Book Review: Erotic Capital

September 22, 2011

We all know people who get by on their looks. For women, that has often been the only way to get ahead. But when feminists fought for greater legal and professional rights for women, did they inherit a patriarchal devaluation of feminine beauty and sexual power – and in doing so neutralize a natural advantage? And if they did, should women take back this advantage, and use their looks and sexuality to get ahead?

This is part of the premise of a controversial new book by British sociologist Catherine Hakim. In Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, adds to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capital assets. Bourdieu identifies three types of personal assets: economic capital (what you own), cultural capital (what you know), and social capital (who you know). Hakim adds erotic capital to the list as a separate, definitive personal asset. She includes in her definition of erotic capital not only beauty, sexuality, and fertility, but also charm, liveliness, and style. And she does note that the last three can be cultivated by almost anyone, if they desire to raise their overall attractiveness. But the emphasis on sexuality in her book is where she invites controversy.

Dr. Hakim proposes that the puritanical English and American patriarchy has shamed women from using this form of capital in order to control female sexuality – and that feminists have inherited this disdain and wrongfully included it in their theories of gender, sexuality, and sociology. She points out that while women are discouraged to use their erotic capital instrumentally (i.e. for anything but non-demanding love), men are free to use any form of capital they possess, without censure. And she writes of a “male sex deficit” that gives women and female sexuality the advantage of rarity.

Now, I was raised in the South, so when I read this, I heard an inner Ron White voice say, “Well, duuuuh!” But as a feminist I am also sensitive to the very political incorrectness of these statements. And I’m not sure I want to commodify every aspect of my being!

Feminist fear of overstating the value of erotic capital is valid. When women have so many talents to offer, we don’t want to be reduced to a merely sexual identity. But does that mean that concepts of gender and divergent female sexuality have to be destroyed? Is that even possible?

Hakim says no. She brings up study after study that show that gender is not just a performance, that men’s and women’s sexual desires are very different, and that women’s beauty and fertility are undervalued in English and American society.

In work as in life, the playing field is never truly level. It would be nice if everyone could be judged solely on work and merit. It would also be nice if everyone had the same access to the best schools and the socialization required to excel in them. But obviously looks do matter – and Hakim points out that men  are far more rewarded for them in the workplace than women. And she does not shy away from the known fact that it’s usually people without other forms of capital who are the first to use their erotic capital to get ahead. Is there a class bias against women’s use of erotic capital? Is it a way for those who do have educational and economic capital to unconsciously enforce class boundaries? Hakim doesn’t say, though an example like Anna Nicole Smith might be illustrative.

Hakim also doesn’t go much into the pleasure of beauty, of charm, of grace and liveliness. She’s a social scientist, not a bon vivant. But that’s where I think both she and feminist theorists miss an important point. A whole lot of us like beauty, we like harmony, we like charm. As a woman I may like them even more – they make life easier, better, and more fun. And in a society where every asset – and every behavior – can be considered instrumental and transactional, niceties like charm get a bad rap.

I do think Dr. Hakim raises some valid points. The demand that women’s sexual and emotional work should only be done for love and never for money is, indeed, sexist and one-sided. Like men, we should feel free to be as instrumental with our assets as we choose. But pointing out these as facts is one thing – how they work in practice is quite another. If as women, we commodify our erotic capital en masse, we do face a real risk of reverting to being valued only for our sexuality. The paint’s not dry on feminism, and we know that we can mess things up for ourselves.

And while much of Hakim’s theory points to a more cold and calculated use of sexuality, she does include other aspects of erotic capital such as charm, grace, and manners. These things are attractive both on the job and off, can be nurtured at any age, and do not have the limited shelf life of beauty and sexiness. But any discussion of them will likely get lost in the controversy over the more sexual aspects of erotic capital. Which is a shame, since these are aspects that can be developed over time by both genders and shared freely. And there is real social value, and social pleasure, in using them – commodified or not.

Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom

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