Saturday, 5 June 2010

Erotic capital ? Not in my workplace.

I notice that postings on this blog have slowed somewhat in recent months. Yes, we’re all under pressure here in CCM, and will be even more so next year. But maybe the blog project has started to take itself more seriously than it was originally intended to be? Maybe it is time for a turn to levity, or as the newspapers would have it, let’s open silly season.
There were two things in my mind as I sat down to write this. Foremost was a piece I had read in the Times Higher this week (3-9th June) where Catherine Hakim urges academics to abandon their scruffily insouciant attitude to dress and concentrate on maximising their ‘erotic capital’. Another thought still preyed on my conscience from Friday – I had made a flippant and ill-judged remark on a colleague’s summer shorts. Apologies, and he knows who he is. The two concerns were not unrelated in my deliberations.
The article on ‘erotic capital’ is illustrated by various images of alpha males draped by feminine supplicants. Apologies to film studies colleagues, but I believe one of them to be Marilyn Monroe. Another image places Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield in a sultry and burlesque pose, perhaps deciding whether to deliver a lecture or strip for the audience. Hakim is suggesting that now that academics have a presence on websites, and often their photograph appears, that they should work harder to appear alluring - and reap the benefits. After all, haven’t the recent UK prime-ministerial debates shown the value of a well cut suit, teamed with a charismatic self-presentation? Moreover, their academic pulling power may be enhanced by showcasing their sexual allure, and prioritizing this dimension should not be seen as trivial. Hakim cites research that shows attractive people make more money, find partners, and are likely to be perceived as more competent. But the theory goes further than simply acknowledging the premium of beauty. We should also be trading on our social skills, sexual attractiveness and some other vague sexual ‘je ne sais quoi’ which might also be affected.
Now, I should know a thing or two about erotic capital, as the co-author of research on the language of lesbian erotica, and as one about to begin another project on the language of internet sex-blogging. One thing is that the erotic is context-specific rather than universal. The assumption in Hakim’s work is that there is a heterosexual imperative animating the academic workplace. But whereas the muscular and modestly-dressed contestants in the recent women’s French Open final might hold erotic salience for me as a lesbian, that might not hold true for a heterosexual male. What I am driving at with this point is that we reinforce rather than undermine existing power structures which hierarchize gender and sexual identities in a workplace if we adopt rather than resist these notions. Feminists have worked hard over many decades to allow public space generally, and the workplace in particular, to be free of sexual objectification. Perhaps that explains Hakim’s waspish and unnecessary aside denigrating the feminist contribution to debates over sexual expression, much of it emanating from her more progressive colleagues at the LSE.
Indeed the whole concept of erotic capital seems to be a cynical and misleading attempt to suggest an equivalence with Bourdieu’s notions of cultural and symbolic capital, so widely influential in the academic spaces patrolled by CCM. These latter can be accumulated to transform the self and society, not solely to self-interestedly reinforce inequalities within it.
But to return to my offhand remark to my colleague - had I been guilty of ridiculing him for failing, in my eyes, to achieve ‘erotic best practice’. Who am I to judge anyway? And there we have it. Erotic capital is nothing more than subjective judgement, inappropriately applied. In any case, the whole notion is guaranteed to work against the interests of women who will be pilloried if they enhance their attractiveness, and pilloried if they don’t. This was demonstrated in an article in the Guardian on Saturday 5th June, which convincingly destabilizes Hakim’s argument that only the gorgeous and seductive can be successful . The article is a report of a sex discrimination case in the US where a New York banker had lost her job. Apparently she had an excess of ‘erotic capital’ to the extent that her male colleagues found her distracting. Any woman who thinks she can succeed in manipulating structures where gender inequality is so deeply embedded is sure to experience a similar jarring dose of reality.
I put the article down and tried to imagine NTU’s Continuing Professional Development unit’s training seminar on erotic capital, and how much more fun it might be than some of the other offerings. Then I thought about who might attend, and the illusion was rapidly punctured. But hey, what’s so unlikely? Aren’t we the university that just launched a web presence for our academic experts on the World Cup? Does that qualify as some sort of collective, institutional erotic capital? It certainly stretches the notion of cultural capital. One can only hope that this idea never gains traction in the academy. We are already in the grip of marketization, media friendliness, consumer responsiveness, economic ‘impact’, student satisfaction surveys and other promiscuities. But as a witty and learned colleague of mine puts it, “they won’t rest until they have us going into lectures with titty tassles on”.


  1. Great article Liz, love it! Right up my street, as you can imagine...
    Charlotte K

  2. Great read!