Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Too Funky for Me

That's hairdo capital, baby
Hey, you’re just too funky for me
I gotta get inside of you
And I’ll show you heaven if you let me
Hey you’re just too funky for me
I gotta get inside, (I gotta get inside)
I gotta get inside of you (so when will that be?)

I watch your fingers working overtime (overtime)
I’ve got to thinking that they should be mine.
I’d love to see you naked baby
I’d like to think that sometime maybe
Tonight, if that’s all right, yeah!

— George Michael, “Too Funky”

As a devoted husband and father of a certain age, Dearest and Most Indulgent of All Readers, I normally make it a practice to skirt the festering cesspool which is contemporary sexual mores and politics. For one, I am woefully underqualified to comment on what transpires under bedsheets and on top of refrigerators nowadays among young people, having sown most of my wild oats at a time when newlyweds consummated their union by negotiating a bedsheet with a hole strategically cut in it. (I am still trying to wrap my head around the bewildering notion that some women actually want and enjoy sex.) For another, Mrs. Dealmaker tends to regard my contemplation of non-uxorial pulchritude with a steely and unforgiving eye, and she has taken far too much training in back-alley knife-fighting from the Mossad for me to take her displeasure lightly.

Nevertheless, I have been inspired by a couple of recent reviews to pop my head up briefly from my hidey-hole to deliver a few considered comments on a recent book by academic Catherine Hakim entitled Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. I should preface my remarks by noting that I have not read Ms Hakim's treatise myself—and do not expect She Who Must Be Obeyed will allow me to—so my thoughts are directed less at her work than her work as presented and interpreted by her reviewers. That being said, some of you might find them mildly interesting in spite of this shortcoming.

According to The Economist, Ms Hakim’s primary premise is the existence of erotic capital.

She argues that “erotic capital” is an underrated class of personal asset, to set beside economic capital (what you have), human capital (what you know) and social capital (who you know). Ms Hakim attempts to quantify a complex mix of physical and social assets, consisting of beauty, sex appeal, self-presentation, social skills, liveliness and sexual competence. Like other sorts of capital, the erotic kind is important for success; but unlike others it is largely independent of birth and class. It is especially valuable for poor people, young people, the newly arrived and the otherwise unqualified. In heterosexual settings it belongs primarily to women.

For what it’s worth, I can testify from my own personal experience and that of friends and relations that erotic capital is not wholly or even primarily determined by physical attractiveness. I know of incredibly beautiful people—men and women—who have the sex appeal of a moldy dishrag, and, contrariwise, physically plain individuals who make the objects of their sweltering attention anxious not to embarrass themselves by slipping in puddles of their own making.

Her secondary premise is that erotic capital is not equally distributed across both genders:

Ms Hakim suggests that women have more erotic capital than men to start with, mainly because they have had to work at it for centuries. But women have the erotic upper hand for another reason: the male “sexual deficit”. Despite the fact that both sexes are more sexually active than ever before, from the age of about 30 women’s libido tends to fall off while men’s does not. Because women have less interest in sex than men, it is, to put it crudely, a seller’s market. In the power dynamic of couples, controlling access to sex is more important than earning more money, says Ms Hakim. It is the woman’s main bargaining chip, as most still earn less than their partners. Feminists who want women to throw away their femininity are overlooking a powerful asset, Ms Hakim argues.

The existence of a “sexual deficit” is presumably an empirical question, although I do know enough about sexual politics, axe-grinding, and self-delusion to venture we will never answer it to everyone’s satisfaction in our—or any other generation’s—lifetime. (It is not inconsistent with my upbringing and personal experience, but, as I told you, I come from another era.) However, I have also been well-enough trained in Husband School to know it is the woman you’re next to whom you agree with, if you don’t want any trouble. Given that Ms Hakim is the only one in the room at present, I will concede her point. It is not critical to my argument.

* * *

No, what I find objectionable about Ms Hakim’s argument has less to do with whether women as a gender like to get their freak on as much as men and more to do with simple economics. For, let us be clear, that is what the honorable Professor is talking about. She claims that our Western patriarchal culture has consistently devalued women’s erotic capital for its own selfish purposes and, moreover, that the cure consists in freeing women to spend their erotic capital freely and at will according to their own, unconstricted desires. This means, in The Economist’s coinage,

the full legalisation of prostitution and surrogate pregnancies for profit, thus giving women the freedom to earn a return on whichever personal asset they choose.

On this, I am happy to say, I call bullshit.

For let us consider, Dear Friends, what we are talking about. If there is indeed a market in sexual favors—where sex is exchanged for economic support, emotional commitment, and the like—then it is by definition a two-way market. Assume, for a minute, that women are the “producers” in this market, and men are the “consumers.” (We all know what the product is.) Assume, as well, with Ms Hakim that there is an artificially restricted supply of this product. In aggregate, demand exceeds supply. To whose benefit does this market imbalance accrue? Cui bono?

Why, the producers, of course. Women. Duh.

To whose benefit would a removal of these restrictions accrue? The consumers. Men. A complete liberalization of the market for erotic capital—deregulation, in other words—would lower the scarcity, price, and value of sexual favors across the entire market. Men could presumably purchase or acquire by other means all the sexual satisfaction they desired at a going rate likely to be well below the standard price exacted today. At the margin (and perhaps well beyond that), marriage, committed fatherhood, and men’s financial and emotional support to their women and children would likely decline materially. Is that what women want? Really?

I will presume to speak for the fairer sex now: Of course not.

This is why the argument that sexual repression of women arises solely from patriarchy makes no sense to me. Will Self elaborates:

It is, quite simply, not in the interests of all those priapic patriarchs to allow women to actualise their erotic capital, for to do so would seismically alter the balance of power between the sexes.

That the religiously dogmatic and the merely male chauvinist should have both demonised – and, paradoxically, diminished – the impact of female sexuality from time out of mind, is, following Hakim, only to be expected. ... According to Hakim, Christian monogamy is, quite simply, a “political strategy” devised by the patriarchy in order to ensure that even the least attractive/wealthy/powerful men gain at least one sexual partner.

Huh? I thought we had determined that, other things being equal, the unfettered man wants lots of partners, or at least lots of sex. Why would a system which restricted supply and raised the price to every man be to men’s benefit? On the contrary, such a system would be entirely to the benefit of those women who could reasonably expect to trade on their erotic capital to secure social and economic benefits, especially in a patriarchal society where most positions of political and economic power are reserved for men. In such societies, erotic capital is women’s primary asset. Why would they not want to protect it, and its value, by restricting the ability of other women to flood the market with supply? Whence otherwise the legal restrictions and traditional social opprobrium attached to prostitution, promiscuity, and (literally, I kid you not: English is a remarkably transparent language) “cheap” women?

This argument gets at two crucial points which I think many feminists—and perhaps Ms Hakim—seem to gloss over or ignore completely. First, women’s “interests” are not monolithic. This is simple economic fact, if nothing else. If you are inside the system, and have taken advantage of the socially and legally regulated environment to sell your erotic capital at an otherwise higher-than-market price, you have no interest whatsoever in opening the market to poor, beautiful, desperate, sexually skilled and aggressive competitors from outside. Do you? This is particularly true because it is generally agreed that women’s erotic capital depreciates over time: if nothing else, the older you get the less you can rely on energy, youth, and dewy beauty to bolster your account.

The second point is that, consciously or not, I believe most women understand this extremely well. In fact, it has been my experience that women are the primary carriers of cultural and social values in this sphere. You don’t usually hear men or fathers making a big deal about loose women, adultery, prostitution, and the like; it is the wives and mothers. Why? Because it affects them directly. Patriarchal socioeconomic structures or not, it is usually women who set, monitor, and enforce basic social and sexual mores and expectations.

It’s in their own self interest.

* * *

Will all this change as society continues to evolve away from dated patriarchal structures? Probably. But I would be surprised if it changes to a complete liberalization of the market for sexual favors and erotic capital in the way Ms Hakim seems to recommend. If nothing else, such a utopia (for men?) would be wracked by Hobbesian economic competition among women for the resources they desire, whether those be sexual gratification, emotional commitment, marriage, or children. As producers of the same good—a commodity which generally gets harder to differentiate the more it is consumed and which can depreciate over time—women, like all economic agents, should prefer a protected market, where competition is limited. Life is easier inside a regulated, protected market.

Unless you’re on the outside. Or a consumer.

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other

Love and marriage, love and marriage
It’s an institute you can’t disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say it’s elementary

Try, try, try to separate them
It’s an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like the horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can’t have one, you can’t have none,
You can’t have one without the other!

No Sir!

— Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, “Love and Marriage”

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.