Cardi B has it. Kim Kardashian has it. What’s the “it”? Sex appeal. But more importantly, they own and utilize a phenomenon which economists now call ‘erotic capital’. In a media driven society such as ours, your physical attractiveness and how you use it to your advantage makes it an essential personal asset. Feminists respond to this new wave by proclaiming it as a backward step for women. However, the author of Women Should Use Their Looks to Get Ahead, Dr Catherine Hakim, highly recommends that women would be negligent to let this resource go to waste, especially when erotic capital is a valued commodity in our image obsessed society. She asks why should we not exploit this.
The female body is sexualized by the minute. Just look at what sells in our top-grossing local cultural festival. Artistes only have to mention certain assets of the female anatomy to give their music instant mass appeal; actually, the more raw, graphic and lewd, the better. Leaving very little to the imagination is the type of sexualization that makes one question how our girls developing a sense of their body and sexuality internalize these lyrics. But the sexualization of women doesn’t stop there. Our bodies are used to sell almost everything – movies, music videos, video games, magazines, and the list goes on. The World Health Organization laments that a young girl now has to negotiate her sexuality in the context of a sexualized culture, where concepts such as reciprocity, mutuality and respect are not as prevalent.
The reality is that since the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s, global surveys have shown that there is a marked increase in sexual activities, numbers of partners and varieties of sex. Not only are more people having more sex, but they see it as an essential part of their quality of life. Men the world over rank sex as more important than women. In dollars and cents, this means that they are also more willing to pay for it – a basic economic law of supply and demand dictates that this immediately raises women’s erotic capital.
What is erotic capital? Beauty, sexual attractiveness, social charm, liveliness, and sexuality as well as social presentations – style of dress, face painting, perfume, jewelry or other adornment such as hairstyles and the various accessories people carry or wear to signal their social status. Apparently, it is just as important to cultivate as economic, cultural and social capital in our sexualized culture. Erotic capital has wide influence, not only as a commodity in mating and marriage markets, but also in labour markets, politics, sports, the arts and in everyday social interaction. Women generally have more erotic capital than men because they work harder at it. Consequently, those with little economic capital can still have power and be successful in capitalist societies through use of capital such as this.
Studies convincingly tip in favour of erotic capital, as more attractive people (with good social skills) tend to earn 20 per cent more than the average. Moreover, being good looking and pleasant means benefits not only in dating and mating, but also in the workplace and public life. The attractive among us tend to get more help, support and are also seen to have a smoother path in life, says Dr Hakim. Although it makes good sense to invest in an education, there is evidence to show that it may also make sense to invest time and energy in appearances.
Researchers Gill and Phillips boldly claim that women’s freedom and the free market are one and the same. As taboo as it is to say, our gender gap in earning potential can perhaps be narrowed if we claim our erotic capital as a resource, especially when we consider that women worldwide are more prone to hardship and poverty. The formal political power of women has reached great heights, yet 70 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor living on less than USD$1 per day are still women. Women face risk of poverty, especially single mother households, due to lack of subsidized childcare, the gender wage gap and a scarcity of well-paid jobs. Maybe part of the solution lies in women consciously claiming and collectively harnessing the power of erotic capital to shift the status quo for the prosperity of all women.
Clinical Mental Health Counsellor & Expressive Arts therapist
Gaia Creative Arts Counselling