By Grace Prial
In 2011, British sociologist Catherine Hakim coined the term “erotic capital,” defined as “a complex but crucial combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation, and social skills.” Hakim argued that erotic capital is a legitimate source of social power that women should leverage in pursuit of other forms of social or economic security. Her thesis bears contentious significance in the present political moment. The recent Me Too movement, for example, turned Hakim’s suggestion on its head when it brought to the fore powerful, visible women as victims of the real dynamic of dominant sexual power. It reminded us, sweepingly and sternly, that sexual currency is not a cache most women choose to spend; a violent stereotype was widely challenged. An unpleasant question attends this confrontation, however: that is, in a world which maintains its denigrated status as a vulnerability, rather than a legitimate source of power, how are women contending with their sexual influence, or “erotic capital”?
Three recent works of fiction explore how women contend with the vexed notion of erotic capital: Marlowe Granados’ Happy Hour, Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman, and Claire Sestanovich’s Objects of Desire. Their characters negotiate with the societal expectation (or requirement) to leverage erotic capital. Erotic capital’s promise –– to accrue surplus value to its owner in the form of social or economic advantage –– is exposed as an empty capitalist contrivance. Erotic capital is in essence a gimmick, as conceived by Sianne Ngai: a device which promises to reduce labor and increase value while concealing the real labor at work behind its attractive qualities –– labor which is routinely feminized. These characters find themselves the exploited, reified and alienated workers in their sexual relationships, not dominant capitalists wielding their extracted social power. Marvelously, though, none are stories of exhaustive defeat; rather, all propose ways that women can realize, assert, and defend a sense of selfhood against a system dependent on their gendered and sexual exploitation. We can call these ways Ornament, Writing, and Passing Forward.
The aptly named Objects of Desire is preoccupied with the use values of sex and the female reproductive system, locating the materials for the production of erotical capital at the site of the physical body. Its stories take place symbolically in the empty space of unused or disused uteruses, figured as non-functioning spaces: empty garages; indifferent elevators; holes in the ground once meant for the foundation of a now abandoned new home; eggs, broken and used as weapons; the arms of a girl-child who self-soothes by rocking an invisible baby. The stories consider women in two phases of life: the pre-maternal 20s, and post-maternal middle age. One has an abortion; another, a hysterectomy. All experience a similar listlessness –– not because they feel useless without bearing children, but because they are contending with a world that demands productivity in general, and the reproduction of labor power in particular: “On days when she’s unproductive,” Sestanovich writes, “Georgia likes to imagine she’s pregnant. That way, she’d be accomplishing something.”
The short story collection A Dream of a Woman bears Plett’s love letters to trans women. The text meets their confrontations with the uneven terrain of sexual expectations placed on women –– the expectation to affirm gender identity through the accumulation of erotic capital, for example, routinely backfires. One narrator notes the hyper-reification she feels subjected to: “It never failed to amaze me, in a fond, quiet way, how boys could touch and fuck a transsexual body, and then stammer their way through any implication of how that body got there.” Another –– Vera, the book’s central protagonist –– balks at her friend’s suggestion that “gender is transactional… a way of telling the world what you need.” In both cases, although the friend’s judgment holds merit and the earlier narrator admits her fondness for the stammerers, the womens’ basic human need for recognition is continually overridden by their overdetermination as sexualized bodies.
Isa Epley, cheeky heroine of Happy Hour, seeks to have an intentional relationship with her erotic capital. She and her best friend and colluder, Gala, scramble through New York City’s elite party scene by banking on “charm.” The two are “unemployed” and wear this badge of non-productivity defiantly: they insist they’re doing “Absolutely nothing!” and “refer to it as research.” Really, however, their worklessness is symptomatic of their undocumented status. Contrary to their assertion, they take on all manner of mainly gendered work: selling retired clothing, or posing for artists. Concealed by their charm and circulation is a real anxiety: Isa admits “feeling nervous” about “losing money” and developing “an air of desperation,” one which she explains “starts with a sedate fever, but it moves quickly… the two questions on my mind are ‘Where will I sleep tonight?’ and ‘Will I get a meal out of this?’” Underpinning their flashy escapades is thus a spectacular bildungsroman; Isa’s final reckoning with the gimmick she is well aware she’s been deploying coincides with her retreating, for the first time in the novel, into solitude and contending with her mother’s death. “Do those few lonely moments when I return inward,” she asks, “away from the noise and glamour, really count?”
Sex itself, as it occurs in these texts, is neither about love nor reproduction, nor is it as socially generative as Hakim’s thesis of erotic capital would allege. Isa laments her “situationship” with a young man named Nicolas: “Why does it have to be so fraught? …Am I some kind of destroyer? Privately, men are concerned with self-preservation. I guess I, too, only feel desirable when I’m holding something back, when I keep something for myself.” One of Sestanovich’s narrators dwells, “When it was over, he would murmur things I couldn’t understand. There would be parts of him inside me I couldn’t see. This was what I liked best about sex –– possessing something we couldn’t even be sure existed.” In another representation, Sestanovich’s Georgia considers a Hasidic woman and “lets herself imagine what’s under the woman’s wig. Hair only one man sees. The truth is Georgia can’t imagine anyone coveting her like that –– asking her to hide something, longing for the moment when it will be revealed. But it might be nice to have it –– whatever it is –– all to herself.” In each case the young women gesture towards not merely a rote physical dissatisfaction, but a desire to claim something which is purportedly garnered through sex, but ever elusive. That something holds not only the potential to preserve oneself, to defend, to claim or to keep, but can also be destructive. The alienation between the characters and their male partners is pervasive, rife with “parts…I couldn’t see.”
Plett, I think, locates this potential force and calls it “virginity” –– not in the literal sense. Her inaugural protagonist, named Hazel, shares with her childhood friend, now partner, Christopher, one spontaneous experience:
I felt so clearly that I had finally lost my virginity. It seems silly, right? It wasn’t the first time I’d had sex as a woman… But fucking him and sleeping in his bed felt special, like something I would read about. And I guess maybe part of that feeling was heterosexist patriarchal whatever. But it occurred to me, as I was walking, hungover in the wind, feeling so in my body –– that virginity is not the lie. Singular virginity, that’s the lie. It made me think: Maybe virginity is real, and it can be lost, but it can also be given. Maybe there’s something beautiful in the concept and not just… ruinous. Maybe the truth is just that virginities are malleable, personal, and there are lots of them.
Here, Hazel indicates a moment of true recognition. Plett’s use of the first-person point of view and the confessional narrative style, vulnerable and optimistic in tone, signals an active process of self-actualization –– that which allows Hazel her sense of “feeling so in my body.” As Hazel notes, “It wasn’t the first time [she’d] had sex as a woman,” but it was the first time which lacked the “fraught” mediations of objectification and reification; that is, Hazel occupied the site of this encounter as a true subject, neither physically reduced to a sex-object nor fetishized (that is, dislocated) from the social processes attendant to her subjectivity –– the “implication[s],” to paraphrase Plett, of “how [she] got there.” This sexual encounter, as opposed to others, existed as a site of true recognition that allows Hazel to claim, and potentially reclaim again, the generative aspects of sex that, in a world essentially conditioned by “heterosexist patriarchal whatever,” might not be “just ruinous.”
In the lack, however, of a version of heterosexual sex that would grant the women in these books the ability to feel truly recognized –– or unexploited by the gimmick-work of erotic capital –– the authors offer other ways to claim and assert selfhood. In A Dream, sex with other trans women can be life-affirming, though met with inconsistent and unwelcome judgments from outside (“I wonder sometimes: Did the script get flipped? Do they want us to be lesbians now?”). Others turn similarly to alternate paths in their search for self and mutual recognition. Ornament achieves subversion, writing empowers, and passing forward carves out, in the potent realm of the political imagination, space for a new socio-political womanhood, outside of or away from capitalist conditions.
For the women of A Dream of a Woman, the import of wearing gender-affirming clothing can’t be understated. In Happy Hour and Objects of Desire, this resonates too. Isa incisively recognizes that she and Gala “have known how to put ourselves together for a long time. It was one of the first things we learned and the first thing we were recognized for… People think it is frivolous, but feminine things are often thought of that way; it is an important kind of knowledge that is overlooked. In many cases, it is the first mode of expression women have access to.” Objects of Desire echoes this sentiment when an older woman relays to a much younger narrator the story of her wedding dress: “From the front it was old-fashioned, even a little bit ugly, but the back was wide open, all the way down to [my] waist. Every inch of skin exposed… It was my consolation prize… The husband, the babies. All that.” In this way, manner of dress is reactionary but affirming. There is a body of self-knowledge in the power of expression.
Georgia, of Objects, discovers pure selfhood in a private moment of ornamentation. Having contracted lice (and given it to the older, married man with whom she was sleeping), she goes to have her hair deloused –– where she encounters the aforementioned Hasidic woman and contemplates the coveting of her shrouded hair. The woman washes and braids Georgia’s hair: “At home, Georgia unfurls her braid. Her hair is kinked all over. She brushes it again and again, until it is alive with electricity, until it radiates out in all directions, quivering with static, the ridges throwing light in all directions, for no one else to see.” This moment is not just alive, but ecstatic. Georgia’s hair adorns her, but also “throw[s] light” –– radiating herself outward –– but only for her; she finds in the mirror a thing which she can “keep…for [her]self.”
Happy Hour asserts the act of writing in direct opposition to the gimmick-work of erotic capital. After an argument with Gala, Isa escapes the city to an acquaintance’s Hampton mansion where, as the youngest woman, the only single woman, and the only non-white woman, domestic duties are thrust on her: groceries, decor, and entertainment. While out, Isa’s diary is violated by her host: “it was in my house,” Coop tells her, “I consider it fair game.” He complains she “villainize[d]” him and his guests, but admits she’s “always had a knack… I’d much rather have you use that energy on charming my guests,” he tells her, to which Isa tellingly reacts:
The corners of my mouth began to turn up. They gave away my sense of glee at being caught. People hate when girls act like they’re invincible. Deep down they know how easy it is to take that small power away, how fragile the feeling! How far we fall. The diary is more like a living document, and whenever I find a natural finish to one, it feels like I am sealing a part of myself into safety.
Coop returns the diary with “a smirk,” and Isa notes to herself that “deep down he was a bit of a saboteur… Some people know they deserve to be taken advantage of.” In this wary and delicate power-struggle there is a sudden recognition by both parties: by the intervention of her writing, a reversal takes place, and Isa is taking advantage of Coop. The power that she’s accumulated is thus not the surplus value of her sexual-social capital, but her experience captured in writing. This writing “seal[s]” herself “into safety,” but also garners power over others –– as their shared smirk reveals –– through documentation and exposé.
At the culmination of the novel, Isa receives a book deal for the contents of her diary. Finally, she achieves financial and interpersonal independence, staying behind to pursue her writing while Gala leaves New York, following the next social connection. The form of the diary, Isa’s “living document,” is significant; it tells us explicitly, in contrast to one of her bad dates who “wasn’t a good writer,” but who “was someone well connected enough that people let him express himself,” that her self-expression is valuable on its own merits.
Both Plett and Sestanovich in their collections also frequently employ the first-person perspective and confessional forms, including diary entries and letters (or emails) which the characters either intend never to send or never to be seen (addressing them to friends who are deceased). These formal devices, and the cultivation of writing practices by the characters themselves, inscribe these authors’ claims for a process of self-recognition which is counter to the exploitative social formula of erotic capital. “I always prefer the way I see things,” says Isa, ever haughty and with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, “Because it’s all mine, and no one can convince me otherwise.”
Finally, the conscious recipience of such a thing as womanhood, coupled with an imaginative passing forward of this consciousness to future generations, forges space for a new political reality for women. For Isa, turning inward and away from the necessity of utilizing sexual capital, an acceptance of generational wisdom –– “I know now how hard it must have been…” –– puts an end to her flight from the heartbreak of her mother’s death and reunites her with Gala (who gifts her a postcard of her favorite painting: a woman with her back to a mirror, safely encompassing her “secret self”). Vera, upon a visit home to see her mother and grandmother, “realized her selfhood was sutured with these women from her life… a blanket fashioned from a kaleidoscope of them, shards and spackles that lived in her like bacteria, like DNA, joyous and ailing, a double helix of protection and illness.” The active “suturing” together of an otherwise fragmentary “selfhood” is an effortful process, one which consciously gathers together and reckons with the manifold and contradictory social relations which constitute the individual. As another narrator of A Dream indicates, this unifying subjective project –– the healing “blanket” –– can be passed forward, as she “thought of a generation of girls who might grow up strong and unbothered and untouched… who could fall into adulthood knowing girlhood… who would grow and grow… and become oceans, gentle armies, thick with passed-down wisdom and love.” In Plett’s formulation, just as generative “virginity” “can be given,” so too can the realization of a safer, stronger version of womanhood. Sestanovich, finally, put it none too succinctly in her book’s dedication: “For my mother and her mother.”
These texts go farther than describing the double-expectation of sexuality and productivity imposed upon women by capitalist society and recounting their survival of those structures. They in fact imagine that by practicing, documenting, and handing down the knowledge of both this fraught inheritance and those paths to selfhood and mutual recognition, unwarped by capitalist distortions –– ornament, writing, inheritance and passing forward –– the potential for a new socio-political womanhood, “unbothered and untouched,” grows ever stronger. We are prompted by these authors to ask, given a system dependent on the gendered and sexual exploitation of women, what latent power women hold against the system of exploitation writ large.
Grace Gilroy Prial is a graduate student at Columbia University in the English and Comparative Literature department. She is an avid Marxist, currently engaged with feminist theory and Black radical archive theory. A New Jersey native, she now lives in Harlem.