“I Know You’re Smarter Than Me”: Clarisse Thorn’s Feminist Ideology
I haven’t been on a lot of capital-D Dates. My relationships tend to develop through friendships and mutual interests, mostly because I am a huge nerd. My first on-purpose Date took place when I was seventeen; it was with a local boy who I barely knew — most of our contact was through brief chats on AOL Instant Messenger. (Am I showing my age?) He’d heard a lot about me, I guess, and for some reason he was impressed by my reputation for being smart and weird. He took me to a pool hall and gave me adorable lessons on how to hold the cue, how to break, etc. I don’t remember much of what we talked about … except for one exchange that is burned into my brain forevermore.
Prostitution had entered the conversation, and he said something about how it’s immoral.
“Immoral?” I asked. “What makes you say that?” I had not yet researched sex work or evolved the complex opinions that I have about it today, but I still knew there was something extremely weird about dismissing prostitution as “immoral”. I’d felt fairly bored by the conversation thus far, and was genuinely curious about how this would go; I remember smiling and thinking, hey, this could be interesting.
He was across the table from me, leaning over his pool cue, lining up a shot. He glanced up — looking surprised, like it was totally weird that I was challenging such a fundamental thing as prostitution being immoral (gasp!) — and he gave me a heart-melting smile. “Oh,” he said casually, “I know you’re smarter than me, so let’s not get into it.”
I blinked. I shut up. I think I might even have smiled, out of confusion if nothing else. We chatted about whatever he brought up next. He took me home and dropped me off without a kiss; there was no chemistry (at least not on my end, I certainly can’t speak for him). No second date. But “I know you’re smarter than me, so let’s not get into it” … that line, and the friendly way he said it, stuck in my head. It was an amazingly complimentary, amazingly condescending, amazingly effective way of shutting me down.
* * *
Feminism matters a lot to me, but when I started blogging in 2008, I didn’t picture myself doing it as a specifically feminist blogger; I wanted to write about sexuality and, especially, BDSM. I attached the word “feminist” when I described myself because I wanted people to understand where I was coming from; because it had been such a weird and complicated process for me to come to terms with BDSM while prioritizing a sense of feminist independence and integrity, and yet feminism has simultaneously been such a useful influence on me, for claiming my own body on my own terms.
Another reason I didn’t want to blog specifically about feminism, when I started out, was that I saw so many amazing feminist bloggers out there already. I wanted to say things from a feminist perspective that I didn’t see other people saying; I felt content to leave what I see as “straight-up feminism”, like pro-choice arguments or anti-rape analyses, to other feminists who are much more brilliant about those topics than I.
Over the last couple years, I’ve written a lot about BDSM (but trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from). Enough to know that I’ve struck a huge chord with lots of female BDSMers: I regularly get emails and comments like “Thank you so much … me … too … me too … thank you for writing this ….” I’ve also ventured into the fraught territory of masculinity and feminism and I’ve started getting emails and comments from pro-feminist men, too, men who feel incredibly grateful for my attempts at parsing their experience. Although I’ve gotten some feminist flak for some stuff I’ve written on these “edge” topics, the net effect has been to make me feel closer to the feminist movement.
To some extent, it’s brought me further into feminism because I’ve thoroughly recognized how important my initial feminist assumptions were in terms of both sex and BDSM: my body, my choice, damn it, and a big “screw you” to our entire patriarchal culture for making it so unnecessarily hard to figure out and communicate my sexual needs. But it’s also brought me closer to feminism because no matter how clear I’ve thought I was being, a lot of my writing (especially the masculinity writing) has been co-opted by people who use it to say anti-feminist things. Which, needless to say, fills me with rage.
So in short, blogging as an “edge feminist” has really brought me face-to-face with how important those “straight-up feminist” analyses are. I guess I’ve taken them for granted because I’ve got so much exposure to them, but when I pull back and re-examine my perspective, those feminist concepts — examples include various types of gendered “privilege” and “rape culture” — are clearly the backbone behind everything I write. It makes me want to sit down and parse out Clarisse Thorn’s Feminist Ideology.
I recognize that there are issues with the feminist movement: as can occur in any movement, plenty of feminist arguments edge too close to dogma for my tastes. And there are many, many problems of relevance and accessibility: the feminist movement is dominated by white, middle- to upper-middle-class, Western women, and those of us who fit that profile should work hard to understand how the priorities of other women across the world might be different from ours. For example.
But this is the movement that fights for a whole host of rights that are absolutely crucial both for sexual freedom and for gender egalitarianism — and that are, at the very least, somewhat relevant to women across the world. Like my right to have a safe abortion if I choose to do so. My right to equal pay for equal work and, indeed, my right to work without enduring non-consensual pressure to fuck my boss. My right to a fair trial if I am abused or raped, my right to resources about rape and abuse, my right to a trained advocate to meet and counsel me if I am raped. My right to understand my sexuality on its own terms and not necessarily in terms of pleasing my man. Most fundamentally, my right to be heard when I speak.
Which brings me back to the innocent little date story with which I opened this post. There are lots of Big And Important feminist discussions to be had — but frequently, it’s tiny moments that bring home the vegetarian bacon substitute for me. Moments like when Pool Hall Dude told me, “I know you’re smarter than me, but …”
PHD had no real interest in my intelligence at all. He knew I’m smart, he knew I had something to say about sexual politics — but all that was just an ornament to him. To him, my intelligence was more like a fetish than a personality characteristic he admired. America’s got plenty of anti-feminists who try to deny us the big stuff, but let’s not forget how those folks derive power from even the smallest ways girls are told to shut up and sit down:
“I know you’re smarter than me,” and maybe you just made a good point, but come on, let’s not worry about any of that challenging sex and gender stuff here on our date (since dates, of course, have nothing to do with sex and gender). Why don’t you take your smart but inconvenient girl brain and turn it off for me, could you, sweetheart?
Now maybe I’m taking PHD’s little jest “much too seriously”, or worse, “being bitchy”. I mean, I am a humorless feminist and all! But I’ve gotta say, despite my feminist parents and my privileged upbringing and teachers who respected me and feminist friends to back me up and, let’s not leave them out, lots of amazing feminist guys who have influenced my thinking — I’ve had plenty of moments like that, and they suck. “I know you’re smarter than me” moments. Moments where a gender issue and my feminist perspective are both acknowledged just long enough to dismiss them, un-dramatically, maybe even gently. So gently, I might just miss the fact that I’m being patronized, perhaps even feel anxious about how awkward things could have gotten — perhaps even feel relieved that he saved me from that awkwardness! Seriously, shouldn’t I know better than to take gender politics seriously on a date? (And shouldn’t I know better than to bring up racism at a company meeting? And shouldn’t I know better than to talk about disability and accessibility at an event planning session? Dude, Clarisse, quit harshing the vibe.)
Even in the liberal set, sexism and anti-feminism aren’t nonexistent; most of the time, they’re merely covert. If PHD knew I was so much smarter than him, then why didn’t he want to learn from me?
* * *
Feministe was probably the first feminist blog I ever read (one of my best friends kept emailing me Feministe posts, accompanied by lots of exclamation points). Now I seem to have ended up with posting access to Feministe, which is amazing, stunning actually, not something I thought would ever happen. I’m pretty excited. It’s one more factor making me pull back and think about Clarisse Thorn’s Feminist Ideology: what makes me deserve to have a spot here?
Should I be writing more about feminist stuff I do in the real world that isn’t about sexuality? (Though there are privacy issues for me on that front, unfortunately, since I write under my sex-positive pseudonym ….) Should I be writing more on the topics that I wryly label “straight-up feminism”? I’ve summed up my Sex-Positive Ideology as, “Among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’.” I often boil my Feminist Ideology down to something similar, like “everyone deserves positive choices and feminism is about ensuring that women have the maximum number of positive choices”.
I want to add some specific goals for myself, though. Goals like: keep working to ensure that feminist ideas — rights to choice, consent, bodily integrity and knowledge of problematic gendered cultural pressures — come through loud and clear in everything I create.
Like: no matter how much of a baseline and invisible assumption it is for me, don’t let myself forget about the straight-up feminism. I’ve found that because of my privilege and previous exposure to feminism, it’s too easy to take it for granted, and I want to avoid that whenever possible.
Like: don’t forget that there will always be people who tell me I ought to shut up about sex and gender, whether with strong words or saccharine-sweet ones like “I know you’re smarter than me.” (Even with all my privilege, this happens. So how much more often, for people with far less privilege than I?)
Those people will tell it to you, too. When they do, just remember my handsome Pool Hall Dude, leaning over a cue and smiling at me. And know that I wish I’d thrown my drink in his charming face. Now, I don’t advocate actually throwing drinks. I wouldn’t even necessarily advocate having an argument in the pool hall, depending on how safe and effective you feel discussing these issues in that context. But I do advocate, at the very least, keeping track of those moments and what they mean. Watch the cultural tapestry, think about how often feminist perspectives get turned aside or boiled down or stereotyped or silenced.
And speak up whenever you can.