Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.

Michael

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