How brains can get pupils labelled in the sexuality stakes
Clever girls are seen as sexually unattractive by their classmates, while boys often find that intelligence is equated with being gay.
Researchers from Roehampton and Birmingham universities studied differences in the ways high-achieving pupils are treated by less successful classmates.
They found that most teenage girls see themselves as more mature, diligent and responsible than their male counterparts. Boys, by contrast, see themselves as “feckless pleasure-seekers, living for the moment and prioritising the opinions of their peers over … education credentials”.
The pupils interviewed therefore feel that girls are under less pressure than boys to “dumb down”, as their friends are more forgiving of academic success.
But the academics found that cleverness in girls is often seen as incompatible with sexual attractiveness. Fred, one of the pupils interviewed, summed this up: “Eeugh! I don’t want my girlfriend being smart and bodrick-like.”
Frank’s classmate, Stella, agrees. She believed prioritising schoolwork over physical appearance stands in the way of popularity: “If we didn’t do well in school and we wore more make-up or we wore mini-skirts, we might be able to join the gang.”
This was confirmed during interviews with Mallory, another pupil. She insisted that she could combine academic and social success. But she did so by being conventionally pretty, and by wearing mini-skirts and ostentatious make-up.
For boys, criticism of academic success was often combined with attacks on their sexuality. Teenager Helen summed up the situation: “If you’re a girl, then you can get away with trying hard and doing well … but if you’re a boy … people’d just think you was a bit of a gay.”
Stella echoed this, talking about a classmate who was bullied because “he was clever and he didn’t, y’know, sort of act all macho”.
For boys, the researchers conclude that boffinhood is associated with non- mainstream sexuality. But for girls it is associated with asexuality, in the tradition of the 19th-century spinster governess.
The researchers said: “Both male and female boffin-pariahs constitute queers in the classroom: boys in their direct positioning as effete or gay, and girls in their queer refusal of … the heterosexual matrix.”