Sorting facts from fantasy

April 20th, 2012


The first thing you should know is I’m a whore.” So began Belle de Jour’s now infamous The Intimate Adventures of a London call Girl, originally written in 2003-4 as an anonymous blog, before becoming a bestselling book, and then being turned into a TV series starring Billie Piper as the London call girl with a brain.

Five years and several money-spinning books later, Belle de Jour finally outed herself as Dr Brooke Magnanti, complete with a master’s degree in genetic epidemiology and a PhD in forensic science, also revealing that prostitution had proved a far more lucrative and enjoyable way of financing her studies than, say, waiting tables or stacking supermarket shelves.

Now, with her scientific hat firmly on, Dr Magnanti, as she calls herself, perhaps to lend her voice more credibility, has written a long and serious book about why so many commonly held beliefs, which she calls “persistent myths”, about the sex industry, from the link between pornography and violence against women, to the nature of sexual addiction as a treatable psychological disorder, are just plain wrong. And how does she know? because they are largely based on inconclusive research and manipulated statistics, promoted by self-interested parties, who include Right-wing evangelicals, Left-wing feminists — notably the anti-vajazzle brigade — and commercial enterprises, not to mention sloppy journalists.

Going into astonishingly thorough detail, Magnanti analyses the “research” behind each of the “myths”, in a series of essays with neat chapter headings such as Myth: Tens of Thousands of Women are Trafficked into Britain as Sex Slaves. An article published in Glamour magazine in 2010 claimed that half a million women had been trafficked into the EU for sex, but, she says, no source for that number was offered.

In 2009, Denis MacShane, Labour MP, claimed that 18,000 women had been trafficked into Britain, while Vera Baird, the then solicitor general, had challenged McShane, putting the figure at nearer 4,000. So what were the true numbers? Magnanti suggests that they were probably closer to 71, based on data collected from both the UK Network of Sex Work Projects and the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention in Prostitution. she devotes several pages, pie charts and graphs to explain her findings, which are too detailed to go into here but seem pretty persuasive.

She uses the same approach to challenge the supposed link between lapdancing clubs opening in areas of London and rapes taking place in those areas, the victimisation of female porn stars, who in reality make far more money than their male counterparts, and the way in which so-called sex addicts like Tiger Woods can claim to have a “narcissistic personality disorder” rather than being “just a cheating jerk”.

Why, she asks, is so much written about sex addiction in the general media and why is the coverage so uncritical? because there are lots of people with a lot to gain, from those running expensive “porn recovery” centres to the purveyors of software such as accountability2you, “a service that dumps all the porn someone downloads into their spouse’s email inbox, as an incentive to abstain”.

On a personal note, and her own experiences inevitably colour her arguments, what surprised her most after she came out as Belle was not so much the vilification by the tabloids but outrage from the supposed sisterhood, from writers like Natasha Walter and Ariel Levy, whom she now lumps in with the Right-wing evangelicals for their “schoolyard gossip” disapproval. Just because you wax or want a boob job doesn’t mean you’re letting other women down.

“It is not acceptable to accuse a woman of being inauthentic simply because her choices differ from the ones you might make,” she writes. It’s a good point. Indeed, there is a lot to admire in The Sex Myth, and while it probably won’t sell anything like as well as Belle de Jour’s diaries, it’s a much better book and should be read by anyone claiming an interest in sex and, especially, sex equality.

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Sorting facts from fantasy

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