Thursday, 6 October 2011

A sticky subject

Catherine Hakim recently wrote a book called Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (Allen Lane, 2011). It is based on what Hakim believes is her newly discovered theory: the more attractive you are, the more successful you are.

Clearly, it’s nonsense, and I’ve described the sentiments of it previously after I attended a talk she gave.

However, Allen Lane was kind enough to send me a copy of Honey Money so I could read it for myself and see if Hakim’s argument comes across better in print than the spoken word. In short, it doesn’t. BUT what is interesting are the lengthy notes and bibliography sections.

I’m not going to focus again on the content of the book, suffice to say that while reading it I was continually reminded of the excellent digested read of Honey Money by John Crace in the Guardian, which is startlingly accurate and well observed.

But let’s look at the evidence, because after Hakim’s talk I desperately wanted to review her sources and see how well her argument stood up academically.

First off, Hakim attempts to get around the spurious nature of her assertion that her argument is original by stating: “Erotic capital, as I define it, is still a new concept and has never been measured in the round anywhere” (p249). The key clause in that sentence is: “As I define it” – neatly circumventing the possibility for anyone to have an opposing view, because by doing so they’ve evidently not understood erotic capital as Hakim defines it. Fools!

In Honey Money, we have 61 pages of footnotes, 38 pages of bibliography, and a 17 page appendix. These are the most illuminating parts of Hakim’s book. The most striking thing about all of these references are that while at times Hakim does hint at the fact there is evidence out there that disagrees with her theory, she only refers to those which stoutly back her up. Take the very first reference as an example (p267): “There were mixed reactions to [my] theory when it was first presented … Professor Lord Anthony Giddens, former Director of the London School of Economics, and a leading sociologist, commented that [my] thesis was ‘quite brilliant, really original and interesting’.” Far be it from me to make any connection between both Giddens and Hakim being former employees of the LSE.

Hakim’s notes show a lack of awareness for many things, including mental illness (“In the most extreme cases of body dysmorphia, people are mad enough to insist they need amputations of limbs, p271); and gender inequality (“Feminists stress the pay gap as if this explains everything, whereas it is now irrelevant in many countries”, p273). As well as a propensity for sweeping generalisations – “Finnish men of all ages use prostitutes at all ages” (p274); and some truly extraordinary statements – “Attractive women have slightly more children than ugly women” (p281).

The people Hakim references range from respected academic Pierre Bourdieu (if only to claim that her take on his theory is better), and former prostitute Belle du Jour, who is cited as an authority on male behaviour: “Women in bars and clubs can be asked by young men to expose their breasts because the young men are celebrating a birthday” – before referencing the relevant page in Belle’s book (p286). I love how Hakim states this kind of thing as if it is an authoritative fact. Similarly, she refers to a biographical novel by Lynn Barber (An Education) as fast evidence that “attractive women” were “in demand” by men in British universities in the 1960s (p319).

Hakim read in a Sunday Times poll that some female Sunday Times readers do not have lifelong careers. With no acknowledgement of the fact this might be because some women have had to take time out of work to be mothers, carers, or they may have been made redundant, Hakim triumphantly asserts this newspaper feature as hard evidence: “Only a minority of women prefer to focus on a lifelong career, between 10 to 30 per cent” (p287). Vaguely. Seriously.

In addition to all this, Hakim references her own work a startling number of times throughout her book… which renders any argument she may have had entirely redundant.

Many of her sources are also impressively out of date. Hakim quotes a report from 1991 as evidence that there are “roughly” as many men prostituting themselves as women (p306). Hmm, but that was 20 years ago. Maybe the numbers are different now and the ratio altered? If you want to find out, you’ll need to look elsewhere to Honey Money. Similarly, a study from 2002 is quoted in order to tell us that “the typical man” who buys sex in America is either in his 40s or 50s (p307). Fact. (Apparently).

I could go on and on, but it’s just more of the same laughable ‘evidence’. Quite how Hakim ever got a serious academic journal (Oxford University’s European Sociological Review) to publish her initial paper is beyond me. That this could be spun into a 372-page book (presented as an authoritative sociological text) is truly staggering. And it’s depressing for all those who actually do have original thoughts AND the capacity to reinforce them with taut academic research, yet are denied a publishing deal.

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