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Using sex surveys 20 years out of date, Hakim explains to the unfortunate reader that "erotic capital", like social or financial capital, has "six elements" and can be used to "bargain" and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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.