Erotic Capital is a sociological tour de force debunking feminist orthodoxies from liberal to radical, making a case for the legalization of sex work and addressing the positive role of flirtation and sex appeal for women. This book is part ‘self-help’, part diatribe and all empirically based. Hakim has several axes to grind and it’s all based on her conception of what she calls Erotic Capital. Erotic Capital is the notion that appearance is an asset that people can use towards social and economic advancement. Good looks are similarly beneficial to other social advantages such as having wealthy parents, a good education or intelligence would be.
Hakim constructs Erotic Capital as a robust concept which involves several factors, sexual attractiveness being the obvious one, but there are others such social graces, liveliness and good social presentation. These features are associated with good looks but Hakim points out how many people can improve their erotic capital by their attire, improving their fitness or their behavior around others. Erotic Capital applies more specifically to women than men. This is because men tend to be more sexually focused and aroused than women are. This is what Hakim calls the ‘Male Sex Deficit’. Men tend to report being not sexually satisfied enough and this, affects much of their social behavior in a variety of other social situations such as in the world of work. Hakim refers to a variety of public health datasets from around Europe and the USA which backs many of her claims about the sexual behavior of men and women, Hakim’s one great appeal in Erotic Capital is her voluminous citations to social research.
Hakim claims that many liberal feminists overplay the social construction of gendered behavior, the data in fact shows that men tend to be more sexually driven and women less so, this isn’t a media or male created propaganda. Contrary to the radical feminists, women should embrace their erotic capital as an asset, whether it's to achieve success in the workplace, get married to a rich man, or engage in sex work. Hakim’s thesis reads as if an inversion of patriarchy: instead of the narrative of men subjugating women through their objectification, women can get ahead by using the fact that men tend to be so fixated upon sex and appearance.
Hakim goes into detail about the ‘premiums’ afforded to attractiveness: lawyers who are attractive tend to be more likely to win cases, tall men are well represented in the highest levels of management and leadership because they are symbolically considered as good leaders. Hakim addresses the nuances of erotic capital, however. While attractive women can make their way through job interviews, women who ‘tone down’ their attractiveness are more likely to occupy upper management. I would think that anyone working or researching in organizational science should consider these observations seriously.
Hakim urges the reader to rethink sex work through the lens of erotic capital. Sex work should be legalized considered just like any other profession and should not be denigrated. The real surprise about sex work for Hakim is why so many women don’t consider it as a financial option. Hakim points to various testimonies and sources about how women have used sexuality to earn an amount of money that many women would not gain otherwise. The putative assumptions about sex work are simply misinformed and part of what Hakim calls the Anglo-American puritan mindset that is too afraid to talk about sex.
While beauty has a premium, unattractiveness has a cost. Hakim is very scathing about fat politics and there seems to be no line between her personal views and the facts when she states her disapproval of fat-acceptance discourses. Fat is not a feminist issue for Hakim, fat is a health issue. Hakim points to data that shows overweight people are less represented in upper pay scales and management positions. By mixing her own views with the social research that supports her assertions, Hakim’s monograph is simultaneously all the more convincing as well as methodologically suspect. Social scientists should normally engage in critical distance from their subject matter so as not to let their own views and prejudices get in the way of interpreting the data. However, some issues are so personal and all-encompassing to social life that it's impossible to be objective about it, appearance is one such candidate of this.
While this is an academic book, it is written in an accessible and clear way. It would suit the general reader and most readers should not have a problem comprehending Hakim’s thesis. While technical terms are kept to a minimum, there is an appendix for the more technical sociological issues that underlie Erotic Capital, namely, in the measurement of the concept and a list of extensive references to the studies that Hakim refers to.
This is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in gender politics or social psychology. I suspect that people such as the liberal or radical feminist who will already disagree with the conclusions of the book will not like it, but I would implore that such a person takes Hakim’s thesis seriously, especially since it is well argued and distinctly challenging. This book could be seen as a warped means to social advancement and does have a vibe of a self-help book. Although Erotic Capital is written in an accessible manner, it’s not easy to read from a moral point of view. The world portrayed is of a world where image counts and even pretty children have a social advantage over their peers. Despite how abhorrent Hakim’s conclusions may be or how uncomfortable one is about the world she depicts, there is something refreshingly honest about the way she addresses Erotic Capital, it is the elephant in the room for any serious discourse on equality of opportunity or the idea of a meritocracy with regard to gender. If there’s one social myth we should be honest about, it’s the idea that hard work and determination solely can get you ahead, or that discrimination is a thing of the past: discrimination is simply more nuanced.
© 2012 Michael Pereira
Michael Pereira has an MA in Philosophy and a BSc in Sociology and Philosophy. He has been invited to give talks on Kant's philosophy, social science and the philosophical underpinnings of ecology. His area of interest is Kant's theoretical philosophy and Kant's (supposed) relevance to contemporary philosophy of science.