Catherine Hakim is not a feminist name you will know. She may yet earn the moniker, “anti-feminist feminist”, once bestowed on Camille Paglia, but I doubt it. When you publish a book as risibly unsubstantiated as Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (Allen Lane), being compared to Paglia would be like declaring Katie Price the new Bridget Bardot.
“Erotic capital”, Hakim explains, “combines beauty, sex appeal, liveliness, a talent for dressing well, charm and social skills and sexual competence.” In the post-contraception age, Westerners are having more sex. Yet the disparity between male and female sexual appetites remains, resulting in a “male sex deficit”, which women have the power to exploit for their own ends. This power becomes women’s erotic capital. And Hakim is here “to encourage women to bargain for a better deal”.
So the good-looking fare better in life. Most would probably agree, if only anecdotally. And if you’re open to using whatever resources you have to get on (you don’t have to be anti-capitalist to be a feminist, remember) then the notion of a free-market self probably won’t bother you either. It’s not Hakim’s premise that is problematic—it’s the anachronistic statistics and source-free statements she uses that leave her supposition floundering. These include a study which proves women rarely masturbate conducted 20 years ago, and glib pronouncements such as “women are more attractive than men”, and “feminist politics mean that women no longer smile as much as they used to”.
The reason women have failed to capitalise on their erotic capital, says Hakim, is the fault of feminism allied with Christian conservatism. Puritan Anglo-Saxon feminism, including post-feminism, Hakim claims, is “profoundly uncomfortable with sexuality, and frames it in a relentlessly negative perspective.” As such, “feminists have been so brainwashed by patriarchal ideology that they have been quite unable to understand how sexuality and erotic capital can be sources of erotic power.” Feminism has established a “false dichotomy” between beauty and brains.
While I doubt Hakim would recognise a post-feminist if fondled by one in a bi-curious flurry, she seems to be blaming mind-body dualism on feminists, despite identifying “Western thought” as its source elsewhere in the book. She also seems to have missed the point of what feminism has ever wanted from sex. A minority of radicals excepted, all feminists have ever asked for is women’s stake in imagining and enacting sexual desire. Employing your erotic capital may be sensible opportunism but it’s also pretty boring manipulating men whose sexual fantasies are predicated on the script for a “Girls Gone Wild” episode; depressing too, if these same men constitute your pool of potential life partners.
To prove that Anglo-Saxon feminists are far more frigid than their Continental counterparts, Hakim compares writing by Anais Nin and Catherine M (20th-century offerings from women) with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (18th and 19th-century offerings from men) to make her point. Clearly Aphra Behn, Nancy Friday or Zoe Margolis have never made Hakim’s bedside reading, but no matter. Hakim has countless more inappropriate examples with which to rouge up her thesis: that semen-loathing lesbian Monique Wittig, for example (Wittig is French, of course, but Hakim kindly loans her to the Anglo-Saxons, whose own anti-poster girls must have been too busy putting up penile barricades in their dungarees when she needed them to prove her specious point). The Church meanwhile, the other institution she accuses of having inhibited female sexuality, receives just two pages of criticism, despite the litany of misogynistic offences Hakim attributes to it.
That erotic capital enhances professional, market-place performance makes perfect sense. But applying it to personal, intimate relationships overlooks one very important point. You don’t need to be living in a tree house and swapping sacks of millet for acorns to want to leave commercial transactions at the bedroom door. In the Anglo-Saxon West, now that we don’t need to marry to preserve family fortunes, secure male heirs or find someone to “keep” us, some things are worth more than erotic capital-love, for example. It’s a bleak world Hakim inhabits where this fails to matter.