Bits of Books - Books by Title
The Power of Erotic Capital
(London Sunday Times )
On modern-day, Western feminism Hakim really hits the nail on the head when she says that 'Feminist theory often erects a false dichotomy: either a woman is valued for her human capital (her brains, education, work experience and dedication to her career) or she is valued for her erotic capital (her beauty, elegant figure, dress style, grace and charm). Women are not encouraged to do both.'
Indeed, modern-day feminists tend to be incredibly squeamish about the idea that women can be quite comfortable using their feminine wiles to get ahead while at the same time remaining fully aware that they are not defined solely by this aspect of themselves.
Hakim also correctly describes modern feminism as 'profoundly uncomfortable with sexuality', which it frames in 'a relentlessly negative perspective'. It is sad that, at a time when we, as women in the Western world, have every door open to us, feminists seek to close off many of those paths for fear that they are demeaning or turning us into powerless sex objects.
Hakim has real vitriol for modern gender studies courses. In particular, she debunks some of the commonly held (mis)beliefs about the sex industry, and it is in this chapter, titled 'No Money, No Honey: Selling Erotic Entertainment' that she really makes her best arguments. With her starting point being that prohibiting prostitution is about as effective as prohibiting alcohol, she asks why, given the high potential earnings and short working hours, more women are not choosing to work in the sex industry. 'The preponderance of university students and graduates' who work in the sex industry, she asserts, 'is strong evidence that beauty and brains are often combined and work together'. What a refreshing antidote to the UK National Union of Students' recent tirade about students being forced to work in lap-dancing clubs 'against their will' to fund their studies. Choosing to work as a lap dancer is just that, a choice. No wonder young, educated and attractive women have cottoned on to the fact that they can use their sex appeal to get ahead in life.
Hakim also states, quite rightly, that 'men who buy sexual services are not deviants but ordinary, normal people'. While she does put men's demand for sexual services down to the elusive 'male-sex deficit', Hakim also makes an important point that is often overlooked. Too often men who pay for sexual services are seen as monsters rather than human beings capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
Hakim resists and counters the idea that sex workers are by definition helpless victims, a view churned out constantly by feminists attacking the industry. For such feminists, female sex workers have no choice but to sell their bodies; they're being forced into it against their will and will likely develop a dependency on men to get hold of cash, drugs or alcohol. And yet, as Hakim points out, many women (particularly migrant workers) see the sex industry as a crucial source of employment, as something that enables them to gain some independence, to support themselves and their families, to study, travel and see the world. Feminists who seek to take this choice away on the grounds of supposed exploitation are not empowering women. In fact, they're doing the complete opposite by seeking to undermine the choices we all make.
I thought this book would be a treat. I liked everything about it, in theory: its subject matter ( erotic capital, such as charm, beauty, sexuality, charisma and social skills - what could be more fun?); its author, who has an interesting reputation as an academic willing to challenge orthodoxies about what is good for women ( she is a senior research fellow of sociology at the London School of Economics); its promise of big ideas about how society works.
Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before. It is as if Catherine Hakim wrote drafts of her chapters, hadn't quite worked out the essence of her thoughts, and then gave up the struggle, leaving us to figure out what she means.
I'll spare you the details of the incoherence and the baffling asides - Hakim's belief that discrimination against the overweight is justified by the human rights of everyone else; her admiration for Silvio Berlusconi's smiles; her assertion that, on the whole, only young women like sex. Stripped down ( where was her editor?), the selling point of her book is that erotic capital is as important to our success in life as our wealth, education or social networks.
This insight is described by her publisher as ground-breaking. Well, not since I first heard the story of Cinderella has that been news to me, or I suspect to you. Hakim claims that it's a revelation to sociology, where the theories about the power relations between men and women apparently pay no attention to the role of attraction and sexual desire.
If that's true, it's the kind of fact that gives sociology a bad name, but it's really no reason to state the blindingly obvious to the rest of us. Unfortunately, the earnest self-importance of the thesis only magnifies. The first chapter tells us that erotic capital is increasingly important to how we are valued in contemporary society and that we should all expand our stock of it. Hakim solemnly recommends gyms, tanning beds, wigs, hair dyes, corsets, cosmetic surgery, and self-help books and manuals on how to attract spouses or lovers. But it's in chapter two that she gets to the heart of her theory, and her finding is this: men want more sex than women do.
How lucky we are to have Hakim working on the front line of social discovery. For she has uncovered dozens of sex surveys for Britain and other countries, from 1990 onwards, all - as she breathlessly reports - clustered together on three shelves in the library. These revealed to her -a key new social fact that is typically glossed over or ignored in the reports. There is a systematic and apparently universal male sex deficit: men generally want a lot more sex than they get, at all ages. Women express much lower levels of sexual desire'.
I would never have thought it, would you? Nothing in my life experience, from teenage boys desperate to get their girlfriends into bed, to problem pages about husbands' desire and mothers' exhaustion, to the fact that it is men who buy porn, rape women and use prostitutes, had alerted me to this idea. Hakim thinks none of us has noticed: 'Sexuality is the elephant in the room that everyone wants to ignore, too large an issue to address. It seems to be invisible to psychotherapists, social scientists and journalists alike.' Yes, that's just what I think when I look around me. Sex. The invisible force in society that nobody wants to mention.
But Hakim is there to show us the way, and this is where we get her big idea. She rails against women being held responsible for men's sexual frustrations, and being expected to be sexually engaged when their very different approaches to sex and emotions mean that they aren't. 'There is nothing abnormal or peculiar about women's low sexual interest. It just happens to be rather inconvenient for men.' She is equally scornful of radical feminism, with its view of men as the enemy, and its failure to offer a modern sexual morality appropriate to the 21st century. Something better is needed, and Hakim has the answer. And it turns out to be sell, girls, sell.
Hakim, too, thinks that the male sex deficit should be filled; it's just that women ought to be driving a much harder bargain for it. She sees the deficit as a great opportunity for women to exploit their potential power over men. Both in their private lives and in the marketplace, women must learn to be much more calculating. Above all, they mustn't submit to male and social pressure to give this stuff away for love, or for free.
The bargaining starts in relationships, where women have to learn to ask for more from their partners in return for access to sex. Why? Remarkably, largely because it will improve their negotiating skills at work. Hakim thinks if you can't get a better return for your erotic capital from a man who claims to love you, you'll never strike deals in the workplace either. 'Confidence and bargaining skills begin at home, like much else.'
Hakim doesn't spell out what she means - blow jobs for bills? Dresses for waxing? - but if this bloodless approach to the immensely complicated world of arousal, intimacy, obligation and need chills you, worse is to come. She extols the virtues of selling sex directly in the real marketplace, especially for 'impecunious students as well as other young women who have the requisite interests and talents'. She claims that doing so brings hidden personal and psychological benefits. 'Women who have spent a little time exploiting their erotic capital become more confident ... Their social skills are more developed ... [They] become more tolerant, more open-minded. All women, even those who only do telephone sex or table dancing in strip clubs, even those who enjoy 'gangbangs', become less submissive sexually, more dominant socially, more self-assertive, more accustomed to being in control - in sex, and in relationships.'
Selling the sex you don't personally want to have as the route to personal development, confidence and happiness? Driving merciless bargains with men for every erotic encounter? If this is what counts as intellectual discovery at the London School of Economics, or Allen Lane, who publish Hakim, I fear for the future both of universities and of serious books. Don't bother to buy Honey Money. And if you should pass it in a bookshop, pick up a copy and drop it somewhere where nobody's likely to take an interest in it. Military history, perhaps, or gardening. You'll be doing the rest of us a favour.
More books on Sex
More books on Women
Books by Title
Books by Author
Books by Topic
Bits of Books To Impress