Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hot For Teacher: Erotic Capital and Valuing Traditionally Feminine Traits

(Let's just say "erotic capital" was a difficult concept to illustrate.) 

Last year, I did what every good soul-searcher does and whisked myself off to Prague for three months in order to become certified to teach English to speakers of other languages. (Most good soul-searchers did this in 1994 or so, but I like to take a retro approach to bohemian life events. Maybe I'll make it to Burning Man when I'm 47.)

The certificate I was aiming for, the CELTA, is widely regarded as the gold standard in the ESOL world, short of getting an actual degree. The principle of CELTA is basically this: If you teach students English, they won't learn it; if they teach themselves, they will. Nothing but English is spoken in a CELTA classroom, regardless of level (I speak about three words of Czech, all of which involve beer, but had no trouble teaching beginners). There's lots of group work, eliciting answers, student participation, and peer teaching. It's a fairly new method of teaching language, and it's not how I was taught French in school, but mon français est terrible, so there you go. It seems to work, that's all I know.

Things we were told as teachers: We were there not to teach, but to help students learn. We were told to use students' lives in the classrooms, since relevance is key to memory. We were told to coax answers from students, not give them; we were told not necessarily to correct, but to ask other students what they thought of any given answer, either correct or incorrect. We were told to learn to distribute classroom attention evenly; we were told to be considerate of students' emotional needs. And, of course, we were told to be ourselves.

In short, we were told to adhere to a lot of traditionally feminine values. And it makes sense: ESOL teachers are disproportionately female, and indeed all of my instructors were women. Over the years, ESOL programs have evolved to match the needs of the teachers, and it follows that traditionally feminine traits would be valued in an ESOL classroom. (The men in the class who didn't do well complained of sexism, and while I did see some of that, I also saw that many of them were struggling with the work because it was counter to the values they'd been taught.)

I excelled at teaching English. Students liked me and repeatedly sought me out during breaks and after class. I got high marks from my instructors, and despite being one of the only students in the class with no prior teaching experience, I got the highest grade possible. This isn't because I'm some ESOL savant or unusually talented. It was because it happened to use all the skills that I've unintentionally cultivated over the years: listening, indirect communication, helping others see their own knowledge, making people feel valued. Teaching per se didn't come naturally to me, but the ideal CELTA teacher personality did, and that helped me get through where my skills were lacking.

There's another part of why I excelled at teaching English that has to do with my gender, and I suspect that Catherine Hakim might call it "erotic capital." Hakim's recent book, Erotic Capital (Honey Money in the UK), posits that women need to better capitalize on their looks than we currently do. And by "erotic capital," she means not just beauty and sex appeal; she includes social grace, self-presentation, and liveliness in her definition. By not wielding our erotic capital in the market, we're essentially shortchanging ourselves economically.

In other words, it seems to pretty much be a feminist "duh" that she's talking smack in a lot of ways. But like Rachel Hills, who posed a series of excellent questions about Hakim's thesis yesterday, I'm not willing to dismiss the argument wholesale, despite how troubling it is on some levels.

When I was in front of the classroom, only rarely did I feel students' attention drifting. (This was made far easier by the fact that I was teaching adults, who tend to be more highly motivated than children or teens in the classroom.) I had a "teaching hat," there's no doubt—but that persona made use of something authentic within myself, and that something happened to coincide nicely with the ESOL system I was learning. And though of course I would never exploit my sex appeal to get students' attention (for example, I made a point of wearing very conservative clothes when teaching, not that a Prague winter allowed for much else), I'm pretty sure that some of that came into play too. Not because I was tossing bedroom eyes at any of my students, but because my own low-key brand of sex appeal lies in my warmth, empathy, and ability to help people feel special. (Or at least this is what my sources say.) Acting sexy is a role you can play; having sex appeal is something that's a part of you and that is often recognized even by people who aren't sexually attracted to you. I'm pretty sure my "sex appeal" as I'm describing it here wasn't perceived by most of my students as "sexy lady teacher," but more as "teacher we like because she listens pretty intently to us and seems to enjoy the sparkle that can sometimes happen in a classroom of adults who are all here to learn together."

Now, you could say that this isn't "erotic capital" at all, but that it's just being a good, relatable teacher, and you'd be partly right. But given that it's only pretty recently that listening instead of speaking was considered good teaching in the ESOL classroom, it's also clear that our ideas of "good teaching"—or good managing, or sales, or pretty much any job a person could have—is fluid and can indeed shift based on what an occupation's standard bearers decide to make it. And it just so happens that ESOL is valuing traditionally feminine traits, and it just so happens that erotic capital is something that is often pegged to women, and it just so happens that it's something we probably do like to dismiss, because feminists don't want to promote the idea that women "get by on their looks" just as men don't want to admit that they do the same. (Hakim takes great care to point out that erotic capital is exploited more by men than by women.)

There's a thesis within Hakim's work that's actually pretty feminist, which Hills puts like this: "[Hakim] also argues that women, on average, possess more erotic capital than do men...because women are the ones who can birth babies and because women tend to put more effort into their appearance than men do. But because we live in a patriarchal society, we're taught that these attributes have no value." It's a cultural feminist argument, and it's not necessarily what either Hakim or Hills is positing, but I think it's worth looking at when talking about erotic capital.

I think the power of beauty is righteously critiqued, and I think that's a good thing. But I think it's a good thing not because we should act as though beauty doesn't have any power, but because we need to swing the pendulum in the other direction before we come to a place that makes real sense. I don't usually go around talking too loudly about how personal beauty should be valued on a cultural level, because we get that message about a zillion times a day in negative ways. But I'll say this: The power of beauty has been discredited over time in part because it's been a power largely seen as being wielded by women. And because it was a power seen as belonging to a disempowered class, it became rigidly institutionalized to the point where we collectively forgot that the whole of our "erotic capital" encompasses far more than the ways any of us fit, or don't fit, the iron maiden of beauty. If we expand the power of beauty to include erotic capital, which includes but is not limited to beauty, we're not just talking about the power to make a guy do nice things for you because you're so durned pretty. We're talking about the power of holding people's attention; the power of placing yourself in the realm of nature, a more powerful force than words or reason; the power of mesmerizing, lulling, soothing. Sometimes, even, the power of teaching. And yes, those are traits associated with femininity, and yes, I think women have the power to soothe men and women alike with feminine beauty, and yes, I think that can be a force for good in the world.

Hills asks some excellent questions about the intersection of erotic capital and the beauty myth. And her first question, about whether the problem is in valuing beauty or in us being socialized to believe that we're never beautiful enough, rings particularly true to me—but with a feminist interpretation of Hakim's work, it needn't. Because beauty is arguably the least important part of erotic capital; it's just the part that has plenty of products to supposedly help us get there, and it's the part that women are tracked to focus on, and it's the part that probably causes us the most grief.

I haven't read Hakim's book yet (though I intend to), and I don't want to start saying that her work is feminist without having a more thorough look at it. (I'm certain I'll have more to say on the subject later.) But I will say that even though my own experience with beauty is certainly fraught, I'm eager to see a world in which "beauty positivity" is valued—and valued appropriately, neither held up as the golden means, nor dismissed as unworthy of our efforts.


  1. "Over the years, ESOL programs have evolved to match the needs of the teachers, and it follows that traditionally feminine traits would be valued in an ESOL classroom."

    I see this another way; maybe ESOL programs have evolved to reflect modern pedagogical ideals. The guidelines you mention (not feeding answers, encouraging discussion, being compassionate) may be promoted because their effectiveness has been proven in studies, not because the program anticipates female teachers.

    "Now, you could say that this isn't 'erotic capital' at all, but that it's just being a good, relatable teacher, and you'd be partly right."

    Erotic capital may be a factor, but to me it sounds like you have good "stage presence" or charisma--- there's a big performance element to teaching, and your ability to keep students' attention focused may say as much about your stage talents as your erotic ones. Some actors are riveting and others are not, but it's not always the most attractive ones who have the best presence.

    But then, if "liveliness" is considered part of erotic capital, maybe stage presence would be too.

    I had a friend who didn't wear makeup, had an awkward haircut, and oversize frumpy clothes. She told me that when she walked into certain stores, the clerks always asked her to surrender her purse/backpack. I shopped at those same stores, but was never once asked to hand over my bag. Perhaps they thought she looked like trouble, but I didn't? Was this erotic capital/beauty privilege at play? I wish we'd thought to dress her up/dress me down and conduct an experiment.

  2. This is a very interesting post, particularly because I read a rather damning interview with Hakim over the summer (link below) and it's interesting to read another take on her theory.

    I think it's important not to get erotic capital confused with self-confidence, which can be compelling without being at all erotic.

  3. REMIND ME -- as someone who's explicitly taught ESL for 2 years and who's practically taught ESL for 8 -- to come back to this when I am not drained... from a week of teaching... on a Wednesday night.

  4. Hm, I like Jaunty's analysis of this. I do not consider myself "beautiful" per se, but over the years I have developed an engaging classroom presentation. I have nary a student management problem in my classrooms, while many of my male colleagues who have a more authoritarian approach often complain of problem students. Remembering to dress in a pleasing way is a small factor in holding student attention.

  5. Rebekah, good points--and on the first one, I suspect that the two are connected. That ESOL programs evolved to reflect modern pedagogical ideals because the growing number of people who could spot flaws with the old model decided to come up with a new one--and many of those people were women. It's actually a bang-up example of how valuing traditionally feminine traits doesn't have to be about gender, but about the values (and then, of course, certain bloggers come along and remind us that it IS about gender sometimes, I blush to admit...).

    You know, I'm wondering how much of my "T-factor" I'm attributing to erotic capital because of my own tendency to explore everything through that lens, and also because part of the running joke there among my fellow teachers was a male student who had a crush on me. This happens all the time in teaching, particularly in language teaching, where part of the learning experience is talking about your own life, but it was interesting to witness. Hmmm. I do think that stage presence is tied to erotic capital, as is simply seeing somebody do something well (I'm thinking of a friend who kept telling me about "Hot Handyman" and then wrote to me in disappointment when she ran into him on the street and realized it was seeing him do work that made him attractive, which of course invites other questions about masculine roles).

    And yes, I think there was some beauty privilege going on with your friend--if she was challenging ideas of what we were "supposed" to do by not appearing to pay attention to her looks, I'm guessing that store clerks immediately processed that as her presenting another challenge in a way that more directly affected them. An interesting difference. Do you think you've been treated differently in that kind of way since shaving your head?

    Sally, the confidence question both interests and, honestly, saddens me a little--because while I'm not the least confident person in the world, neither am I the most. To be frank, I think I relied on erotic capital to help me fake confidence--again, not exploiting my sexuality, but instead being charming and lively and empathetic, which don't have to be sexualized, but which are a part of creating an illusion of a nice feminine woman. That's a danger of the idea of erotic capital, certainly. I think it's often used in a positive manner--not so much the looks stuff, but the charisma--but it can also be a crutch, which, as we've learned, doesn't help anyone. (And OMG, thank you for the link to that interview--she sounds terrible!)

    Tori, consider yourself reminded! I would love to hear your thoughts on this (I was thinking of you when I was writing this, wondering how it would be different were I not teaching adults--I didn't realize you taught ESL).

    Terri, that makes total sense to me--that your engaging presentation, whether or not you'd refer to it as "erotic capital," creates a productive classroom environment. The old models weren't working, that's for sure, and I do think part of that is because traditionally feminine values have been incorporated into teaching--but even if it's utterly divorced from gender, it's still *good* teaching values.

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