Sexual Capital: Asset or liability?

Thoughts on the relationship of sexual desirability to power and gender inequality

In 2021, any dialogue about sexual, capital, is inherently problematic. In a #MeToo era, few people want to discuss the impact of physical attractiveness on a person’s life chances but should we disregard it because we do not care for what it says about society?


Background/context

According to Bourdieu (1984), three kinds of assets are crucial for social positioning in modern societies.

They are:

  1. Economic capitalwhich refers to material wealth (income and assets)
  2. Social capitalwhich are resources or benefits that originate from social networks and relations
  3. Cultural capitalwhich is institutionalised (formal education), objectified (cultural goods), and embodied (competence and skills) capital

Each form of capital can be converted into others.

Some academics have called for additions to be made to Bourdieu’s theory on the basis that three forms of capital may not be exhaustive to explain the formation and reproduction of social inequality.

This debate is not a new one.

Sociologists have previously argued that individuals attribute positive traits to attractive individuals and negative traits to less attractive individuals (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972).


Some of the arguments

In her book Honey Money, Catherine Hakim outlines a theory concerning the relationship of sexual desirability to power and gender inequality that takes its inspiration from Bourdieu’s capital concept.

Hakim defines erotic capital as social and physical attractiveness, which is important in all areas of life, giving people an advantage in all social situations.

Hakim states there are seven ‘distinct’ elements of erotic capital, namely beauty, sex appeal, social skills, ‘liveliness and vitality’, ‘social presentation’, sexuality, and fertility.

Hakim goes on to assert that if you understand erotic capital and the power that it gives you, you will be more successful in the workplace, in friendships, and in the politics of private life. The erotic capital aspect of Hakim’s work attracted widespread media attention, and criticism, when it was released in 2012.

Hakim has published extensively on labour market topics, women’s employment, sex discrimination, social and family policy, as well as social statistics and research design.

According to Hakim, the research suggests people who are socially and physically attractive earn 10–20% more than people who are considered unattractive. Hakim argues that feminists have been reluctant to accept that it can be an advantage and a benefit.

Hakim considers it unfair that men are more likely to be rewarded by society for their attractiveness than women. Hakim suggests this may be because feminist ‘lawyers and scientists’ have discredited any kind of respect or reward for attractiveness.

In Erotic capital’ and the power of desirability: Why ‘honey money’ is a bad collective strategy for remedying gender inequality Green (2013) argued that the main issue with Hakim’s work is that she takes Bourdieu’s concept of capital while ignoring field theory, and more specifically the sexual field. Hakim also limits the definition of erotic capital (more properly defined as sexual capital) to beauty and sex appeal, disregarding the impact race, class, age have on desirability.

Sexual capital does not apply to every woman and for those it does, it is mostly confined to when they are of a younger age.

Green considers Hakim’s work to be “conceptually overstretched”, using “a muddle of personality characteristics and interpersonal skills” to make the argument that all women can cultivate these attributes.

For Green, the idea of erotic, or sexual capital, is restricted to heterosexual women who wish to marry while having a limited impact on larger structures of gender inequality. Green states women do not enjoy the same conversion of erotic to economic capital in the labour market, are not rewarded with higher starting salaries, as are men, and may actually be discriminated against for being ‘‘too’’ attractive or, in some instances, overweight.

Green highlighted that research has shown that women’s sexual desirability to men accrues unequally across women, embedded in structures of race, class, and age. This results in women internalising standards of beauty and physical appeal that often exclude them, resulting in reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, and high-risk sexual activities.

Green cites Brooks (2010), who highlighted that women of colour in the stripping industries of New York City and San Francisco earn significantly less than their white counterparts.

Finally, Green argues that to look at beauty in isolation is problematic when you consider that, compared to men, women face a ‘‘double-standard of aging’’ (England and McClintock, 2009), are judged more harshly than men, and regarded as comparatively less attractive and sexually desirable over time.


Conclusion

The female gaze

Is there an inference made in Hakim’s work that sexual capital is only about the male gaze? In an article discussing how fat signifies the classed failures of neoliberalism, Winch (2016), highlights the issue of gynaeopticon.

‘I don’t believe there is a male gaze anymore. There used to be. But now I don’t dress for men, I dress for my friends’, maintains Jo, a third-year English Literature student. She continues: ‘it’s a critical gaze. . . other girls look at each other. . . it’s a derogatory gaze’.

Excessively populist?

Assuming that Hakim has worked hard to get to where she is, I find it surprising that she appears to have tapped into a predominantly heteronormative view of sex appeal.

Over-reaching?

While Pierre Bourdieu may have described charm and charisma as methods of defining legitimate physicality, and their effects on a person’s success in the labour market, it does appear to be a bit of a stretch for Hakim to base an entire theory on only part of a much larger body of work.

The McDonald’s approach to Bourdieu?

Hakim appears to be making the assumption that erotic capital was ‘overlooked’ by Bourdieu but that is not accurate.

Bourdieu does pay attention to how the body is moulded by society, playing a role in signifying one’s status and belonging within fields. Because of this, it is fair to say that Bourdieu considers the body to be a form of capital, particularly a form of cultural capital. For Bourdieu, an individual’s deportment, demeanor, accent, and tastes in adornment are linked to one’s social origins and experiences. (P74, Ch 6, Garratt, Bourdieu: the Next Generation).

Intersectionality

Inequality cannot be explained by single categories. People’s lives are multi-dimensional and complex. Lived realities are the outcome of intersections of different social dynamics, power relations, and experiences operating together. Hakim’s theory of erotic capital is very reductive.


References

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