The Pressure On Women To Dumb Down For Dating

It would seem that intelligence should be highly valued in prospective partners, but many women’s dating experiences contradict this. One blogger’s ruminations on being asked to throw a Scrabble game so her friend’s new man could have an ego boost questioned this phenomenon. She asks: “Do we truly have to dumb down to catch and keep a man?

The answer, of course, should be no.

However, the cultural pressures on men to be competitive and intellectually commanding, and on women to be accommodating and emotionally aware, can create an atmosphere where men feel threatened by intelligent women, and women feel pressured to conform to expectations in order to get a date. Some of the blame can go to these amorphous cultural pressures, but also to individual men and women who perpetuate antiquated gender roles–perhaps unconsciously, perhaps because they recognize the rules and know that they’ll get ahead by conforming.

One potential reason for the popularity of these values in American society is the traditional division of labor between genders: men in the public sphere, women in the domestic sphere. Women only entered the workforce en masse during and after World War II, so it’s fairly recent for people to think about women needing to be educated for a particular job. Running a household, of course, requires its own skill set and its own kind of intelligence (as anyone who’s tried to prepare a meal while doing laundry and juggling other domestic tasks knows). But the education of women–and their very ability to be educated–has been contested in Western culture for centuries, as it was not always standard to teach women to read and write. We in the West don’t exactly have a good history of rewarding intelligent women who think for themselves: Eve’s curiosity, Pandora’s box, the women persecuted in the medieval and Renaissance witch trials, the Victorian-era women proclaimed to be hysterics… the list of women stigmatized for intelligence and initiative goes on and on.

There is also a tendency for women to be encouraged to make  sacrifices for relationships. Socialization starts with fairy tales like “The Little Mermaid,” which in most versions has the protagonist giving up her voice and gambling with her life for the chance to win a man. This trend extends to women putting their careers on hold for their families, or to letting their partners prioritize their careers. It’s not unlikely, then, that women who dumb down for dating are simply following a pattern that’s already been established as a socially acceptable way for them to go about relationships. The problem with this pattern, though, is that it places the burden of behavior-adjustment on the women, rather than addressing the unrealistic expectations that it’s not unreasonable for men to feel threatened by intelligent women in the dating arena.

And smart women are, apparently, very threatening. I have plenty of anecdotes about my own encounters with this subtle form of misogyny–I’ve lost count of the times a guy has winced when I say I’m getting my Ph.D.–none of which stands out as particularly hilarious and worth repeating, but they all carried an undercurrent of fear. Fear that an intelligent woman might, I don’t know, mock and subsequently castrate whatever dude she’s talking to? Interestingly, most of my guy friends also have anecdotes about how awful it is when they encounter a girl who seems to be dumbing herself down for social expectations. So this phenomenon isn’t universal, but is still widespread enough to be problematic for intelligent women and the people who want to date them for who they are. There’s even a blog dedicated to helping sexy singles who value intelligence find each other!

One of the best ways to de-stigmatize intelligent women is to lead by example, and remind people that intelligence is sexy. Being able to communicate about one’s sexual desires and be inventive in bed are but two logical extrapolations of how one’s dating partner’s intelligence might apply positively to one’s own situation. Additionally, I recommend following the advice of the proverb “The best revenge is living well.” This intelligent woman is doing quite well for herself, thank you very much.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.


    Confident and intelligent women also face the challenge of having to dumb down their attitude. A confident and flirty attitude can be perceived as “controlling.” Why is it so that it is okay for men to be the the dominant partner in a relationship, but not so for the women. Alot of times I hear from women themselves that they can take charge in a relationship, but in order to do so, they like to make their man feel like he is in control (especially in public). I believe that should not be the case. If a partner is undoubtedly capable and dominant (in a good way), irrespective of the gender, societal norms should not force the partner to tone down his/her attitude and confidence level…..just because it is not acceptable!

  • Wolven

    This is another segment of “traditional” gender norms that I’ve just never understood. I want to talk to my partner. I want to engage them in games and things that interest me.

    Why in the hell would I want my partner to be any less intelligent than myself? It makes no damn sense.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    I agree, there’s totally a double standard applied to men vs. women when it comes to confidence and intelligence. Should a woman be labeled controlling or bitchy or a nag… what worse fate could there be?!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    I agree, it doesn’t make sense on a personal level since I want my partners to be intelligent, too… but some people find that threatening.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    What a wonderful way to start a relationship with someone! I think books provide a great way for people to relate to one another.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    I hadn’t taken into account the religious aspect, because it’s not a part of my life experience, but you make some really good points. Hopefully not all interpretations of religion enforce such strict gender roles… but as you point out, normative, limiting gender roles are a huge part of mainstream culture as well, hence they’ll take a while to change.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Well, good luck! I hope you don’t settle for anything less than an intelligent, respectful partner who is awed by your brain (as well as your other wonderful attributes).

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Very cool!

  • David

    I actually do not date. I find girlfriends through work or social events where “geek girls” are present. The thought of planning a trip to a restaurant with an almost stranger and going through the resume of my finer points and their finer points is quite dull.

    Thus, I can’t offer any facts about women being something other than what they really are for a date. It does sound revolting. The one thing that I can say is that being around people who turn a social gathering into an intelligence contest is disturbing, whether it be from a man or a woman.

    I have made posts in my blog about the joy of working with and being romantic with women engineers. I have blogged a few times about how it gets to be very lonely for a man of my type to only find women for friends or romance when so many of them are sociology and psychology majors.

    I get turned on by hot women who are physicists and hardcore computer majors. Currently, I am strongly attracted to a beautiful 40 year old co-worker (unfortunately she is married) who has bone straight strawberry blonde hair, chooses her words carefully, speaks fluent C++ computer language, loves reading murder mysteries, is a qualified master gardner, demands physical fitness and refuses to join the “women engineers promoting more women in engineering” group because she just can’t stand to spend a lot of time with other women. We do lunchtime walks together and I find her intoxicating.

    It would be lovely to go to a bookstore and have a woman who sincerely wants to go with me to the science / math / engineering sections because she has a passion for all of that. She would get major bonus points if she
    dressed like Audrey Hepburn. (Yeah, I am not too demanding. :P )

    By the way, in the science section I have found quite a few books concerning sex and science and they are sexy. (i.e. The Science of Kissing that I found just the other day.)

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    I suspect that you’re not alone in disliking “dating” when it means meeting a stranger for a meal/movie/etc. I feel similarly–because on the one hand, I enjoy meeting new people and going to restaurants and stuff, but on the other hand, I’m a pretty busy person and I have a lot of goals, so why waste time on a date when it might not go anywhere?

    I also tend to find a lot of friends through geek/nerd circles… perhaps those of us who were ostracized when younger for being “too smart” tend to stick to comfort zones when socializing?

    Good luck finding someone who enjoys the same intellectual pursuits you do!