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The truth behind “erotic capital”


This honey needs no money

Mary Tracy
WVoN co-editor

In trying to make sense of UK sociologist Catherine Hakim’s theory of “erotic capital”, described in her new book “Honey Money”, brace yourself for disappointment.

Her theory is impossible to understand and the reason is, quite simply, that it doesn’t make any sense.

In an interview last week with Kirsty Wark on BBC Newsnight, Hakim had this to say about “erotic capital”:

“Social and physical attractiveness (…) give people an advantage in all social situations.

“If you understand erotic capital and the power that it gives you in social situations, you’ll be more successful in friendships, in the work place and in the power it gives you in public life”.

Apparently “erotic capital is one of the personal assets that has been overlooked” and now we need to focus on it.

Well, colour me shocked. As most girls over the age of five are painfully aware, “people prefer pretty girls”. Coming out and stating that “social and physical attractiveness” give people “advantages” is not exactly breaking new ground.

By my reckoning, it would be almost impossible for a woman to go about her life for one day and not be reminded, one way or another, that “people prefer pretty women”.

Nevertheless, Hakim feels the need to rub more salt in the wound by providing us with statistics: “research evidence shows that people who are socially and physically attractive earn between 10 to 20 % more than people who are unattractive”.

And just in case she hadn’t managed to offend every woman within shouting distance, Hakim adds that “feminists have been reluctant to accept that it can be an advantage and a benefit”.

Engaging with her argument feels like giving her much more credit than she deserves. But for argument’s sake, I want to point out this: feminists have always known that attractiveness in women is an “advantage” and a “benefit”.

But what feminists have also known is that first, attractiveness cannot be held by all women, or even most women, which means that the vast majority of the female population are left without any “advantage”. And second, that this “attractiveness” tends not to last for very long.

Feminism has been in the business of liberating all women for the whole of their lives, and so any “hierarchy” which benefits a few, for a while, at the expense of the many, for most of their lives, is a “hierarchy” which feminists are bound to take issue with.

Fortunately for the audience, the Newsnight production team invited someone else to try and stop the madness being spouted by Hakim: UK journalist and feminist Laurie Penny.

Penny raised issue with the basic premise of the book: that women are judged by their appearance, that this is the way it is and we have to accept it; that, in short, the world can never change. Penny argued that that’s not good enough.

She referred to the approach of the sex industry, sex work and erotic capital as a “mercenary way of talking about relationships between people”. What struck her was that this book was very “inhuman”, adding that: “it’s talking about human relationships as a species of return, as marketing, and selling yourself”.

At this point Wark gave us a clear example of journalistic objectivity by interrupting Penny and saying “isn’t it the case, that people are mercenary and calculating when it comes to relationships”.

Why did she choose to take this position in the debate? She essentially validated the (I’m guessing) unwritten assumption of this book, assumptions that the writer herself hadn’t mentioned in the “debate” but which Penny was taking issue with.

This is a very political assumption, and Penny challenged it by saying “Well, no, I think you can think better things of people, I think people are also very loving, and it’s possible to be decent to one another without seeing life as a constant market where you have to constantly sell yourself; this is a very sad view of the world”.

Penny’s argument was very radical indeed. I believe she was going with her heart when she effectively questioned the inhuman way that economists see human relationships.

This most likely helped her stick to her guns and oppose the nonsense of “erotic capital”, in the face of what probably amounts to endless pages of economic jargon and countless quotes of dubious research.

By going with her heart, Penny could effectively see beyond the “bs”. And she was right in her conclusion, no doubt about it.

Unfortunately, heart counts for very little in political debate, especially around the economy. This shouldn’t surprise us: the world is run by the economy, not by people’s hearts.

What Penny’s argument amounted to, in fancier words that economists are more likely to recognise, is this: challenging the principle of the homo economicus.

And what does that mean? Well, the homo economicus is a concept that economists came up with to make their field sound more… “natural”, more like an inescapable fact of human nature.

They all got together and “re defined” human nature, and then went about believing that their definition is true. And that definition states that humans are rational, selfish, calculating, etc. Market economies accept this definition as true.

Questioning the acceptance of people as “mercenary”, as Penny argued, amounts to questioning the homo economicus, which in turn amounts to questioning market economy which in turn means questioning the current economic system. Seen from this light, Penny was making quite radical arguments indeed.

The concept of “erotic capital” is an attempt to further capitalise on yet another aspect of human life.

What Hakim is trying to do is give businesses and corporations something to exploit. Or exploit further.

By naming it and describing it she is re-appropriating something that belongs to people, to societies; she’s packaging it and putting a price tag on it. This is how business works, how “capital” works. This is how you make money.

Armed wit this “knowledge” of “erotic capital”, businesses and corporations will capitalize on it, by turning assets like “physical attractiveness” into profits.

Hakim is encouraging people to do a similar thing: to go and “sell” themselves, their sexuality, their feelings, their appearance. And yet, the question that bears asking is “how will this affect people”?

Once you start selling your attractiveness or grace, how do you get it back? Once you start “flirting discreetly”, as she says in her book, for personal gain, how do you know when you are flirting out of a genuine desire to appeal to a particular person? Most importantly, how will other people know?

This is the reality behind “erotic capital”. After we have sold our labour, after we have sold our “communities”, after we have sold everything we had, we are now encouraged to sell off our feelings, our relationships, our appearance, how we come across to other people. And all in the name of power and profit.

This is the mercenary and calculating reality of the market. It is not, as many would assume, the reality of human relationships.

Like Penny said, people can be very loving, but that requires people to engage with each other as full human beings, from a place of honesty. In order to do that, we must discard the idea of “erotic capital”, of exploiting one another by exploiting ourselves.

Because there is an alternative; and the one offered by Hakim is just not good enough.

  1. This is a great analysis of the issue surrounding the book and subsequent interview. I agree that there are just some things that cannot be bought and sold.

    The question remains for me, however, if others exploit us, should we not be empowered to exploit for our own gain as well? I have lived in several cultures, but none have so far been so exploitative as the one here in London in my particular field. It is shocking the extent to which people treat other human beings as commodities.

    And at the same time, the very definition of exploitative is: to employ the greatest possible advantage. There is nothing wrong with that.

    I just wish employing the greatest possible advantage did not necessarily mean domination of other human beings. There are infinite creative ways to exploit, and I mean that in the good sense. It is a good lesson for capitalism to be sure.

  2. Jane Osmond says:

    Sadly this is true – the market rules and it is cost of everything and the value of nothing that dictates everything – a point I was trying to get across during another thread about higher education recently. Also it occurred to me that a lot of men see women as nothing more than threats to their wallets and this is the type of crap that underlines this mode of thinking. Gah.

    • I was about to comment that this would be a useful article to reference in the higher education debate! Measuring everything and assigning monetary value to it is no way for any creature to live but we all seem in thrall to economics – all the way from the mega rich who wish to stay so to the poorest who are trying to get by or climb the ladder to success themselves.

      • Jane Osmond says:

        Yes, and what disturbs me very much is the uncritical acceptance of economic determinism which is why I am very much in favour of the humanities subjects, such as communication, culture and media which I undertook, that gave me the skills to see ‘behind the curtain’, or at least always ask in ‘whose interest?’. Without these kind of subjects fostering students’ critical thinking skills, the status quo will not be questioned – and, we have to ask, in whose interest is this?

  3. Really good article. I read both the interview with Zoe Williams and the book review in the Guardian this weekend and I think this article demonstrates that they had the measure of her. Seems she’s giving a consistent impression of stating the obvious badly…

    Amongst the issues raised in this article and the comments above, I’m also intrigued as to why she’s had so much coverage? It has some media ‘sexiness’ about it of course, but it doesn’t seem to be worthy of the level of the interest it’s receiving.

  4. Jem, I believe that part of the reason why she’s had so much coverage is because of it contributes to the “acceptance” and “normalisation” of the sex industry. By talking about “men needing sex” and women having “erotic capital”, describing the process in sheer economic terms, she’s making the “transaction” sound far more acceptable.

    She’s validating the idea of everyone as seeking monetary gain and everything as up for buying and selling.

    @ Halla. Measuring everything in terms of monetary gain is not a good tactic, but it’s the only way you can have a market economy. Especially one as out of control as ours.

    • I find it interesting that the article doesn’t mention the sex industry and yet that’s the industry we assume this applies to. 🙂

      • Halla, I’m not sure we are? My understanding is that the use of Erotic Capital can be applied across the board,in any and all industries. Most obviously in the sex industry of course, but that’s not what either Catherine Hakim or, I believe Mary Tracy, to have been focussing on?

        • Not specificially but it is mentioned in Mary Tracy’s comment ^ there. I find it telling – a book which appears to be advising us to sell ourselves based on sex appeal leads us to consider the sex industry. I’m not making any moral point about it. 🙂

          • Well, the title of the book comes from an expression that prostitutes in Jakarta use.

            Also the dynamic in the sex industry is the blueprint for the exploitation of all interpersonal relationships. (this sounds actually quite convoluted). Meaning that “selling a smile” is on the same spectrum as “selling your sexuality”. Once one is seen as normal, the other one will follow.

          • Good point Halla, I’d missed that bit! Sorry. I think sex industry or not, the argument that it legitimatises the “Men like sex” / “Women use sex to control men” stereotypes does little to help women (or men for that matter) in any industry.

            How many times have people implied that X only got her position because she’s pretty/young/batted her eyelashes etc? As I see it Hakim is handing ammunition to that argument.

    • Mary, I think that’s quite a likely reason, yes. Although, most of the coverage is quite scathing, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition.

      I love the capitalist angle that you’ve picked up on and that is born out by the comments. I think this is well worth deeper consideration.

      On the topic in general, I personally believe that women and men have been using sex as a power tool forever. As you say, that looks matter is old news, we’re a visual species. That humans flirt, or perhaps simply use their nicest charms, to get what they want out of life is also not news. I have to ask, why on earth shouldn’t we? Isn’t it easier to get something by being nice and friendly than by beating the other person into submission?

      Clearly the problems arise when that behaviour confuses people. When people (on both sides of the game) lose the ability to tell the difference between ‘business’ and ‘pleasure’. I’m not sure Hakim’s ‘theory’ brings anything new to this discussion though. Seems like she’s just trying to categorize something that requires significantly more thought than she’s given it.

      I think we want to think it’s a simple interaction between, not just men and women, but human beings, when actually it’s a pretty fundamental part underpinning humanity..

  5. “That humans flirt, or perhaps simply use their nicest charms, to get what they want out of life is also not news”

    Flirting to get what you want would have quite a different meaning for a hunter-gatherer society with no patriarchal values than it does in our society, where it leads to exploitation, oppression, etc. Also, I’m not so sure that in a primitive society people would use their charms to get what they want. We have to remember that just because we have always done it in our society, it doesn’t mean that this is what humans do.

    And what I’m trying to say in my piece (sounds so fancy, “my piece”), is that the moment that “being nice” is done for personal gain, there is no way to know if “being nice” is the result of “liking someone” or not. So it destroys the experience for everyone.

    • Mary, yes of course human interaction is going to vary with time and cultural setting, social ‘norms’ etc. And what is or was does not mean it is how it always must be, nor that it could have never been different.

      I’m wondering though, isn’t everyone nice (interpret ‘nice’ however you wish) for personal gain at times? So at what point do we rein it in?

      • My approach is to let people do whatever they want and limit ourselves to controlling businesses and corporations. So when a business starts demanding their employees to “smile” and, in essence, pretend they are ecstatic at the sight of a customer, that’s when I believe we should step in and say “no”.

        (Also applicable to the use of niceness, sexiness, etc in advertising.)

  6. Jem – yeah the handing over ammunition thing, that’s what I was trying to get at I think. The whole book seems to be an exercise in finding a new angle to profit from selling niceness (on its sliding scale from a smile and a ‘thank you’ to literally selling the use of bodies) – write about how we sell niceness and how it can add an advantage.

    Mary – I know what you mean. I would rather take the view that people are being nice because they *are* nice, and I will probably be nice back to them too because a nicer world is a more pleasant one! I suppose that may leave me open to slight exploitation from people only pretending to be nice but I’ll take that chance. 😉

  7. Catherine Hakim was focusing on women who in her view are supposed to 24/7 exploit their ‘erotic capital’ by pandering to men. Nothing new there Hakim because this what male supremacist system has demanded women enact for centuries. I do not see men ‘enacting erotic capital’ by fluttering their eyelashes at female colleagues or female customers.

    Homo economicus refers to men because ‘homo’ is I believe a male term not a female one. Makes sense given it is male economists who are claiming selling oneself is a worthy endeavour but it immediately begs the question who benefits? Is it men or women? No guesses it is men because men are autonomous beings whereas women supposedly only exist to serve men and therefore what Hakim’s badly written polemic is promoting is continuance of male control over women.

    After all malestream media claims women are men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities so this is why malestream media has given so much publicity to this overpriced and poorly written book.

    Furthermore male supremacy has always made the claim that slaves were essential in order to maintain good economics – so telling women their only asset is ‘being sexually hot to men’ ensures the status quo remains the same.

    • Wesley Harris says:

      What exactly is your problem with capitalism ?
      Selling oneself is in essence what we do when
      we go to do a job, erstwhile being our time for
      The next logical step is selling our literal selves
      for a profit here or there. The only real problem with
      such a system is the outdated morality concepts that many
      of us surround ourselves with. If you aren’t comfortable
      doing a certain thing, don’t do it. But the idea of capitalizing
      on ones natural traits and assets is something that is to be
      commended, not something that is to be buried because you are uncomfortable with the idea of it.
      Sexualizing the capitalist system, forex incorporating oneself and
      selling certain interactions and situations for a profit is something to be commended, not something to be railed again.
      Being puritan here is not going to help the cause you fight for, no more than would a religion pushing a single style of dress.
      Accept that others want to do these things, some do not, sure but others do. It does not exist as a problem solely on the society of Men because you have a chip or a beef on your shoulders.

  8. copleycat says:

    “After all malestream media claims women are men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities so this is why malestream media has given so much publicity to this overpriced and poorly written book.”

    I totally agree and I like the term “malestream media”. I think this book advocates for an incredibly dangerous practice. In part for reasons that Mary covered above and also precisely because men still do have significantly more power than women at nearly every level; you can’t make a fair trade when the playing field is that skewed. Not that I think trading yourself is ever a good idea. Accepting the status of sexualized commodity crushes a part of you.

    Also I agree with what Jem was pointing out that this book gives ammo to people who think that all women are out to trick men with sex. I saw a staggering number of comments elsewhere accusing Diallo of having consented to the assault that DSK perpetrated against her and only then causing trouble when she felt she should have been monetarily reimbursed. I guess if you assume women are trying to trap you with sex then you assume that women are just malevolent to start with and springing that trap so to speak, can then be rationalized as some courageous act of liberty in your mind instead of the cowardly act of rape that it actually is.

  9. It is interesting that some men see women as trying to ‘trap’ them with sex. I can’t help but think that this assumption is based upon what they would do if they were women themselves.

    • This brings to mind something we covered in my Feminism studies at uni, many years ago so I apologise as I cannot give references.

      There was discussion that proper understanding of the reproductive system of humans had been significantly impaired and slowed down due to misconceptions of how the egg and sperm behaved relating to social attitudes at the time. First it was believed the egg just sat there, waiting for it’s ‘princely sperm’ to heroically breach it’s soft walls. Then later the egg lay in weight, luring the poor, unsuspecting sperm to almost certain death but for the one cunning enough to break the barriers…etc..

      This is a theme that ran through my degree for me. The effect of social attitudes on scientific research, and I think the damage it can do is quite clear. But this example stuck with me, because it was so ridiculous. Expecting the cultural behaviours/attitudes/stereotypes of men and women to be born out in their biology just seems something that those involved should have been above.

      • Thanks, Jem – had never thought about that before and it’s true! 😀

        When I was at uni we did a bit on the Victorians, the lecturer showed us a slide of what appeared to be a penis. But no, this is what the Victorians believed female genitals to look like – basically a woman was an inverted man. Then there was the belief that women were less intelligent because they had smaller brains than men. Except we don’t, our brains are heavier. Oh well then, that must be because we are childlike, said Victorian science, because look at how much bigger children’s brains as a proportion of their total body size – women must be like that, then. Next time a scientist tells you they are logical and unbiased, chuckle merrily at them. 😉

    • Wesley Harris says:

      Some women seek to trap men with sex.
      Other men seek to trap women with love.
      Some women withhold sex for power.
      Some men withhold sex for power.
      ^^^^^ with love, etc etc…….
      It’s a game both sexes play well, but women are much better equipped
      at socially outwitting men than the other way around, at least typically.

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