July 12th, 2012
07:30 AM ET
Madonna’s got it. So do George Clooney, Tina Turner and Robert Redford.
These celebrities are certainly good-looking, but they also possess what sociologist Catherine Hakim has dubbed “erotic capital” - a term that describes a certain je ne sais quoi that includes, but isn’t limited to, sexual attractiveness.
Harness your erotic capital, Hakim boldly suggests in her recent book by the same name and you’ve got the potential to not only land a mate, but to get ahead at work and in society as a whole.
By her definition, erotic capital is more than just good looks and has six main facets:
2. Sexual attractiveness
3. Social skills/likeability
6. Sexual competence
While one of these characteristics might make you gorgeous or funny or fun, you need the whole group to maximize erotic capital. And you don’t have to be born with it - erotic capital is cultivated and learned and has a lot to do with your self-esteem.
Even if you’ve got “it” you might not be capitalizing on it. Hakim says women have more erotic capital than men do — and that they should be exploiting it more as a result.
She bases this idea partly on studies that suggest that men tend to have stronger libidos than women.
“Men’s demand for sexual activity and erotic entertainment of all kinds greatly exceeds women’s interest in sex,” Hakim writes. In this line of thinking, sex has a market value, and women have the potential to leverage their ability to supply men’s demand for it.
I find this theory interesting, although I certainly don’t agree with it fully. As I’ve discussed in an earlier column on low male libido, there are plenty of couples in which the woman wants more sex and is coping with a male partner who has a low sex drive. And as the recent frenzy for the erotic trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” makes clear, women have a voracious appetite for sexual entertainment.
At the same time, we live in a culture that has become increasingly centered around sex. Many women already feel as if they need to compete with porn stars, strippers and celebrity sex tapes for male attention. Are we really suggesting that society needs more of this, not less?
Just as sexism still exists, so too does “looksism.” People considered attractive, regardless of their gender, tend to be treated more favorably than their less-attractive counterparts.
In his book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful” economist Daniel Hamermesh contends that good-looking men earn approximately 17% more money than not so good-looking men, while attractive women earn 12% more; as a whole attractive people earn a total of $230,000 more than those considered unattractive (based on average wage of $20 per hour), according to Hamermesh.
While most would respond that “appearance-discrimination” is an unsavory aspect of our society that we should be seeking to transcend, Hakim maintains that erotic capital has been largely ignored because “it is held mostly by women, and the social sciences have generally overlooked or disregarded women in their focus on male activities, values, and interests.”
Yet she also blames feminists for neglecting an opportunity to exploit female erotic capital; feminist theory, she says, encourages women to choose between using their looks and using their intelligence to succeed.
As you might imagine, critics bridle at many of her claims. As Anna North writes on the post-feminist blog Jezebel, “The bottom line is that ‘erotic capital’ is all about others’ perceptions of women, rather than about things women themselves can do or acquire. That’s the main reason ‘soft power’ isn’t real power — because when your influence is based on someone else’s desire, he’s the one who’s really in control.”
I do think Hakim makes some compelling points. Sure, strippers, porn stars, cocktail waitresses and even geishas are financially dependent on their ability to take advantage of their erotic power by making themselves appealing to men. But erotic capital may have subtler effects, too.
Who among us — male or female — hasn’t found that a smile, laugh, and a little harmless flirting can have the potential to open doors, whether that means getting a better table at a restaurant, a raise at work or securing a second date?
And erotic capital isn’t solely the domain of women. “Men now find it necessary to develop their erotic capital as well,” admits Hakim. “They are devoting more time and money to their appearance, work out in gyms to maintain an attractive body, spend more on fashionable clothes and toiletries, and display more varied hairstyles.”
Perhaps they’ve realized that a little erotic capital never hurt anyone. And if the success of the hit male stripper film "Magic Mike" is any indication, women are happy to share the power.
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