by Sevde Nur Unal
In What is Sexual Capital, Dana Kaplan and Eva Illouz (2022) present a thought-provoking debate around a sociological metaphor, namely sexual capital. The authors mainly argue that sexuality can function as a type of capital when it operates as a way to achieve a variety of (historically-specific) benefits, from economic gains in the commercial sex industry to status-related advantages in dating, marriage, and labor markets.
Considering the openness of metaphors to divergent interpretations, it would not be surprising to encounter other scholarly attempts than those of Kaplan and Illouz to assemblage the terms sexuality and capital. For example, the authors discuss the work of sociologist Catherine Hakim, who has already conceptualized sexual capital as various returns, from strong emotional ties to better jobs, which individuals can acquire through their sexuality (e.g., sexiness of body, beauty, liveliness) (p. 6). From Hakim’s point of view, sexual capital refers to ‘erotic capital’ which is markedly used by women to their benefit in both labor markets and sexual/intimate relationships (p.7).
However, rather than reducing sexual capital to the attractive female body, the authors provide a more contextual understanding of the concept by asking under which socio-historical conditions sexuality has translated into (different forms of) capital for both men and women. The authors present a historical account of sexuality formations that have transformed with a transition from early modern bourgeois societies to today’s neoliberal capitalist societies. In this sense, the authors, despite their Western-oriented perspective, present a compelling alternative to Hakim’s ahistorical conceptualization of sexual capital.
From cover of What is Sexual Capital (Kaplan & Illouz, 2022)
To begin, in Introduction, the authors briefly sketch a novel taxonomy of four types of sexual capital, which points out the historically-specific collapses of the boundaries between the economic spheres of wealth accumulation and the domestic reproductive sphere. This lays out the book’s main contribution to literature on the interplay between sex(uality) and capital(ism). Then, Chapter 2 deliberates on the embeddedness of sexuality and economy into each other in contrast to the early modernist understanding of sex as a safe haven autonomous from the cold economic calculations of capitalist development.
In Chapter 3, the authors provide a nuanced conceptualization of sexual capital as a way to yield ‘both sexual and non-sexual advantages translatable into the economic sphere’ (p.40). Here, it should be emphasized that the authors’ account of sexual capital includes both men and women’s erotic attractiveness and their sexual experiences, rather than simply (female) sex appeal. However, one might still criticize the authors for their narrow focus on binary sexuality. Even though the book’s discussion on sexuality could include queer people, the authors stated that they strategically focus on heterosexuality. According to Kaplan and Illouz, ‘this form of sexuality yields the most obvious and tangible forms of capital’ since ‘heterosexuality is highly institutionalized and it demands endless cultural work devoted to reaffirming its normativity’ (p.35). Finally, Chapter 4 elaborates on the typology of four historical forms of sexual capital. The first category, sexual capital by default, refers to chastity that has contributed to the moral and social value of bourgeois women competing in 18th century marriage markets dominated by patriarchal Christian norms. Chastity-related status provided long-term economic gains for bourgeois women through marriage in which these women did ‘good’ sex for reproduction rather than ‘bad’ sex for commerce (p.49). As the restrictions of Christian patriarchy waned with the gradual expansion of secular modernism, another form of sexual capital- sexual capital as surplus value of the body– has pervaded society. While this form of sexual capital mainly includes prostitution, today’s sexual economy has been shaped by ‘more emotional and less mechanical’ forms of sex work in addition to conventional prostitution (p.66). The authors focus on the case of Silicon Valley sex workers to exemplify contemporary forms of sex work. These workers bring their ‘skills, emotional intelligence and cultural capital’ to the sexual service they offer to rich business people (p.68). Given that these sex workers need to make emotional and monetary investments into their training, fashionable looks, and ‘self-branding’ to catch upper class clients, middle-class men and women endowed with economic and cultural capital are much more drawn into such classy forms of sex work than lower-class subjects (p.73).
As in the first two forms of sexual capital, the class dimension is also relevant to the third category, embodied sexual capital, that is mostly appropriated by sexually desirable people who have ‘sexual know-how’ and attractiveness (p.74). Here, the central argument is that having a classy sexual vibe is aided by both financial capital and middle-class cultural taste; and in turn, middle-class aesthetic standards contribute to the reproduction of (sexualized) consumer culture at the macro level. It follows that middle-class men and women, as compared to lower-class subjects, are much more endowed with sexy appearance and vibes and acquire competitive advantages in relationship markets (e.g.,Tinder). Considering the role of sexualized cultural formations (which teach us how to have sex appeal) in shaping embodied sexual capital, this form of capital should be analyzed with a particular focus on structural contexts that define personal assets improving individuals’ status in relationship markets (p.84). A macro-structural perspective is also required to scrutinize the fourth, most recent form of sexual capital, namely neoliberal sexual capital. This form of capital enhances the employability of both men and women since the internal energy emerged from sexual activities and encounters contributes to various feelings and skills, or in the authors’ terms, to ‘neoliberal desirables’ such as self-confidence, risk-taking, enthusiasm and self-worth (p.88). But, the authors argue that only middle class subjects can translate the ‘experiential dimension of sex life’ into professional life (p.89). While lower-class people prioritize job security and stability in the precarious job markets of neoliberal capitalism, middle class subjects have greater structural opportunities to perform more creative, passionate and entrepreneurial labor. When such structural power is enhanced by sex-life returns (e.g., self-assurance, creativity and enthusiasm), sexual capital in the form of sexual experiences further fosters the employability of middle class subjects.
Strength(s) of the book
The book has mainly two remarkable aspects. First, compared to the large body of works conceptualizing sexuality as an individual attribute or personal asset, the originality of the book lies in the authors’ historically-nuanced structural perspective that points out the interplay between class, gender and sexuality. As argued before, chastity signifies class/status and patriarchal morality not for bourgeois men, but for bourgeois women. Then, even if conventional and contemporary forms of sexual labor are performed by both men and women, women, as compared to men, have been much more associated with sex work throughout the history of sexuality. And it is clear that the sexualization of consumer culture includes objectification and idealization of the (markedly female) body in line with middle-class beauty standards. In this sense, while sexuality has been used by both men and women to achieve social and economic benefits throughout history, the need for (mostly) women to use their own sexuality in order to achieve socio-economic mobility points out the gendered power relations where sexual subjectivities and material inequalities are linked to each other.
Second, the admirable success of the book is that the authors use the metaphor of sexual capital as both a historical variable and an analytical framework. On the one hand, sexual capital is not a fixed phenomenon since it manifests in historical forms of the blurring boundaries between the public and private spheres. On the other hand, the metaphor of sexual capital seems to function as a methodological tool as it helps scholars to scrutinize the interplay between the (seemingly) separate public sphere of economy and private domain of sex(uality).
As a salient weakness of the book, one might argue that the book lacks empirical work that could test its main theoretical claims on the relationship between sexuality and employability. However, it should be noted that the authors, rather than being concerned about proving their theoretical arguments through empirical research, mainly aim to introduce an analytical typology of historical forms of sexual capital and propose a novel theory of neoliberal sexual capital (p.105).
Accordingly, I argue that this typology renders the book an invaluable resource that gender/sex(uality) scholars can use to guide their future research. Through its class-based perspective, the book would be also helpful for those interested in the political economy of sex(uality), while it would be an invaluable resource for sociologists who study the embeddedness of economic and social relations into each other with a gendered focus.
Going beyond Kaplan and Illouz’s account of class and gender, one might ask about the intersection of sex(uality) with other axes of marginalization such as disabilities, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Here, rather than criticizing the authors for the lack of focus on such dimensions, it would be fair to argue that Kaplan and Illouz planted the seeds for further research, based on which intersectionality scholars may build. Considering the authors’ targeted focus on the interplay between class, sex(uality) and gender, this book is also highly recommended for the general audience curious about the ways in which gendered sex(ualities) are located in the economic sphere(s).
Sevde Nur Unal is PhD Student in Sociology at the University of Virginia. She is interested in social theory, feminist technology studies, economic sociology, cryptocurrency and blockchain studies. She is currently working on the interplay between gender, digitalization and platform economies. Email: email@example.com