Erotic Capital & Beauty: How Sociology Can Help Explain Desire & Sex Appeal

‘Greta fiercest Gremlin’ don’t need no education, she gots her some erotic capital. (Image via Indestructible on Tumblr)

Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.  The latter impressively alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. CORRECT! (Sociology props to journalist Rachel Hills!) The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.

Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.

Hakim first wrote about erotic capital in European Sociological Review, calling it the ‘fourth personal asset’ that individuals can use to improve their social standing, after economic, cultural and social capital. In Hakim’s theorisation, erotic capital refers to the ways in which people can manipulate their physical appearance and sex appeal to advance their social and economic status. In Hakim’s meaning, however, erotic capital is not really about ‘people’. It’s about ‘women’. In the same article, Hakim argues that ‘Women generally have more erotic capital than men because they work harder at it‘. Well… No, actually. This is a gross distortion of erotic capital. But let’s hear her out: more recently she argued in The Evening Standard:

Today, the financial returns of attractiveness equal the returns of qualifications. Many young women now think beauty is just as important as education.

There are many flaws in Hakim’s argument. She presents her book as a cultural guide to empower ‘women’. Never mind that as a highly educated, middle-to-upper-class White woman Hakim’s argument is dripping with race, class and heterosexual privilege. Here’s a couple of sociological shockers:  not all women are attracted to men. See Adrienne Rich and about a brazillion other social science texts. (Or take a look around the world, maybe?) Moreover, not all women are White and heterosexual. (SAY WHAT? You’re blowing my mind: you mean not everyone is the same? I knew those first-year sociology lessons would one day serve me in my career as a sociologist…)

Sociology of Erotic Capital - by The Other SociologistSociological research has shown that social, cultural, racial, class and other social hierarchies affect the sexual agency of different sub-groups. Generally speaking, in America, middle class white men have more resources and opportunities to be sexually adventurous than other groups, such as working-class Black women. In Australia, White, middle-class, educated women report having more sexual partners and more orgasms than working-class, less educated men of migrant backgrounds. Raewyn Connell and her colleagues‘ classic research from the 1980s finds that gay and bisexual men who live in rural or in working class areas have less resources to easily find romantic and sexual partners. Consequently, these men tend to take more sexual risks by having unprotected sex. (Gary Dowsett elaborates further in Practicing Desire.) The sexuality of people with disabilities is often infantilised, made out to be deviant or rendered invisible in popular culture, meaning that the erotic capital of disabled people is denigrated by mainstream society. Transgender people do not fit into the gender dichotomy that many societies maintain. This can often complicate public expressions of transgender desire, which in turn affects social recognition. Some people do not experience sexual desire. Given that categories of sexual identification are often rigid, it can be difficult for asexual people to build supportive social networks. Other people refuse to categorise their sexual desire and affection within set identities, choosing to adopt pansexual or polyamorous positions. Sometimes people develop an ‘anti-identity’ queer subjectivity which negates the need to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or by any other specific sexual orientation. (For another interesting take, check out this Good Men Project post on being ‘mostly straight, most of the time‘.) These examples highlight the potential of erotic capital as a useful sociological concept; the social construction of sexual attractiveness, people’s sexual experiences and the recognition of diverse sexualities varies among different groups according to their social and economic standing.

Hakim uses ‘erotic capital’ in a colloquial understanding: if you’re a hot lady, you should get laid strategically, maximising your potential to attract the best provider. Then you marry (upwards of course!), and ipso facto, you can improve your social standing. I learned a similar insight from another sociological heavy-weight – Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, a gorgeous, charming prostitute with a heart of gold who married a good-looking millionaire. (You see, she didn’t kiss on the mouth, thereby increasing her erotic capital.)

In the press Hakim has provocatively presented her book as a push against ‘radical feminists’ who, according to Hakim, have done women a disservice by discouraging them from using their beauty. In an interview for Slate, Jessica Grose argues that Hakim may be overstating the immediate influence of radical feminists on present-day society, given that the beauty industry, including cosmetic surgery, is a multi-billion dollar business. Grose also proposes that class may be an issue for women who don’t have as much money to invest in their beauty and erotic capital. Never fear, Hakim argues you don’t need money to look desirable – it’s a time and effort issue. Same goes for education! Hakim tells us what’s what:

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

Yes time, money and a ‘good body’… exactly the types of symbolic and material constraints that Bourdieu argued needed to be taken into consideration when we think about people’s ability to be upwardly mobile. And let’s not get into the fact that the time available for leisure activities, including luxury grooming, depends upon gender and marital status, not to mention class, income and ethnicity. Plus – pfff – you don’t need money to invest in a good education, ladies. (Silly Bourdieu who argued otherwise!) You land yourself a rich man and you need never learn anything again! Phew – that’s lucky – because the Global Development Report on Gender shows that even though more women are being educated around the world, they continue to earn much less than men, up to 50-80 percent less in some countries.

Bugs Bunny Makes a Very Trust-Worthy Professional Lady in Drag. (Via History of Animation.)

It’s not just Hakim who is passing off the beauty myth as science. A new study published in PLoSONE claims that women who wear makeup are better trusted as professionals in the paid labour force. The research was carried out by a group headed by Nancy Etcoff, from the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA, who is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The story was picked up by the New York Times.

Yet as Jenna Goudreau reported in Forbes, the study was commissioned by makeup manufacturer Procter & Gamble – which, you might guess, has a vested interest in getting women to believe that wearing more makeup is good for their careers. Lisa Hickey, publisher of The Good Men Project, talks about how her unhealthy obsession with beauty dominated a great deal of her time. She partly justified it in the terms Hakim and this study uses: ‘I need to look good to get ahead in work. I’ll earn more for my family‘.

For some people, there is also a lot of pleasure in gendered beauty practices. For example, I love wearing makeup and I wear dresses almost exclusively, especially retro and vintage inspired fashion. My gendered ‘presentation of self‘ is just one way through which I choose to express my femininity. It has zero to do with my professional esteem as a social scientist. Then again, while I might be seen to be conforming to feminine beauty ideals, my bodily practices embody my personal experience of Latin culture, my struggle against patriarchal double standards in my family, and my pain and celebration over the racism I had to overcome as a non-white woman growing up in Australia. I continue to encounter varied responses from people due to my self-presentation, from positive to negative, from ambivalent to punitive. (I plan to write about this in the near future.) Other women may feel different pressures in their negotiation of beauty ideals in other professional fields. The Born This Way Blog shows yet another set of eclectic gender and sexual expressions by LGBT adults reflecting on photographs from their early childhoods. This blog addresses the personal development of sexual desire, identity and beauty through gender-non-conformity. These examples show that the negotiation of beauty, gender and sexual practices are complex. Neither inherently ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, the meaning that people place on beauty performances is situational, and their consequences are historically and culturally and dependent, as is also the case with erotic capital.

On another beauty issue, I love (some) fashion and beauty magazines, but I rarely see diverse notions of non-white beauty in popular culture, unless it is being fetishised. This never fails to frustrate me. Yet it is possible to be feminist and to enjoy beauty and fashion trends and gain personal pleasure from these industries whilst also being critical of them. (My cherished friend and colleague Angie Dwyer has done some excellent work on this with regards to the knowledge young girls gain from fashion models.)

Clearly, there is a lot of social pressure on people to confirm to particular sexual and beauty ideals. The studies by Hakim and Etcoff’s team present a view that is familiar to most people: if you’re ‘attractive’, you can improve your social standing. Applied sociologists would ask: so what? What do we learn about society that we didn’t know before? What are the social consequences of erotic capital and beauty ideals for different groups? How do we use this information to contribute to social change? Studies that fail to deconstruct the social, cultural and material constraints on the lived experiences of sexuality and beauty reproduce the existing social order. Nothing changes. The potential of social science is not fulfilled.

The Sociological Imagination - by The Other SociologistPeter Berger argued that part of the reason why sociology struggles to find legitimacy as a science is because we deal with topics that are familiar to most people – so why would they need our sociological interpretation? Our duty as sociologists, Berger argued, is to take apart the familiar and to offer new ways to challenge taken-for-granted social norms. On a similar vein, C. Wright Mills argued that:

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. To recognize this task and this promise is the mark of the classic social analyst.

Unfortunately, Hakim’s notion of erotic capital makes little contribution towards extending the sociological promise, and the same goes for other studies that merely replicate beauty ideals without offering a critical view of what this means for different groups. Thankfully, the other works I’ve referenced in this article show the potential for sociology to illuminate understanding of erotic capital as referring to the multiple sexual experiences, actors and social structures which work to maintain, negotiate and challenge what is framed as ‘normal’, ‘sexy’ and ‘beautiful’.

Note: You can read an excerpt of Hakim’s book in Ask Men, where you can also view photo galleries of women maximising their Hakim-erotic-capital by wearing little clothing to assist the display of their mammary a$$ets.

4 thoughts on “Erotic Capital & Beauty: How Sociology Can Help Explain Desire & Sex Appeal

  1. Pingback: Contrary to popular opinion, beauty-based discrimination is not natural or unavoidable « The Other Sociologist

  2. Pingback: Why Women’s Leadership is a Business Asset | Social Science Insights

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