Women Should Use Sex to Get Ahead? Controversy Erupts Over "Erotic Capital"

Balancing her 5-foot-8-inch frame on stilettos, she glides down the red carpet, cameras flashing. Graceful as a greyhound, she greets the cheering crowd. She could be heading for the Oscars, but it is the title of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister that waits her at the podium.

With her impeccable style, eyes framed in black, face framed in blond, Helle Thorning-Smith is as far from the typical balding, bearded, pipe-smoking Social Democrat as could possibly be. Along with my country, I raise the flag of victory in a century long fight for gender equality, but a creepy thought lingers in the back of my mind. Could my new Prime Minister, known as Gucci Helle, be the hot proof of the power of erotic capital?

The term was coined in the recently published Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. The author, Cathrine Hakim, successfully set off a blizzard of controversy arguing that women should exploit their sex appeal to move ahead. Her theory is perfumed with the compelling smell of radical pragmatism. To the Sunday Times she says: “We live in a sexualized age: that’s the trend. Let’s just relax ... There’s not much point in swimming against the tide,” and reporter Kate Spices concludes that in “Hakim’s world, a female historian is in no way devalued if she chooses to strip off in order to publicize her book. Nor is there anything wrong with being a gold-digger.”

Erotic capital, highly visible yet – according to Hakim -- generally overlooked, is a combination of beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence. Both genders have this x-factor, but women have a longer tradition of developing it and should use it to gain influence, in bedrooms and boardrooms. Jessica Bennett, writing for the Daily Beast, notes that the thesis could be straight out of a Paris Hilton self-help guide, but Hakim is a London School of Economics professor with a string of scholarly publications to her name.

Let’s undress the idea of erotic capital for a moment.

The fact that good looks and charm can help you succeed in life is, as Elisabeth Day from the Guardian remarks, “unlikely to come as a surprise to almost anyone with a pulse rate.” Jessica Bennett points out that the beauty advantage has been long documented and Jessica Grose, blogging for Slate, refers to a New York Times article in which economy professor Daniel S. Hamermesh explains that the ugliest one-seventh of Americans earn as much as 15 percent less than the one third most attractive.

Do the numbers give reason to the fact that Americans spent more than $10 billion on cosmetic procedures last year? Hakim seems to think so. To the Daily Beast she explains, “This isn’t a frivolous spending of money. It has real benefits.” She argues that erotic capital is as important in today’s workplace as intelligence or skill.

If women successfully outrun men by throwing the body business card, as Hakim argues they could and should, the future looks glamorously gloomy: CEOs with PhDs in pedicures and politicians running campaigns on cross fit machines.

But before turning pale, let’s remove the polish from her argument.

Hakim frames her theory in economic terms and makes a simple supply-demand equation. She argues that the labor market suffers a sexual deficit, because men’s sexual desire outstrips women’s. That gives women a comparative advantage because their erotic capital is in high demand and short supply. This revival of the survival of the fittest logic, dressed as free market theory, makes her argument seem perfectly rational.

Caitlin Moran, columnist and author of How To Be A Woman, points out that investing in erotic capital looks like an unsustainable business strategy. Arifa Akbar, in the Independent, quotes her as saying: “I would say you're working in a company that's not really operating at its full potential if women are only getting ahead because they're being successfully, effortfully and expensively sexy... I mean, what kind of tuppenny ha'penny organization is disabling 52 percent of its potential brainpower in favour of only listening to the chicks who have nice legs?”

But it would not be the first time the free market has been known to prioritize short-term profit over long-term sustainability. Could investments in erotic capital be the newest branch in the adventure of disaster capitalism?

Guardian reporter Zoe Williams does not think so. She rips the idea of a sexual deficit altogether, arguing that Hakim’s evidence is tainted by age and culturally fringed. Besides relying on 20-year-old data, Hakim ignores stereotypes of the horny male and the frigid female influencing how people respond to questions about sexual desire, masturbation and porn, unfaithfulness and celibacy. Williams speaks to the point that if women after the age of 30 show less sexual desire than men, it is a social construct, not a biological fact. It seems like the job market is as hot as it gets.

From the woman’s perspective the investment seems equally unsustainable. Echoing the free-market logic roaring, “Everyone forges his own happiness,” Hakim tells the Daily Beast, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” She argues that, “In affluent modern societies, extremely high levels of erotic capital can be achieved through fitness training, hard work, and technical aids.” Hakim leaves out the little detail that time and money for the majority of the world population are scarce resources. If women spend hours at the gym and thousands of dollars on cosmetics it must inevitably come at the cost of something else.

Lisa Hickey recently described on AlterNet how beauty nearly ruined her life as she chased an image she could never quite catch up with. “A treatment of Botox is a tuition payment. A month's worth of yoga classes is a textbook. A mani-pedi is an hour of tutoring. Not to mention the time not being with my kids. I’d get nervous if I couldn’t fit the three hours of exercise in. If a yoga class was at suppertime, yoga it was.”

Beyond time and money, counting on physical appearance for success has another cost. For Hickey, boosting her erotic capital wrecked her self-image. “I like to think I’m intelligent, and funny, and kind, and that those qualities will be enough for any interaction,” she writes, but wearing a silky dress, the perfect bra and funky shoes, made her question those skills because “intelligence doesn’t walk in the door the same way beauty does.” And honestly, who would not prefer a promotion based on professional skills rather than a well-fitted miniskirt?

But Hakim’s theory has an attractive sex appeal. She is launching an attack on feminism, which depicts women as “the victims of male oppression and patriarchy, so that heterosexuality becomes suspect, a case of sleeping with the enemy, and the deployment of erotic capital becomes an act of treason.” She claims that Anglo-Saxon feminists are unable to understand how erotic capital can be a source of female power, because they have been brainwashed by patriarchal ideology.

The attack makes some women greet her as liberator. Bryony Gordon of the Telegraph cheers: “Her book should be read out to young girls as part of the national curriculum. Because it states something important that mothers have been frightened to tell daughters for fear of undermining their intelligence: that you can be a feminist, you can be strong and independent and clever, and you can wear a nice frock and high heels while you do this.”

Julio Ruvolo, blogging for Forbes, joins the cheering choir and nominates Hakim’s book the Feminism 2.0 Manifesto for Gen Y, the women between 15 and 35. Embracing the “If you got it, charge for it” message, she writes: “Smart women recognize the value of their erotic capital and make the most of it, in one way or another, while the rest of us call them names and sell ourselves short.”

It seems like we are facing a gap between two generations of feminists. If the message to take away from this is that you can be successful and sexy, that high heels and high-ranking jobs are compatible, I buy it. And if feminism claims otherwise, let’s give it a face-lift. I even buy the idea that on some level we are all for sale, that there is an aspect of deal-making in everything.

The question is if the road to success has to be cat-walked? By claiming so, I think Hakim is the one selling women short. If I need to carve out my abs in the gym before I can even dream of carving out a career, I smell imprisonment, not liberation. Using erotic capital to move ahead sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. If Gucci Helle had been preoccupied with maintaining her nails, she would not have climbed the podium of power. She earned the title of Prime Minister because she gave a deteriorating Social Democratic Party a makeover, not because she wore a spray-on dress.

With 39 percent women in office, the new Danish Parliament sees more high heels than ever. It speaks to Hakim’s advantage that the majority of new female politicians have pretty faces, but an article on Danish National News (DR) shows that the academic achievements behind those white smiles are, on average, significantly more impressive than those of their male counterparts.


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