3 Reasons Why "Erotic Capital" Is BullshitS

Catherine Hakim argues that "erotic capital" — a "combination of physical and social attractiveness" — is more important for women than a college degree. Arguments for women's "soft" (read: sexual) power aren't new — but here's why they suck.

They rely on generalizations.

The idea that feminine wiles give women enormous social power (and even that these wiles "outweigh educational qualifications," as Hakim claims in her Prospect article) typically rests on a lot of unexamined assumptions about men, women and sex. Here are some from Hakim's piece:

[W]omen have long excelled at such arts: that's why they tend to be more dressed up than men at parties. They make more effort to develop the "soft skills" of charm, empathy, persuasion, deploying emotional intelligence and "emotional labour."

[S]urveys around the globe find that women over 30 steadily lose interest in erotic games.

This is an implicit rebuttal to feminist thinkers (like Sylvia Walby, Mary Evans, Monique Wittig or most recently Kat Banyard) who argue that men and women are "equal" in their sexual interest, as in everything else. This is obviously not true, which is why it should not surprise us that some women do use sex, and their erotic capital more generally, to get what they want.

It's notoriously difficult to determine people's sexual desire from surveys, and all too easy to make blanket statements like "women make more effort to develop charm." It's certainly true that women can exert sexual influence over men, but to assume that the arrow of influence always goes one way not only ignores the many women under and over thirty who have done dumb shit to fuck a dude, it also reinforces the reductive notion of sex as something women have and men want. This is true for some people some of the time, but it's almost impossible to make the case for "erotic capital" as a major cultural force without some pretty sweeping generalizations.

"Erotic capital" depreciates.

Though Hakim generously includes some over-40 ladies in her list of erotic-capitalists (notably Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni), it's still true that society views female sexual attractiveness as a depreciating asset. Those "beautiful and elegant women who grace the advertisements for products of all kinds, from cars to detergent" are usually young, and in the case of many high-end fashion models, very young indeed. Hakim even makes the connection between youth and "erotic capital" explicit: "the final element of erotic capital is unique to women: bearing children. In some cultures, fertility is an essential element of women's erotic power." A woman's beauty and attractiveness don't necessarily dim with age, but her ability to a) have kids and b) look like the ladies in car ads certainly do. So really, it makes less sense to think of socially-defined sexiness as "capital" — it's more like a really crappy investment.

"Erotic capital" doesn't guarantee actual capital.

Sure, being hot might land you a rich husband, but if he only likes you for your "erotic capital," he could easily leave for someone who has more. And then you're SOL — especially if there's a prenup. And while Hakim makes much of the "beauty premium" by which pretty people are paid more (while oddly downplaying the role of the employer discrimination in this), she doesn't acknowledge the double-bind women can get into in the workplace, in which they find themselves caught between being "too feminine" and "not feminine enough." Any how-to article on dressing for work reveals that breasts are often as much a liability as an asset at the office, and anyone who thinks it's easy for women to flirt — or sleep — their way to the top should look at research showing that focusing on a woman's appearance makes people see her as less competent. The bottom line is that "erotic capital" is all about others' perceptions of women, rather than about things women themselves can do or acquire. That's the main reason "soft power" isn't real power — because when your influence is based on someone else's desire, he's the one who's really in control.

Have You Got Erotic Capital? [Prospect]