Why these shoes matter more than an M.B.A.

If women exploited their sex appeal when climbing the corporate ladder, they would be way ahead of men
Red high heels --- Image by © David Selman/Corbis
Why these shoes matter more than an M.B.A.
David Selman/Corbis

The British sociologist Catherine Hakim is no academic wallflower. More than a decade ago, her “preference” theory positing that personal choices, not gender discrimination, governed women’s involvement and advancement in the labour market, won praise, sneers and influenced social policy. Now she’s back tweaking nipples with her new book, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, which argues that “erotic capital” can be as professionally useful as a university degree, that women have been conditioned not to exploit their attractiveness for economic benefit and that prostitution is a rational, lucrative female career choice.

Predictably, a book published in 2011 by a respected scholar (a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics no less!) that contains such sentences as “Becoming an ‘idle’ full-time housewife is a modern utopian dream for most women” and bills itself “a truly feminist manifesto” has hit a cultural nerve: debated on the BBC, discussed in the Wall Street Journal, and pilloried by female columnists with attractive head shots.

Hakim is brashly wading into contentious terrain on several fronts: the ongoing intellectual war questioning the sexual revolution’s benefit to women; the continuing puzzling out of workplace gender inequity; and the new academic focus on the “beauty premium,” as explored by economist Daniel Hamermesh in Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, which reveals tall men are paid the most, fat women the least.

Per sociological tradition, Hakim seems to be quantifying the obvious: physically and socially attractive people are rewarded. “Erotic capital seems such an obvious idea that one has to ask why it has never been identified before now,” she writes. The concept, which Hakim defines as a “nebulous but crucial combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills,” came to her like a thunderbolt when biking along the Thames in 2009, she told Maclean’s in a telephone interview. Hakim claims heterosexual women’s erotic capital and fertility—their “greatest trump cards”—have been systematically undervalued and suppressed by religious fundamentalists, the “patriarchy” and even “radical feminists” who want to “restrict women’s ability to benefit from their one major advantage over men, and to humiliate women who gain money or status through such activities.” She points out that surrogate mothers in the U.K. are prohibited from charging full commercial fees: “If men could produce babies this would probably be one of the highest paid occupations in the world,” she writes. “Erotic capital is a vital, missing piece in explaining upward mobility, social interaction and power,” Hakim argues. The book is crammed with beneficiaries—among them both Obamas, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, Carla Bruni, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Richard Branson, even Silvio Berlusconi. Oddly, Hakim overlooks the most au courant exemplar: the former Kate Middleton, who was catapulted by marriage into an international style-setter and female role model.

Even more surprising is Hakim’s perception that she’s challenging the status quo when she’s actually reaffirming it. Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth that argued women were sacrificing feminism’s gains by getting breast implants and following doomed dieting seems quaint 20 years later: women (and men) routinely starve, sculpt and Spanx themselves well into old age and Kim Kardashian presides over a $35-million empire based on a sex tape, va-va-voom body and canny management.

There’s a reason Sarah Palin’s makeup artist was the highest paid staff member on the 2008 McCain campaign: the premium placed on appearance in “entertainer occupations”—actor, model, Hooters’ server—has trickled into the mainstream. Even academics aren’t immune (the 64-year-old Hakim admits to Botox). Sex sells, even when marketing academic research, observes Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts whose important work on female “caring labour” Hakim references. “Does invocation of ‘the erotic’ serve a larger marketing strategy?” Folbre asks: “Yes. Does everybody do it? No.” Folbre sees the concept of erotic capital as “overreaching”: “We live in a society obsessed with capital,” she says. “We’re continually expanding the qualities appended to it. But the important thing about capital is that it’s like a stock you get a rate of return on. I’m not sure what the ‘capital’ metaphor adds to the idea that physical attractiveness and erotic magnetism matters and has economic consequences. What [Hakim’s] talking about is what individual women can capitalize on and a lot of women do.”

One peril of focusing on erotic capital as an asset, especially for women, is that it depreciates with time, says Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University whose recent research into age and gender in the marriage market confirms what we know: men’s ability to marry rises substantially as they grow older; women’s diminishes. Hakim counters that older people have “compensatory” social skills: “Young people may be more physically attractive, but as soon as they open their mouth, they’re crude and socially incompetent and have little life skill.” England takes another view: “Wouldn’t it be more useful for women to work on other forms of human capital as they age and face bias in the workforce? There are only so many hours in the day.”

England also questions the broader implications of Hakim’s work: “I’m not sure we want to accept lookism by employers when it doesn’t have anything to do with the job,” she says, a point brilliantly made last year in The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Work, by Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode. But in Hakim’s brave new world, lookism is often warranted: attractive people deserve to be paid more because they offer benefits in a white-collar, service-based economy: they’re more confident, persuasive and effective, she writes. Just look at Christine Lagarde, says Hakim, who regards staying fit as more important than sleep.

In the erotic capital sweepstakes, women stand to benefit the most. They possess more erotic capital than men, Hakim argues, even though men are rewarded more for it, illustrated by a study that found attractive men earned 17 per cent more than unattractive men but attractive women earned only 12 per cent more than their less comely cohorts. “It’s serious discrimination,” says Hakim, who notes an even greater gender paycheque divide exists in Hollywood.

Women’s erotic capital is enhanced by what Hakim calls “the universal male sex deficit,” an imbalance between heterosexual men’s desire for sex and women’s willingness to supply it. Hakim insists she’s not writing a “how-to”: “I want to change the way people think.” Still, she advises the less genetically blessed to increase their erotic capital by wearing flattering clothes, working out, and smiling more, using the prime minister of Italy as a model: “It is said of Silvio Berlusconi that no one knows how to hold a smile as he does,” Hakim writes. On the subject of fat people, Hakim is scathing: being overweight is “unnecessary and indefensible.” And if there’s any doubt that a commercial imperative underlines the effort, Hakim quotes the wisdom of cosmetics titan Helena Rubenstein: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

Nor does harnessing erotic capital entail acting like a bimbo, Hakim writes: “There’s a world of difference between dressing attractively and distractingly.” Sleeping with the boss is not recommended, though “women who are in that position should jolly well get something out of it rather than simply be exploited,” she says.

What holds women back the most, however, Hakim contends, is their unwillingness to use erotic capital as a negotiating chip, both at home and at work, where they are far less likely than men to ask for raises or promotions. “The whole sexual liberation thing has caused us to think there’s no bargaining, and there absolutely is,” she says. “The concept of virginity might be passé, but female sexuality definitely has value.” As proof, she marshals reams of statistics from the sex trade that reveal women can earn from two to 40 times more than they could otherwise. Honey Money, whose cringe-inducing title is inspired by the “No money, no honey” directive of Jakarta sex workers, calls for the legalization of prostitution, which Hakim compares blithely with working in the financial services industry: “a way to make the most money in little time.”

Just how erotic capital, a complex umbrella term that’s difficult to unbundle, should or could be valued is unclear. Hakim writes it’s “just as valuable as money, education, good contacts,” but later concedes it’s “unlikely ever to be as universally useful an asset as money,” one of Honey Money’s jarring inconsistencies. Hakim’s often thought-provoking thesis can be undercut by unsubstantiated generalizations—about modern feminism, female libido, public sector workers who “are, in general, uglier than their private sector counterparts” and claims that men hate women: “The underlying cause of men’s hatred for women is their semi-permanent state of sexual desire and sexual frustration,” she writes.

For a book extolling the benefits of charm, Honey Money can suffer from a decided deficit—with human relations reduced to bloodless transactions. “Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?,” Hakim asks, a question that suggests she doesn’t watch a lot of reality TV. But there’s hope, she offers, citing the fact that Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, is a role model in China for parlaying three marriages to older, successful men into mega-wealth and social status. “She has something useful to offer,” Hakim says. “She’s clever and attractive and has incorporated [cosmetic] improvements over time.” Yes, Catherine Hakim has figured out how to hit a cross-cultural nerve, one that deserves much closer inspection.