Erotic Capital and the Myth of Male Weakness

The post originally appeared on the Good Men Project. Republished with permission.

Never mind your tanking 401K or the astronomical price of gold.  How’s your erotic capital? According to Catherine Hakim, a professor at the London School of Economics, erotic capital is a combination of “beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence.”  Both men and women have it, both men and women can use it, and – according to Hakim’s new bookHoney Money, (already published to much controversy in the UK, forthcoming here in the States) those who use it effectively can make a hell of a lot more money.

It’s not news that gregarious, attractive, and well-groomed people tend to be more successful. On a basic level, as Hakim herself admits, this is simple common sense.  No one disputes that a basic sense of style can be helpful in life, and there is indeed research that suggests that good-looking (but not too good-looking) men and women are more likely to get hired and promoted. But Hakim doesn’t stop with this recitation of the obvious.

Women have more erotic capital than do men, she writes, because of what she calls the “male sex deficit:” the fact that men want sex far more than women do, particularly after the age of 30. (If you happen to be a heterosexual woman with a ravenous libido and you were born before 1981, stop reading now. In Hakim’s worldview, you’re a unicorn.)  Men’s desire, Hakim says, is one key source of every woman’s capital – and ought to be valorized at least as much as education.

At the end of her introduction to Honey Money, Hakim asks, “Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?” The pretense that this is a book about good manners and dress sense drops away. Forget social skills, forget fashion, it’s sexual desirability (either with or without concomitant competence) that’s a woman’s ticket to success. According to Hakim, political correctness and the unholy alliance of Puritanism and feminism (the twin villains of modern life) have led to a generation of women coming of age with no clue about how properly to take advantage of men.

Hakim’s thesis is as insulting to men as it is to women. What she’s hawking, with her crude call for women to exploit the “male sex deficit” to their advantage, is the hoary old myth of male weakness. That myth suggests that men have such a strong sex drive that they can be easily manipulated by women. The myth of male weakness is why we often cast more blame on the woman who sleeps with the married man than on the dude himself; the myth of male weakness is why we blame scantily-dressed women for “distracting” innocent men on the street and in the workplace. Women, as Hakim insists, aren’t that interested in sex to begin with – so they don’t have the same vulnerability to lust. But men’s frailty is women’s opportunity, she reminds us. And it’s an opportunity women shouldn’t be ashamed to seize.

Because men are so weak, good looks and flirtatiousness – the basic currency of erotic capital – don’t just supplement a woman’s intellect. Rather, they can serve to cover up deficiencies in ability or experience. The power of erotic capital lies in men’s willingness to choose sex over anything else. Play your cards right, Hakim seems to be saying, and a male boss will promote you to a position for which you are unqualified based on his attraction to you. Exploit the male sex deficit, she suggests, and your sex-starved professor may just give you a grade you haven’t earned.

I deal firsthand with young women who’ve bought into this message. At the beginning of a new semester, I often have female students who try to “flirt their way” into a closed class. Less frequently, some young women will use their sexuality to get the academic attention they’ve been taught to believe a male professor will not give them otherwise.  A couple of years ago, I had a very bright female mentee who, when she first came to see me, was aggressively flirtatious, using her erotic capital for all it was worth.  “Allee” showed up in a miniskirt and low-cut top, and made rather obvious efforts to brush against me.

It got so bad that I had to put a stop to it. I looked her in the eye and said, “I care about you, your work, and your life. I’m not interested in you sexually and I will never allow our relationship to become sexual.” Allee flushed pink for just a moment, and then her body almost sagged with relief. Where once she had come to see me in full make-up and stilettos, she began coming in sweats and Reeboks. Allee seemed much more at ease, much more trusting, and we continued to work closely together for nearly two years until she transferred.

Allee knew she was sexy; she’d been hearing it since she was twelve.  She had had plenty of bitter experience with older men who were interested in her body and little else.  Unsure of her own intellectual abilities, she was convinced that her “erotic capital” was her only valuable asset.  She desperately needed an older male authority figure who would be uninterested in her sexually – and passionately excited about her other gifts. That’s not Puritanism, that’s professionalism and common sense. I know damn well I’m not the only male professor capable of that.

It’s not a hostility to sex that makes me angry at Hakim’s notion that women should use their erotic capital to exploit men. Rather, what’s so infuriating about her thesis is her ugly insistence that men are never really as interested in a woman’s intellectual gifts as in her cleavage. While there’s nothing wrong with encouraging young people to be gregarious, polite, and well-dressed (match that belt to those shoes, kids!), there is something immensely destructive about suggesting that women’s professional success hinges on their ability to manipulate men sexually. For young women, the celebration of “erotic capital” is a disheartening reminder that their hopes of being taken seriously for their intellectual gifts are almost certain to be dashed. Hakim’s message about men is worse: no matter how professional we may appear, in the end she thinks we’re fragile, conceited, sex-starved, and easily bought with a flash of cleavage and a little flattery.

Honey Money is a recipe for misery and mistrust for everyone.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He was for many years the leader of the high school youth program for the largest Episcopal parish in the Western United States. A writer and public speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and seven chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and at Sir Richard’s Condom Company.

Photo credit o5com/Flickr