What I'm Reading: WTF? Edition

Sep 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Harvard Business Review tipped me off to Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom by Catherine Hakim. The brief note in their daily iPhone update led to an ebook download. And confusion.

First, erotic capital is not quite what you think; mandatory cleavage and stripper shoes are not part of the game. Erotic capital includes six components:

  1. Beauty
  2. Sex Appeal
  3. Social Grace
  4. Liveliness
  5. Social Presentation
  6. Sexual Competence

While part of one's erotic capital is inborn, other components can be learned or improved with time and effort. Hakim's main point is that we deny and devalue erotic capital, particularly in women; attractive men get far more of a pay benefit than attractive women in the workforce. In a recent online interview for Slate she stated:

 The key point is for women to be aware that there's a sex differential and a sex gap in returns and rewards, and to be aware that they should therefore not be holding back or feel embarrassed about seeking to get value for their contribution, for their attractiveness. As I see it, patriarchal men, but also to a larger extent, radical feminist women, which women seem to listen to more than men, say that beauty is only skin deep, it's trivial, it's superficial, it has no value, and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to exploit it.

A lot of what Hakim discusses here I would call My Mom's Rules:

  • Stand up straight
  • Wear nice clothes; keep them fresh and clean
  • Remember your manners
  • Take pride in yourself
  • You only get one chance to make a first impression

Someone who is charming and takes care with their appearance will make a better impression than someone who does the opposite. They are more likely to get hired at a better wage in a job interview situation. Is that really surprising, and does it require a male-female sexual desire differential? All other characteristics being acceptable, a more pleasant (physically and/or socially) person will get the job/promotion/bonus/etc.

Back to Slate for a moment:

Slate: Well, how do women who are, let's say, past their prime, continue to exploit this differential? You used the example of glamour model Katie Price in your book as someone who has successfully used her erotic capital. She's a self-made multimillionaire, and it is in large part because of the cosmetic enhancements that she's done and her participation in a reality TV show. What if someone of a similar class background tried the same thing and failed at it—she spent a great deal of money on cosmetic surgery but didn't profit. How is what she's done, in investing in her erotic capital, going to help her in the long run? Isn't that money better spent investing in some professional development?

Hakim: There are two problems here. One, everybody seems to be assuming, and I don't know why, that it's an either/or situation—a zero-sum game. It isn't a zero-sum game. People can invest in education, invest in training, invest in qualifications, invest in work experience, and also invest in their erotic capital.

Slate: But if they're lower class, where are they supposed to get the money to invest in all of these things at the same time? If you don't have the money, it is in fact a zero-sum game.

Hakim: It isn't a money thing. Having a good body, being fit, is more about time and effort. Money makes things easier, but you don't need money for most things. Education is not about money exclusively. It's about time and effort. If you have a lot of money, you can go to an expensive hairdresser and they'll do everything for you. But if you don't, then you learn to do it all yourself and most women can do that kind of thing themselves. Similarly, makeup, there's cheap versions and cheap products, as well as expensive ones. You don't have to have the expensive ones.

One of my examples in the book is [IMF Managing Director] Christine Lagarde, one of the most highly qualified and competent and professional women in the world. Like many women in the French culture, she takes the view that also being attractive and well-dressed and well-groomed and well-presented and having a very good hairstyle and nice jewelry is all part of being a professional woman. And I see lately that Vanity Fair in the U.S. has listed her among its best-dressed women. She is an example of a woman who exploits her intelligence, qualifications, and her erotic capital. The French culture, the Italian culture, the Spanish culture, they all take the view that for men as well as women, investing in your attractiveness and your self-presentation and dress and grooming is valuable.

As a 50-year-old woman whose appearance has aged along with her, I am glad for the Lagarde example (I have some of the same lines around my mouth). Being thin is not nearly as easy as Hakim believes, and I am too cheap to pay for a face-lift, but continuing to follow My Mom's Rules keeps me looking professional. And I usually have the best pair of shoes in the room.

Parts of the book get repetitive. For example, prostitution can be fun and profitable for young, sexually adventurous women, like dating for money! It's about more than sex! Only the patriarchy and radical feminists keep women from enjoying sex for profit!

Pages and pages are devoted to research establishing that men want more sex than women, especially women over 30. All cited works involve self-reporting.  However, Hakim ignores contradictory research:

SlateAre you familiar with the work of psychology professor Meredith Chivers? She did some research where she hooked up monitors to the genitals of men and women to measure their blood flow, and showed them clips of straight sex, gay sex, and men and women masturbating, among other things. She found that women were physically aroused by a greater variety of subjects than men were, but that women's self-reporting did not line up with the physical evidence—they underreported their arousal. In light of Chivers' research, don't you think it is possible that the differential in sexual desire is socially constructed?

Hakim: The reason I didn't quote Chivers' research, which I've been aware of for a very long time, is because there is serious disagreement about the interpretation that should be placed on her findings. A lot of people, including myself, don't interpret that as sexual desire. It's a physiological reaction. For example, when people are frightened, they pee. They also get what you might call physiologically aroused. It doesn't mean that they are experiencing sexual desire. In particular situations, people have a lot of physiological reactions which in all sorts of ways may not make sense.

Sure sounds socially constructed to me.

I would not have called these characteristics erotic capital, which is why I have this blog instead of a book. The general premise  that socially adept, attractive people do well is hardly contestable. Other parts of this tome will make your head explode.

Read at your own risk.


2 responses so far

  • S Mukherjee says:

    So what, according to this stupid woman, should people with disabilities and birth defects do?
    If it is true that conventionally attractive people get an advantage in career progression, the answer is to critically examine how we evaluate our colleagues and employees. The answer is NOT to get breast augmentation.
    She uses Christine Lagarde as an example, but Lagarde does not use her 'erotic capital' and most certainly does not have a boob job! Lagarde looks smart and professional and competent, which is what we should aim to appear, if appearances are so important. Can you imagine Katie Price in the same job?

    • Pascale says:

      Christine Lagarde follows Mom's Rules and looks like a polished professional, exactly what we should all aim for, IMHO. I believe she called her cluster of characteristics "erotic capital" so people would buy books; what she discusses is not explicitly erotic, but attractive.

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