Victoria's Secret...the economy of sex appeal
Whoever said that money can't buy love never logged on to whatsyourprice.com. The US-based dating site, launched in April, promises to introduce the rich and "generous" (usually men) to the "beautiful, gorgeous and sexy" (usually women). The hook? Instead of paying a monthly fee to the administrators of the website, users give their cash directly to those they want to date, "bidding" tens, hundreds and even thousands of dollars for the chance to spend a few hours face to face with the hottie of their dreams.
Distasteful? Perhaps. Mercenary? Certainly. But if sites like whatsyourprice.com seem seedy, they're just the extreme end of a bigger trend: the merging of love, sex and commerce. And leading the charge is British sociologist Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a neoconservative UK think tank, and chief cheerleader for what she has dubbed "erotic capital".
On some level, most of us intuit that sex appeal matters. We've seen the stats that place the annual value of the global beauty industry at about $340 billion, lusted after the preternaturally pretty faces that wallpaper advertising, television and celebrity gossip magazines, and felt the frisson of possibility that comes with meeting someone attractive and charming.
It feels as if we're hit with a new study on the subject every few days, informing us that: we can determine who is hot and who's not in a fraction of a second; that we believe beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and better leaders than the plain or unattractive; that one in three women would shave a year off their life in exchange for a "perfect" body.
But with her controversial book Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, Hakim takes this urge to quantify our urges one leap of logic further. Hakim's "erotic capital" is part continental philosophy, part human-resources jargon. The term is a play on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's theory of "cultural capital", which describes how class and status are not just a matter of the balance of our bank accounts or who our parents are, but manifest in the schools we attend, the newspapers we read and even the music we listen to.
Hakim's interests are more transactional. Erotic capital, as she describes it, isn't just a signifier of wealth and power - it is a "personal asset" that can be traded for those things, no different from a university degree, a good professional reputation or a strong network of friends or acquaintances.
According to Honey Money, good-looking junior employees who sleep with their bosses to get ahead are neither exploited nor exploitative: they're just engaging in a simple exchange of pleasing aesthetics for social introductions and mentoring. Husband-funded ladies who lunch are no less powerful than women who bring in 60 per cent of their household's income ... so long as they maintain their erotic allure.
If beauty and sex appeal are goods that people want and are willing to pay for, argues Hakim, why not charge for them? For those who share her world view, casting a "bid" for a date with an attractive stranger isn't mercenary - it's just honest.
Hakim isn't the only academic writing about that place where sex and economics meet. In a recent New York Times article, University of Texas economist Daniel S. Hamermesh (author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful) calculated that the difference in lifetime earnings between a markedly unattractive worker and a relatively attractive one came to $240,000. Two months earlier, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus used the term "sexual economics" to explain why young Americans were marrying later than their predecessors, putting a pointy-headed spin to the idiom "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"
Hakim and her colleagues would have us think they're intellectual renegades, rebels with the guts to reveal the ugly truth about how sex and attraction "really" work. In Honey Money, Hakim describes erotic capital as having a "maverick, subversive, wild-card character ... a talent so completely ignored until now that there has never been a label for it". But, while the terminology may be new, the principles underlying "erotic capital" and "sexual economics" are decidedly old-fashioned. Men are only after sex, women just want what's in your wallet, beautiful people have it better than the rest of us ... If it all sounds depressingly familiar, it's because it is.
What is new is the rhetoric used to justify these tropes. Until recently, most sex-related pop psychology relied on biology, or its approximates: our behaviour is written in our genetic code, our impulses an echo of what worked for our caveman ancestors. Now, "evolution" has been moved to the marketplace, and "fitness" is measured the only way economists know how - in monetary value.
In a recent article for Salon.com, staff writer Tracy Clark-Flory wondered if this trend towards "blunt financial-cum-romantic advice" was a fallout of the global recession. Perhaps people couldn't afford the same standard of living they could pre-crash and were seeking new avenues to maintain their old lifestyles. "Pragmatism is highly appealing in these harsh economic times," she mused.
But how appealing is it? "Erotic capital" is a snappy concept, but it caters less to our superficial impulses than to our pessimism. Who grows up dreaming of a lover they had to lure into bed with money? Or of "exploiting" the people who are attracted to us for professional or material gain, as Hakim recommends? Sexual economics give eroticism a price, but its value is very low indeed.
From Sunday Life