Reviewing the book reviews (continued): Male erotic capital, sex work, puritanism and cynicism

Continuing the look at the reviews and pieces on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’, I look at Will Self’s review of the book, and the response from Quiet Riot Girl of Guardian Watch. Before that I might just give an honourable mention to a very peculiar interview described by The Guardian’s Zoe Williams. I just feel bemused at the way this interview seemingly happened. Also looking at Self’s review and QRG’s response to it, I think perhaps some thematic concerns should address this post:

On Sex Work

Will Self’s review highlights the claim that Hakim makes that sex work should not be demonised, and it would seem that Self is inclined to agree. However, Self does seem to feel a sense of mourning or acknowledge a loss of innocence from addressing the reality that ‘Erotic Capital’ portrays, through Hakim’s notion of female gender empowerment through sexual empowerment. QRG also addresses this as a form of a backward step in the journey towards equality.  Self rightly points out how Hakim creates strange bedfellows of radical feminists and the religiously conservative, and how they have similar views on the public display of feminine sexuality.

On Anglo-saxon sexual puritanism

Hakim gives the example of a line from Orwell’s 1984 that the most radical thing a person can do is engage in their sexuality, which is what Winston Smith does as his form of rebellion against the all-controlling state. Williams tries to push Hakim on this point and the latter does not respond so well on this issue. Williams notes how Hakim is initially reluctant to give examples of ‘french and german feminists’ who are apparently so much more liberal and realistic about sexuality than anglo-american feminists. Hakim in ‘;Erotic Capital’ addresses the cultural differences between anglophone women and their european sisters in sexual attitudes and even in the statistics on extra marital affairs (the section in that book is very explorative on a subject that people wish to pretend doesn’t exist).

There is some merit to the sexual puritanism thesis, which Williams does concede to agree with, but Hakim refuses in the interview to co-operate about any other questions on this topic, such as cross-cultural comparisons (Hakim briefly in her own book addresses a few). I have a suspicion that Hakim’s puritanism as an historical thesis is as broad and generic as Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’, but it also may be subject to criticisms similar to the ones put to Weber: namely, the question of alternative cultural histories.

On men

What about the men? Aren’t men erotic capital-ists too? This is the point that QRG makes. Hakim does address this to some extent with a few anecdotes (such as an older woman who discover her erotic capital after a neighbour makes a sexual advance on her, then turns him down and considers the option of being sexually involved with a younger man). Being a man myself, I was considering that male erotic capital has a place alongside that of women. Hakim acknolwedges this and the objection that QRG holds is correct, but it isn’t really an objection because its already taken up. I get the impression that QRG didn’t read the book herself (but she does admit to reading a couple of Hakim’s other academic articles).

Male erotic capital can be seen in all kinds of places: gay culture, celebrities and Hakim goes into some detail about notable attractive men (David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and one of my favourite celebrity men: George Clooney). The difference is between men and women, that men may have erotic capital, but it is the perceiver who grants that sexual and social power. Women have so much erotic capital because men are always gagging for it (to put it crudely), and (male) gay culture  which has much of an emphasis on looks (such as fasination with body archetypes such as the clones, bears and twinks). Heterosexual men only would have erotic capital if women desired them, and the stats show that women tend to be less sexually focused so proportionately it is women who have most to gain from exploiting their looks, compared to men. That’s not of course to say men do not use erotic capital either, just that its not as big a part of an inventory.

The Goffmanesque cynic conclusion

Day’s critique is an example of how not to review a book. I’m reminded of a story told in my undergraduate class on Goffman, that one objection to Goffman in the reception to presentation of self in everyday life is that Goffman is ‘too clever by half’. The meaning of that response never seemed clear to me at the time. Sometimes the problem with a work of sociology is not that its wrong in some way, but the horrifying conclusions of if it is right. Goffman’s ‘presentation of self’ is a great example of this. The world of social agents becomes more of a drama, where we are all performing roles. The critical question becomes: where is the human in this world of agency? Likewise, if we are in a world obsessed by looks, where is equality? In a sense, equality comes from the random distribution of attractiveness. Good looks entail social upward mobility, in the same way that intelligence used to. In that way there is an equality of random distribution. As a moral or social equality, a world obessed by looks highlights the ways in which social attitudes are horribly judgmental. Consider for instance, the saying that there has not been a bald US president in the television age, or the fact that US presidents have become taller over the years.

Signs of attractiveness fuel the voyeuristic media age, Hakim is pointing to a social narrative of image and its importance. If we are to treat the pretty in such favourable ways, what may we do about the disfigured? Hakim’s erotic capital may read like the horrible antithesis of Goffman’s Stigma, but instead of addressing disfigurement, we are in an big brother house asylum of popularism and judgment by good looks. If we are to accept the myths of attractiveness, which are to some extent inecapable, we face a degree of psychological damage. I end this post by sharing this video:

Michael

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