In a recent New York Times article, an economics professor explained that if you’re in the bottom one-seventh of Americans in the looks department, you earn as much as 15 percent less than someone in the top one-third of attractiveness. Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and the author of the soon-to-be released book Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that there’s no problem with such a wage disparity. “Discrimination is part of life itself,” Hakim told me over the phone. “We discriminate between good restaurants and bad restaurants. We discriminate between people who are intelligent and stupid. We discriminate between people who are competent politicians and incompetent politicians. We discriminate between people who are attractive and unattractive.”
According to Hakim’s deliberately provocative new book, “erotic capital”—which is a combination of six qualities, including beauty, sex appeal, social grace, liveliness, social presentation, and sexual competence—should not be marginalized. Hakim spoke with Slate about why women need to get a better return on their erotic capital, whether the so-called sex deficit is all it’s cracked up to be, and why British glamour model and reality TV star Jordan should be an aspirational figure.
Slate: Can you describe the six elements of erotic capital and why you think they’re so important, particularly for women?
Catherine Hakim: Can I just check, is your article aimed primarily at women? I thought your online thing was aimed at men as well as women.
Slate: It’s a general interest publication.
Hakim: So, I’m just wondering why you want me to focus specially on their value for women. I’m just wanting to check that.
Slate: In your book, the main argument seemed to me more geared toward women—how they should be using their erotic advantage over men more than they are. I wanted you to expand on that.
Hakim: Just to correct that understanding, the reason I focus at the end of the book on women exploiting their erotic capital is because of the evidence in chapter 7 that shows that men are getting a higher return on their erotic capital. The whole book is about how valuable erotic capital is for men and women, but the main problem is there’s sex discrimination and that women are not getting the kind of economic returns that men are getting. They’re getting lower economic returns. And therefore, the argument is women need to do some catching up, and women need to make sure that they get the kind of return that men are already getting. That’s really the key point about this.
Slate: You argue that women don’t get the same returns on their erotic capital as men do. How can women fix this?
Hakim: The key point is for women to be aware that there’s a sex differential and a sex gap in returns and rewards, and to be aware that they should therefore not be holding back or feel embarrassed about seeking to get value for their contribution, for their attractiveness. As I see it, patriarchal men, but also to a larger extent, radical feminist women, which women seem to listen to more than men, say that beauty is only skin deep, it’s trivial, it’s superficial, it has no value, and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to exploit it. And the whole purpose of my book is to say, for men and for women, there is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of exploiting it and no reason at all for you to be embarrassed at saying this has value. Having erotic capital isn’t something you sort of turn on and turn off like turning on a tap or faucet, in the same way that intelligence isn’t something you either switch on or switch off. It’s there as part of the sort of person you are: in your style, in the way you talk to people, in the way you dress every day, in the hairstyle you wear every day. And it’s really a change of perspective that I’m recommending, that women should know that all of this has value.
Slate: But don’t you think you may be overstating the influence of the so-called radical feminists who allegedly tell women that looks don’t matter? Americans spent more than $10 billion on cosmetic surgery last year.
Hakim: No, because there is still plenty of evidence that women feel shy, embarrassed, ambivalent about admitting that they are trading on their looks. And men have no such compunctions. Men use all of the assets that they have, they exploit them to their fullest and have no embarrassment about reaping the benefits.
Slate: I find it strange that you believe that modern feminists object to women looking as good as possible. You ask in your introduction: “Why didn’t feminists challenge male conventions about appropriate dress and proper behavior for women?” But I see young feminists doing this all the time. Have you heard of SlutWalks?
Hakim: Oh, yes. I think it’s wonderful. I whole-heartedly approve of SlutWalks because it is an example of women saying, “We’ll be the people who decide what’s appropriate and inappropriate and we’re not going to accept men imposing on us the view that if we wear short skirts, we’re somehow asking for sexual harassment and rape and whatever else that men choose to impose on us.” So I think that’s a very, very good new development. But it’s a slightly different argument, because I’m not saying women should dress like sluts, I’m just simply saying women have to have a rather different attitude to exploiting their attractiveness. And it’s social as well as physical attractiveness, because there’s all this research showing that women are more charming, are more graceful in social interaction, have better social skills, more social intelligence. It’s not only about physical appearance. it’s also about women being just nicer people to be around, as colleagues, as friends, as members of a family.
Slate: I was curious about the studies you draw on that said women’s levels of sexual desire after the age of 30 are so much lower than men’s. The studies you draw on in the book all seem to be from the 1990s. My sense is that the younger generation has grown up with fewer expectations on what their sexuality should be, and for them some of these differentials in desire have been minimized. Is that your sense at all?
Hakim: The evidence from the Scandinavian surveys is very relevant here. They have had not just gender equality policies, but liberal sexual attitudes and values and culture, for much, much longer than anywhere else in Europe, and I would say North America as well. And even in these Scandinavian countries, you find this sharp divergence after the age of 30. And it has not changed. It is the same as it was 20 years ago.
Slate: Those are all studies with self-reported results, is that right?
Slate: Are you familiar with the work of psychology professor Meredith Chivers? She did some research where she hooked up monitors to the genitals of men and women to measure their blood flow, and showed them clips of straight sex, gay sex, and men and women masturbating, among other things. She found that women were physically aroused by a greater variety of subjects than men were, but that women’s self-reporting did not line up with the physical evidence—they underreported their arousal. In light of Chivers’ research, don’t you think it is possible that the differential in sexual desire is socially constructed?
Hakim: The reason I didn’t quote Chivers’ research, which I’ve been aware of for a very long time, is because there is serious disagreement about the interpretation that should be placed on her findings. A lot of people, including myself, don’t interpret that as sexual desire. It’s a physiological reaction. For example, when people are frightened, they pee. They also get what you might call physiologically aroused. It doesn’t mean that they are experiencing sexual desire. In particular situations, people have a lot of physiological reactions which in all sorts of ways may not make sense.
What is absolutely the case, is that there’s just a huge volume of research—life history, sexual history, very detailed qualitative research, as well as these national surveys—[showing that women have lower levels of desire]. It’s not going to change in another 50 years. And given that it’s there, I’m saying women should see this as a situation that they can benefit from and take advantage of.
Slate: Well, how do women who are, let’s say, past their prime, continue to exploit this differential? You used the example of glamour model Katie Price in your book as someone who has successfully used her erotic capital. She’s a self-made multimillionaire, and it is in large part because of the cosmetic enhancements that she’s done and her participation in a reality TV show. What if someone of a similar class background tried the same thing and failed at it—she spent a great deal of money on cosmetic surgery but didn’t profit. How is what she’s done, in investing in her erotic capital, going to help her in the long run? Isn’t that money better spent investing in some professional development?
Hakim: There are two problems here. One, everybody seems to be assuming, and I don’t know why, that it’s an either/or situation—a zero-sum game. It isn’t a zero-sum game. People can invest in education, invest in training, invest in qualifications, invest in work experience, and also invest in their erotic capital.
Slate: But if they’re lower class, where are they supposed to get the money to invest in all of these things at the same time? If you don’t have the money, it is in fact a zero-sum game.
Hakim: It isn’t a money thing. Having a good body, being fit, is more about time and effort. Money makes things easier, but you don’t need money for most things. Education is not about money exclusively. It’s about time and effort. If you have a lot of money, you can go to an expensive hairdresser and they’ll do everything for you. But if you don’t, then you learn to do it all yourself and most women can do that kind of thing themselves. Similarly, makeup, there’s cheap versions and cheap products, as well as expensive ones. You don’t have to have the expensive ones.
One of my examples in the book is [IMF Managing Director] Christine Lagarde, one of the most highly qualified and competent and professional women in the world. Like many women in the French culture, she takes the view that also being attractive and well-dressed and well-groomed and well-presented and having a very good hairstyle and nice jewelry is all part of being a professional woman. And I see lately that Vanity Fair in the U.S. has listed her among its best-dressed women. She is an example of a woman who exploits her intelligence, qualifications, and her erotic capital. The French culture, the Italian culture, the Spanish culture, they all take the view that for men as well as women, investing in your attractiveness and your self-presentation and dress and grooming is valuable.
Slate: In your book you repeatedly mention the penalty that overweight women pay in the workforce—they make less money than slim women. So it seems that even though women might not be rewarded in the same way men are yet for having erotic capital, they are already being punished for not having it. Don’t you think that women are aware of this prejudice?
Hakim: It’s possible that Americans are much more aware already of the importance of grooming, of being slim, of not being fat and obese. I would say that even if people have a general idea that it’s better to be good-looking and better not to be fat, not many people are aware that you actually earn a lot more if you are reasonably good-looking, and even more if you’re positively attractive. I think a lot of people are not aware that there is a sex difference in returns to attractiveness and men are making more money from it than women. And that is something I think that women do need to address. And I also think that people overlook the fact when they say, “Oh, you should invest in qualifications”—that that’s somehow more morally dignified.
I don’t know the exact numbers for the U.S., but in Britain, roughly 25 percent of people get a college degree, while roughly 20 to 25 percent leave secondary school with either no qualifications or none of any great value at all. And I know that in America you have high-school drop-outs. So focusing exclusively on education as the sole ladder to success seems very narrow to me, given that huge numbers of people will never make it through the educational system. And therefore, they are necessarily looking to alternative routes to success. And it’s reasonable to say that makes sense. It might be sport. That has always been a major one for people from poor countries and poor backgrounds. Another one is the music and entertainment industry. And erotic capital is a third. And for a lot of people, that will be an important and alternative route.
Slate: I know that you think that women should exploit their erotic capital more than they already are, but do you think it is appropriate that people who don’t have erotic capital should be penalized as they seem to be?
Hakim: I can’t see any problem here. People who are stupid are penalized. Discrimination is part of life itself. Discrimination is part of being an intelligent and thinking person. And I can’t see any possible reason for saying if erotic capital has genuine social and economic value, then those who don’t have it will not be winning in that area. They may win in other areas. They may be very intelligent, and therefore getting that advantage. They may be very gifted in music or sport or politics or some other area of activity, but they’re certainly not getting the benefit of high erotic capital.
This interview has been condensed and edited.