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Why you should work your "erotic capital"

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Women with brains and beauty -- like Christina Hendrickson from "Mad Men" -- are not encouraged to use both, says a British social scientist. But they should.

“Erotic capital” isn’t a Vegas hotspot. It’s a person’s innate sex appeal, an asset that is just as important to economic and personal success as education or social connections, according to British social scientist Catherine Hakim. Everyone, but especially women, should exploit it to the max, she says.

Hakim’s new book, the provocatively titled “Honey Money,” might seem at first to be a manifesto arguing that all women ought to become Hooters babes. That’s the way some have portrayed Hakim’s ideas.

But that’s not what Hakim wants, as she noted in an academic paper published last year. In short, Hakim is appealing for everyone to stop pretending that sex appeal -- a combination of style, looks, social skills, and attitude -- doesn’t matter. It does, but somehow, when it comes to women, success (however that’s defined) owed in some measure to sex appeal is bad.

The idea of using both one's brains and erotic appeal -- think, oh, Catherine Deneuve or, maybe bombshell Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men" -- has been given short shrift, Hakim argues. "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, sexuality, grace, and charm). Women with brains and beauty are not allowed to use both.”

That's not exactly true, of course. Just have a look at TV news anchor people. I was once interviewed by Natalie Morales on TODAY and could barely function; she's got a heap of erotic capital. She is also smart and skilled at her job. All these aspects are important contributors to her success, but few women feel comfortable acknowledging their sex appeal has anything to do with their careers since it is seen as not being part of "merit."  

Men don’t have to deal with this either/or problem. Nobody accuses David Beckham of selling out or being a less competitive athlete because he poses in underwear. But when female Olympic athletes use their sex appeal, they are condemned as anti-feminist.  

Hakim argues that “erotic capital is rising in social and economic importance today” in response to our increasingly sexualized society and that it “gives women an advantage, and is a key factor in women’s changing status in society and the economy.”

It might be accelerating now but as Hakim points out in one example, high-status women have never been afraid of using their sex appeal. “Diplomatic wives clearly deploy erotic capital in their social activities. We argue that erotic capital has greater value when it is linked to high levels of economic, cultural, and social capital.”

In “Rapture,” my book about biotechnology and the quest for immortality, a woman named Deeda Blair, a beautiful and fabulously connected Washington D.C. doyenne, was contacted by another important mover named Mary Lasker, founder of the Lasker Foundation, a prestigious medical charity. Lasker wanted to mount an attack on high blood pressure, so she called Blair “and said do you know anybody who knows Elliot Richardson,” then secretary of health education of welfare under President Nixon. Blair responded: ‘Well, two nights ago, there was a party at the British Embassy and I spent a large part of the evening waltzing between the columns with him.’”

The campaign was funded. That’s erotic capital.

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