It’s late one night, in a pub in Cambridge, England. To my left is a cute, well-meaning liberal guy. To his left is the sort of girl I dismiss automatically: she dyes her hair blonde, for one thing (who wants to be perceived as blonde?), and she talks in a loose way about hooking up in nightclubs. She’s a Cambridge student – therefore intelligent – but I have decided that she doesn’t seem to care about her intelligence, and I think her silly.
I’ve been struggling with my sexuality for a while now, hating my 21 years of virginity (and burning up with sexual frustration), but worrying that I can’t develop a more sexual way of presenting to the world without people dismissing me as a person. As a feminist, I think it’s wrong to conform to some idea of ‘sexy’ that will only reinforce men’s tendencies to view women as sex objects. “Because I’m incredibly horny” is a tempting excuse, but that only makes me less likely to view it as a good reason.
The cute guy to my left is talking about ‘Lady’s Mags’: “Like, Nuts and Zoo and stuff, with pictures of naked ladies – it’s all fine, right? I mean, they can be empowering and stuff.” I shrug awkwardly. I disagree, except that disagreeing seems so restrictive, so not fun, and I don’t want to rock the boat, and he turns to the woman on his left, she of the dyed blonde hair, and says “Right?”
“Um, not really,” she says, frank but casual, and I am left to deal with the fact that one of us spoke up and said, yes, there might be a problem with displaying scantily clad women alongside demeaning commentary, and it was her, the one who I thought was stupid and weak and out to please men.
It is at this point that I realise that I am sexist. I am sexist! What did I dismiss her for? For choosing to have blonde hair, and slightly slutty clothes, and having casual sex, and talking about it. I thought she was stupid. I realise I’ve been thinking that for years, about every loud woman in a bar who gets drunk or laughs about showing her underwear. “How stupid,” I think. Stupid why? If you want to have sex, that can be a very effective way of going about it. From that perspective, it’s not stupid at all. Have I been implicitly assuming that women don’t want to have sex?
It’s a pernicious notion that sexuality and stupidity in women are somehow linked. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this idea occurs in the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” who conforms (naturally or by choice) to the classic female beauty stereotype right up to the colour of her hair and barely has enough brain cells to tie her shoes. But the purest illustration of this idea is in the stereotype of the “dumb slut” who “gives her body away for nothing”. This supposed connection between women’s sexuality and stupidity is rooted in the transactional model of sex, where men gain and women lose from sex, and so a woman who would “give it up” without asking for something in return has clearly been tricked, scammed even, and must be pretty stupid to have done so.
My own prejudice against openly sexual women was rooted in the idea that no intelligent woman would want to be perceived as stupid. It is at this point that the idea of the “dumb slut” becomes self-reinforcing. Given that sluttiness will make people think you are stupid, surely only a stupid girl would choose to be perceived as a slut?
The question that makes it all fall apart is “Why should I have to choose?” Why should I have to choose between being seen as sexual and being seen as smart, and, even more pertinently, what would be the best way to shatter the stereotype of the silly little slut?
We can break stereotypes by not making assumptions about women’s intelligence or worth as people based on their sexual behaviour. We can break even more stereotypes by being strong and sexual and clever and female.
It’s not easy to set myself up as a counterexample to the stereotype. There’s no pre-approved way to say to the world that I want to have sex, on my terms. What does a “slut who knows her own mind” wear? What does a “sexual woman who wants and deserves your respect” say? What sort of a smile does she have? How does she walk? There’s no accepted way to signal an idea that might not even fully exist, yet, in our cultural consciousness.
So perhaps the best way to proceed is just to be sexual and smart and courageous, expecting that people will perceive the truth. That’s not easy either. It involves taking risks and making compromises and trying to stay true to yourself and to what you really want. What do you really want? Sometimes I know, and sometimes I don’t.
Here’s what I do know. Since that night in Cambridge, there have been times when I’ve specifically wanted sex with a stranger, and it’s been the right choice. There have been other times when casual sex has made me realise that what I really want is a relationship. There have been times when I was wise to put my sex life on hold, and times when I was wise to dive back in. I can make those decisions, because one night in Cambridge, a woman with dyed blonde hair made me realise that sending a sexual signal doesn’t make you weak or stupid, and that a flawed, evolving sexuality that gets stronger as it learns is a more powerful blow against sexual objectification than chastity or modesty can ever be. Refusing to be seen as sexual is only a protection against slut stereotyping for the woman who does it. Refusing to be seen as stupid helps us all.
Gemma Mason comes from New Zealand and is currently working towards a PhD in applied mathematics at California Institute of Technology.