Saturday 24 March 2018

Sex sells: Are you using your assets?

Sex sells -- so step away from the books, drop a dress size and go to charm school if you want to advance your career. Could it be that easy? As if, says Suzanne Harrington

Suzanne Harrington

Over the past week, I have turned my brain inside out thinking about erotic capital. Not whether I have it or not -- according to its inventor, it is inevitable that I do; not by being female, but by being a woman.

This is not so much in keeping with Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman, but more to do with Helena Rubinstein's rallying cry: "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones."

While Germaine Greer is all about the female -- hairy, bloody, contrary -- the inventor of erotic capital is all about the woman -- lipstick, grooming and learned charm.

So I have spent a week trying to bend my brain around the hypothesis that something called erotic capital could be used by women more effectively than other personal assets, such as, say, education.

That being "lively" -- that is, charming, funny and good company -- and spending lots of time on personal grooming will get you further than your intellect, especially if you're a woman. That it can "outweigh educational qualifications".

Let me explain. Erotic capital is, according to the inventor of the term, "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".

Attractive people earn more, are regarded as more intelligent even when they're not and have more doors opened for them (literally and metaphorically) than their overweight, ungroomed, badly dressed counterparts.

So with a bit of effort, we can all boost our erotic capital and reap the dividends.

Got that? Step away from the books, drop a dress size and go to charm school. You'll get further.

The idea comes not from a cosmetics manufacturer or some crazed right-wing idealogue harking back to pre-feminist values, but from senior LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim.

Last year, she published a paper in Oxford University's 'European Sociological Review' on her theory of erotic capital; running with it, she turned the idea into a book -- 'Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital' -- which posits that this is an under-exploited resource women have in spades, and should be used more to get ahead.

That instead of aiming for progress that is merit-based and gender neutral, women ought to do the opposite and shake their tic-tacs to get what they want.

Hakim says her theory follows on from sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu's 1983 theories of individual capital, which he divided into three categories -- financial capital (how much you own and have in the bank), human capital (your intelligence and education levels) and social capital (your connections, networks, and social leverage).

Erotic capital is our fourth asset and, says Hakim, it is not restricted to those who work in the hyper-sexualised entertainment industry (although, yes, Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga would have buckets of it, as well as plenty of the other kinds).

"Erotic capital is an important asset for all groups who have less access to economic, social and human capital, including adolescents and young people, ethnic and cultural minorities, disadvantaged groups and cross-national migrants," writes Hakim.

Feminine wiles, like the wind and the waves, are vast untapped resources which are under-exploited, and could power lives upwards if only we weren't too high-minded or repressed -- or both -- to harness our looks, charm and sexuality to our advantage.

The writer Will Self, reviewing Hakim's book in the 'Observer', calls it "a thesis seemingly purpose-built to inflame the passions of a wide swathe of the opinionated".

So far, reactions to 'Honey Money' have been clear cut along predictable political lines -- 'The Times' and the 'Telegraph' largely approve of much of the idea, the 'Daily Mail' viewed it from such a skewed angle as to render it nonsensical, and the 'Guardian' hated it.

The 'Guardian' interview between Catherine Hakim and journalist Zoe Williams was like reading a car crash -- you desperately wanted to look away, yet you couldn't avert your eyes.

Feminist blog 'Jezebel's' reaction was perhaps the most succinct: "Three Reasons Why Erotic Capital is Bullshit."

'Jezebel' dismisses the hypothesis because: the book relies on many sweeping generalisations (such as, all French women are chic and fabulous); erotic capital depreciates as women age (which it does -- a 44-year-old mother, unless perhaps you are Carla Bruni, is perceived to not have as much left in their erotic capital account as, say, a 22-year-old underwear model); erotic capital doesn't automatically translate into financial capital, even if you do sleep with your boss or the ugly rich guy.

Erotic capital is invalid, writes 'Jezebel', for the simple reason that "when your influence is based on someone else's desire, he's the one who's really in control".

Anyway. Here are the bones of Hakim's theory: women have always been conditioned to make the most of their appearance.

Men are attracted to women, but never get enough sex from them -- she calls this the "male sex deficit -- and so spend much of their time belittling female sexuality while fiercely lusting after it.

Women, therefore, should exploit this imbalance -- and their own erotic power -- to their advantage.

By being rigorous about their personal appearance -- Hakim has little patience for fatties, hairies or frumpies -- women can use this double-edged asset of their looks and men's lust to get what they want.

You'll notice I am not spluttering expletives. No, I have been carefully digesting this book, choking it down chunk by chunk, with a mind kept prised open by determined curiosity.

Initially, my reaction is that Hakim is a body fascist. "Today in affluent modern societies, extremely high levels of erotic power can be achieved through fitness training, hard work and technical aids," she writes.

"Diets, gyms and personal trainers, tanning beds and sprays, cosmetics, perfumes, wigs, weaves and hair extensions, cosmetic dentistry, cosmetic surgery, hair dyes and hairdressing, corsets, jewellery, fashion advice, a great variety of clothes and accessories to enhance appearance."

Extremes of argument aside, it would be fantasy to suggest that women don't use their erotic capital all the time -- we do it constantly, automatically, even subconsciously.

Every time we pick up a hairbrush, reach for a lipstick, heave on a Wonderbra, we are capitalising on our erotic selves.

Hakim's idea that we should do this more, and not less, is basically an overt declaration of what many of us already do as a matter of course. The area where you would probably most agree with her is when she rallies women not to downplay their charms, but to exploit them in order to make our lives easier and better, both at work and at home.

Instead of withholding sex when our partners are non-compliant, she says we ought to use sex more as a bargaining tool. And at work, she mentions studies which show how attractive people -- that is, slimmer, better-groomed people -- earn more than their less attractive colleagues.

A bit worryingly, she cites Richard Branson as an example of erotic capital, self-made on charm and appearance and rather than formal education.

It's not strictly confined to women, but given that we are the ones with whom men generally want to have sex, erotic capital is, says Hakim, more a female tool than a male one.

One of Hakim's key ideas is how society views erotic capital in women.

Unless you are a porn star, a sex worker, or an entertainer, your innate erotic capital cannot be bought, sold, bottled, merchandised or in any way commodified. It is therefore yours alone, your secret weapon.

And the powers that be don't like this very much. When it comes to female erotic power, "the elite cannot monopolise it, so it is in their interest to belittle it and sideline it".

Why do you think Jordan is banned from posh polo matches? Here is a woman who has built a business empire on erotic capital. From a single pair of inflated bosoms, she now sells Jordan-product to everyone from prepubescent girls (she 'writes' pony books and has a pink equestrian range) to adult women, who buy her lingerie, books and now a glossy magazine dedicated entirely to, yes, herself.

Despite her considerable business acumen, her multi-media savvy and her millions, she is widely considered a bad pink joke.

Whether she is or not is irrelevant. The fact is, she harnessed her erotic capital and sold it right back to us, creaming off all the profits not for a consortium of business people, but for herself.

Clever women have always done this, but we are always told that they are not clever -- that they are immoral, or cheapening themselves, or other value-laden judgements designed to keep women as men have always wanted them: quiet, compliant and shameable.

Hakim suggests a wholesale rejection of this; that instead, women should go right ahead and harness what men want in order to ultimately get what women want. That might be more money, a better job, more emotional security, whatever. It depends on the individual woman.

This unflinching take on capitalising one's erotic capital was unwittingly reflected in a recent 'Corriere della Sera' editorial by Italian journalist Piero Ostellino, writing about Berlusconi and women whom he paid for sex.

"A woman, who is conscious of sitting on her fortune and gives it -- so to speak -- to those who could help her realise this fortune, is not automatically a prostitute.

"The world is full of girls who sleep with their professor to have better grades, or with their boss to improve their career.

"Turning the girls who hang out in Berlusconi's villa into prostitutes -- after tapping their phone lines and searching their homes -- wasn't just a judicial process, but also a violation of the dignity of women, whose only fault was perhaps to use their body."


But it's unlikely that Josephine Soaps such as you or I are going to start selling bits of ourselves to the highest bidder.

Two friends of mine tried it once. One was funding her PhD, the other was a US national without a UK work visa.

They lap-danced in London for a summer, buying a shower curtain pole to practise at home, and tottering around in those see-through stripper stilettos.

They looked great, but were useless at making money from it; too polite, too restrained, too unable to disconnect from themselves and take on another persona.

The other dancers, for whom it was a full time occupation, were far more brisk and businesslike.

My friends, who were used to capitalising on their brains, were unschooled in capitalising on their bodies and flirting skills; they were in awe of the other women, who worked incredibly hard, yet were not allowed to be proud of their work because it is a truth universally acknowledged that all lap dancers are brain-dead slags.

You might think you're very far removed from all of this, but think about it next time you're getting ready to go out.

Whether it's with your friends, your partner or by yourself, it's unlikely you'll leave the house completely unadorned.

Beautiful is all very well, but it can overpower everything else. I was acquainted with a young woman with very long legs and a face so beautiful it rendered people speechless.

Going out with her meant you got in everywhere for free, because her beauty literally opened doors.

The catch? Her charm, wit and empathy had been atrophied by her looks. She had the personality of a window pane. Or a less beautiful friend used to say, "Charm, charm, charm -- without it, we are nothing".

I agree. I have no qualifications other than a Leaving Cert, but I know how to make you feel good about yourself. I am no longer young, thin or beautiful, but I wield a mean lipstick and know the power of hair dye and a proper bra.

I use what I have, the same as most of us do, and make the most of it. The alternative is to present like Comic Book Guy in 'The Simpsons'. This knowledge of erotic capital applies to both men and women. The days of men being able to slack off are long gone.

Here's the thing. Humans are attracted to sexy. We are hardwired to find sexy... well, sexy -- otherwise, as a species we would expire.

It is good to look after your physical self, principally for your own sense of well being; not for what you can get from others, but for what it gives to you.

I once knew a man in a badly paid, dead-end job, a man with zero education and little chance or ability to change his situation, who spent an hour every day of his life lifting weights in his shed.

He had the body of a god and was always immaculately groomed on a limited budget. "You have to make the most of what you've got," he said.

He had never read a book in his life, had no ambition to better himself socially, but he knew that by capitalising on his erotic and physical self, he would never suffer from male sex deficit.

He was a very straightforward man, and an ideal example of erotic capital. He had it sussed.

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