Questions for Catherine Hakim
The author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom on why women should be using their sex appeal to get ahead.
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.