I was asked a while ago to read through a book by Catherine Hakim, called Erotic Capital: The Power In The Boardroom And The Bedroom. The library finally coughed it up, so I did.

tl;dr: Hakim's thesis is interesting and absolutely deserves an entire book of analysis. She didn't bother to write one. The book is bullshit and you will just throw it at the wall.

The review inquiry came to me from one of my readers, on the grounds that I've worked in an industry where attractiveness, specifically conformist femininity, is an asset. So you are all absolutely clear where I am coming from, this is me (NSFW, if your work is hostile to cleavage):



Photo: Te Barata Photography
Wardrobe: Suki's Dareware

That particular shoot involved wearing a lot of fancy dresses as a favor to the designer, but I do lingerie, swimsuit, and art nudes as well. I am willing to be extremely naked for the camera, but it will cost you. The hourly rate I get for boudoir shoots is many times what I get for skilled brainwork, although this is partially compensation for the fact that hours for boudoir shoots are harder to come by. Some live gigs, like Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art School, require me to make sparkling conversation; most of them do not, although photographers like you better if you chat. I've also done some paid stage acting, although I have neither the credits nor the funds to be in the union. 

In short, I am willing to give Hakim's theory a good solid read, because the basis for it is already a part of my personal economic plan. 

The book is unfortunately rubbish.

Hakim's basic thesis is that "erotic capital" should be held up with cultural capital (education, "taste"), social capital (networking), and economic capital (wealth) as one of the assets that determines who has what kind of power in a social interaction. The theory is that those who are attractive are treated better in general, which gives them a warmer and more forgiving world in which to learn and practice things like social skills. It may not confer a single large advantage in any one interaction, but the accumulation of all of these small opportunities over time results in a large net gain in social skills and therefore social power for someone who has grown up with it. It works much the same way as growing up rich -- even if you legitimately start from zero, you know so much more about how money works and have so many little strings to pull that it's orders of magnitude easier for you to make your first million than it would be for someone who also grew up with nothing and had to learn all that from scratch. 

The first big problem is that this is not what the book is about. What Hakim describes as "erotic capital" is perhaps more accurately summed up as "charisma" -- she even states, explicitly, that except for sexual prowess, all of the various kinds of 'attractiveness' are applicable in relationships where sex is not a factor. Physical beauty is one of the points she hits, but she also places a lot of emphasis on social skills, interpersonal aptitude, emotional intelligence, manners and presentation, etc. It's really just a description of a bunch of things that make people want to be in your presence more, and make you better able to deal with the people who hang around you. 

As far as I can tell, the reasons she insists on calling it "erotic capital" is because she wants to spend several hundred pages raging about how the patriarchy devalues female sexuality. This is a 100% valid complaint, it's just not particularly useful sociology. She also spends a lot of time complaining that "feminism" does the same thing, rejecting all things traditionally girly as stupid and worthless. Again, totally valid complaint, if excessively straw-mannish in presentation, just not what the book promised to be about. Oddly, she specifically digs on "Anglo-Saxon feminism" -- i.e., feminism in the US and Britain -- for this, while presenting French and German feminism in such an idealized, romanticised way that I wonder if she has ever actually been to either of those countries.

The second big problem is that she seems to think she has written some kind of academic analysis. She has not. She wrote it like she'd never seen an actual research paper before. She has a doctorate, so theoretically she's written a few in her time, but you'd never know from this thing. There are no footnotes, no endnotes, and no inline citations. There is a fairly large reference section in the back, but it's keyed to page number and a specific quoted phrase which is in no way marked in the main text. You would have to page through the chapter and the references in tandem to find out if she has a citation for any given assertion or is just pulling it directly out of her fundament. 

[I did not bother to fact check any of them myself. You can, if you want. I got the feeling it would be a waste of time.]

So the book, as a piece of academic writing, is awful. As a pop-psych/self-help book, it's... also awful. Which is problem number three.

Hakim is ferociously wedded to the mainstream Western beauty ideal. 'Slim and attractive' go together in her mind. She is staunchly against the fat acceptance movement, to the point where round about page 110, she devolves into an argument that fat people are objective unattractive because 'everyone says so'. (There's no real reason for it to be there. It's not part of her thesis or anything. It's just there.) This is especially interesting if you check the back inside flap of the dust cover, where there is a picture of the author. Judged strictly by the beauty standards she so viciously upholds for the entire book, either she photographs very poorly, or she is herself quite plain.

The book drips with gender essentialism. I had a feeling I was in for it on page 3, when she first introduced the term "male sex deficit", i,e., that men consistently want a lot more sex than women are willing to have with them, and made it a cornerstone of her argument. I didn't catch a single mention of trans anything anywhere, and the few discursion into "gay culture" show an understanding of same that seems to have begun and ended in the bathhouse era. Lesbians don't have sex. Gay men have sex with everything. There was no acknowledgement of people who simply do not conform to gender expectations, except to point out where she says this makes them unattractive. The heterocentrism was jaw-dropping.

Hakim really doesn't explain why or how this erotic capital thing is supposed to work in real life, with actual case studies or interviews. The best you get are a couple of scientifically rubbish but potentially inspiring personal experiences, which are at best tangential to her argument. To illustrate her point, she uses a pair of straw (wo)men which she has blatantly made up, who are basically Goofus and Gallant in dresses. I felt I was peering into the madness of a scriptwriter for those proto-PSA educational filmstrips of the 1950s. The tone reminded me creepily of some of the Evangelical advice manuals I've seen picked apart over on Patheos. I don't know what Hakim is like in person, but I can't help but picture that time Caitlin Flanagan went on the Colbert Report and Colbert kinda couldn't figure out if she was serious or trolling.

Pretty much the one salvageable working point I got out of the whole thing was her observation that the devaluation of female sexuality was systematic because it allowed men to get a valuable thing (i.e., sex) for free, by convincing everyone that it was worthless, and selling it made you a terrible person. It's not an original idea, and since I've just noted it here, you can save yourself wading through 300 pages of drivel for it. There are better places to get your scholarship, and also better places to get your charm school lessons.

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