Playing the beautiful game

Elegantly clad in a cocoa-brown dress, with foxy red hair and subtle make-up, it is clear that Dr Catherine Hakim is a woman ‘bien coiffée’. This is probably necessary for the research fellow, who has just published a book called Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. Hakim claims that her idea of erotic capital is completely new. She defines it as a broad combination of ‘beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills.’ This weapon is more potent for women because there is a male sex deficit. In plain English, men at all stages of their lives want sex much more than women and value looks more highly when selecting a partner. The fairer sex should scrap any silly ideas that beauty is superficial and worthless, and proudly exploit this valuable bargaining tool in all areas of life, be it the workplace, public life or at home.

The criticism of Hakim’s main theory has fallen into two opposing camps: either, she is stating the bleeding obvious – we all know that looks are important; or, her ideas are worryingly passé, proposing a return to the era of our grandparents, where women were admired for their lustrous hair and hour-glass physique, rather than for their brains. The argument of the latter slightly undermines that of the former. Maybe there is a point to calling a spade a spade.

The predominantly female critics, taking the moral high ground, have missed the point. Clearly beauty has economic and social value. As Hakim tells me over lunch, nonchalantly spearing vegetables with her fork: ‘This is the way the world works. Saying the world should be a different place cannot be a starting point. I want to give women an edge in any way possible to readdress the power balance.’

Hakim seems to have anticipated the two main rebukes when she argues that Feminism splits into two groups, those that value erotic capital and those that value human capital (one’seducation and career). It is true that women are not encouraged to aspire to both in Britain, unlike for instance, our friends across the Channel. ‘Here, the only message you ever get is that beauty is skin-deep, shallow, superficial,’ she says bitterly. This book isn’t a how-to-guide on how to work those womanly wiles. Hakim is calling for an attitude change.

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So does she call herself a feminist? ‘Yes, of course.’ This response may surprise some readers, because, in many ways, Honey Money goes to show that Feminism has become a dirty word. In one of many sweeping generalisations, she writes ‘Feminists argue that there is no real distinction between marriage and prostitution.’ The crusade against Feminists makes you wonder for whom Hakim is actually writing. ‘Everyone’, she insists, ‘both men and women.’

Unfortunately, Hakim’s views on the Feminists are frankly conservative compared to those on prostitution, which she showcases as a stellar example where the financial value of erotic capital can reach its full potential. She celebrates the economic and psychological benefits of prostitution for the workers, completely downplaying the problem of security and trafficking. For Hakim, these girls are empowered, not exploited. Anyone who disagrees is brainwashed by a patriarchal society, which stigmatises selling sex.

The book seems to openly encourage young female students to turn to the sex industry to help fund their tuition fees: ‘the preponderance of university students and graduates among these women is strong evidence that beauty and brains are often combined and work together.’ Prostitution is the smart option for the average female student, didn’t you know?

Hakim prefers to refer to call-girls as ‘party girls’, as if to insinuate that girls who do not prostitute themselves are not as adventurous as girls who do. ‘But they are fun girls!’ she gushes breathlessly. She’s piqued my curiosity. Has she spoken to anyone working in the sex industry? ‘No’. Did she not consider that to be an important part of her research? ‘I just relied primarily on the literature – that way someone else has done the work.’ Then how can she know what it is like to work as an escort? ‘I just know,’ she repeats several times. I sincerely hope she isn’t toying with romantic ideas that call-girls are all ‘party girls’ based on Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who is presented as an iconic example in her book.

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Given Hakim is urging women to adopt a more ruthless, business-like approach to their erotic capital, I ask if she thinks women should behave more like men. ‘Yes, women should be more professional, and professionalism is more like the way men behave. Men are rational and practical. You can always do business with a man. Women treat each other so badly in the workplace. They have no team spirit!” It seems fair to say that we do have something to learn from the other sex.

We move on to a discussion of the reviews published on her book so far. It is clear that this is a sensitive subject, especially owing to one Guardian article. ‘No man would write that kind of article, ever. No matter how much they disagree with you, they wouldn’t bring emotion in. Women find it easier to attack another woman than attack a man.’ In agreement, I point out that in the storm of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial, British journalists took greater pleasure in criticising Anne Sinclair’s decision to stand by her man than her husband’s peccadillos.

In Money Honey, Hakim bombards the reader with numerous statistics illustrating how common it is for men to commit adultery. So I ask if this is another instance where we should accept the world as it is. ‘I am a social scientist. I am not concerned with morality.’ I don’t mean in terms of morality, I say, but rather in terms of bringing about the greatest happiness. Eventually, after a hesitant pause, Hakim replies, ‘women should turn a blind eye’.

As I leave the LSE, I find myself unsure what to make of Hakim and her book. I can’t help but wonder if she was merely implementing her erotic capital philosophy when she laughed so excessively at a borderline-funny tale. Her aggressive, bolshie  style of writing undermines the thought-provoking parts. Her theory of erotic capital was first advanced in an article published last year in the European Sociological Review and I found myself wondering how the two would compare. As suspected, everything in the 248-page book can be found in the 20-page article, written in a far more neutral and less irritating manner. I would recommend reading that instead.