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.