Sunday, 21 August 2011

Shag, shag for apples, and also social capital

Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and human capital. As Chairman Mao advised—walk on two legs.
~ Catherine Hakim, "Have you got erotic capital?", Prospect Magazine
 Or, to put it another way: "Women! You have always used sex to get what you want - just admit it, do it better, and while you're at it, put more lipstick on."

One of the many wonderful things about going to visit my dear old mum for the weekend is that we get two Saturday papers. Twice the puzzles, twice the property porn, and a breathtaking three articles on Hakim's new book, Honey Money. (Zoe Williams' interview was by far the best, managing to be both hilarious and thoroughly smacking down some of the more ill-thought-out logic gaps in Hakim's thesis.) So I spent the train ride back reading the lot, underlining everything which pissed me off (my pen ran out. Seriously.) and scribbling furiously in the margins. It was a bit like being back at uni, but with more swearing.

Full disclosure: I've not read the book, and I'm not planning to pay £20 to do so; you can read the abstract of Hakim's original article here, which asserts:
1. Erotic capital is a fourth "personal asset", comparable to economic, cultural and social capital.
2. Erotic capital is increasingly useful, both in the "mating and marriage markets" and in one's working and social life.
3.There is a "large imbalance between men and women in sexual interest over the life course", meaning that women "are well placed to exploit their erotic capital".
4. Both patriarchy and feminism see the use of this asset as morally wrong.

And just to clarify what "erotic capital" actually is:
(a) Beauty; (b) Sexual attrractiveness; (c) Social skills; (d) Liveliness (physical fitness, social energy, good humour); (e) Social presentation (including self-adornment); (f) Sexual competence, energy and imagination.

Good gracious, she likes energy, doesn't she? Me and my chronic fatigue are knackered just reading that.

So starting at number one. Whatever you want to call it, being pretty smoothes your path in life: there are a number of stats in that Prospect article, and anywhere else you care to look, that bear this out. (I used to be a walking example of this: on days when I wore contacts, people were noticeably nicer to me than on speccy days.) Being personable, sociable (and having the energy to be sociable) and presentable are fairly obviously advantages, though I'm not sure why they're grouped under the "erotic" heading. And being good at sex... probably just means you'll have good sex.

Going back to the "beauty" and "sexually attractive" components, which most of the media fuss is focusing on (not least because it means they get to illustrate the articles with pictures of Indonesian sex workers and/or Angelina Jolie): yeah, these are deemed important for everyone, but especially for women: we're caught in the double-bind of (a) being expected to be pretty, and (b) being devalued for it. Everyone is treated better if they're good-looking - but women are only valuable if they're good-looking, regardless of their other qualities. Being that inconsequential, infinitely powerful creature: a pretty girl might give you a fleeting importance, but it enables people to dismiss you as nothing but just as quickly.

As far as I can tell, everyone seems to be white in this theory. White, and able-bodied: there's no acknowledgement of how "erotic capital" works very differently for, say, black women (seen as hypersexual) or women with visible disabilities (seen as sexless). Imagine you use a wheelchair: how to "exploit" men using your six-point scale of fuckability when he deems any hint of your sexuality as grotesque and unseemly?

The assertion in number 3. depresses me so much I almost can't bring myself to write about it. I know we're dealing in broad-brush strokes here, because without that you can't really come up with any grand theory about society, but - as I think I may have mentioned - any pronouncement on How Men Differ From Women always raises my hackles. Especially when it conforms to a widely-held but rarely-proven stereotype, while claiming to be some iconoclastic revelation. (FACT: for centuries, men were supposed to be all enlightened and rational - which meant that they were less sexual than women, less susceptible to their crotchy urges, and had fewer such urges in the first place. Women, driven by their wildly starving vaginas, were thought to be all "shag the crap out of me, I have no morals at all!") For more detail on the paucity of the statistical evidence Hakim offers on this point, check out the Williams interview.

Apart from being on scientifically shaky ground, this is also a particularly bleak look at the human race: women probably don't want to have sex, but they should act, look, and dress like they do to "exploit" men. Brilliant. Hakim asks, "Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?" Shit, I don't know, maybe because we're actually hoping for equality and don't see men as The Enemy?

And in case you thought she just despises women: fear not, she also thinks gay dudes have no personalities and that gay ladies and asexual folks are exhibiting "a flight response to male domination, and are defeatist"! The "gay community" (she means dudes) are, apparently, "not interested in talk, not interested in getting to know you". Which is why no gay men ever have relationships, or friends, or interact in any way with other human beings except via the penis.

I don't know. I think Hakim's argument has some good points, formulising things that are fairly self-evident; she also throws in some horrendous bigotry and comes up with an immensely disspiritng conclusion. Speaking on burlesque, Laurie Penny observed that "the power to titillate, to excite, to look beautiful" is ultimately kind of empty on its own, concluding that "I prefer real power, power that involves my brain, that doesn't rely on tawdry male attention, and that will stay with me throughout my life." Using sex to get on can only make us feel "a little bit better about the hand we've been dealt".

In a way, it's similar to the power behind the throne theory that I spoke about last week: fetishising a very small, limited way of negotiating your way through an oppressive society, and deluding yourself into thinking that this in some way smashes some great blow to the heart of the oppression itself.

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