Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sexual economics – untapped power for Batswana women?

University of Botswana sociology lecturer Dr Sethunya Mosime is challenging the greatest workplace taboo in Botswana – That women should never use their sex appeal to get ahead in life.

“A central feature of patriarchy has been the construction of ‘moral’ ideologies that inhibit women from exploiting their erotic capital to achieve economic and social benefits”, she says.

Erotic capital refers to the ways in which people can manipulate their physical appearance and sex appeal to advance their social and economic status. 

It is almost an article of faith in Botswana that to make it in life you have to have money, connections or a good education. Having all three puts you far ahead of competition. Exchanging business cards or playing golf has become a common feature of doing business in Botswana because switched on businessmen know the power of “connections”

Those who have money use what most Batswana call “cash power” to get their way while those who have degrees use their certificates.

Although not in so many words, Dr Mosime holds that these business and workplace currencies are determined for the most part by “the old boys’ networks” and tend to favour men.

Dr Mosime in not the only woman who has began questioning why women cannot use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. Local chattering classes have for sometime been talking about “power dressing”. Born in the second half of the 1970s and developed in the 1980s, power dressing is a fashion style that enables women to establish their authority in a professional and political environment traditionally dominated by men.

Batswana women in the 21st century like Dr Mosime are now pushing the boundaries even further and talking about erotic capital, an outgrowth of sexual capital and attractiveness.

“Teenage girls instinctively grasp the concept of erotic capital. That’s why they spend hours in front of the mirror, practicing their eyeliner. They know there is a hierarchy of looks, and they know roughly where they stand. Younger women seem quite comfortable – in a way the older generation never was – with combining sexuality and assertiveness, both on the job and off. Their social skills are phenomenal. There’s no doubt that society discriminates in favour of good looks and charm, and punishes the ugly and charmless. Women generally have more erotic capital than men because they work harder at it. Given the large imbalance between men and women in sexual interest, women are well placed to exploit their erotic capital. A central feature of patriarchy has been the construction of ‘moral’ ideologies that inhibit women from exploiting their erotic capital to achieve economic and social benefits.”

Dr Mosime’s position comes face to face with one of the greatest taboos of the Botswana workplace.

Controversy surrounds Batswana women who express their sexuality at work. Women’s engagement in sexualized expressions is prevalent, complex, and may be both beneficial and detrimental to them. In truth, expressions of sexuality can damage or enhance their work relationships with their colleagues. Women who express their sexuality at work may sometimes benefit because of a societal marketplace that places a value on women’s sexuality. The sexual marketplace dictates that women’s sexuality is worth more than men’s, so women can demand a premium for their sexuality and men must exchange favors with women to gain access to them sexually. In the workplace context, this means that women may use their sexuality to influence men who control valuable resources. Beyond the mating selection, women from an early age are taught that their sexuality can be an effective means to receive favors, resources, and attention from men .That is, society indicates that women can exchange their sexuality for valued resources from men. This perspective would suggest that women who are able to capitalize on their attractiveness and sexuality may choose do so to ensure their ‘survival’ and access to resources in the workplace. Women who appear to strategically use their sexuality at work are often criticized because they are perceived as manipulative and promiscuous, which leads them to be devalued by both men and women.

We tend to believe that in order to boost our sex appeal, we need to alter our physical appearance, whether through diet, increased muscle tone, makeup, or sexier clothing but that isn’t always the case. Erotic capital/ sexual economics is more than just sex –it is a combination of beauty, style, social skills, and charm that can be learned. Whether people would like to admit it or not, erotic capital is as important in today’s workplace as intelligence or skill. Men have erotic capital too, but women’s sex appeal has always been more prominent. Certainly, attractive women get ahead at work but good-looking women also face a double-bind: they are punished for being too sexy, both resented by colleagues and viewed as less intelligent or vain. Although appearance may be a central element of erotic capital, good social skills and presentation, sexual competence and “liveliness” are also contributing factors. Increasingly, in the affluent, service-based society we live in, people are becoming aware that those things do matter. Attractive salespeople are going to sell much more; attractive people tend to have a bigger choice of roles to play. Today, the financial returns of attractiveness equal the returns of qualifications. Many young women now think beauty is just as important as education.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.