Changing How the World Thinks

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Power, Status, and Sexuality

Beauty has long been condemned as superficial. But times are changing – is it time we changed with them?

Catherine Hakim 50

For centuries, patriarchal men in the western world tried to persuade women that beauty was ‘skin-deep’, shallow, worthless. The Puritans went further, insisting that beauty, luxury and sensuality were temptations into sin. Luxurious clothes, dancing and even music were proscribed. Married couples were advised to engage in sexuality for health and procreation, but not lust.

These extremely sex-negative ideas may seem outdated, even silly, to us today – but their influence lingers on in prurient attitudes to sensuality and sexuality in the Western world.

In the 21st century, recreational sex has become dominant for everyone – at all ages, in all status and income groups. The contraceptive revolution of the 1960s uncoupled sexuality from fertility, but our moral systems have yet to be revised to match the new facts and the new scenario.

However, young people have already jettisoned the old norms and patriarchal ideologies surrounding sex. Given the social, cultural, and ethnic diversity of modern cosmopolitan cities, it is unlikely that there will ever be a single dominant framework of ideas in the future.

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"Celebrities recognise that  erotic capital can be exploited by men as well as women for social, economic and political benefits."
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In this context, trendsetters in the public eye have enormous influence. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus today, and Madonna throughout her long career, have exploited their sexual allure, appearance and style just as much as their talents in singing, dancing and acting to make a fortune from their youth onwards. Similarly, the singer Zayn Malik, actor George Clooney, and footballer David Beckham are making fortunes from their looks and sex appeal just as much as from their professional work.

Celebrities recognise that what I call erotic capital can be exploited by men as well as women for social, economic and political benefits

Parents will still encourage their children to focus on their studies and gain good qualifications – to invest in their human capital. However erotic capital can deliver equal returns – in status, power and income. For those at the top of their profession, the pay-offs can be spectacular. For ordinary people in all occupations, and in everyday social life, erotic capital also delivers returns as good as human capital.

Older people may label these developments as wrong, unfair or immoral. But they are here to stay, for several reasons. First, digital photos are widely used and create a new emphasis on looks and style. Second, as nations get richer, they spend more on luxuries, including beauty, elegance and style. Third, the switch from manual jobs in manufacturing to white collar and professional jobs, and service industries in the labour market, means that there is an increased premium on appearance, charm and good social skills in the workforce. Organisations that employ beautiful people sell more, and are more profitable. Handsome, well-groomed and stylish political candidates attract more votes than unattractive candidates.

So it pays to look good and be sexy. Most young people already understand this. It is time for the older generations to catch up.


Image credit: Rubén Darío Bedoya Cortés

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