Saturday, August 27, 2011
If legalizing prostitution is the solution, what is the problem?
That’s the question that sociologist Catherine Hakim, fellow of the prestigious London School of Economics, wants us to ponder.
Ponder it we will, if only because her book Honey Money introduces what she contends is a groundbreaking concept: erotic capital.
Since Hakim presents herself as a dogged critic of feminism, she begins on a promising note.
Unfortunately, her concept is ill-defined, but she is saying that women can and should use their sex appeal to get whatever they want.
They have not done so because an unholy alliance of feminists and patriarchs has told them to suppress their sex appeal. The world finds it too threatening.
For reasons that escape me Hakim wants women to put their sex appeal on public display and to use it to manipulate men.
It sounds quaint, even old-fashioned, but it also paints a very simple minded picture of the relations between the sexes.
If her attitude toward feminism was a marketing ploy, Hakim has had a certain amount of success. She has attracted the slings and arrows of British feminists, to the point where I, for one, am tempted to defend her.
Yet, her argument is so confused that one does not know where to start defending or critiquing it.
If she simply wants young girls and women to look better, to take better care of themselves, to feel more comfortable about being beautiful, I, for one, would have no objection.
She goes further than that when she declares the way to achieve those objectives is to legalize prostitution.
I doubt very much that prostitutes gain very much of a real-world advantage from the way they choose to deploy their erotic capital.
Selling your sexuality is not the same as investing it.
Hakim may think she is paying French women the ultimate compliment when she says that they represent the best in erotic capital, but I am not so sure that they would want to find themselves in the same category as prostitutes.
Or better, as potential mistresses.
More significantly, Hakim has defined erotic capital to include everything from advanced sexual skills to proper grooming to charm and wit, so you wonder whether she knows that there is a difference between erotic capital and aesthetic capital.
French women have a very highly developed aesthetic. They are often impeccably dressed and groomed. They have a wonderful sense of style.
Yet, the do not see themselves as purveyors of erotic capital. They see themselves as ladies. This should not be confused with tarting it up.
Hakim does not seem to understand that a woman can be beautiful and respectable, and can have sex appeal, while not putting her sexuality on display in the marketplace. I would venture that some very dowdy women have great sex lives and that some very vampy women do not.
In fact, Hakim has nothing to say about respectability, something that is clearly lacking in the women she chooses as exemplars of erotic capital.
Her list of women who display erotic capital includes writers of erotic fiction like Anais Nin, Dominique Aury, and Catherine Millet.
Yet, Will Self points out, Dominique Aury’s The Story of O shows one woman exploiting the erotic capital of other women in order to keep control over her man.
Catherine Millet’s memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, is not so much about a woman using her erotic wiles to get what she wants in life as about a woman who has had sex with just about everyone. Very few women would ever want to emulate Catherine Millet‘s mastery of the art of the gang bang.
Hakim argues for the enhanced sexuality of French women because she wants to indict the Puritanical cultures of Britain and America. To her mind they have suppressed female sexuality and thus made everyone miserable and repressed
The fault, she believes, lies with Christianity, for having created Puritanism.
Hakim does not notice that France is also a Christian country, one that has claimed cultural superiority on the basis of its skills at erotic arts.
It is also true that France has led the world in the per capita consumption of psychiatric medication. One wonders what Hakim would say about that.
She is happy to promote the virtue of extra-marital affairs but she does not notice that institutionalized adultery prevails in countries that clung to the practice of arranged marriage for centuries beyond its British and American expiration.
Hakim has attracted a considerable amount of derision for saying that women would do best to display their erotic capital in the workplace.
Perhaps she hasn’t noticed, but there are, today, far too many young women who show far too much skin in the office. One hears about it all the time.
It does not enhance their career prospects. It distracts men and offends other women.
Hakim errs because she only considers two alternatives: dowdy and vampy.
A woman can be beautiful and can be a lady without looking like she is on the make. She can have a basic sex appeal without looking like she is trying to seduce the world.
Mixing the art of seduction with the art of the deal is not a winning career strategy.
Women who feel that their erotic capital gives them an advantage in the workplace most often end up being played.
When Hakim explains that a woman’s erotic capital also involves her skill in the boudoir, she fails to notice that many men are not looking to marry a woman who has advanced sexual skills.
If sexual skills were such an important part of erotic capital then no man would ever want to marry a virgin.
Among her other dubious ideas, Hakim bases her theory on what she calls the “male sex deficit.”
By that she means that men want sex more than women do. As Lucy Kellaway says, it is not exactly an earth shattering revelation.
Hakim posits that if feminine sexual favors are in short supply, then men will pay a higher price for them. It’s basic economics, isn’t it?
Yet, Kellaway responds, if men are so avid for carnal relations, then they might not worry themselves about erotic capital. Sexy is one thing; willing and available is quite another. By Hakim’s own logic, the sexual desire deficit might well lead men to take any woman who will say Yes, attractive or unattractive.
If women are as empowered as Hakim wants them to be then, men would be the ones who are primping and preening to attract a scarce sexual resource.
The disparity in desire seems to be a bad way of trying to explain something that can easily be explained by the concept of sexual capital.
In truth, the Darwinian approach is much stronger theoretically, and does not force us to try to measure something as evanescent as strength of desire.
If you are comparing male and female desire you would have to assume that men and women both want the same thing out of sex, and even that they experience it the same way.
Sexually speaking, women and men have vastly different amounts of reproductive potential. Obviously, men can sire far more children than any woman could possibly produce.
Thus, women tend to husband their reproductive potential far more judiciously than men do. Normally this leads them to reserve their erotic capital for a man who might be good father material. “A man” is not the same as “a lot of men.”
The disparity between male and female reproductive potential explains well enough why men seem to want more sex than women do and why men are far more insouciant about the consequences..
Posted by Stuart Schneiderman at 2:48 PM