Honey Money: the Power of Erotic Capital is about as seductive as a balance sheet

An anti-feminist book so bad it's good for the cause.

Catherine Hakim, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and staunch anti-feminist, is my new hero. With one book, she has done more to advance the cause of women's liberation than months of worthy campaigning could achieve.

It's not that Honey Money: the Power of Erotic Capital - in which Hakim argues that women should be taught to use their sex appeal to exploit men - is a bad book. It's that it's such a bad book, so poorly researched, so woodenly ill-written, so crassly offensive in its argument that all men are randy beasts and more women should become prostitutes, and so drearily hateful in its conclusions about human nature, that it's a
highly effective advert for feminist revolution.

Using sex surveys 20 years out of date, Hakim explains to the unfortunate reader that "erotic capital", like social or financial capital, has "six elements" and can be used to "bargain" and "negotiate" at work, at play and - most tragically - in relationships. The arguments are a mixture of cod psychology and ugly Daily Mail stereotypes: men always want more sex than women ("the universal male sex deficit"), and the proof of this is that gay men are all shallow, shag-crazed hedonists. Men will always be more powerful and better paid than women, so women can and should manipulate them for social, financial or professional gain using sex - sorry, "erotic capital". Discouraging them from doing so is an evil feminist plot
to deny women the only real advantage they have in the "gender war" - their physical charms - although Hakim does not enlighten us as to where this leaves unattractive women, older women, women who can't afford the strict beauty and grooming regimes she recommends, or those of us who forget to wash because we've been up all night watching Buffy, eating cheese and scratching ourselves.

Honey Money is a manifesto for female social and sexual capitulation, presented with all the wit and charm of a company stock report. The language is clinical and calculating, the mysteries of lust and seduction reduced to a bloodless balance sheet in which "laws of supply and demand determine the values of everything, in sexuality as in other areas".

With her leaden argument that "the male sex deficit allows women to leverage the exchange value of women's erotic capital to a higher level", Hakim writes like a hedge-fund manager who's been put in charge of a brothel. The staggeringly unseductive prose is almost forgivable, though, because Honey Money manages to make the most tenaciously sexist bits of cultural detritus sound as pig-headed and embarrassing as they really are. For that reason alone, everybody should read this awful, awful book.

Neurotic capital

Last week, I went on Newsnight to debate with Dr Hakim, and was all set to be angry with her. I had geared myself up to remind her that women of principle fought for generations for her right to earn a PhD in scabbing to the patriarchy. Instead, I found myself overwhelmed by the desire to give her a hug. Given the amount of store Hakim's own research sets in "the social magic of smiles", one might have expected at least a soupçon of social flirting, but you could have sharpened a pencil between her lips, and she refused a cup of mediocre BBC tea with the sort of ill-grace normally reserved for suspected poisoners. She snapped that she "didn't want to talk" and sat glaring at everyone for half an hour. I could make some cheap crack here about neurotic capital, but actually I just felt sad for her.

Because it is sad. The worst thing about Honey Money and the notion that female sexuality is just another resource to be flogged off to drooling men is not that it's demeaning to both genders. It's that it is a horribly cynical way of understanding relationships, and one that currently rings true for too many people.

This paranoid, reptilian book, with its promotion of a brutal free market in female flesh, is a glimpse into a lonely future where profit has been permitted to force its dull, Gradgrind hand into every last cranny of human interaction.

In Honey Money there is a great deal of discussion of returns, assets and sexual bargaining. There is almost no talk of compassion, seduction
or love. That should tell you all you need to know about "erotic capital".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.