Friday, 26 August 2011

"Erotic Capital"

Repeatedly, I sit down with someone and after half an hour or so, they'll undoubtedly say, "did you see the piece in _______ on that woman, the 'erotic capital' woman?" The woman everyone's talking about is Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at LSE. Her new book, Honey Money, has caused a furore, with sensible newspapers, and sensible women, throwing up their hands in disgust and horror. In case you haven't seen the coverage (Zoe Williams - guardian; Jane Martinson - guardian; Evening Standard; Bryony Gordon - telegraph; Daily Mail), the new book coins the term "erotic capital", which is, according to Hakim, a mixture of "beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence." She argues in the Evening Standard that "ugliness has become unnacceptable", that "the financial returns of attractiveness equal the returns of qualifications", and that "many young women now think beauty is just as important as education". Christ.
Ms Hakim has floated some seriously flawed concepts, including the idea that men are more interested in sex than women. In addition, in an interview with her in the Guardian, she manages to come across as racist, homophobic, and intensely dislikeable in the course of a single lunch. But once you've stripped away the senseless rotten rhetoric, the central idea is fascinating: attractiveness, not merely physical but social as well, has growing capital in the workplace.
Women, particularly feminists, tend to react to the idea that beauty is necessary to further their careers with repulsion; and rightly so. But when you remove natural beauty from the equation, attractiveness encompasses something entirely larger: in Hakim's words, "social skills, good dress sense [and] physical liveliness" all contribute to attractiveness. There's few women today, few people today, who could argue that their physical presentation (I don't know about you, but I don't wear a bodycon dress and 5inch heels to school) is utterly unimportant. Similarly, on a basic, human level, no-one can argue that sociability has nothing to do with your career; smiling occasionally, being witty, being approachable or just not being difficult to get along with...our social presentation is the key to our relations with the world around us.
The controversial aspect of this is, of course, the sexual element. The idea that women could, and should, make better use of their sexuality is an ongoing debate that's waxed and waned for decades; now, however, men aren't really coming into the discussion; it's all about and between the women. Women, unsurprisingly, are the ones who most object to the idea that sexuality should contribute to their job prospects. In our pluralistic and meritocratic society, it goes without saying that a woman's 'erotic capital' shouldn't even slightly be a consideration for employers*. There's plenty of evidence, however, that it's a very real issue in modern offices across Britain: 72% of women say they have experienced sexist bullying in the workplace; 85% say they feel there is an office bias towards men. At my age I have almost zero experience of working in an office, but I can happily speak on the subject of sexism in the classroom, and I suspect there's a similar approach in many offices. **
Casual sexism and whether to stand up to it can, of course, be a difficult thing to judge. In the classroom or the commonroom, no-one's going to bat an eyelash if you launch into a calm and cutting attack of your fellow student. In the office I suspect it would cause rather more of a ruckus, particularly if the sexist in question happens to be your boss. (I'm conjecturing here, as, like the audience I'm aiming for, office-politics is more a future dread than a daily reality.) The workplace, like the classroom, is a fascinating microcosm, a lens under which to examine our greater society. Sexuality is undeniably a force in the wider world, as any woman who has ever smiled her way into a club will know; how, then, can we possibly force men - and other women - to disregard it the minute we step into the office? Sexuality is all-pervasive in the modern world, from Hollyoaks to The Killing, from this season's leather dresses to last season's 'underwear as outerwear'. Humans live, literally, for sex. I don't agree with Ms Hakim that "beauty is just as important as education" by any stretch of the imagination, but we should at least recognise that social and mental beauty - by which I mean being friendly, witty, interesting, or just smiley - are an integral part of social progress, and therefore of job progress. We are all, to differing degrees, sociable animals. So let's flirt, minorly, inobtrusively and utterly inoffensively, with everyone.
My mum said to me once, as we watched Holly Willoughby presenting XFactor or something, "god, your life would be so easy if you looked like that, wouldn't it? Everyone would always you." And it's kind of true. You look at Holly Willoughby's gleaming grin, rosy cheeks and bouncing curls and your subconcious murmurs, "she looks like someone I'd like." It's not the perfect beauty that draws you in, but rather the open smile and bright eyes; she seems pretty happy, and that makes one happy, so after that first glance you're unconciously predisposed to liking her. As Hakim puts it, "these people smile at the world, and the world smiles back." We can all, men and women, use this attractiveness to our benefit, not just in the workplace but in daily life. Being or not being attractive - which broadly encompasses sociability, physicality, disposition and sexuality - is a central part of living and interacting with other humans. Flirt like evolution intended.***

*Unless she's applying to be a stripper. In which case it probably should be of consideration. But that's a whole different bag of chestnuts.
**It drives me, and many others, completely mad to see women laugh along at sexist jokes. I'm not suggesting that we should all be hyper-anal, but it's just ludicrous to actually partake. The number of times that I've overheard a "get back to the kitchen sink"-style comment, followed by coquettish giggling from nearby females... For god's sake, you don't agree do you? Well then, whip out your barbed tongue and cut them down! Besides anything else, said male has undoubtedly spouted an extraordinarily lazy cliche, which deserves enough of a sarcasm-lashing. If you're going to be sexist, think up something better than "make me a sandwich". If I'm going to fight the fight, I'd like a worthy opponent.
*** There's a fabulous section about this in Caitlin Moran's, "How to be a Woman". She says at one point, "the idea that women should flirt to get on is just as vexing as any other thing women are supposed to do - such as be thin, accept 30% lower wages, and not laugh at 30 Rock when they have food in their mouth and it falls out a bit, on the floor, and the cat eats it." Which is what I would have tried to add to the above blogpost, but she's already said it in a far more pointed and witty way than I would manage. If you haven't already read the book by the way, stop reading this now and go and buy it. Now. Go.

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