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Erotic capital: how to succeed in contemporary academia

June 6, 2010

Someone’s having a laugh over at the Times Higher Education. Its leader column (THE 3rd June 2010) is encouraging academics to invest in a little ‘erotic capital’. Academics, it says ‘are happy to list their research grants, reel off their publications and flaunt their intellect, so why not their attractiveness?’

Catherine Hakim: oozing erotic capital

The idea is being pushed by Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at LSE, who believes that academic brilliance isn’t enough anymore. If you want to get on you need to cultivate your erotic capital assets.

She says here that she, ‘coined the term “erotic capital” to refer to a nebulous but crucial combination of sex appeal, beauty and physical and social attractiveness that makes some men and women agreeable company and colleagues’.

Erotic capital she argues is as important as human and social capital for understanding social and economic processes, and in affluent modern societies it is increasingly important.

This, says Hakim, ‘was demonstrated clearly in the recent general election. Just a few decades ago, all the emphasis was on political party policies. Today, televised debates and endless photographs of the candidates add an extra dimension: How attractive are they? Are they smartly dressed? Do they look nice? It seems likely that the candidates’ self-presentation skills, their looks and charisma all played a part in the upswing for the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls.’

An argument that would have been more convincing had there been a discernible  swing to the Lib-Dems.

It’s hard not to conclude that all Hakim is saying is that style and appearance matter more than substance today, which many of us would admit but regret. Hakim seems sanguine about it. And she comes over all ‘Trinny and Susannah’ when she says:

Students (and their parents) who incur large debts to finance long years of higher education become more demanding customers. This is even more true for students from continental Europe and overseas students paying the highest fees. They expect academics to dress smartly and take care of their appearance, like all professionals. Students can perceive casual jeans and sagging sweaters in ugly colours as insulting to a lecture audience – it says: “I couldn’t be bothered to dress properly for you lot.” Yes, we know he is one of the London School of Economics’ top professors … but!

Now let me declare my hand here. I’m denim-clad and unpleasant to look at. I’ve been denim-clad and unpleasant to look at for a long time, from the days when I was an unemployable youth in the late eighties. Still this didn’t stop a meteoric rise to the dizzying heights of university lecturer. And when I’m the VC of the University of Dunkin Donuts it won’t be because of erotic capital. It’ll be because I threatened and bullied my way to the top, like every VC before me.

When I was a young shop steward for the Transport and General Workers Union many years ago, an old trade unionist offer me a little advice that I have never forgotten. He leaned towards me conspiratorially and whispered in my ear, ‘Talk softly’, he said, ‘but always carry a big stick.’ I have always been of the very firm conviction that menace, not sex appeal, is what separates the top-drawer from the middle-ranking, flunkies of this world.

‘Erotic capital’ is pop-sociology for wannabes. A handy enough idea if you think the pinnacle of human achievement is 2 minutes of ephemeral X Factor-fame or if you can only conceive of human relations as a perpetual competition between preening dandies. But even then you are confronted with the painfully ugly truth that all the real power and wealth in the world is in the hands of some fairly repulsive looking old men.

The best advice I can give any young academic is: stick your tongue as far up your superior’s backside as it will go (and your stomach will allow), while simultaneously and shamelessly selling-out your colleagues. And then when you get to the top, look out for bright, enterprising young-things coming up through the ranks and crush them without mercy, but not before you’ve pilfered all their best ideas and passed them off as your own.

It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you won’t find me in a tin of Pedigree Chum.

Below: some fairly repulsive looking old men that rule the world.

Rupert Murdoch

Bill Gates

Donald Trump

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. wartimehousewife permalink
    June 6, 2010 5:50 pm

    Evening Rab. I do find your articles so refreshing and your cynicism delightful.

    I am, by and large, a cheerful and hopeful person and am prone to Polyanna-ish attitudes which occasionally work to my detriment. But Hakim is pedalling reprehensible and unhelpful bollocks and I would urge her to be quiet (and possibly spend some time monitoring her eyebrows – well she started it). Isn’t education being demeaned enough for her? And from a female perspective, isn’t using sexuality to gain advantage what The Ladies have spent the last 50 years trying to get away from?

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    June 6, 2010 7:20 pm

    Hello WH,
    Good to hear from you. I don’t know what I’d do to increase my cache of erotic capital but I’m sure there will be some style-guru or lifestyle coach somewhere who’ll corner the market in it.

    When did people first feel the need for style-gurus and lifestyle coaches?

    Or maybe this will be the next big thing in higher education. I look forward to the directive from university management announcing the abandonment of ’employability’ in favour of regime encouraging students to work on their ‘erotic capital’.

  3. Affer permalink
    June 6, 2010 9:59 pm

    “Dr Catherine Hakim is a Senior Research Fellow in the Sociology Department. Her publications include over 100 papers published in journals and books and numerous books.”

    Which is no proof that she knows anything of any consequence.

  4. Rabelais permalink*
    June 6, 2010 10:07 pm

    Affer,
    As WH points out, even Catherine Hakim’s eyebrows are shocking. She’s so lacking in the erotic capital she exalts, who in their right mind would pay any attention to her research.

    Now, if Keeley Hawes or Karen Gillan (she of Doctor Who fame) ever write an academic paper, I be it will be a corker.

    • wartimehousewife permalink
      June 6, 2010 11:45 pm

      I quite agree and I’ve heard that Liz Hurley can knock up a searing dissertation, and as for Paloma Faith, she can write anything she likes…

      Oh crikey, I appear to be capitalising on someone else’s erotic cache.

  5. Dr. Disco permalink
    June 7, 2010 8:22 am

    coming from the magazine which advised that far from feel uncomfortable to be in a small office up close and personal with an attractive student, one should enjoy the perks of the job and get stuck in, i am not at all surprised. this was the only time i have seen the times higher savaged by the media/journalism press – something i never expected to see.

  6. Rabelais permalink*
    June 7, 2010 8:25 am

    Did the Times Higher really say ‘get stuck in’. Tell me you’re paraphrasing.

  7. Dr. Disco permalink
    June 7, 2010 8:54 am

    i am paraphrasing of course. otherwise i would have used quotes and included a full bibliography.

  8. June 9, 2010 10:14 am

    Probably your best blog entry to date, IMHO.

    So, pace Dr.Hakim, another proof that it’s amazing what the biting realisation of waning sexual attractiveness can drive middle aged men to do, isn’t it? 🙂

  9. June 9, 2010 3:10 pm

    I’ll frame your advice to young academics. Spot on.

    And if Hakim is right, my career is over……

  10. June 10, 2010 10:22 pm

    Ah Rab! Wish I’d read your latest missive before I got all glammed up for my promotion interview with the Dean of Faculty. Even our talking lift (the one with the mirrored walls we all gaze at) remarked that I was looking particularly good in my little sack cloth and ashes number. Very gratifying it has to be said because I don’t often make the effort.

    Anyway, the Dean also said I was looking hot to which I replied demurely, “Ah sure I feel hot as well!”, to which he gave me an aul nudge and a wink and invited me to sit on his knee. “Oh Dean!” I gasped. “Ye rogue ye! Sure you’ve never given me a second look before!” With an embarrassed giggle and a wave of the hand, he allowed me to take a seat instead and glanced through the very thick file on his desk (with my name emblazoned in crimson on the front).

    Shaking his head and tutting a while, he eventually closed the file and gazed at me adoringly. “The truth is”, he said, clearing his throat, “your application was shit and was rejected out of hand by the panel of cleaning staff.”

    “Cleaning staff?” I enquired, scratching my arse.

    “Yes”, he nodded sadly, “it’s the new diversity policy on internal promotions. Our support staff consider applications from academic staff and vice versa. It means that no one can possibly be promoted on the basis of professional expertise, which should be a given, but on immediate impressions. Unfortunately, the cleaning staff have seen you looking a complete scruff everyday for years and think your office is complete disaster zone. Your application was rejected.”

    “Oh well”, I sighed, twiddling at the hem of my little ashcloth number. “Fair point I suppose.”

    “Oh please don’t get me wrong! Looking at you today, I can tell you’re on the right track now. In a few years time, you’ll pass your probation and with daily grooming and bigger clothing budget you’ll be senior lecturer before you retire.”

    “Well thanks, Dean, but I think I’ll cut my losses and take up another job offer.”

    “Oh? What’s that then?”

    “Cleaning operative. See you at your interview for vice chancellor.”

  11. June 15, 2010 7:14 pm

    Very funny Rab – but I must say, even as a hetrosexual, that you certainly have “erotic capital” in my eyes. You are underselling yourself. You could become the VC of any university you name very quickly if you combine this attribute and being a complete bastard.

    What about trying for Northampton? Although we have just appointed a new VC he may not last long – does not have that “erotic capital” you were talking about.

    • Rabelais permalink*
      June 15, 2010 8:28 pm

      Welcome Paul,
      It’s very nice of you to comment on my obvious animal magnetism. Unfortunately my current institution just doesn’t seem to appreciate it, so if there is a vacancy in Northampton…

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