Erotic capital is hard currency

2010-05-08 11:05

Michelle and Barack Obama have it. Carla Bruni and David Beckham

have it. Katie Price, the British glamour model better known as Jordan, has even

made a career out of it.

So great is the advantage that erotic capital can bring to the

­labour market that it often outweighs educational qualifications.

Erotic capital is a term I coined to refer to a nebulous but

crucial combination of physical and social attractiveness.

Properly understood, erotic ­capital is what economists call a

“personal asset”, ready to take its place alongside economic, cultural, human

and social capital.

Among these factors, it is equally (if not more) important

for social mobility and success.

Erotic capital goes beyond beauty. It includes sex appeal, charm

and social skills, physical fitness and liveliness, sexual competence and skills

in self-presentation, such as grooming, clothing choices and all the other areas

of self-adornment.

Most studies capture only one facet of erotic capital: photographs

measure beauty or sex appeal, ­psychology measures confidence and social skills,

and sex research explores seduction skills and the number of partners.

Yet women have long excelled at such skills – that’s why they tend

to be more dressed up than men at parties.

They make more effort to develop the

soft skills of charm, empathy, persuasion, the deploying of emotional

intelligence and ­emotional labour. In fact, the final element of erotic capital

– bearing children – is unique to women.

In some cultures, fertility is an essential element of a woman’s

erotic power.

Even though female fertility is less important in regions such as

northern Europe (where families are smaller), women’s dominant position in this

market has been reinforced in recent decades by a much-lamented phenomenon: the

sexualisation of culture.

Since the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s, global surveys

reveal a dramatic increase in sexual ­activity, partners and varieties of sex.

London now hosts a yearly erotica fair.

Research from the World Health

Organisation shows that all humans see sexual activity as essential to a higher

quality of life – but men still rank sex higher than women.

Indeed, skyrocketing global ­demand for sexual activities of all

kind (including commercial sex, ­autoeroticism and erotic ­entertainment) has

been far more pronounced among men than ­women.

Sex tourism is in essence a male

hobby, while erotic magazines for women often fail.

This creates an effect that should be familiar to any economist.

The laws of supply and demand raise the value of women’s erotic capital,

particularly their beauty, sex appeal and sexual competence.

It is happening in Scandinavia, Mediterranean countries, China and

in the US.

The pattern is confirmed even in sexually “liberated” countries such

as Finland and France.

Men are two to 10 times more likely to have affairs, buy

­pornography, and seek out erotic entertainment. And call girls’ ­earnings can

exceed wages in ­nearly all other professions, despite the shorter working


It is true, as feminists argue, that some of these relationships

can be exploitative.

And, to a degree, women’s new advantage is concealed by the

explosion of sexual activity among both women and men under 30, many of whom now

regard one-night stands and flings as normal.

In this age group, there is ­parity of libido, but the imbalance

returns among men over 30 – ­surveys across the globe find that women over 30

steadily lose ­interest in erotic games.

This is an implicit rebuttal to feminist thinkers (such as Sylvia

Walby, Mary Evans, Monique Wittig or, most recently, Kat Banyard) who argue that

men and women are “equal” in their sexual interest, as in everything else.

This is obviously not true, which is why it should not surprise us

that some women do use sex to get what they want.

It happens as often today as in the past, as illustrated by the

daily sexual bargaining described in Australian sex therapist Bettina Arndt’s

book last year, The Sex Diaries.

The sexualisation of culture ­affects public as well as private


Beauty, sex appeal, social skills and the art of self-presentation have

increasing value everywhere, helping to sell ideas, products and policies.

Popular culture especially valorises female erotic capital. Just

look at unkempt boy bands and glossy girl bands.

Yes, men with high levels of

erotic capital do better than those who lack it.

But it is beautiful and elegant women who grace the advertisements

for all kinds of products – from cars to detergents – not men.

The economic benefits of being physically and socially attractive

can be substantial, especially in marketing, public relations, television and

advocacy in the courts.

But it’s broader than this. People working in the better-paid parts

of the private sector are more ­attractive than those in the public and

non-profit sectors.

Tall and ­attractive people are more likely to be employed

in professional jobs such as law or banking.

For the ugly and short, it gets worse.

Good-looking people can earn

10% to 15% more than the average-looking, who in turn can earn 10% to 15% more

than the plain or ugly.

The tall earn more than the short. The obese earn 10% to

15% below average.

Statistical analysis shows this beauty premium is not really just

about cleverly disguised differences in intelligence, social class or


Studies of lawyers reveal that there is always a premium on


The most attractive can earn 12% more than the unattractive,

and are 20% more likely to make partnership in their firm.

Indeed, there is a 25 percentage point difference in average

earnings between unattractive and attractive minorities.

This effect can be as big as the gap between having a degree and

having no qualifications.

This means that erotic capital – if seen as an economic endowment –

is an asset for people who have fewer qualifications.

In Brazil, investing in cosmetic surgery is seen as a sensible way

of getting ahead in a culture where looks and sensuality are prized.

In Britain,

a survey done last year of teenage girls found that 25% think it is more

important to be beautiful
than clever.

Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and

­human capital. As Chairman Mao advised: walk on two legs.

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