Have you got erotic capital?

Prospect Magazine

Have you got erotic capital?

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It can be just as valuable as a university degree—especially for women

Katie Price, aka Jordan, does not owe her astonishing success to university


Michelle and Barack Obama have it. Carla Bruni and David Beckham have it. Jordan has even made a career from it. So great is the advantage “erotic capital” can bring to the labour market—especially in sport, the arts, media and advertising—that it often outweighs educational qualifications.

It’s a term I coined to refer to a nebulous but crucial combination of physical and social attractiveness. Properly understood, erotic capital is what economists call a “personal asset,” ready to take its place alongside economic, cultural, human and social capital. It is just (if not more) as important for social mobility and success.

Erotic capital goes beyond beauty to include sex appeal, charm and social skills, physical fitness and liveliness, sexual competence and skills in self-presentation, such as face-painting, hairstyles, clothing and all the other arts of self-adornment. Most studies capture only one facet of it: photographs measure beauty or sex appeal, psychologists measure confidence and social skills, sex researchers ask about seduction skills and numbers of partners. Yet women have long excelled at such arts: that’s why they tend to be more dressed up than men at parties. They make more effort to develop the “soft skills” of charm, empathy, persuasion, deploying emotional intelligence and “emotional labour.” Indeed, the final element of erotic capital is unique to women: bearing children. In some cultures, fertility is an essential element of women’s erotic power. And even though female fertility is less important in northern Europe (where families are smaller) women’s dominant position in this market has been reinforced in recent decades by a much-lamented phenomenon: the sexualisation of culture.

Since the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s, surveys from around the world reveal a dramatic increase in sexual activities, numbers of partners and varieties of sex. London now hosts an annual Erotica fair, showcasing the new diversity of sexual lifestyles and tastes. World Health Organisation research shows that humans see sexual activity as essential to quality of life—but men still rank sex as more important than women. Indeed, rocketing global demand for sexual activity of all kinds (including commercial sex, autoeroticism and erotic entertainments) has been far more pronounced among men than women. Sex tourism is essentially a male hobby, while erotic magazines for women often fail.

This creates an effect that should be familiar to any economist: the laws of supply and demand raise the value of women’s erotic capital, in particular their beauty, sex appeal and sexual competence. It is happening in Scandinavia as well as Mediterranean countries, in China and the US. The pattern is confirmed even in countries that are sexually “liberated” such as Finland and France. Men are two to ten times more likely to have affairs, buy pornography, seek lap-dancing clubs and erotic entertainments. And call girls’ earnings can exceed wages in nearly all the professions, despite working shorter hours.

It is true, as feminists argue, that some of these relationships can be exploitative. And, to a degree, women’s new advantage is concealed by the explosion of sexual activity among both women and men under 30, many of whom now regard one-night stands and flings as normal. In this age group there is a parity of libido, but the imbalance returns among men over 30—surveys around the globe find that women over 30 steadily lose interest in erotic games.

This is an implicit rebuttal to feminist thinkers (like Sylvia Walby, Mary Evans, Monique Wittig or most recently Kat Banyard) who argue that men and women are “equal” in their sexual interest, as in everything else. This is obviously not true, which is why it should not surprise us that some women do use sex, and their erotic capital more generally, to get what they want. It happens as often today as in the past, as illustrated by the daily sexual bargaining described in Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt’s 2009 book, The Sex Diaries.

The sexualisation of culture affects public as well as private life. Beauty, sex appeal, social skills and the arts of self-presentation have increasing value everywhere, helping to sell ideas, products and policies. Popular culture especially valorises female erotic capital: just look at unkempt boy bands and glossy girl bands. Yes, men with high levels of erotic capital do better than those who don’t. But it is beautiful and elegant women who grace the advertisements for products of all kinds, from cars to detergent—not men.

The economic benefits of being physically and socially attractive can be substantial, especially in marketing, public relations, television, advocacy in the courts, as well as for actors, singers and dancers. But it’s broader than this: people working in the better-paid parts of the private sector are more attractive than those in the public and non-profit sectors. Tall and attractive people are more likely to be employed in professional jobs, like law or banking. For the ugly and short, it gets worse. Good-looking people can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the average-looking, who in turn can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the plain or ugly. The tall earn more than the short; the obese have earnings 10 to 15 per cent below average. Statistical analysis shows this beauty premium is not really just about cleverly disguised differences in intelligence, social class or self-confidence. Studies of lawyers reveal that there is always a premium for attractiveness that varies in size, but is not due to employer discrimination. The most attractive can earn 12 per cent more than the unattractive, and are 20 per cent more likely to achieve partnership in their firm, because they are more effective at pulling in customers.

Indeed, there is a 25 percentage point difference in average earnings between unattractive and attractive minorities. This impact can be as big as the gap between having a degree and no qualifications at all—although it ranks well below intelligence as a determinant of life outcomes.

Intriguingly, this means erotic capital—if seen as an economic endowment—is an especially important asset for people with few intellectual abilities and qualifications. In Brazil, investing in cosmetic surgery is seen as a sensible way of getting ahead in a culture where looks and sensuality count. In Britain, too, a 2009 survey of teenage girls found that one-quarter think it is more important to be beautiful than clever.

Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and human capital. As Chairman Mao advised—walk on two legs.

  1. March 26, 2010

    Peel

    Totally ignorant. Do all British people rely on stereotypes they learned when they were 12? Idiocracy is happening, this article proves it.

  2. March 27, 2010

    Comment via Facebook

    Amanda Craig:
    “Oh what bilge. Men can have just as much “erotic captial as women.” It’s just called good looks. And the idea that fertility has an appeal limited to women is also bilge.”

  3. April 2, 2010

    Page

    Why has the LSE academic who wrote this article decided to take the same stance as the teenage girls she mentions in her penultimate paragraph? It is really shocking that Hakim should appear to endorse one of the most ‘ugly’ aspects of our culture. I do not understand why she seems to advertise self-grooming as a good alternative to a university degree, especially for women. Her argument and the logic which underpins it are both very much flawed. And she seems to me irresponsible in sending forth such a message.

  4. April 11, 2010

    Dee

    It makes me laugh how you utilize other intellectual concepts to justify your generalization, to promote a non-concept to make it a social concept to basically generalize women based on the few tacky social examples that appear in the Sun and News of the World.
    My guess is that you coined the term to take this concept further, for a book deal based on your final dogmatic answer:
    “Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and human capital.”
    Hardly scientific, hardly economic (it’s probably embarrassing to anyone with a degree). You mention studies, but commit the error that most shlock faux academics do – you fail to mention any studies in your little column.
    You’re going for the lowest common denominator, which is fine if you want to make quick cash with a book that’ll basically be in the bargain bin within a year, but don’t try to pass your thinking off as highbrow.

  5. April 11, 2010

    Bete

    I have never read such rubbish in my life, but when I saw that you’re a sociology fellow, I understood immediately. I endure this type of thinking twice a week at uni as a minor subject for a larger degree, and frankly, I’m amazed how sociology survives for the generalizations that it makes. It’s also interesting to observe how sociology has made few improvements to society, merely preferring to be an observer and pontificator.

  6. April 21, 2010

    Erik

    Hakim’s argument makes sense in the perspective of sexual selection. Like it or not, but being longer than average etc. may be traits that makes people stand out. Read Geoffrey Miller’s Spent to see how this evolutionary psychology is driving consumerism.

  7. April 22, 2010

    Jo

    Summarizing: “If you’re charming that helps in your professional and private life.” Duhh. You have to be a sociologist to first state the obvious and then get it wrong trying to quantify. How on earth do you measure what percentage of your earnings you owe to your intelligence, your education, your beauty, your social intelligence. And who determines what constitutes “attractive” and “unattractive”?

  8. May 21, 2010

    Pouline Middleton

    Nice to read an article describing what I can see when I observe people’s behaviour and reward systems. Have for years felt that my university education (M.Sc. intl. economics)failed to explain certain mechanisms.
    I am presently publishing a novel online that deals with some of the subjects touched in the article. Feel free to read and comment.

  9. July 17, 2010

    jerry

    I agree with everything said in the article. Not sure why other comments are so rude but people instinctively know it is true.

  10. September 4, 2010

    Mark

    This article may have flaws but the premise is dead on. It reflects the real (flawed) world. The evidence is all around and completely self evident. In a media saturated world, sexy equals big attraction which assembles big attention and big money. There are few downright ugly political leaders, so the asymmetrical distribution curve would seem to indicate that erotic power (and forms of physical and visual charm?) are effective there, too. The longer we keep this in our collective blind spot for whatever personal and hurtful reasons, the more resentful and isolated some very talented and bright and caring individuals will become. They will be marginalized even further. A pathetic outcome for everyone including the general population. When symphonies were passing over talented women for less talented me, women asked that screens be put up during auditions so the test would be truly blind. It changed outcomes immediately. Visuals matter. Millions of years of brain development matter. Flaws are cognitive and perceptual in nature. We can deal with it or turn a blind eye. Pick your poison! But elevate even if you disagree. Tantrums, even short ones, don’t move anyone forward or up.

  11. September 8, 2010

    Jim A. Landé

    My father used to repeat a joke about Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe at a dinner party. I found it online as follows: “Marilyn Monroe suggests to Einstein: What do you say, professor, shouldn’t we make a little baby together: what a baby it would be – my looks and your intelligence! Einstein: I’m afraid, dear lady, it might be the other way around…” It seems the same joke has also been told but with George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan as the conversants.

  12. February 21, 2011

    Jill Rhodes-Harvey

    What an excellent article! The reason there are so many rude comments is because the derogatory postings are from women. Only the comments from men see the article as it is, and not from an emotional perspective, female equality raising it’s ugly head again. Catherine Hakim, was not saying a female does not need to have a university education, she was merely stating the importance in society to have the attributes referred to.

    Women want their cake and eat it, and all this lady has done is be direct, stating life as it really is, like or not..it’s fact!

  13. August 25, 2011

    Chuck

    Wow many ugly people disagree with the article. I find it to be as accurate as I am beautiful.

  14. August 31, 2011

    Amanda Hugandkiss

    Across several interviews with Hakim and reviews of her book, not once have I seen her acknowledge the likelihood of someone attaining a career in any of the fields where erotic capital bears the greatest economic rewards.
    So great is the advantage “erotic capital” can bring to the labour market—especially in sport, the arts, media and advertising—that it often outweighs educational qualifications.\nSo if you really focus on developing your erotic capital (along with your goal-keeping, song-writing or news reading), potentially at the expense of your education… then what? How many careers in these specialties are there per hundred people who aspire to them? Scores of American college football players (themselves an elite group, culled from a much larger pool of high school football players) who find themselves drafted into the NFL (again, another reduction in available positions) only to sustain an injury are then without a job or a degree. They may be able to re-channel their erotic capital into another career, but the number of people who become financially successful without a degree is certainly smaller than the number who succeed with one. It seems short sighted to suggest that we refocus our energies on exploiting this relatively immutable aspect of ourselves while subsequently depreciating the value of education, kindness, empathy and other more expandable attributes.

  15. September 1, 2011

    Ted Fontenot

    No, not Mao, but former NFL running back Jim Brown on the secret of his great success: show ‘em the leg, then take it away. That’s how sex works in a market paradigm.

  16. September 1, 2011

    JR

    Please cite your data, Ms. Hakim. You draw many vague conclusions in this article using vague data to support them.

    Hakim’s premise seems to imply that women should use the promise of sex as a means to an end because men are susceptible to this behavior, and it will allow women to get ahead.

    It is an interesting, and maybe even noble thesis.

    But, she provides no concrete information for any of the claims she has made.

    She points to contraception data, and then links the demand by men for sexual activity, and other data that indicates men are more likely to have affairs and seek lap dances. Which surveys? What research?
    The sexualisation of culture affects public as well as private life. What?
    The economic benefits of being physically attractive can be substantial. How? And is this with or without a level of intelligence equal to the tasks stated. And public vs. non-profit beauty? She states a percentage of income advantage. Did she poll her make-up artist? Her hairdresser? Where, exactly did this data come from?

    The people who have posted here either for, or against her opinions are really what astounds me.

    She makes the kind of conversation one would encounter at a social gathering, perhaps at a gentleman’s club, with some interesting statistics to make her claim seem true.

    But without citing the studies and sources for those statistics, I will have to relegate her to the pile of those pretty people who really don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they’re fun to sleep with.

  17. September 5, 2011

    Contessa Kopashki

    it is stating the obvious that social skills are valuable for getting ahead in life. it is shallow to suggest that social skills combined with sex appeal can provide the foundation of economic prosperity.

    i would sooner trust the wellbeing of the economy to charismatic, intelligent, ugly people with big noses and pot bellies than mono dimensional surgically enhanced, jewel encrusted celebrities.

    all that glitters is not gold.

  18. September 16, 2011

    KB

    If someone comes into the workplace expecting to get ahead by sheer looks alone then it sounds like it doesn’t take a whole lot of talent to get a job at that particular workplace.

    Imagine someone looking for a job in the trades sector and using their “erotic capital” as their chief selling point. Can you build a house on erotic capital? Can you design and build a new aircraft with it? How about write a computer program, or save a life as a paramedic?

  19. October 22, 2011

    Observer

    Of course, looks can sometimes work against a person. If someone looks “too pretty” or “too sexy” they may not be taken seriously on the job, or they may be relegated to jobs where it’s all about attracting people (hostess, receptionists, sales associates) vs jobs where important decisions are made (executive, engineering, politics).

  20. October 28, 2011

    Natassa

    What Ms Hakim supports may be true (and it is true in many cases indeed in modern society) but I don’t think the theme of her book is of any concern to the majority of people on the planet! For example, I teach English as a foreign language. How could I take advantage of my pretty looks to climb the social (and financial) ladder in terms of my profession? I hope my students don’t like me just because I’m pretty!! Anyway, we all tend to be racists with ‘ugliness’ sometimes but it’s not a message to be promoted especially to young girls.. Unless her book is just a sociological study and we’ve misunderstood her intentions!

  21. June 12, 2013

    Rokkan Niersham

    Embarrassing political “agenda” smokescreen piece. Trashy, too.

  22. November 4, 2013

    Carole Poche

    On the upside of things. There are many ways in which one can find happiness and success in life. If one can utilize their God given looks power to them, however most can not or do not have the self confidence to do so. I remember an interview with Dolly Parton some years back regarding looks, success and surgeries. She admitted she had a lot of work done to be beautiful. She said something close to the following:
    “… honey, you do what you have to in order to get through the door, but once you are in there, you still have to be able to perform!” In other words, looks help with first impressions, but if you can’t get the job done you will not last. We all have visualizations of ourselves and know that the true transformation is successful when we transform our concept of ourselves from the inside out and can escape virtually or in reality to a place of higher thinking and find “flow” in our lives.
    Reference:
    Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

  23. January 6, 2014

    Maria

    I’d say there is some truth in Ms.Hakim’s message. But to girls out there; they should take this “advice” with a grain of salt. It would actually be on case by case basis. If one is in a situation where by the person who makes the important decision appreciates erotic capital then you gotta have one but if it is a person who happens to value skills and education then you gotta be ready to give that, too. so to all women out there try to cover all the bases; I think that’s the way to go. be ready with the appropriate ammunition!

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Author

Catherine Hakim

Catherine Hakim is a senior research fellow in sociology at the LSE, and the author of “Key Issues in Women’s Work” (Routledge-Cavendish) 


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