Erotic Capital

By Will Self

In a typically razor-sharp exchange of dialogue which establishes – yet again – that The Simpsons provides the most coruscating illumination of contemporary mores, Lisa says to her grade school teacher that “Good looks don’t really matter”, to which Ms Hoover replies: “Nonsense, that’s just something ugly people tell their children.” Stripping away the layers of irony from this statement we can reveal the central premise of Catherine Hakim’s book, which is that not only do looks matter, but that they should matter a great deal more. Furthermore, the people who tell young people – and in particular young women – that their beauty and sex appeal are of little importance are themselves ugly, if not physically then at least morally. For, as Hakim sees it, it is an “unholy alliance” of wannabe patriarchs, religious fundamentalists and radical feminists who have – in Anglo-Saxon countries especially – acted to devalue what she terms “erotic capital”. In Hakim’s estimation, for all young women, and in particular those who are without other benefits – financial, intellectual, situational – an entirely legitimate form of self-advancement should consist in their getting the best out of – if you’ll forgive the pun – their assets.

Hakim, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, is no tub-thumping provocateur, but a well-established sociologist with a string of publications to her name. And Honey Money, despite its somewhat racy title – which comes, apparently, from an expression employed by Jakarta prostitutes: “No money, no honey” – is configured as a serious academic exercise, complete with rather leaden prose, extensive annotation, reams of statistical evidence, appendices and tedious repetitions. Nevertheless, I envisage a blizzard of opprobrium enveloping Hakim, for she has set out here a thesis seemingly purpose-built to inflame the passions of a wide swathe of the opinionated. Taking as her starting point Pierre Bourdieu‘s well-established analysis of forms of individual capital – monetary capital itself, human capital (intelligence potentiated by education) and social capital (patronage, nepotism and other network benefits) – Hakim proposes another form: “erotic capital”. She acknowledges that this term has been used by sociologists in the US to refer to physical appearance and sex appeal, but claims that her definition – widened to encompass other skills such as charm, sociability and actual sexual expertise – is both original and powerfully explicatory.

In some ways I think she’s right. There’s something altogether refreshing about Hakim’s spade-calling, which recalls to mind Schopenhauer‘s infamous remarks in his essay “On Women”: “With girls, Nature has had in view what is called in a dramatic sense a ‘striking effect’, for she endows them for a few years with a richness of beauty and a fullness of charm at the expense of the rest of their lives; so that they may during these years ensnare the fantasy of a man to such a degree as to make him rush into taking the honourable care of them, in some kind of form, for a lifetime – a step which would not seem sufficiently justified if he only considered the matter.” Certainly the pessimistic philosopher’s own dealings with women conformed to this view: a lifelong bachelor, he was not so much an enthusiastic as a dutiful customer of prostitutes – attending the brothel as regularly as other haute-bourgeois men visit their club.

Hakim endorses Schopenhauer’s characterisation of the “striking effect” of young women’s beauty and sex appeal, and gives us cross-cultural statistics to prove that not only is their “erotic capital” consistently greater than that of young men, but that it is also always undervalued: it is attractive young men who get the better jobs and secure the higher wages, attractive young men who end up being US president – regardless of their skin colour. This might seem counter-intuitive in a world seemingly plastered with images of this “striking effect”, displayed in every possible state of dress and undress, but the strength of Hakim’s analysis lies in the very crudeness of its metric. According to her, while young women may possess considerable charms, men’s desire for them always vastly outstrips supply. The reverse is simply not the case: men are both less attractive to women, and markedly less desired by them, especially as those women grow older. What Hakim terms “the male sex-deficit” underlies both the ubiquity of female sexual imagery – as pornography, as marketing adjunct – and the persistent unwillingness ofsociety at large to “valorise” women’s good looks. It is, quite simply, not in the interests of all those priapic patriarchs to allow women to actualise their erotic capital, for to do so would seismically alter the balance of power between the sexes.

That the religiously dogmatic and the merely male chauvinist should have both demonised – and, paradoxically, diminished – the impact of female sexuality from time out of mind, is, following Hakim, only to be expected. In Anglo Saxon societies, such as our own, the net result is, she avers, that we have less sex overall than they do in steamier, less puritanical climes, while our sexual relations are mediated by a tiresome push-me, pull-you interaction: men wanting sex, women refusing it. According to Hakim, Christian monogamy is, quite simply, a “political strategy” devised by the patriarchy in order to ensure that even the least attractive/wealthy/powerful men gain at least one sexual partner.

But while this part of Honey Money may be relatively non-contentious for feminists, Hakim does not spare them her condemnation. The sexual revolution of the 1960s – effective contraception, the loosening of monogamous ties, the devaluation of female virginity – far from enabling women to empower themselves, actually exposed them to still more male exploitation. The post-60s male assumption became that women not only wanted sex as much as them – but that they were obliged to provide it, and for free. Free from the obligation to support children, free from the requirement to pay in any other way.

Hakim’s view is that the myth of “equality of desire” is endorsed by feminists, and that this leads to what she terms the “medicalisation of low desire”, whereby therapists and counsellors try to convince women that their lack of sex-drive is a function of psychopathology rather than hormones. She anticipates being criticised by feminists as an “essentialist”, who defines men and women by biological characteristic, but rejoins – I think fairly – that the feminist position is equally so.

I have necessarily outlined Hakim’s arguments with a fairly broad brush here. It needs be noted that she pays particular attention to gay sexual interactions as a sort of “test case” for how male desire operates when there is no “sex deficit” to contend with – the results of this counterfactual are, at best, tendentious. But more destructive of Hakim’s argument is her proposed solution: nothing less than a complete legalisation – and liberalisation – of prostitution and other “sex work”. Schopenhauer would undoubtedly approve, but I think it takes a particularly odd combination of the dewy-eyed and the hard-hearted to view young, attractive women prostituting themselves to older, uglier, wealthier men as a pretty state of affairs.

In support of her happy hooker scenario, Hakim’s choice of cultural references displays an achingly tin ear for cultural nuance – she seems to think that Catherine Millet‘s memoir of sexual addiction is a tale of female empowerment, while Pauline Réage’s pseudonymous Story of Obecomes a joyous Gallic sex romp, rather than the desperate attempt by an ageing woman to retain her lover by pandering on paper to his sadomasochism. Overall, Hakim believes that they “order these matters better in France”, what with their – alleged – toleration of extramarital affairs and superior female personal grooming, to which the double-barrelled rejoinder is surely: Strauss-Kahn. And if one further tone-deaf example were needed, Hakim seems to believe that Richard Branson has “erotic capital”. I rest my case.

I do think Hakim is largely right about the hypocrisies implicit in contemporary feminism’s attack on female “erotic capital” – and she’s certainly right about patriarchal attitudes. But by advocating that the undoubtedly existent “sex deficit” be made good with prostitution, she exposes the neoliberal calculus implicit in the very term itself. ReadingHoney Money, I was reminded again and again of The Communist Manifesto: “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and feasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” We all know what Marx meant by “it”, and it certainly wasn’t some conveniently inter-sex individual.

No, the examples of female empowerment quoted by Hakim that have real force come from traditional cultures, rather than those infected by sexually transmitted free-market “sexonomics” (another ugly coinage of hers to explain the beauteous premium). Besides, what would a society look like in which everyone exploited their own erotic capital to its fullest advantage, while ties of affection, responsibility and – dare I say it? – love, were concomitantly downgraded? Surely, among the losers would be roving mobs of poor and plug-ugly sex-starved men … Hm, plus ça change, as one of Hakim’s grandes horizontales might well put it.

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