Sexonomics: Putting your 'erotic capital' to work
Madonna performs during a concert as part of her MDNA world tour on July 4, 2012.
July 12th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Sexonomics: Putting your 'erotic capital' to work

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex weekly on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

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.

Sociologists and economists have long recognized three main types of capital: social, economic and cultural. Your capital depends on the assets and resources you can potentially use for gain, whether that means making more money or making more friends. But we’re neglecting a fourth important kind of capital, Hakim argues.

By her definition, erotic capital is more than just good looks and has six main facets:

1. Beauty

2. Sexual attractiveness

3. Social skills/likeability

4. Liveliness

5. Style

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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Filed under: Living Well • Sex

soundoff (2,230 Responses)
  1. Quagmire

    I use it all the time!!!! Giggity, giggity giggity!!!!!!!!!

    July 12, 2012 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Peter

      heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 12, 2012 at 19:48 | Report abuse |
    • smrk

      I've had to learn to tone it down just so I can get stuff done 🙂

      July 13, 2012 at 09:16 | Report abuse |
    • Chris


      July 13, 2012 at 16:34 | Report abuse |
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      July 13, 2012 at 18:13 | Report abuse |
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      July 14, 2012 at 21:56 | Report abuse |
    • PAUL

      TRICK OR??


      July 15, 2012 at 17:31 | Report abuse |
  2. FiveLIters

    I think this article could have been summarized as follows:

    "If you've got it,flaunt it!"

    July 12, 2012 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. idunno

    Se x sells, but don't sell se x or you're a prosti tute. Just have the image of a s1ut but then act innocent

    July 12, 2012 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Fifi

    When I was entering the workforce–post college–in the 1980s, I was criticized and belittled for being too feminine and too "cute". I had to turn all that off (that was before the big se xual-harrassment-in-the-workplace lawsuits and I was subject to some shockingly inappropriate behavior from bosses). While I worry about young women these days embracing the bimbo look, I sort of envy them the freedom to work what they have.

    And btw, Madonna does not "have it".

    July 12, 2012 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • James the elder

      Ummmmmmmmm...... yes. Yes she does. And she has a lot of 'it'.

      July 12, 2012 at 15:22 | Report abuse |
    • maxine

      really? I think it is completely inappropriate to act flirtatious at work, period.
      To think that u would have to give the impression u r up for a good time just to get by at work is wrong.

      July 12, 2012 at 15:53 | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Madonna had it at one time but lost it long ago. She tries to hard to be what she is not (young), doesn't concentrate on what she is (older) and is seen appropriately as a desperate, old, has-been trying to remain young instead of embracing who she really is.

      July 13, 2012 at 11:28 | Report abuse |
    • YusErv

      I want to see your cuteness. All of it

      July 13, 2012 at 14:39 | Report abuse |
    • Mary Arnold

      Read the comment above. While the news media generally makes it look like male bosses exploit female subordinates, after twenty years in the corporate world, I have observed that it is exactly the opposite – its most often women who initiate sexual behavior and innuendo, and then exploit the legal system using false claims of "sexual harassment". It has caused me to be very skeptical of these accusations (which are usually settled out of court for a tidy sum – so there is indeed a market value here!). However, as a woman I find it disgusting and unprofessional.

      July 15, 2012 at 07:41 | Report abuse |
  5. lewax00

    “Men’s demand for sexual activity and erotic entertainment of all kinds greatly exceeds women’s interest in sex,”

    I doubt that. Men are just more open about it, women may not talk about it but there's just as much drive there.

    July 12, 2012 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anonymous

      To what, then, would you attribute the tendency of men to be more open about it that couldn't be traced back to differences in sexual desire?

      July 12, 2012 at 12:57 | Report abuse |
    • James the elder

      "I doubt that." Really? You must be a woman. Because no man I ever met thinks that. Here's a little fact for you:
      A typical man produces around 5mg of testosterone daily. Women produce about 0.3mg. One fifteenth the amount. ONE FIFTEENTH.

      July 12, 2012 at 15:20 | Report abuse |
    • maxine

      not really, most guys would "do" a donut, while some women are that way, most are not.
      and the ones that are do talk about it, to anyone.

      July 12, 2012 at 15:54 | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      LOL, do you believe that it's only testosterone that drives sexual desire in women? How amazingly uninformed you are. Women have estrogen, FSH, testosterone and progesterone driving our libidos.

      Take a biology class sometime and expand your horizon. The sun does not rise and set upon your testicles. You'll learn all about how men even have FSH (follicle stimulating hormone, the substance that causes women to ovulate each month) in their bodies. How's that, Mr Testosterone?

      July 13, 2012 at 14:03 | Report abuse |
    • Liz


      Ask any woman who has - to her delight - found a stud-muffin after divorcing from sexually-tiresome marriage.

      December 5, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse |
  6. Suzie

    "Sexual competence." Ludicrous. Cattle are successfully inseminated artificially. That's sexual competence, isn't it?

    July 12, 2012 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • starbucksjunkie

      Actually, I think it's really perception of sexual competence rather than the truth of it. For instance, we all (women, that is) imagine that George Clooney is good in bed. He may not be, but perception is everything.

      July 12, 2012 at 21:04 | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      That's reproductive competence, Suzie.

      There's a lot of information freely available online about sex. Everyone should avail themselves of it. Americans are amazingly ignorant in this area.

      July 15, 2012 at 18:34 | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      No, that is called successful breeding, that can be accomplished by a clumsy first season Bull

      July 15, 2012 at 22:19 | Report abuse |
  7. Fields

    Great. Just what the workplace needs, more tramps flaunting it to get brownie points with the boss.

    July 12, 2012 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. aimeedorsey3351

    I clicked on this article for one simple reason. To tell Ian Kerner that he is a complete idiot!

    July 12, 2012 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. D

    Flirting to get a raise? Yuck.

    July 12, 2012 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. JLS639

    "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"

    This is the wisest thing the artcle said. This is true in all aspects of life. Anyone whose power, income or status comes at the pleasure of another is one step away from having nothing.

    You need to make yourself indispensible at work. Your boss and coworkers liking you helps, but likability is not owrth as much in the end as utility.

    King makers across history have wound up on gallows while the kings they created went on to fame and power. Look at what happened to those who put Julius Caesar, Richard III or Joseph Stalin in power.

    Charming people can lose their influence very quickly if they need to assert themselves too often.

    Soft power is not power. Users of erotic capital, charm, beauty, cronyism, etc. beware.

    July 12, 2012 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Maclogo

    Duh. When was this written, 1903 ? A tad out-dated to say the least.

    July 12, 2012 at 18:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jayman419

      I think you may be right. With people like Tina Fey, Hugh Laurie, Taylor Momsen, and Robert Downey Jr out there, look at the examples he picked.

      Which makes me realize ... I really hope that this article *was* written decades ago and just submitted now because the guy missed his deadline because the alternative... that it's intended to teach grandmothers how to flirt for a raise around their nicotine-stained false teeth... is simply too horrible to consider.

      July 13, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse |
  12. Sue

    I don't know where you work, but flirting to get a raise?? Maybe if you're a receptionist at Joe's Garage.
    Wake up and enter the modern workplace. Flirting in 2012 may be pleasant for the flirted with, but it simply means you'll be chatted about at the water cooler. It takes a bit more productivity and positive financial results to get a raise.
    You may get a rise, but not a raise 😉

    July 12, 2012 at 20:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tanja

      lisoosh (139)-US Reps are all about individual counnitsett response. Helping people in the district resolve intractible problems is their #1 marketing campaign.My congressman in Memphis was Harold Ford Sr. (the dad of the Harold Ford you see on TV all the time). He was renowned for going to bat for his white counnitsetts even harder than the black folks.Of course, off the record, he used to ridicule white folks who saw this and bought into the idea that he actually cared.I think Ford milked this kind of stuff for almost 10 terms until it came out that he bounced a gazillion checks on the House bank.

      November 14, 2012 at 16:17 | Report abuse |
  13. starbucksjunkie

    Erotic capital. Hmm. That gentrifies it. For a long time people simply called it "earning a living on your back rather than on your feet."

    July 12, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Global citizen

      Like it.

      July 12, 2012 at 22:20 | Report abuse |
  14. Houstonian

    Oh please. Be honest. When it comes time to go buy something, like a car, a big ticket item most people gravitate to the salesperson who is most attractive to them. I worked long enough in the car industry to SEE it every day. It's not called 'flirting' it's called building raport. It's called being smart enough to use all of the tools in your toolbox to bring home a paycheck. I've also seen customers who 'flirt' with the sales staff to try to get a good deal. Get over it. If you've got it, use it.

    July 12, 2012 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • schwarzey

      I don't look for bimbos if I want to buy a big ticket item.

      July 13, 2012 at 00:34 | Report abuse |
  15. stephanie

    Get a raise just by flirting? I don't think so. You'd be expected to do a lot more than that!

    July 12, 2012 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. michael O.

    In every cultural settings, good looking pays less attractive women or men have low esteem,less patronage. A woman who always smiles, dress well etc. attracts all on lookers.

    July 12, 2012 at 23:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Richard

    I knew women couldn't keep up in a man's world without reverting to old tactics. Welcome back, 1963!!!!!

    July 13, 2012 at 00:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Mark

    Wow, Madonna really IS British! She's got that greenish tint to her teeth!

    July 13, 2012 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. jayman419

    Madonna may have had it once, but she looks like a cheap cut of steak nowadays. She'd be better off finding some other commodity to bank on. And the global reaction to her recent decision to expose herself during a concern seems to indicate that many people agree with me on this one.

    July 13, 2012 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • john

      Madonna is NOT aging well. She looks on her way to becoming the Ginger Rogers of our generation; someone we looked in awe in their prime. Now she is well past her prime and looking awful.

      July 15, 2012 at 08:48 | Report abuse |
    • Valerie

      Oh yes John, you are soooooooooooo right. Madonna looks so AWFUL at 53 years old. hahahhahaaa!!!!! That's hilarious!

      July 15, 2012 at 11:30 | Report abuse |
  20. erinH


    July 13, 2012 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jenna

    OMFG he still has his perverted look photo on his articles.

    July 13, 2012 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steph

      hahahah I was JUST thinking that when i noticed his picture. What a pervert!!

      July 13, 2012 at 19:12 | Report abuse |
  22. lance corporal

    for some folks it's the opposite;

    they need some capital to get anything erotic

    July 13, 2012 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. lance corporal

    my father was a "lady killer" he had an inate charisma, it got passed on to me, when I was a teen I was surprised that there where always girls attracted to me, he had used in such an a holish manner that it freaked me out and I never really took advantage of it, as an adult I kind of find it amusing now but at first it was hard to handle

    July 13, 2012 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. dowdotica

    flirting? uh, ever heard of sexual harassment? the days of flirting in the work place? long.long gone. i like the concept though, erotic capital! hey man i got some for sale. Go buy my album dowdstreetgrooveworks "the quiver factor". now that's erotic capital! make you blush fo' sho'!lolol

    July 13, 2012 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. C. Sheen

    They forgot # 8. Be a member of the big schlong club.

    July 14, 2012 at 20:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. galani

    What ever " IT" is, Madonna definately has" IT".
    "IT " defies age.
    "IT " is LOOKING GOOD !
    I LIKE "IT".

    July 15, 2012 at 06:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. PAUL



    July 15, 2012 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Lacrosse Secret Society

    What about money and power?

    July 16, 2012 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Marilyn

    It is too old to be acting like a teenager, just because she bangs 20 yrs old men doesn't make her young, yet she never did have any class.

    July 21, 2012 at 21:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Jorge

    Perhaps among the shallow who occupy lower ranks, flirting and sexual innuendo are enough to bend their decision-making, but among those worthy of higher responsibility and power, this is out of line in the workplace and at best is annoying; at worst, an insult to their intelligence.

    July 31, 2012 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. neil

    Tina Turner and Robert Redford are just terrible looking who would even find them sexy? Madonna I agree and clooney i have no comments as I am a guy and women can know better

    August 16, 2012 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. usenet

    I would say only one thing: "Sex Sells" 🙂

    November 13, 2012 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Weeks like this, I really miss Booooyyyyyaaaaa! I hope he's out there sormwheee enjoying this, having a fiesta.What took the NYT so long to figure out NYC RE was dropping?? I guess when a huge amount of advertising dollars are at stake, you're not exactly impartial. The last bubble round NYC RE was the last to fall and the last to come back, looks like it's doing the same this time.

    November 16, 2012 at 01:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. YeahYeahYeah

    Funny article and funnier responses. [It] presumes that everyone's sexual brains are built the same.

    February 13, 2013 at 04:58 | Report abuse | Reply
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