Friday 25 November 2011

Not the whole story

Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, by Catherine Hakim (Allen Lane, 2011)

We all like a bargain, something that’s value for money. And that’s what this book is about - the financial advantages of selling sex, and the way it could take off, become a bigger part of the way we work, give women a better deal in life. But is this vision for the future the real deal or just a tease?

Dr Catherine Hakim - a Senior Research Fellow in Sociology at the London School of Economics- is a controversial figure. Among feminists, she is viewed as a heretic and – like dissidents such as Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia - has come under fire from the sisterhood for expressing unpopular theories that contradict feminism’s mainstream beliefs. She has, for instance argued that European women still want to marry financially successful men who earn more than themselves, and that men continue to dominate top positions because women do not want careers in business. This is not exactly the sort of stuff which gets you plaudits within orthodox feminist circles. Now she has published this book, which does nothing to weaken her reputation. Its main purpose is to argue that erotic capital, which she defines as ‘a nebulous but crucial combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills - a combination of physical and social attractiveness which makes some men and women agreeable company and colleagues, attractive to all members of their society and especially to the opposite sex’, is not only a potent force but could also be set for growth in today’s highly sexualised culture. (‘No money, no honey’ - the brush-off given by Jakarta party and bar girls to men who try to get sex by buying a girl a few drinks - is the source of the book’s title.)

The book deals first with establishing - in the face of puritanism (both sacred and secular) - the existence of erotic capital. Hakim asserts that patriarchy has sought to control erotic capital - which is an asset held mainly by women because males have a greater interest in physical sex than women (this leads to what Hakim calls the male sex deficit) - as a way of maintaining male hegemony in society as a whole. This has been carried-out via religious prohibitions on, and the general disparaging of, female sexuality. But she also, as a sort of feminist bare-knuckle fighter facing not only a tough opponent but also a baying crowd, reminds us of some matters that feminists have chosen to ignore. She comes out with some straightforward stuff which - arguably - needs saying for feminism to retain its credibility among ordinary women. She points out that mainstream feminism, with its rage against men, puritanical dislike of fashion and cosmetics, and constant conferring of victim status on women - views which remain the staple content of many contemporary gender studies courses - has made feminism seem irrelevant to many young women today.

Many women like the traditional adjuncts of femininity. Hakim reinforces her point about the sex deficit when she asserts that attempts to start ‘top shelf’ magazines for women have generally ended in failure (although she rather undermines her argument when she suggests that this may have been due to the magazinesbeing unwilling to take legal risks by showing erections.) She also brings the unwelcome but accurate news that modern tolerance for gays is limited, being more prevalent in northern Europe. But Hakim’s analysis is not without its faults. For instance, Christianity comes in for criticism over its madonna/whore attitude to women - hardly a new observation - but it can be argued that Western women received a certain empowerment from Christianity until Protestantism expelled Mariology from its theological and devotional life. And it would be interesting to know how many religions - apart from some fertility cults -look favourably on eroticism of any sort. There is some mention of Islam and its approach to women’s sexuality but not much. Yet surely more could have been said on this subject: today, calls for women to cover up - and for eroticism in general to be swept under the carpet - are doubtless more likely to come from mullahs than monsignors.

Hakim’s book becomes more problematic when, building on this fieldwork, she argues that the use of erotic capital by women will not only change their role but also help them get a better deal in both public and private life, so revolutionising power structures as well as big business, the sex industry, government and… well, almost everything. As examples she gives fashion model Kate Moss and glamour model Katie Price (aka Jordan) as role models for young women ‘who do not see themselves ashaving the academic interests that would take them into higher education and boring office jobs’. But is this good advice? Apart from the fact that Moss and Price are, essentially, showbiz figures - a calling to which many people may feel themselves called but in which few are chosen for the dizzy heights of stardom - these women depend on a whole army of people doing ‘boring office jobs’, such as the administration and management of the businesses for which they work and which somebody has to do.

Hakim mentions a 2009 survey of 3,000 teenage girls in Britain which showed that one quarter of them thought it was more important to be beautiful than clever, but we can probably assume safely that these girls did not come from homes, or attend schools,where educational excellence was valued for either sex. Women (and men) aspiring to achieve success through showbiz should aim for the top by all means, but remember that it’s just as well to have some form of education or trade to fall back on in case success eludes them (and one wonders how many celebs have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous managers and accountants because they haven’t had the education to examine in detail the small print of their contracts or read their accounts).

The sexual revolution which has enlarged the role of erotic capital has also, arguably, been responsible for the divorce laws which make it easy for men to dump women once they’ve lost their attractiveness. Even with a pre-nup, there is always the possibility that, due to her husband’s clever lawyer, a divorcee will find herself severely out of pocket. Hakim also advocates prostitution as a path of female advancement and cites the example of Belle de Jour (aka Dr Brooke Magnanti) of sex blog fame. But Magnanti was using prostitution as a short-term money making activity, so how representative is she of the workers in her one-time profession? Would the use of prostitutes simply perpetuate the regarding of women (and rent boys) as being second-class citizens? Is the Happy Hooker a role-model of female empowerment or a male self-justifying fantasy for which Hakim has fallen?

It is this possible over-estimation of erotic capital which is Hakim’s partial undoing. Her desire to diss patriarchal misogyny and feminist critics alike might be said to have resulted in her exaggerating the role of erotic capital in society as a whole. Again she undermines herself when, referring to leadership, she says that beauty and sex appeal ‘are advantages, but not essential. Neither Lenin nor Hitler were handsome men’. (She also points out the high esteem given to Nick Clegg for his erotic capital, although it doesn’t seem to have given him an easy ride through the messy compromises of the Coalition.)

Erotic capital has its place in the entertainment and hospitality industries, whilst working with a person who combines an attractive appearance with good manners helps to make life that bit more pleasant. But we must not forget the strong popular perception that reliance on attractiveness can have its dark side, whilst a long tradition of scepticism exists about its supposed content and benefits. ‘Handsome is as handsome does’ - the old female warning - is evidence of this, as is the use of the term ‘lounge lizard’ to describe a good-looking slimy schemer. Hakim doesn’t seem to stop to think that a true social revolution might come with encouraging more women to enter science and technology as alternatives to either office work or showbiz. A female Steve Jobs would be more of a power statement – for both sexes, but in different ways - than another actress / singer/ dancer/ model trotting down the red carpet. Hakim’s book performs a service in attacking anti-female puritanism but appearance is not the whole story - as history reminds us. Winston Churchill was fat, balding, elderly, a depressive and a drinker. But his lone defiance of Hitler paved the way to victory. A decade later, prime minister Anthony Eden was suave and with the good looks of a film matinee idol. His legacy? Suez.


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