Saving ‘erotic capital’ from itself

It’s not hard to guess why it got so many column inches.  The sociological concept of ‘erotic capital’?  A book by an academic that calls itself ‘Honey Money’, a title adapted from a saying of Jakarta prostitutes?  An evidence-based claim that prostitution and surrogacy should be completely legalised?  And an argument that it is ‘patriarchy’ that stops women exploiting their erotic capital more?

With these in mind, it’s no surprise that Catherine Hakim’s work caused a furore over the summer – and no more of a surprise that her arguments have been shredded by the wit and intellect of a series of reviewers. I have no intention of defending some of Hakim’s more ludicrous claims or her (apparently bizarre) behaviour. But I do want to save the concept from itself – for embedded deeply within these arguments are some of the most interesting questions about inequality and the way it is reproduced over time.

Where Hakim goes wrong…

While Hakim apparently is not justified in describing herself as an ‘LSE Sociologist’ at the moment (according to THES), she has been a ‘proper sociologist’, having been at the LSE until 2003 and with a string of publications to her name – including one on erotic capital itself, in European Sociological Review.  Yet I think she makes two basic mistakes that have caused much of the opprobrium. (Note that I’m going here from a combination of her ESR article, her Prospect article, and the many reviews/critiques/interviews online, rather than the whole book. Readers may also want to listen to her turn on Thinking Allowed).

Firstly, the term ‘erotic capital’ is a terrible one, and not just because it’s sensationalist.  Apparently Hakim wants erotic capital to denote “beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence.”  In a painfully awful interview with Zoe Williams in the Guardian, Hakim clarifies this by saying “there are six elements of which only one is purely sexual, and the second one, sex appeal, is only partly to do with sex. Four of them have nothing to do with sexual attraction.”

If you don’t want people to reduce your concept to sex, then just don’t call it ‘erotic capital’. I don’t have much sympathy here.

Secondly, there’s a world of difference between saying that something is the case, and that it should be the case. Looks and charms matter, but is this something we should take pride in or challenge? As Elizabeth Day puts it, “according to Hakim, none of that education or career nonsense that our mothers and our grandmothers fought so hard to give us access to carries much weight any more. In fact, as the fairer sex, our time would be far better spent getting a spray tan, slimming down our muffin-tops at the gym and emulating the “vivacious” personality of the glamour model Katie Price.” Apparently Hakim dislikes ‘value-laden’ language – which is bizarre when her claims are obviously value-laden. Others have observed the same advantages of looks and charms and instead argued for protections for the ugly (see this Economist review of three books, and Brendan’s nice post the other day).

Why erotic capital still matters

As for what I take from all of this – well, having written this much already, I’m saving the remainder for my post next Tuesday…

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About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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5 Responses to Saving ‘erotic capital’ from itself

  1. Not having read Hakim’s work, I’d be interested to know how her concept of “erotic capital” compares to the concept of “sexual capital” used by other sociologists:

    Martin, John Levi, and Matt George. “Theories of Sexual Stratification: Toward an Analytics of the Sexual Field and a Theory of Sexual Capital.” Sociological Theory 24, no. 2 (2006): 107-132.

    Green, Adam Isaiah. “The Social Organization of Desire: The Sexual Fields Approach.” Sociological Theory 26, no. 1 (2008): 25-50.

    Green, Adam Isaiah. “Playing the (Sexual) Field.” Social Psychology Quarterly 74, no. 3 (2011): 244 -266.

    I do think that it make sense to think sociologically about sexual attractiveness in terms of capital, and about how this capital is converted into other sorts of capital. An economist called Daniel S. Hamermesh has been doing research for years on the social benefits of beauty, summed up in his recent book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful”.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks Ben, that’s really useful. I’d seen Daniel S Hamermesh’s work (he wrote a NYC op-ed that Brendan’s earlier article is based on), but not the work on sexual capital which I’ll take a look at. My guess is that Hakim is trying to do two contradictory things here – to broaden this scope of sexual capital to look at charisma etc, but to still use the term ‘erotic capital’ to get headlines and drive some of her recommendations. But it will be interesting to compare them!

  2. mel bartley says:

    Well, I always thought Steve Jobs was gorgeous. But I would never have heard of him apart from his business success (and I speak as a non-Mac user). Actually I suspect that ‘physical’ attractiveness is so tied up with social attributes that it is more or less impossible to separate them.

  3. Ben Baumberg says:

    The follow-up post is available here.

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