Late last year Catherine Hakim caused a few ripples with her Centre for Policy Studies report, Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine. She condemned moves towards gender equality by suggesting that women were less ambitious than men and that many would prefer to seek financial reward by marrying up. This played well with the Daily Mail, but less well with those interested in equal opportunities. Arguing the differences between the sexes is a time-honoured and spurious device for justifying the subordination of women, as many commentators have wearily pointed out.
Undeterred, Hakim is doing it again. In Honey Money she repeats her mantra that: "The feminist myth of 'equality' in sexuality is as unfounded as the claim that all women prefer the 'equality' of complete symmetry in family roles, employment and earnings." Her new thesis is that we have underestimated the power of attractiveness in getting ahead. Pierre Bourdieu, she points out, identified only three forms of capital: economic, social and cultural. He missed the vital fourth. And erotic capital is higher for women because men are so susceptible to it. Why? Because all heterosexual men, apparently, suffer from "sexual deficit". That is, they never get enough sex and think about it all the time. Women need to capitalise on this weakness and use their sexual allure to their advantage.
And whose fault is it that we've all overlooked our potential power? It's feminism's, naturally. Hakim does point out that patriarchy has had quite a big hand in controlling women's behaviour. But, "as I see it, radical feminism has gone down a dead end by adopting similar ideas that belittle women's allure. Why didn't feminists challenge male conventions about appropriate dress and proper behaviour for women? Why not champion femininity rather than abolish it?".
This is an astonishing manifestation of ignorance. The women's movement has conducted serious and endless debates on this very subject for decades. There are, Hakim grudgingly concedes, many different forms and shades of feminism. But then she proceeds to accuse British feminists, all of us, of sharing a single, condemnatory attitude to women who care about their appearance. It's true that some radical feminists are opposed to any form of cosmetics, high heels, underarm shaving, miniskirts or other adjustments that may appeal to men. But Hakim assumes that this puritanism is typical of all of us.
Her misrepresentation of feminism smacks not merely of lazy analysis (taking one extreme and assuming it to be typical), it borders on the spiteful. The book is threaded with crazed attacks on feminism, as if the author is aiming to reverse our achievements and return us to an age when marriage was a financial transaction; sex, a power struggle; and looks the route to happiness.
"Feminists insist that women's position in society depends exclusively on their economic, social and human capital, just like men's," she complains. "The European Commission has adopted feminist ideology wholesale, and insists that gender equality is to be measured exclusively by employment rates, occupational segregation and personal incomes." And this, in her world, is a bad thing because "women with no personal incomes are thought to be powerless, even if they are married to millionaires".
Honestly, where has the woman been? Is she not aware of the rising divorce rate? Of the number of women deserted by partners who then renege on child support? Of the appalling financial destitution of many women who opt to rely on a man for an income, for a house, for a pension - only to find themselves cast aside or replaced by a younger model? She may be thinking of the delightful settlements that some career brides manage to achieve for their security. But these are very exceptional. Even the richest wives are finding themselves destitute after divorce, now that so many wealthy alpha-spouses have cottoned on to the wisdom of prenuptial agreements.
At one point she argues that obese people are less likely to be successful. And it's their own fault. "Being fat is not a feminist issue...It is simply a health issue," she claims, thereby demolishing in one crude announcement the groundbreaking work of Susie Orbach, and her valuable insights into the complex phenomenon of eating disorders.
Unsubstantiated assertions litter this woeful account. "All professional sex workers are physically attractive," she declares at one point. At another, she claims that attractive women tend to have sex earlier. All of these strange assumptions lead up to her conclusion that: "Women who have actively exploited their erotic capital acquire a heightened sense of their own value as a person." Sex workers, she maintains, whether they be call girls, lap dancers, strippers or telephone sex operators, become more confident and assertive.
Presumably she's never come across any examples of sexual exploitation, the vulnerability of so many people drawn into these professions nor the very low self-esteem that might result. Her view is that it is high time women used their erotic capital to proper advantage. And this, she suggests, can happen only if all commercial sex is legalised. She appears to see no difference between those who sell sex for money and those who do so for emotional advantage. Women don't need sex as much as men, she suggests, so "sexual access is typically wives' principal bargaining asset...Wives offer and withhold sex to persuade a spouse to co-operate".
While Hakim has set out to take on feminism, she may not realise that she has one view in common with the greatest feminist of them all. It was Mary Wollstonecraft, after all, who defined marriage as legalised prostitution. And I'm not sure quite what the Daily Mail is going to make of that.
Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital
By Catherine Hakim
Allen Lane, 384pp, £20.00 and £10.00
ISBN 9781846144196 and 44202 (e-book)
Published 25 August 2011