Honey Money: Who says selling sex is degrading?
Apart from the silly sociological categories and sex ed lessons, Catherine Hakim’s book is a cocky retort to today’s patronising strand of feminism.
Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital could quite easily have been titled Everything We Sort of Already Knew About Sex and Didn’t Need a 250-Page Book to Reinforce.
Too much of it is taken up with trite arguments, tired stereotypes and sweeping assertions about heterosexuals and gays of both genders. And yet there are moments when the flippant assertions are put to one side and Hakim makes some really interesting observations, particularly about modern feminism and the sex industry. It’s just a shame she didn’t choose to focus on those topics.
The book’s essential premise is that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s distinction between economic, social and cultural capital missed out a vital additional aspect of what makes up all human beings, namely erotic capital. Hakim calls it the ‘fourth personal asset’. Erotic capital comprises six elements, or seven in some cultures where fertility is highly valued. The six elements are beauty, sexual attractiveness, social ability, liveliness (physical fitness, social energy and good humour), social presentation and sexual competence.
Hakim takes up a lot of space expounding on these elements and, in addition, quite a sizeable chunk of the book is taken up with attempting to prove the existence of a ‘male sex deficit’. Essentially, the idea is that, in general, men want more sex than women (shock horror). This means that women have more bargaining power and therefore a higher level of erotic capital than men do. According to Hakim, this also explains why homosexual males are better looking than straight men and why lesbians ‘are not famed for exceptionally high levels of erotic capital and sexuality’.
After establishing that women have the power of erotic capital at their fingertips, Hakim goes on to make her more interesting arguments about feminism and the sex industry. Though these are founded on the principles of erotic capital, which I would simply call ‘being a person’, and the ‘male sex deficit’ (which I’m entirely unconvinced can be pointed to as underlying all relationships between all men and women), the arguments themselves are interesting and refreshing.
On modern-day, Western feminism Hakim really hits the nail on the head when she says that ‘Feminist theory often erects a false dichotomy: either a woman is valued for her human capital (her brains, education, work experience and dedication to her career) or she is valued for her erotic capital (her beauty, elegant figure, dress style, grace and charm). Women are not encouraged to do both.’
Indeed, modern-day feminists tend to be incredibly squeamish about the idea that women can be quite comfortable using their feminine wiles to get ahead while at the same time remaining fully aware that they are not defined solely by this aspect of themselves.
Hakim also correctly describes modern feminism as ‘profoundly uncomfortable with sexuality’, which it frames in ‘a relentlessly negative perspective’. It is sad that, at a time when we, as women in the Western world, have every door open to us, feminists seek to close off many of those paths for fear that they are demeaning or turning us into powerless sex objects.
Hakim has real vitriol for modern gender studies courses. In particular, she debunks some of the commonly held (mis)beliefs about the sex industry, and it is in this chapter, titled ‘No Money, No Honey: Selling Erotic Entertainment’ that she really makes her best arguments. With her starting point being that prohibiting prostitution is about as effective as prohibiting alcohol, she asks why, given the high potential earnings and short working hours, more women are not choosing to work in the sex industry. ‘The preponderance of university students and graduates’ who work in the sex industry, she asserts, ‘is strong evidence that beauty and brains are often combined and work together’. What a refreshing antidote to the UK National Union of Students’ recent tirade about students being forced to work in lap-dancing clubs ‘against their will’ to fund their studies. Choosing to work as a lap dancer is just that, a choice. No wonder young, educated and attractive women have cottoned on to the fact that they can use their sex appeal to get ahead in life.
Hakim also states, quite rightly, that ‘men who buy sexual services are not deviants but ordinary, normal people’. While she does put men’s demand for sexual services down to the elusive ‘male-sex deficit’, Hakim also makes an important point that is often overlooked. Too often men who pay for sexual services are seen as monsters rather than human beings capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
Hakim resists and counters the idea that sex workers are by definition helpless victims, a view churned out constantly by feminists attacking the industry. For such feminists, female sex workers have no choice but to sell their bodies; they’re being forced into it against their will and will likely develop a dependency on men to get hold of cash, drugs or alcohol. And yet, as Hakim points out, many women (particularly migrant workers) see the sex industry as a crucial source of employment, as something that enables them to gain some independence, to support themselves and their families, to study, travel and see the world. Feminists who seek to take this choice away on the grounds of supposed exploitation are not empowering women. In fact, they’re doing the complete opposite by seeking to undermine the choices we all make.
Hakim also makes a compelling argument that the link between commercial sex and developing drug dependence is a lot weaker than we’ve been led to believe, stating that ‘a high proportion of street walkers were already using drugs before they became involved with prostitution, and this was a key reason for entering the trade’. But Hakim also goes on to show that economic factors are the primary reason most women enter the sex trade. Over several pages she details just how much more women are able to make working in the sex industry than in other low-paid jobs available to them (it’s a lot!).
So, while Honey Money starts off shakily, and while the central premises of the book (that of ‘erotic capital’ and the ‘male sex deficit’) sit somewhat uneasily with me, Hakim does also make some excellent points. If there’s one positive message to take from this book, it’s that we ought to stop moralising and belittling those who choose to pursue work in the sex industry. After all, in Hakim’s words, ‘The meritocratic capitalist values of the Western world invite us to admire people who exploit their human capital for personal gain. I can see no reason at all why people who exploit their erotic capital for its full value should not be equally admired.’
Abigail Ross-Jackson is a freelance writer based in London, specialising in issues around modern feminism.