Erotic capital: new language for old-school sexist views of women, work and success

Natalie Hill is an MA student in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from the School of Journalism at Carleton University, is a core organizing member of WAM! Vancouver (Women, Action and the Media)

When it comes to advancing in the work place, one might argue that never before have (some) women had so many resources to help get them to the top: university degrees and higher education, mentors and career counseling programs, even the ability to delay pregnancy while their careers are in their formative years.
But stupidly, these women often overlook one of their best resources: their erotic capital.

That is according to Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.  Her recently published book argues that taking advantage of one’s “erotic capital” may be the key to the corner office, and earning up to 20% more money.

During her appearance last week on the CBC’s The Current, Hakim attempted to explain the reason why erotic capital has been so horribly overlooked in recent decades by women wanting to advance their careers.  Needless to say there were serious problems with … well, almost everything that she said.

Let’s first deal with definitions.  Hakim defines erotic capital as consisting of six categories of “assets”: beauty, sex appeal, social skills, physical fitness and “social liveliness” (she gives the example of humour), social presentation and sexual competence.   While she explains that last one is purely in relation to private life, all others, apparently, are things women should be leveraging in the office in order to get ahead.  (Throughout the interview Hakim insists she does not advocate that women to “sleep their way to the top”, and yet, one wonders:  how are you supposed to capitalize on sex appeal while not insinuating to your audience that you would also like to capitalize on sexual competence?  How exactly is presenting yourself sexually not connected to the act of sex? I digress.)

Where oh where do I begin?  How about here:  the sexualization of women’s bodies in the workplace makes their mental capabilities, creativity, and plain old hard work invisible on a daily basis (as if women’s work wasn’t invisible enough already).  The result is a workplace where the boss or co-worker in the cubicle next door likes you as an employee, but not because you’re smart or hard working; no, you’re liked because you have a nice rack, and aren’t afraid to share it with the world.  You might be popular at the holiday Christmas party, but not when it comes time to decide whom to promote.

Completely related to this is the problem of rampant sexual abuse and harassment women have endured in the workplace for well, as long as women have had workplaces to work in.  Because a woman’s sexualized body in public space is presumed to be public property, the people in power in these spaces (men) have no problem “taking what’s theirs.”  These phenomena are clearly a symptom of the patriarchy.

One of the scariest parts of Hakim’s argument lies right here, in the patriarchy, and specifically, her complete misunderstanding of just what that is.

Hakim argues that patriarchy is the reason women haven’t been using their erotic capital.  Rather than being a global structure that in part demands the eroticization of women, Hakim believes patriarchy has done the opposite: removed beauty and sex from the equation, and told women it’s “beneath them” to rely on it.

Actual quote:
“The most important thing [we need] is a change of attitude because we’ve been told for so long by patriarchal ideology, we’ve been brainwashed into thinking beauty is superficial, it’s only skin deep, it’s trivial, it’s futile, it’s really beneath us to rely in any way on this.  We have to break this attitude and recognize that is has social and economic value.”

This is, quite simply, frightening, on so many levels.

This woman is a sociologist at the London School of Economics.  Not only is her status one that almost immediately positions her as an expert on whatever topics she researches, she is presumably schooled in the basics of gender relations, power relations, and of course, patriarchy.  She clearly does not understand the concept, which is scary, given that anyone can find a pretty solid definition on Wikipedia.

Secondly, this woman is making a direct and unabashed call to reposition beauty on top of the human pedestal.  Hakim wants to “break the attitude” that beauty is skin-deep?  For a world that has fought so hard to curb superficial discrimination and shallow judgment, this is absolute backwardness.    This is exactly the mindset that allows businesses like American Apparel to ask only that young women submit headshots when applying for a job.  It is the kind of mentality that creates a “toddlers and tiaras” culture in which outer beauty is equated with success, talent, and ultimately, human value.  And it is the kind of sick socialization that has resulted in rates of plastic surgery skyrocketing while women sign up for “bridalplasty”, cosmetic vaginal surgeries and botox on their lunch breaks.  I could go on and on…

Hakim argues for a return to prizing erotic capital.  With all of this vain body-altering beautification ridiculousness, how can she not see that when it comes to women seeking success, erotic capital is already everything (and that it’s the opposite of good for women)?

Finally, when Hakim argues that it’s not about cleavage – all she wants is for women to dress a little better, make themselves look good, and invest in some accessories that accentuate their figures – she completely ignores the issue of class and the cold hard cash it takes to have a “good” wardrobe (again, she’s a sociologist?!). Case and point: Hakim’s shining example of success in terms of using one’s erotic capital is Christine Lagard, the new head of the IMF, who stepped in after the old man in charge, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, allegedly raped a chambermaid in NYC (insert observation of incredible irony here).  Yes, she got the job because she is intelligent and qualified, Hakim admits, but let’s not overlook, she also “wears fabulous jewelry at work.”

Yes! That’s the answer! All women need to push them over the edge from virtual invisibility to the next-big-thing in their careers is a good set of fabulous jewelry.

The host of the show Hakim was spewing this garbage on, clearly wasn’t buying it.
Current host Anna-Maria Tremonti: What if women can’t afford such luxuries, or just plain don’t want to participate in this office beauty pageant?

Hakim: “I’m simply saying this is an extra asset and if you want to invest in it you can and should.”

In other words, if you’ve got the cash, invest in a beautiful set of pearls and thus, your career.  If you’re poor, well, let’s hope you’re a natural knock-out that looks good in a sweatsuit. Oh, and the success and good fortune of the former has nothing to do with the oppression of the latter (bullshit).

Overall, Hakim’s thesis is exhaustingly flawed.  While making the aforementioned arguments, she also lands on a fistful of landmines too complicated to explore here (such as: men actually capitalize more than women on their erotic capital, ergo women should be more like men; using one’s erotic capital is especially important for those who do not have access to education and other qualifications; prostitution is the one situation in which erotic capital is rewarded to its maximum value; it just never ends…).

Thankfully, at least one of Hakim’s audience members – Tremonti herself – was able to bring this rogue researcher’s tangents back to real life.

“How would the workplace be different,” Tremonti asks, “if women [capitalized on their erotic capital]?”

“It’s hard to tell,” answers Hakim.
“There are so few women at the top.”

Hunh.  Imagine that.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.