Why the world smiles on shameless erotic capitalists
What is ‘erotic capital’? And is it something that people, especially women, should exploit to advance their careers? Author Catherine Hakim believes so
WHAT ARE YOU worth? Your economic capital refers to your financial resources, your human capital to your intelligence and education, and your social capital to how you get on with your friends and contacts. But what about your erotic capital? Have you a little or a lot? Do you even know what it is?
Most people might guess that erotic capital refers to making the most of your looks, but it’s more complex than that. According to Catherine Hakim, the author of a controversial new book, erotic capital is about much more than being considered good-looking and is a lot more important than we like to think. Scoring high on erotic capital, she says, may override in itself any deficiencies you have in economic, human and social capital. And it can have a considerable impact on your salary too.
Hakim, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, is a well-established sociologist with a string of publications to her name. Her new book, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, is, in a first for her, getting attention from the tabloid press because of her argument that women in particular should be allowed and encouraged to use whatever erotic capital they have at their disposal for professional advancement.
“When I use the term ‘erotic capital’, I’m referring to six or seven different but connected elements,” she says, on a visit to Dublin this week. “It’s multifaceted in that beauty, obviously, is a central element, but there are cultural variations in what determines beauty. There is also the idea of sexual attractiveness, which is not the same as beauty. Your sex appeal can have as much to do with your personality, style and sense of your femininity/masculinity.
“There are also your social skills, whether you are a life-and-soul-of-the-party person and how you generally interact with other people. Your social presentation is important too, what you wear and how you wear it, as is your sexuality itself, your degree of sexual competence. But, overall, it’s important to remember that your erotic capital is as determined by your charm, charisma and social skills as much as anything else.”
Hakim, in a recent interview, cited Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund, as an example of what she means. “I met her briefly last year . . . She was stunning – not because she’s a raving beauty but because she makes the best of herself, in the way French women always do,” she said at the time.
Hakim understands that these are difficult areas for some people, as we are culturally encouraged to disregard such seemingly trivial attributes as good looks and attractiveness, and place more emphasis on intelligence and competence instead. But her extensive research (her book is laden with facts, figures and statistics) has shown her that society places much more of a premium on erotic capital than we admit. It is known, for example, that newborn babies will fix their gaze on pictures of attractive people and ignore those of less attractive people, thus suggesting that our preference for beauty, however you define it, is innate.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that attractive and sociable people have it easier in life’s obstacle course. They smile at the world and the world doesn’t just smile back: it winks and slips them its number.
“What I found while researching the book was that, even growing up, those with erotic capital tend to be socialised better, in that people seek them out and they get more attention,” says Hakim. “This positive response to them is instinctive, and we even attribute values to them which aren’t necessarily there, such as believing that attractive people necessarily have better cognitive abilities. So, even from an early age, these people are socially more intelligent and tend to move faster forward with their lives.
“But when you put emphasis on beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, a sense of liveliness, even a person’s sex appeal, you are dismissed as almost cheating, in that we are supposed to live in a meritocracy. But my point in the book is that it is a combination of all the above attributes that makes some people attractive, not just to their partners but also to friends, colleagues and business contacts. The studies show that attractive, socially able people consistently earn more than the average.”
Hakim concludes that the economic benefits of being physically and socially attractive can be substantial, especially in marketing, PR, television and (somewhat surprisingly) advocacy in the courts. The tall and attractive earn more than the “short and ugly” in the same field of work, she says. The same figures are replicated when it comes to size, with overweight people earning less than those whose weight is closer to the average.
What Hakim’s book illustrates is that while society has outlawed discrimination on grounds of race, gender, age and sexual orientation, the prejudice against the less physically and socially attractive is invisible and difficult to identify or prove. “A big area here for me was political life,” says Hakim. “Attractive candidates do get more votes than nonattractive candidates. You just have to look at the Nixon-versus-JFK US presidential election, when Nixon said afterwards: ‘I just wasn’t handsome enough.’ ”
Hakim has already drawn the ire of feminists. She believes that although erotic capital is as important for men as for women, it is women who have most to gain from exploiting it, if only because the gatekeepers of the most prestigious jobs are male.
“When I’m talking in universities to an audience largely aged under 30, they all get immediately and recognise it,” she says. “Some older women, though, resent the very idea. These would be people who have never invested in erotic capital and have put all their stock in education and qualifications. But the reason I give for encouraging women to exploit their erotic capital is because the economic returns are there for them . . . Your erotic capital matters – and a lot.”
Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, by Dr Catherine Hakim, is published by Allen Lane, £20