Julian Sheather: Is prostitution really the answer?

I have recently been enjoying a brief flurry of reviews of Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. Hakim’s book has been bounding up the notoriety charts, which is less than surprising given the hyperventilatingly simple premise that has caught the eye of reviewers. Hakim – a senior researcher at the LSE – declares that a conspiratorial alliance of religious fundamentalists, feminists, and male chauvinists has for too long supressed the real value of the “sexual capital” of young women. Hakim identifies what she calls a “sex deficit,” a disequilibrium in desire between men and women so significant that if sexually attractive – and therefore in her view younger – women were able to claim their real value in the market place, a sea-change in power relations between men and women would surely follow. Prostitution, to put it baldly, will be the undoing of patriarchy.

Among all the many political currents that were tugging at me when I were a downy youth, far and away the most vigorous was feminism. Needless to say as a man I tread gingerly here. There were – there still are – many different voices in feminism. Some of them, influenced by Marx, declared marriage to be an economic arrangement no different in kind to prostitution. Women traded their reproductive – and domestic – labour in the marriage marketplace, just as, later, they would trade their productive labour in the workplace. Some young women of my acquaintance, choosing to literalise their beliefs, were led into actual prostitution, but it seemed like a grim, almost self-immolatory choice. Hakim suggests instead that young women should rejoice. They should sweep away the veils of sentimentality and joyfully trade their sexual capital in the open market.

Before I join – as join I guess I must – the dissembling voices, it is worth recalling that the intimate dance of money and marriage, of sex and status, trips its merry shoes through the long history of our literature. Consider the cold-eyed clarity with which Jane Austen – no radical – twins Charlotte Lucas with the inflated fool William Collins in Pride and Prejudice. To say this is prostitution plain is to over-coarsen Austen. It is as much, if not more, about status and decorum as it is about sex. Austen is also promoting an ideal and it is against the chill of Charlotte’s economic calculation that the novel tends. But at this moment in the novel the softening veil of the sentiments is looking terribly threadbare.

One of the bracing charms of economics – yes it does have some – is its ability at times to cut through our self-regarding sentiments and to bring us face to face with our true motives, even though, like Caliban, we may well rage at our reflection. To take an example almost at random, the acutest health burdens of developing countries could well be lifted if affluent westerners were to vote to increase their tax accordingly, but we do not. We would rather let distant millions die than forego a percentage point of income. Economics can also charm by its simplicity. What is a human being? Why it is a rational actor seeking always to maximise its personal utility. Phew – at least now we know.

Economics shares the attraction of simplicity with other modish theories currently on the market. To economic determinism can be twinned neo-darwinism – we seek not the rational maximisation of utility but are instead merely the vehicles by which our genes propogate themselves. Neuroscience, in its cruder forms, reduces behaviour to chemistry, collapsing moral responsibility to the wiring of our brains. Scholars seem frequently attracted to what it is tempting to call – if you’ll forgive the slightly confused metaphor – the oracular eye. While the majority of mankind wanders lost in the mists of confusion, a few far-seeing souls see the world as it really is. Whenever I am presented by a reductive theory of the world though I always ask myself whether I could actually live as if it were true, and, if I did, what would be the consequences. Just try living for a day as if all your actions were determined. And this is where I part company with Hakim. I am in those tracts of mid-life where marriages that sailed out into the blue seas of optimism have started to founder. Watching lawyers pick over the bare fiscal hull of a once-loving family is a strong prophylactic against sentimentality. But to say that their marriages could be reduced to its economics is to betray the phenomena. It looks more like the body left behind after the spirit has fled.

One of the memories I have of those early years of exposure to feminism is of the heady perfume of idealism and among the more melancholy aspects of Hakim’s thesis is the loss of it. The high call of justice gives way to the low calculus of self-interest. What happened to the desire to liberate women from the need to trade their sexual capital? Of course ideals are subject to erosion. Where we keep them, as Forster wrote, we have to pay rent on them – and presumably the coin is disappointment. But my recollection of my youth also makes me wonder if those that Hakim enjoins to act rationally in the trade of their sexual capital are the least likely to do it successfully – namely the young.

Perhaps every age gets the theories it deserves, and ours is the age of science and self-interest. But just as I am tempted to write us off for our low materialism a lively conversation in the parlour of a modest Georgian country house comes to mind. “At all costs follow your heart, Miss Eliza Bennet,” I hear Jane Austen say with a little sparkle in her eye, “but whatever else you do, make sure you marry a rich man.”

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.