Book review: Honey Money, by Catherine Hakim

This book stresses the importance of personal attractiveness to worldly success, without being quite sure who it wants to appeal to, says Cilla Snowball.

by Cilla Snowball
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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Catherine Hakim is a social scientist and senior research fellow of sociology at the London School of Economics, renowned for her work on the sociology of the labour market, changing social attitudes, women's employment and the theory of the position of women in society.

Launched in a paper last year amid a fair amount of controversy, her theory of erotic capital is explained and evidenced in this new book, Honey Money, which on its back cover pronounces itself 'ground-breaking', stating it could 'revolutionise our power structures'. It claims that 'erotic capital is just as influential in life as how rich, clever, educated or well-connected we are'.

These are very big claims and the press release accompanying the book takes it even further: 'This will not only change the role of women in society, getting them a better deal in both public and private life - it could also revolutionise ... big business, the sex industry, government, management, education and almost everything we do.' Sold on the PR hype, intrigued by the concept - if a little put off by the book's title, not to mention the cliched power manicure photograph on the cover - I nonetheless accepted MT's invitation to review the book. Frankly, who among us could refuse the promise of a better deal and a better life?

First, I must confess I hadn't even heard of the term 'erotic capital' before reading this book. Asking around about it at work elicited either blank faces or worrying looks. So I'm not sure either the book title Honey Money or the name 'erotic capital' do the theory any favours or help to get the subject matter taken seriously. The cynic in me would suggest the names are a deliberate attempt to elicit a reaction and grab headlines, which this book certainly will.

The central thesis of the book is that erotic capital is the oft-overlooked yet essential fourth human asset, after economic capital, human capital and social capital. Erotic capital is defined as a combination of beauty, sex appeal, social skills, liveliness and presentation.

The author argues that those endowed with erotic capital are more successful in private and public life and can expect to earn a staggering 10% to 15% more than those without it. Also, that the impact of appearance can be similar to and sometimes even higher than the benefits of educational qualifications. So, the beauty premium is big business: as valuable as money and education, Hakim maintains.

Happily, if you're not born with it you can still work at it. The book quotes Helena Rubenstein, one of the founders of modern cosmetics, who said: 'There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.'

Although the erotic capital business case is extensively and scientifically evidenced, both socially and economically, it's still a little unsettling as a concept. I found myself constantly harking back to my late mother's favourite saying, 'it's what's on the inside that counts.'

And the feminist and cynic in me kicked in hard at some points too. Surely we have got beyond being priced and valued on our appearance and sexuality? Can it really be true that tall people earn more and advance faster to management than shorter people? This book actually proves the data on that, but I know many brilliant short people. And isn't it the case that many exceptionally attractive people don't even think of themselves as especially beautiful or handsome anyway? As they see it, they are the same as everyone else. So how can they exploit an asset they're too modest to admit they possess?

All these questions simmer within the pretty exhaustive Honey Money, with evidence based on the various ways erotic capital influences and shapes behaviour - from the micro to the macro impact on the media, entertainment and advertising industries. There are whole chapters devoted to the 'male sex deficit' (that generally men want more sex than they get), the erotic entertainment industry, and so on. It's interesting but the parts where the author tries to turn some of the information she has gathered and observed into more practical applications for business feel a bit simplistic and don't do justice to the research.

Perhaps that's where I struggled with this book.

Honey Money seems to hover uncomfortably in a space between a management book and an academic social sciences text. The former seems as if it could appeal to a bigger market and it's easy to see why Honey Money has been packaged and targeted as it has. Yet this uncertainty about tone and audience means it could fall between two stools. So I'm afraid I don't agree that it's a 'ground-breaking' book.

Although it provides a lot of interesting information and anecdotal evidence to support a pretty basic concept that appearances are important, it doesn't for me sit comfortably as a book aimed at a management audience.

It's interesting, yes. I enjoyed reading it. But it's not useful as a management textbook. And it's not something I'd recommend you all rush out to devour, though I'm sure Honey Money will get tons of PR. The book will get talked about and extensively debated, as it was when the paper was first published. You'll see.

Honey Money: The power of erotic capital
Catherine Hakim
Allen Lane £20.00

- Cilla Snowball is group CEO and group chairman of AMV.BBDO

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