The truth behind “erotic capital”
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.