why people find sex funny?” She made a hunch hypothesis that the topic of sex often makes people feel awkward and uncomfortable, and are thus prone to cover it up with laughter. True enough, humor is often looked upon as a medium of indirect communication used to talk about difficult or taboo topics (Long & Graesser 1988) – not without a reason are there so many words either describing or related to sex in colloquial speech.
I promised her to look deeper into the matter and see what the psychology of sex has to say about humor… I mean, the psychology of humor has to say about sex, or sexual humor, rather.
Talking of slips, Freudian slips that is, although I am not the biggest fan of psychoanalysis, one can never begin elsewhere with the subject of humor and sex than with the father of psychoanalysis. First of all, sex played a very important role in his theory; and second of all, he of all psychologists was also the first to take the topic of humor seriously (in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconsciousness, 1905 ).
In his works, Freud made a distinction between ‘humor’, which he viewed as one of the most mature and positive defense mechanisms; and ‘jokes’. Sexual content was never present in ‘humor’ – it was the ‘jokes’ that were the naughty ones in this theory. (Check out the goodriddlesnow.com blog for examples.)
According to Freud, jokes are powered by the wicked and ill-disciplined impulses perpetrated by the id, very often sexual in nature. These libidinal forces are to be occasionally expressed in jokes in order to pass the vigilant eyes of the ego. Freud concluded that we enjoy these frivolous outbreaks so much because of the illicit pleasure derived from releasing our primitive sexual and aggressive impulses (Martin 2007).
Some eighty years later, Michael J. Apter took another, and yet somewhat similar, outlook on how sexual topics and humor can be related. According to Apter (1982), when people are in the para-telic motivational state (a playful mental mode, where the serious objectives are of secondary importance); they tend to seek stimuli that would increase their emotional arousal. Often, if experienced in the telic motivational state (the opposite, serious mental mode, when one is task-oriented and focused on goals); these stimuli would cause discomfort or even repulsion.
Touching on the topic of sex can in many contexts be viewed upon as such a type of stimulus (think of the dreadful parents/children sex-talk). Apter claims that introduction of sexual themes in humor, when one is in the para-telic motivational state; strips it from its negative valence and serve to further enhance the positive arousal brought about by humor in general.
So, in both theories sex is somewhat related to uneasiness or discomfort: either in relation to superego (Freud) or to the serious mindset – the telic-motivational state (Apter). What is different, though, is that Freud claimed that it is our sexual, primordial desires that power jokes; whereas Apter suggests that people put sex in humor simply to enhance humor’s already positive effects.
Regardless whether sexual humor is just a way of letting out some of the otherwise ego-suppressed steam, or whether sexual topics appear in humor to simply enhance its effects, different people enjoy the sexual humor to different extent (given you tell dirty jokes at all, dear reader, I assume/hope you don’t tell them to everyone).
3 Witz-Dimensionen Humor Test (3WD) is a humor appreciation test, developed by Willibald Ruch (1988), measuring preferences for three different types of humor:
- incongruity-resolution humor (humor with a typical punch-line, which provides a resolution to the incongruity created in the joke’s set-up, i.e. the first part of the joke),
- nonsense humor (humor without a typical resolution, often referred to as ‘surreal humor’),
- and sexual humor (preference for humor with sexual themes in it).
The 3WD-model was investigated in relation to many psychological concepts in numerous studies. Some of the conclusions were that when the sexual humor-material in the test is divided between nonsense-sexual (surreal) and incongruity-resolution-sexual humor (simple jokes with a punchline) it seems that the latter is preferred by the tough-minded, authoritarian, intolerant of ambiguity, politically and socially conservative, and not interested in aesthetics people. Well, the results were rather merciless for that one, so think twice before you tell that tendentious sex-joke next time.
If we look upon the sexual-nonsense humor, on the other hand, it is not related to conservatism, but seems to be preferred by disinhibited, sensation-seeking, hedonistic, permissive and both interested and experienced in sex individuals (Hehl and Ruch 1990).
The three humor-preferences were also tested cross-culturally, between different countries. In a study by Radomska and Klinowska (2004), the two researchers tested if and how the Poles and Germans differ in their responses on the 3WD (since there are no WW2 jokes in 3WD, I assume that no major cultural biases were expected). It turned out that at least in terms of preferences for sexual humor both nations are somewhat similar: both the Polish and German participants rather disliked the sexual humor in the test.
On the other hand, another study showed that the Italians seemed to have enjoyed the sexual humor considerably more (Ruch & Forabosco 1996).
This post turned out rather long already and although I know the blog will score many Google hits now, when there’s words ‘humor’ and ‘sex’ mentioned so many times, I reckon I’ll finish here.
Still, there’s still a long list of interesting theories and research on sex and humor, so stay tuned for part two!
 Apter’s views on humor and sex are only a part of a greater theory of humor, which again is included in a complete motivational theory, the Reversal theory of motivation (Apter, 1982).
Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation. London: Academic Press.
Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. New York: W. W. Norton.
Hehl, F. J., & Ruch, W. (1985). The location of sense of humor within comprehensive personality spaces: An exploratory study. . Personality and Individual Differences(6), 703-715.
Long, D. C., & Greaser, A. C. (1988). Wit and Humor in Discourse Processing. Discourse Processes, 35-60.
Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.
Ruch, W. (1988). Sensation seeking and the enjoyment of structure and content of humour: Stability of findings across four samples. Personality & Individual Differences, 9(5), 861-871.
Ruch, W. (1992). Assessment of appreciation of humor: Studies with the 3 WD Humor Test. In C. D. Spielberger, & J. N. Butcher (Eds.), Advances in personality assessment (Vol. 9, pp. 27-75). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ruch, W., & Forabosco, G. (1996). A cross-cultural study of humor appreciation: Italy and Germany. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 9(1), 1–18.
Image credit: Rupert Ganzer 2009, under the CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.