Erotic Capital and the Sociology of Beauty

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 alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. 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.

Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. -  Pierre Bourdieu
Sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of lemons is inseparable from its acidity: a class is defined in an essential respect by the place and value it gives to the two sexes and to their socially constituted dispositions. – Pierre Bourdieu

Hakim’s Problematic View of Erotic Capital

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. For example, not all women are attracted to men (for an analysis of why heterosexist presumptions are problematic, see Adrienne Rich). Moreover, not all women are White and heterosexual. Hakim’s reliance on White heterosexual women as the universal norm is not simply sexist and racist, but this approach overlooks how intersecting inequalities impact women’s social mobility (this theory is known as intersectionality). Specificaly Hakim ignores how women’s beauty is shaped by dominant-minority social relations, history and socio-economics.

Sociology of Sexual Capital

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. This is known as sexual capital. 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 lady who conforms to Western ideals of beauty, you should have sex strategically, maximising your potential to attract the best provider. Then you marry (upwards of course!), and ipso facto, you can improve your social standing. This Pretty Woman mentality is not sociologically useful, as it bypasses race, class, sexuality and other social relations.

How Social Capital Affects Sexual Desire

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. Additionally, she argues a woman does not need money to look desirable – it’s a time and effort issue. Hakim writes:

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

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. This also sidesteps 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. Hakim does not adequately address how education and other forms of social capital (like social ties and networks) impacts on erotic capital, even though this is central to Bourdieus theorisation of social capital. It should come as no surprise that money and education does matter to women’s social mobility. 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.

Ideologically-Driven Science

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.

Subjective Experiences of Beauty Ideals

For some people, there is also a lot of pleasure in performing gendered beauty practices. For others, the enactment of femininity is fraught with ambivalence, pain or conflicted ideas. Sometimes, bodily practices associated with beauty are all these things at once. 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‘.

I love wearing makeup and I wear dresses often, 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. 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 woman of colour 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.

While I enjoy (some) fashion and beauty magazines, I rarely see diverse notions of women of colour’s 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. Angie Dwyer has done some excellent work on this with regards to the knowledge young girls gain from fashion models.

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.

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.

Fulfilling the Promise of Sociology

Peter 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 helps us see the relationship between history and biography.

The Sociological Imagination - by The Other Sociologist
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. – C. Wright Mills

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. 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’.

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

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