Are women wasting unused “erotic capital”?
Is workplace decorum a plot to keep women down? Laurie Abraham investigates a new book
I remember sitting around at outdoor cafés in Washington, DC, with a clutch of male editors and writers—and maybe one other female journalist—buzzing about politics and policy and did you see that great article in The New Yorker and why on earth did that person land such a plum job when he/she is such a hack. New to the city, I sometimes felt out of my league trading gossip with the Beltway-wonk journalistic set but rarely when it came to substantive conversation: Having written a book about health care for the poor, I knew my health and welfare policy.
I also remember that I was then at the height of my corporeal glory: long, blond wavy hair; face thinned out to reveal my lucky inheritance of cheekbones; body still taut from playing sports. And I was aware I offered a kind of package deal: relatively smart and easy on the eyes. Better yet, I was single and could supply the frisson of potential erotic entanglement. So I got assignments at a few publications I revered, briefly dated one of the guys, had unrequited crushes on two more, and never felt too bothered about not having drawn a firm line between my work life and private life.
I thought about those days—as well as about how, in the wake of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s bizarre behavior, the International Monetary Fund has been revealed as a virtual harem for the dude-economists who run the joint—when a new book landed on my desk, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom (Basic Books). The author, London School of Economics researcher Catherine Hakim, lays out six elements of what she calls erotic capital: beauty, sexual attractiveness (more body as opposed to face), social charm, liveliness/energy, presentation, and actual sexual skill. These qualities, she holds, can be as crucial to personal or professional accomplishment as the other forms of capital studied by social scientists, such as education and work experience.
That’s a pretty unremarkable claim, at least in America, where we’ve been treated for years to 20/20’s John Stossel and the like comparing how attractive versus not-so-attractive people fare in job interviews, soliciting for charity, or getting help after running out of gas—and, yes, the lookers get the job, collect the most money, and draw reams of help from panting passersby. There is also academic research confirming such anecdotal reports, which Hakim cites: The comely earn higher salaries and get better performance reviews, they’re less likely to go to jail or be poor, etc.
Whether this should be true is another matter—and Hakim’s answer is a hearty yes. She slaps around “the feminists” for what she sees as the ridiculous idea of making lookism a form of discrimination. Not only can erotic capital add tangible value on the job—handsome salespeople have been shown to sell more, for instance—but most of us can acquire a modicum of the stuff with a little effort, Hakim argues. A true Francophile (she tells me in an interview from her London home that she did most of her schooling in France), she offers the belle laide, “the ugly woman who becomes attractive through her presentation skills,” as proof that lookism is not an absolute tyranny. Even granting the limits to such transformations—some people are just born more gorgeous than others—intelligence, too, is linked to success and also largely inherited, she points out.
In fact, Hakim thinks feminists are missing a golden opportunity by not valorizing erotic capital—because the second sex has cornered the market in it. Women top men because they attend to their appearance more than the average schlub, she asserts, and have less overall interest in sex than men do (at least after age 30, according to various international sex surveys). Thus we gain the edge by the venerable law of supply and demand. The trick then, as ZZ Top put it, is to “know how to use it.”
On the home front, Hakim is blunt about what women should do. “Negotiation is going on all the time—who’s going to take the rubbish out, do the washing up,” she tells me, adding that women shouldn’t hesitate to make the deals plain. She’d applaud the wife who cooed, for instance, “Make dinner, and I’ll give you a blow job before bed.”
Such exchanges aren’t novel to many long-marrieds, and it’s understandable that a woman whose husband did something kind for her might actually desire him more, not just have to close her eyes and think of England as he received his fair recompense. But Hakim isn’t inclined to soften her recommendation that sex be traded between men and women like furs and guns between Native Americans and the early settlers. What about the man who longs to be wanted at least some of the time? I ask.
“Men always play that game,” she fairly snorts, “and women let them get away with it.”
Do you believe in love? I ask.
“Love is an excuse to pretend the transactions aren’t happening,” she shoots back. “In any culture but the Anglo-Saxon one, love isn’t given the priority it’s given here, because everything is known to be a transaction and is accepted as such.”
Cold, but also, dare I say, a bit refreshing. “What is the patriarchal man’s ideal woman?” Hakim writes. “She is beautiful and sexually exciting at all times, but she should never be too conscious of her beauty and sex appeal and must never exploit them in any way.… She is intelligent, with a mind of her own, but she always defers to him and never bores him with her own opinions.” To wit, women hold the erotic cards, but “patriarchal man” has deceived us into staying our hand.
If your head’s spinning, it’s because Hakim is not a typical American feminist or conservative—though she can sound like both. She’s more like the ultimate pragmatist. She sees sex as a largely fungible commodity: It doesn’t matter who’s giving it as long as the quality is held constant. To the notion that sex can be deeply personal and psychologically layered and so may not felicitously yield to economic principles, Hakim might exclaim, “Bollocks!”
The parts of Erotic Capital addressing “the power of attraction in the boardroom”—or in my case, in DC’s media jungle—are the most daring, but ultimately the most frustrating. Hakim starts logically enough: By her theory, prostitution should be legalized, allowing women to freely peddle their sexual capital. She’s hardly the first to posit that legalized (and thus regulated) prostitution would be safer for women, nor the first to take
issue with the stereotype of the sex worker as an abused runaway who services men out of desperation. “In the United States,” she writes, referencing an American sociologist, “most call girls are college educated, and table dancers are sometimes students.”
For women who’d prefer not to labor in a bordello but want to barter their capital, Hakim offers a composite character she calls “Jade.” A law student with “striking Asian looks,” Jade was given part-time work by a “successful and famous” lawyer who “took a special interest in her professional training, and eventually became her boyfriend and lover.” It was a win-win, Hakim writes. The guy got smart arm candy; Jade learned how the legal profession operates and how to schmooze with politicians and other eminences. “Her boss’s interest could have been regarded as sexual harassment by someone else, but in her case it developed into a mutually rewarding relationship,” she concludes.
Pygmalion-plus, and everyone’s grinning and bursting into song, but what if Jade decides to take her erotic capital elsewhere, and her admirer revokes a postgraduation job offer he’d made her? What if Jade and her boss remain tight, and he pays her more than another young lawyer who’s equally skilled and even equally good-looking (because we know Hakim believes looks can be compensated)? Should anyone have a legal claim? Or just feel emotionally bruised?
When I put these questions to the author, she asks me to remember that erotic capital is about far more than the actual sex act, and says that sexual-harassment law is beyond the scope of her book. Then she turns my question on its head: “Is it okay for a boss to seduce his attractive young secretary and give nothing in return? It would be better if she at least insisted on getting something she wanted.” Moreover, “We accept that men play golf together, have drinks, to achieve benefits in business. But sex is treated as somehow different in the Anglo-Saxon world, automatically evil and wrong.”
Her argument makes a perverse kind of sense, and yet… Early in the book, Hakim portrays pretty young girls as being bombarded by “male lust.” “There are groping hands and bodies pressed up against them on crowded trains, constant sexual invitations, and lewd remarks from strangers in the street.” A teenager can have one of two reactions to this, Hakim says: She can “enter a downward spiral of man-hating, sometimes combined with ambivalence about [her] own appearance and sexuality.” Or she can take “pride” in her erotic capital. “Unwanted touching is fiercely repudiated,” Hakim writes, “but elegant compliments are rewarded with a smile.” From there, it’s an “upward spiral of exploiting…erotic capital to make friends, to negotiate,” and so on.
While this may be an accurate description of reality for some women, it in effect gives men permission to act like boors and worse. I ask Hakim about this, but she doesn’t answer directly; instead, she volunteers that her own experience inspired the passage. She “developed” very early and “from the age of 10 onward was importuned by men and boys of all ages.” She found it extremely upsetting, she says, but lickety-split, by age 12, she began to learn to utilize it—to, for example, ask for discounts.
She repeatedly cites “French sexual culture” as a prime case of this strategy in splendid action, which means Hakim should be wishing right about now that M. Strauss-Kahn had kept his pants zipped.
Because while Hakim is busy lauding the long tradition in France of “courtly love and celebration of eroticism and sexuality, within and outside marriage,” French women are saying, Enough already! As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd puts it, they’re airing “long-stifled grievances about their paternalistic culture: How they feel they must wear pants to work to fend off leering; how they’re tired of men…making comments like ‘Okay, but just because you have pretty eyes’; how they’re fed up with married pols who come to Paris three days a week and sleep with their assistants.”
There is a difference between my flirting with a colleague who then helped me get work from an editor, and toiling away in an environment where sexual innuendo is the coin of the realm and the (mostly male) bosses can screw their secretaries pretty much at will. Okay, so let’s say the assistants always get something back for their efforts in the sack—call me a puritanical Anglo, but somehow that system doesn’t sound sustainable, or good for women in the long term. I’d also hate to be telling American women to spend another millisecond buffing their surfaces; in my estimation, we’ve already turned primping into a dubious art form. (In England, by the way, Hakim says the grooming standards are much lower than ours, which may be why she can be so blithe about telling her fellow birds to gussy up.)
Then, too, by the time I started flexing my erotic capital in Washington, my intellectual capital was pretty highly developed; earlier in my life when I got mixed messages from men—do you really think my analysis of the African quilt is “path-breaking,” or do you just want to sleep with me?—I didn’t deal with such situations as well. (And this was long after I turned 12.) The big question is: How can we urge men to explicitly reward us for our erotic capital without getting a lot more trade than we bargained for?