Sex and smarts have always been at odds with each other culturally for some reason I haven’t been able to identify yet. Everyone is aware of this fact and yet, despite my many inquiries into the subject, no one I’ve talked to seems to fully understand this odd relationship. That makes me feel at once smart and stupid, which makes me feel at once sexy and unattractive. And that is, in fact, quite a strange relationship, wouldn’t you say?

There is a double standard in this. Smart people are considered sexy, desirable, and clearly wanted for their smarts. At the same time, smart people are the ones most often considered to be the least sexy for all other reasons. When we are younger, the smart people are the nerds and dorks who are bookworms, loners, and considered “losers,” and are most certainly part of the populous that is most unfuckable.

After all, schooling and education has never been thought to be about intelligence but rather preparation for the great, holy, more-important goal of becoming a productive member of society. Well, it certainly does a good job of trying to make you conform to fit its molds, and it makes most people miserable in the process. It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for your country: school is patriotism at its worst.

Yet, when we are no longer in school and no longer find ourselves in environments where a sense of belonging (wanting to be “one of the popular kids”) is more important to us than a sense of safety (“how am I going to pay these bills?”), suddenly being smart is a huge sexual asset. This is obviously because “smart” people are generally far more capable at providing safety than dumb ones.

Or are they?

Let’s take a look at that assumption for a moment. I was taught, even threatened, throughout much of my life that intelligence is what I needed to make my way through the world. “If you don’t get straight A’s,” I was once told as a boy, “you’ll never get into a good college and you’ll have a harder time of finding a good job and then you’ll never be able to make it as an adult.”

Parenting tip from me to you: if you ever want to really scare a child, tell them they’ll never make it as an adult. It’s not going to make them do what you tell them to, but it’s certainly going to give them second thoughts about wanting to wake up the next morning. Or maybe they’ll just become obsessed with Peter Pan.

As we become sexualized, we are indoctrinated with another gem of a truism: “Women’s value comes from their sex appeal: To succeed as a woman, just be sexy.” According to conventional gender wisdom, all women in positions like CEOs, businesspeople, politicians, or other leadership roles probably got there by fucking the real decision-maker’s brains out (who was obviously a man). Likewise, women who are actresses, models, or any other field based largely on looks have to be a very specific kind of beautiful, and, naturally, sexy in some way.

Even though we know intellectually that this just isn’t always accurate, it’s still considered to be implacable. Today, after long, hard battles fought primarily by feminists, women are allowed to be smart—they just also have to be sexy. If they’re not, their smarts stop being a good thing and turn into a bad thing. As a woman, if you’re too smart, suddenly your brain has become a huge liability.

And what’s “too smart”? A recent New York Times article, Should Hillary Pretend to Be a Flight Attendant? makes the case that “too smart” means “smarter than men.” As part of his conclusions on a two-year speed-dating study, Mr. Fisman, who is a Columbia economics professor, is quoted as saying the following about men’s perceptions of a woman’s intelligence:

…even in the 21st century, many men are still straitjacketed in stereotypes.


“We found that men did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner’s beauty, when choosing, than women did. We also found that women got more dates when they won high marks for looks.”

He continued: “By contrast, intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women’s choices as men’s. It isn’t exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter — but only up to a point … It turns out that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition — a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.

This is hardly surprising, though it is rather depressing and the short New York Times article makes this point with such starkness that it is also very remarkable. I can imagine most feminists are seeing this as a battle cry to “protect the rights of smart women,” a noble and important goal to be sure:

Catalyst, an organization that studies women in the workplace, found that women who behave in ways that cleave to gender stereotypes — focusing on collegiality and relationships — are seen as less competent. But if they act too macho, they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

Ms. Belkin said that another study shows that men — and female secretaries — are not considered less competent if they dress sexy at work, but female executives are.

Women still tend to be timid about negotiating salaries and raises. Men ask for more money at eight times the rate of women.

Victoria Brescoll, a Yale researcher, found that men who get angry at the office gain stature and clout, even as women who get angry lose stature because they are seen as out of control.

However, for all this research focused on women, I am wondering where the analysis of the men is happening, if it’s happening at all! Specifically, the question we need to ask is not (only) “why are women judged so harshly on looks,” but rather “why are men so afraid of their own shortcomings?” And indeed, men have stereotypically always been afraid of their own (ahem) shortcomings, haven’t they?

Whatever dating studies reveal, part of the key to empowering women lies with understanding men. Not just masculinity, but men. Not just their gender role, but their gender identity. Not just who they are and how they behave, but why they behave the way they do.

We always need to ask why. Always. And, we need to have solid reasons for our answers.

So why is a smart and sexy woman threatening to a man? I posit that it might have something to do with a perceived disparity of privilege and, more specifically, with the fact that our culture sees value in a woman’s appearance that it does not see in a man’s. A woman’s sexiness is based on (surprise!) sex, whereas a man’s sexiness is based on smarts, power, influence, or money, which is, let’s see here…not sex (though these things certainly can be made sexual and when they are I find them rather sexy).

The point is that a man can’t be considered sexy unless he’s also got something else going for him, and a woman can’t have something else going for her unless she’s also considered sexy. This is why my painfully-obviously brilliant friend Calico and I end up talking for hours about why I don’t feel sexy and why she doesn’t feel valued in non-sexual ways even though I’ve been told countless times that I’m sexy and wanted and even though she’s been told countless times that she’s supremely intelligent (and not just by me).

In the end, to the world at large, it doesn’t matter. I get judged on my smarts, and she gets judged on her looks. And that’s not fair to either one of us.

All of this begs the question: so what’s the value of intelligence? And what’s the value of sexiness? I don’t really know how to answer those questions (beyond elementary concerns) yet, but I’m starting to wonder if the answers we once thought had to be so different from one another actually may be more alike than we could possibly have imagined.