Belfast Telegraph

Have you tapped into your erotic capital yet?

By Bryony Gordon

My name is Bryony and today I'd like to talk to you about my erotic capital -- and by that I do not mean Paris or Amsterdam.

No, what I mean is my pure animal magnetism, my sex appeal, my ability to turn men into dribbling wrecks incapable of speech other than: "Yes, Bryony, whatever you say, Bryony, and by the way: three bags full, Bryony."

Or at least I think that's what I mean.

I must admit that I was not actually familiar with the concept of 'erotic capital' until a few days ago. An idea dreamt up by a research fellow at the London School of Economics, I found it a most curious term -- largely because the LSE has never struck me as a hotbed of sensual lust.

But I am a sucker for a zeitgeisty term, so I had to find out more.

The academic who coined this phrase -- in a paper for Oxford University's European Sociological Review -- is Catherine Hakim, an expert on women's employment and theories of female position in society.

And Dr Hakim has turned her paper into a 372-page book in which she argues that women should use their wiles to get ahead in the workplace, not to mention at home.

It is called Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. A snappy title with an arresting cover that features a woman's perfectly manicured hands, nails painted blood red.

Hakim's thesis, broadly, is an extension of the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He believed that there were three forms of capital: economic, social (friends, contacts) and human (education, intelligence).

But Hakim believes there is a fourth, and far more important form: erotic.

And what is erotic capital? A mixture of beauty, sex appeal, social skills and sexuality, which Hakim attempts to introduce to us via the tale of Anna, who loses her well-paid job in financial services.

"She had to work hard at finding a new job," writes Hakim. "She ate less, exercised, lost weight and looked 10 years younger. She had her hair coloured and cut into a shorter, flattering style, that made her seem younger and more lively.

"She invested in an expensive suit that showed off her new trim figure and made her look attractive as well as professional -- and wore the suit to job interviews. Anna felt confident wearing it. Three months later she had a new job paying 50% more than the old one."

According to Hakim, there's a 'beauty premium' -- she cites a US survey that found good-looking lawyers earn between 10 and 12% more than dowdier colleagues.

She also claims the 'beauty premium' makes it more likely that an attractive person will land a job in the first place, and then be promoted. And, says Hakim, erotic capital isn't limited to the boardroom: "Marriages where the wife is more attractive are happier than those where the husband is the more attractive."

My initial reading of this had me running to throw a party to celebrate the undoing of the work of the Suffragettes, and the feminists who burnt their bras; a party that would rejoice at the return of the genders to the Stone Age, where men seduced their women by clubbing them over the head and dragging them back to their cave.

Hip-hip hooray for Anna, whom we must presume originally lost her job because she was unpleasing to the roving eyes of her mostly male City colleagues.

But a hundred pages in and it dawned on me that Hakim is absolutely right; more than that -- her book should be read out to young girls as part of the national curriculum.

Because it states something important that mothers have been frightened to tell daughters for fear of undermining their intelligence: that you can be a feminist, you can be strong and independent and clever, and you can wear a nice frock and high heels while you do this.

You only need to look at broadcasters Miriam O'Callaghan and Gráinne Seoige, former politician Liz O'Donnell, domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, First Lady Michelle Obama or Hollywood sex symbol Angelina Jolie -- to name but a few.

Because, for all the wannabe Jordans desperate for fake tans, hair extensions and breast enlargements, there are more women who are frightened to embrace their sexuality -- their very being -- because they are scared that it is a betrayal of the sisterhood.

The French don't do this: they get dressed up, they rise to the top. Here, looking good is almost seen as a frivolity that lowers your IQ.

"Miriam O'Callaghan, Nigella Lawson -- all these women have natural sex appeal in abundance," argues businesswoman and former model Celia Holman Lee. "If it helps carry them that step further, then why not?

"Unfortunately, a lot of women in business are judged on how they look. Michelle Obama is a top lawyer -- but all we're interested in is what she's wearing. So I don't see why a woman shouldn't use her 'erotic capital' to her advantage.

"It's not about going into the boardroom with a neckline down to your belly button and fluttering your false eyelashes," adds model agent Celia (60). "I always try to look my best out of respect for myself and the industry I'm in -- if it helps me get the job, all the better."

It wasn't until I hit my thirties that I realised I could enhance my 'erotic capital' without undermining the rest of me. I spent my twenties trying to look dowdy, embarrassed to put on a frock or make-up because that was showy, vulgar, coarse even.

Perhaps in Sex and the City they wore Jimmy Choos and great dresses and kicked corporate bottom, but I wasn't in Sex and the City. I was in south London, with only Primark and a TK Maxx for company.

But then a friend took me to LK Bennett and that, I am afraid, was that. I encased my curves rather than hiding them; I took up running and, like Anna, got my hair cut. People started to tell me I looked great, and whereas before I shrugged off compliments, my cheeks burning with something approaching shame, now I took them. Because I did look great, and I felt it, too.

If it sounds as if I have disappeared up my own (shapely) backside then so be it. I am sick of women feeling they have to do themselves down and wear their body issues as some badge of honour.

I am tired of the ridiculous and pervasive myth that women who go to the gym and plan what they wear and sometimes put on a little too much make-up are somehow stupid. If that's feminism, then count me out.

"I've definitely flirted to make my life easier and it works," admits Hot Press sex columnist Anne Sexton of cashing in on her own erotic capital. "But by trying to be charming, not flashing my bra.

"If people find you sexually attractive and charming to boot, it offers benefits -- if nothing else, it gets you served quicker at the bar!

"Likewise, I've had people flirt with me to get something other than the obvious and I don't mind. It's merely greasing the wheels of social interaction.

"On the other hand, I really hate the way women are constantly judged on their sexual appeal or lack thereof," she adds. "In a professional context especially, it shouldn't matter what you look like.

'Erotic capital is not something all women can access and even for those who can, it's a fast depreciating asset as you get older and put on weight."

But while critics say that Hakim's thesis is really a manifesto for good-looking people, they may miss the point, which is about using what you have to best effect -- something men have been doing for centuries.

It is not just about physical beauty, anyway. I'm no oil painting. I will not be walking down a catwalk near you any time soon. I am 31, five foot five, and a size 14. But that's okay.

Because what I've got I will flaunt, and I am damned if anybody is going to make me feel bad about it.

Additional reporting by Deirdre Reynolds

Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim is out now

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