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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

Oh the irony: The rise of feminist-hating women

It’s like we have taken the cage away from women and none of us are trying to escape”- Ariel Levy

Sex appeal. Physical fitness. Charm. Social skills. Sexual competence. Liveliness. Skills in self preservation. According to senior Sociology research fellow Catherine Hakim, these seven traits make up erotic capital and are the keys to a happy life—if you’re a woman. Hakim’s latest book, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital derides feminism for stigmatising and shaming females who exploit their sexuality and physique to gain power, while simultaneously chiding those who “fail to make the effort”. Hakim’s manifesto claims to be an avant-garde repossession of the patriarchal paradigm by embracing conventional standards of beauty and achieving power through womanly attractiveness. It seems that if you can’t beat the chauvinists, you can always out-sexism them. This is not a lucid, well-evidenced argument about the liberating value of pornography and prostitution—which Hakim supports by reassuring us that pimping is a “win-win arrangement” and underscoring it with a just-trust-me tone. This is a book that asks women to give in. Denouncing the “unfounded” feminist assumption that women may actually prefer equality in domestic duties, salaries, and employment, Hakim’s guiding belief is that “becoming an ‘idle’ full-time housewife is a modern utopian dream for most women”.

Consequently, one of her ‘academic’ criticisms is aimed at the European Commission for basing female equality statistics on equal pay, personal incomes, and workplace segregation, which apparently panders to a feminist agenda and denies the agency of women who do not work because their husbands are wealthy. Equating corporate employment with success in life, Hakim makes the broad statement that overweight people are less likely to be successful than the slim. She bases this on studies that show that the latter group is employed in the private sector and the former find themselves relegated to public sector work. She rationalizes that fat people have only themselves to blame for this apparent failure and says nothing about the bigotry that such a study presupposes. At one point, she bizarrely concludes that because all sex workers are attractive, attractive people must therefore gravitate towards professions in the sex industry where they can profit from their erotic capital, the result being that strippers, call girls, and phone sex operators “acquire a heightened sense of their own value as a person.” She gives no evidence to support this assertion, probably because none can be found.

The book is equally as dismissive of men’s capabilities to function as autonomous human beings. Keenly endorsing the scientifically disproven theory that all men constantly crave sex, Hakim’s ‘male-sex deficit’ explains that women’s erotic power is a valuable asset precisely because of an innate male impulse to give in to sexual desire. It’s the caveman rape defense all over again. Following this logic, thirty-something women are at risk of losing influence over their husbands because of “too much time spent raising children” and not enough time in the lingerie store. Unsurprisingly, considering the thought process informing the book, Hakim’s ‘erotic capital’ theory does not apply to holders of xy chromosomes. Hakim doesn’t even do men the courtesy of acknowledging the numerous and damaging stereotypes around masculine beauty, and glosses over this by implying that beauty is women’s domain, and the only one where they can be truly victorious. Hakim never adopts a defeatist stance towards the current system of privilege—indeed, everything she writes praises it as a sort of Darwinian motivator. It begs the question- if men can’t escape their insatiable libidos and women must become manipulative she-devils, who wins?

Though Hakim’s book came out last month, it’s the result of a thought trend that’s been developing over the past ten years. In her 2006 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy presents her take on the disturbing development. More than simply a reiteration of destructive representations and expectations, Levy details how women have embraced retro-sexism, objectification, and clichéd bawdiness as markers of empowerment. The New Yorker staff writer was compelled to author the book after a survey in The New Statesman confirmed her suspicions, citing that 63 per cent of 15-19 year old British females aspired to become glamour models, with an additional 25 per cent considering professions in the sex industry. This is not to say that Levy aims her criticisms at the industry itself, but at the types of misogynistic implications proffered by an increasingly misdirected culture. The popularity of such programmes as Girls Gone Wild and The Girls Next Door represent an increase in content which depicts females as manipulative, jealous, insecure sex objects who compete for the attentions of men. Cosmetic breast surgery has increased 700 per cent between 1992-2004, and vagina ‘rejuvenation’ surgery has become frighteningly common. “It isn’t that sex sells, or the sex industry”, Levy says, “It’s that the sex industry has become every industry”. If women really thought of themselves as sexy, intelligent, funny, and empowered, Levy argues, they wouldn’t need to manifest it though avenues that have perpetuated the majority of female repression. She explains that female sexual freedom has become confined to an “incredibly specific form of sexual expression [the ultra-consumerist porn-star ideal]”. This form is an inauthentic reproduction of behaviour seen from porn stars and lap dancers, who perform in ways that gratify popular male desire by and large because it’s their job. Increasingly, the emulation of their performance—and the bleaching, waxing, and physical transformation that goes with it—has become the standardised method of showing female empowerment. While Levy is adamant that she doesn’t “pity or hate or exalt sex workers”, she maintains that their new place as sexual benchmarks is problematic precisely because of the performative aspect—“they are being paid to impersonate sexual pleasure and power.” None of this seems new, until you consider the scale of the issue. Now more than ever, states the book, women are internalising and colluding in their own domination, mistaking the gains achieved through feminism as proof that they can’t possibly be manipulated anymore. Essentially, raunch culture has replaced the housewife mentality of the ‘50s.

One might ask, where’s the fire? Surely people can see through the sexploitation agenda, and those that disagree should be free to make up their own minds. The issue here is the distortion of choice, as both books make very clear. Feminism, at its core, rails against a patriarchal system that uses sex and gender as a form of dominance and subjugation. In the same way that racism thrived in the manufacturing of slavery, and bigotry allowed for religious persecution, patriarchy privileges maleness—typically white, straight, rich maleness— and punishes those who either don’t fit the criteria, or those who do but incorrectly perform them. It works in tandem with other forms of oppression and social stratification to recreate and revalidate itself. Feminism as a philosophy aims to deconstruct this system so that differences in gender won’t play a role in the distribution of power. It hasn’t always succeeded. Misappropriation and misrepresentation have resulted in man-hating, fanatical connotations which have been impossible to shake. The result of this confusion has been the creation of an environment where erroneous notions become more harmful because they’re promoted by the very people they victimise. This is one radical conclusion. What’s yours? *


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