Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Don't blame Belle De Jour for glamorising prostitution.

Oh, Tanya Gold, how I do want to bash you over the head with a wet fish. You have great intentions, and genuine feminist credentials, but you say such silly things so disarmingly well. In today's piece on Belle De Jour, who has this week been outed as Dr Brooke Magnanti, research scientist and former impoverished PhD-student-come-high-rent-hooker, Gold appears to fall back on the old staple of laying the hate on other women for negotiating patriarchal capitalist society in the best way they see fit.

That the Belle De Jour industry glamorises and misrepresents prostitution is obvious. Very few sex workers are blessed with the options, education, support network,health, security and financial backing that the eponymous blogger enjoyed. In fact, the Belle De Jour industry is one of the first topics I ever had an article published about, back in 2007. In the piece, I argued that the corporate media machine has done a great disservice to the woman we now know to be Dr Brooke Magnanti:

Every feature that lifted Belle De Jour’s writing from the merely sordid and sensational has been edited out of Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Neither the show itself nor the ubiquitous advertising campaign manage to convey the brooding, self-assured, intelligent sexuality that infuses the blog and tie-in book with a compelling and challenging energy.

On billboards and bus-stops across the country, an eight feet-high Piper in, alternately, a rubber mini-dress or a matching thong and push-up bra, is draped across the frame, lazy as a Playboy-bunny: the apotheosis of unchallenging, accommodating sexuality. The caption declares: ’My body is a big deal.’ What is that even supposed to mean? Clearly, that Belle’s body is important because it is on sale. Hardly a mantra to inspire the teenage girls who will be watching this show in their droves and thinking, ’I could do that’.

Both Piper and the show’s producers are adamant that they are not trying to represent an industry – merely ’telling one woman’s story.’ I’m sorry, but that simply doesn’t cut it: as any fule kno, a show with a publicity campaign of this magnitude, with prostitution as its main theme and a sex worker as its eponymous central character, does represent the sex industry – period – whether or not its producers acknowledge the fact.

Significant points of contention from the book have also been smoothed over for television, such as the fact that Belle has a boyfriend who’s privy to her secrets. In Secret Diary of a Call Girl there is an ex who has no idea of her profession – implying that the idea of a sex worker with a fucntional romantic partnership would be just too unorthodox for the popular imagination to handle.

Similarly, the opening plot-arc of The Secret Diary of A Call Girl could hardly be more disheartening. Belle falls for a client, good grief! While it is conceivable that ITV may indeed have the balls to opt out of the inevitable, popularist, cliched Cinderella-story that follows, the seeds of anticipation have already been sown for the handsome prince (in the guise of a city banker paying for sex) rescuing the girl with the mysterious and sinful double life from her wicked ways.

The Secret Diary of a Call Girl is, in fact, uncomplicatedly irresponsible. Producers and commentators who make claims for it as cutting-edge have clearly never watched such genuinely groundbreaking works of cinema as Narizzano’s Georgy Girl (1966) or Lucas Moodysson’s harrowing Lilya 4 Ever (2002). Belle De Jour is a blogger and, ultimately, an autobiographer: she is not writing popular entertainment. ITV2 is, and it does not have the luxury of evading the responsibility that comes with its programming decisions.

The show is over-hyped, plays into worn-out misogynist cliches and unequivocally glamourises and misrepresents the dangerous world of prostitution. That it is ’one girl’s story’ will probably have little effect on the many vulnerable young women – young women without Belle’s maturity, university education, support network, self-posession and financial safety net – who will, however briefly, watch the show and consider prostitution as a viable career prospect.

In the two years since I wrote those words, ITV has capitalised with increasingly drooling excitement on hamming up its version of Belle De Jour as an uncomplicated stereotype - something the real Dr Brooke Magnanti manifestly is not. Tanya Gold is wrong to suggest that Magnanti herself is irresponsible. She has every right to discuss her often problematic and complex experiences as a woman in this society, whatever her life choices.

Don't blame Dr Magnanti, Tanya. Blame the patriarchal media machine which has delighted in erasing her experiences, denying her ownership of her own sexuality and portraying her as a bland, grinning salesperson rather than a real, complicated human being with sexual agency and emotional turmoil eking out her own niche in the modern economy. Blame a society which loves the idea of a happy hooker, but hates the notion of prostitutes as real people with emotions, agency, scruples, connections and relationships.


  1. Damn. I wrote about that article today and totally missed the opportunity to mention that awful tv show. It was so disappointing I stopped watching and, it would seem, have also blanked it from my memory. Think I shall now go and enhance my blog post by linking to yours, if you don't mind :-)

  2. You could argue that Magnanti shouldn't have sold the story to ITV, because it was always clear that they were going to turn it into exactly what they did turn it into.

    (of course, that still doesn't explain why Tanya Gold blames Magnanti but not lead screenwriter Lucy Prebble - who also Should Know Better - or lead producer Jacquie Glanville. Actually, it's interesting how female the production crew names are compared with most TV, and depressing they nonetheless managed to produce such an FHM-fantasy piece of telly...)

  3. I agree entirely. That article really irritated me. Tanya Gold is surely someone who would ordinarily be all in favour of respecting women's rights to tell their own stories and speak from their own experiences, but because Magnanti's story doesn't fit with Gold's world-view, she becomes a target.

    I haven't seen the television programme. I read and enjoyed the book, but I wasn't under the impression that it represented the norm of prostitution in the UK. However, neither were Magnanti's experiences wholly unique. Prostitution isn't a normal way to fund a PhD, but neither is it unheard of. Magnanti's form of prostitution is not typical of the industry as a whole, but neither is it especially unusual.

  4. Blame a society which loves the idea of a happy hooker, but hates the notion of prostitutes as real people with emotions, agency, scruples, connections and relationships.

    Laurie, the only thing society loves more than a 'happy hooker' is a penitent one, replete with tales of woe (e.g. violent boyfriend, evil pimps, ugly clients, drugs, etc.). If Belle had come out with such a story, Gold (and loads of others) would have been able to say 'told you so' and feel really smug. The sheer variety of experiences of sex work - for even just one sex worker, let alone between different ones - repeatedly gets lost in the process.


  5. Laurie - I'm not convinced that the Tanya Gold article does particularly blame Magnanti.

    Anon - the tale of the unhappy hooker with evil pimps etc is a lot more representative than the tale of a happy hooker.

  6. Laurie - I don't think Gold really does blame Magnanti.

    Anon - the picture of the unhappy hooker with evil pimps is quite a lot more representative than the one of the happy hooker.

  7. Anon - when I wrote my last response I didn't realise you'd said penitent hooker, I just thought you'd said unhappy. That deserves a different response, sorry.

  8. Does Tanya Gold really have "genuine feminist credentials". I always thought she wrote what she was told (by Paul Dacre in the main). Also, Penny, you might well be interested in this story about Home Office research into forced marriages: http://atthesauce.blogspot.com/2009/11/forced-marriage-report-supressed-by.html

  9. >Tanya Gold is wrong to suggest that Magnanti herself is irresponsible.

    >Don't blame Dr Magnanti, Tanya.

    Er ... she didn't.

  10. Tanya's article is certainly a typical journalistic response. We can look at more evidence to see how representative Dr Magnanti's experience may be.

    Suzanne Jenkins' study of nearly 500 sex workers found that more than a third had bachelor degrees, nearly 20% postgrad education and 38% had used sex work to fund their studies. Other expenditure included holidays and private schooling for children. Only 6.5% of respondents said they had no formal qualifications.

    Almost half said sex work provided a more comfortable lifestyle, and the second most frequent selection for motivation for selling sex was a more luxurious lifestyle. Not living in poverty was the least selected choice.

    The agency which found clients for Dr Magnanti also sounds ordinary. Current rates from central London escort agencies range from £200-450 an hour. Typical services include
    paying for advertising
    dealing with phonecalls
    arranging appointments
    providing drivers/security*
    checking clients against the electoral role and that postcodes accord with the address given
    maintaining lists of false call out addresses and bad clients; refusing appointments from same
    ensuring clients are aware of boundaries and services of individual sex workers
    All these activities, including those which directly promote sex workers' safety, are criminalised under the legislation on controlling for gain, which explicitly includes consensual working arrangements.

    The research I mentioned earlier focussed primarily on relationships of power, exploitation and control between sex workers and clients. As its findings contradict the opinions on the pundits who frequently write on this issue, it has received almost no media coverage.

    Policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, not on ideology, assumptions and stereotypes.

    * the books do not refer to using such a service

  11. Mortage (former Rent) Boy18 November 2009 at 08:04

    I didn't find Billie Piper in her role as the main protagonist in the TV adaptation of Secret Diary of a Call Girl sexy in any way. The whole thing to me seemed rather dull, unerotic and without much of a purpose entertainment-wise or otherwise. It wasn't pornography... it wasn't drama... it wasn't informative or enlightening. What the hell was it?

  12. Interesting post. I was also disappointed by Tanya Gold's article. I wrote about it on my blog, The Daily Transmission:


  13. "Very few sex workers are blessed with the options, education, support network,health, security and financial backing that the eponymous blogger enjoyed."

    Soooo...how many sex workers do you know?? I know A LOT, and I know the above is not an accurate statment. The problem with these sweeping generalizations is that they miss the many women that DO fit the bill of having the above...they just are also very discreet and don't talk openly about their experiences because of the social stigma or possible legal ramifications. The sex workers that most of society sees are the ones that are unhealthy (emotionally/mentally, as well as maybe physically) and exploited, operating from a place of damage instead of a place of autonomy and empowerment.

    There are a variety of experiences of sex work, as anonymous says above...but it is a secret society, that unless you belong, you do not really know the full spectrum. Media shows us the extremes...the exploited, the trafficked, the street level addicts or the glamorized "high dollar hotties". Is with most things, there is much more in the middle that is much more the norm or average experience.

    I do not doubt that the Belle Du Jour story is real, even though it is not the experience I've had personally.



  14. Catherine and Meghan - the trouble with statistics on this issue is that every interest group has diametrically opposed ones. The ones Tanya Gold uses (Poppy's statistics, I believe?)are no more or less convincing than the ones you're throwing at me now - because there's more to this issue than black and white, junkie-streetwalker-and-courtesan.

    Yep, I know quite a few sex workers, and I've met no two female sex workers with the same experience. I've met sex workers who've been gang-raped at 14, forcibly addicted to drugs and abused by pimps; I've also met self-organising sex workers who are very happy and autonomous in their work, although none of them had personal chauffeurs. Belle De Jour was and is at one extreme of the experiences you can have - that doesn't make her irrelevant, just unusual.

    The problem for feminists is that it's impossible - indeed, massively unhelpful - to pick one way of seeing all (female) sex workers and base your rhetoric around it and expect to be telling some sort of shining truth. Feminism needs to get smarter on this - smarter on the idea of choice, smarter on listening to women (ALL women) and smarter, above all, on not blindly attacking other feminists.

  15. Penny-agreed re: it being counterproductive to minimize one females experience over another as a way to prove one's point, or push an individual agenda. We do need to be able to have rational conversation though... If my question re: how many sex workers you know came across as attacking, I apologize. It's just that I personally know and have met *hundreds* of sex workers, and have been involved in the culture directly for over 15 years, and that quote is a typical generalization I hear re: the type of women that are involved in the industry that I personally do not find to be true. I'm not proporting specific statistics, as I still understand my experience is somewhat skewed, I was merely trying to make a point that most people that are *not* involved in the industry and culture of sex work in some way usually don't have a full grasp of what it's about or the diversity, as well as shared experiences, found there. ie: I might be able to *empathize* with the stuggles of minorities in our country, but there is only so much I can really understand about that experience when I have lived a fairly privileged life as an educated white female. There are some things we cannot know unless we have actually lived it.

    There has not been enough studies done regarding the experience of sex workers, in part, due to the clandestine nature of the business. Most of my colleagues shun participating in research studies, even when they are anonymous, as they never really trust that answering truthfully and honestly will not come back to haunt them in some way. From my understanding, most research has been done with women that are incarcerated, and I think it is easier to get them to participate because they have already been "outed" to society, so it can be easier for them to then speak more freely.

    My purpose in participating in this conversation is not about attacking anyone, but rather, about widening the dialogue about the realities of sex work. (which BTW-agencies and independents, especially in larger cities, often use drivers for "outcall" appointments...it is a security measure as much as anything else, and the type of car/driver would depend on the price point a women marketed herself at...) I hope you take my comments in the spirit they are intended, and thank you for allowing me to join in this discussion.

    All my best,


  16. Brooke Magnanti must have another agenda when she was hooking besides funding her post-graduate studies. When I was studying for my PhD and was strapped for cash I worked as a teaching assistant, waitress and barmaid in the evenings to earn some cash. The idea that poor students need to supplement their fellowships and funding with some extra curricular prostitution is nonsense, although one of my girlfriends used to lap dance and strip in clubs partly for tips and money but mostly because she liked getting naked in front of men and turning them on without having to actually having to touch them.

  17. Redhot Megan:

    There has not been enough studies done regarding the experience of sex workers, in part, due to the clandestine nature of the business.

    I beg to differ (though maybe the books I'm aware of, such as Sex Work by Delacoste and Newman, are about the US experience). If anything, some books rely on first-person testimony to stop the 'gatekeeping' tendency of some feminist activists/researchers. If you really want to witness a gap in research, it's about clients, not sex workers.


  18. I usually agree with your articles, Penny, but I think you're way off on this one. Tanya's article criticised not Brooke but the glamourisation (yes, I know) of prostitution.

    And given that she's writing for an audience that just looooves the 'happy hooker' myth and is rabidly against, say, the new sex trafficking laws, I think she hit exactly the right note.

  19. According to the statistics Gold has chosen to use, with prostitution illegal, "The report found that 70%–95% of the interviewees were physically assaulted while working as prostitutes."

    With it legalised, "In the Netherlands, 60% of prostituted women have reported physical assaults; 70% have reported verbal threats of physical assault and 40% have experienced sexual violence."

    Whilst both sets of statistics paint an exceedingly unpleasant picture, surely Gold concedes that 60% is lower than 70%-95%.

  20. Penny, just to be clear, are you saying you don't trust any statistical evidence on this isssue? Or any academic research? Because that leads us with only anecdotal data, which is not a sound basis for policy.

    If you do trust some statistical/academic evidence, can you say what are your criteria for deciding to do so?

    However, if your preference is for anecdote, like Megan (and many sex worker commentators on Gold's article) I can assure you that your statement that few sex workers share BdJs "options, education, support, health, security and financial backing"is incorrect in my experience.

    I have met many people who select sex work as their main or secondary income - in one brothel I worked in I think I was the only person not doing a PhD; BdJ's support network is extremely limited by the secrecy she adopts to protect herself from the kind of stigmatisation and judgement we're seeing widely over the media and the internet; STI transmissions are lower in sex workers than in "amateurs" (clinical data, backed up by my own experience); her need for security (repeatedly referred to in the books) is why she, and many others, work for escort agencies, all of which are criminalised businesses; and she entered sex work due to poverty - again, financial motivations have been strong for most of the people I meet at work in order for them to consider such a stigmatised occupation.

    You say it's unhelpful to pick one way of seeing sex workers, but that's what you've done in your generalisations about Dr Magnanti.

    The reality of the sex industry is very diverse. Policies that solve problems will be based in reality.

    PS Happy to discuss source of Gold's statistics if you wish.

  21. @ Catherine Stephens, I found your post very interesting. I was sort of shocked by the figures Gold cites regarding attacks on prostitutes in the Netherlands, the likelihood of being attacked seeming to be higher than I would have expected. I wonder if you could shed any light on this.

  22. @Vanilla Rose
    I'm offline till Monday morning at the earliest, and would need to do some research to find comprehensive data for violence in the Netherlands, but will try to post a brief response on Farley's study early next week.

  23. @ Catherine Stephens, I will look out for it.


Comments are open on this blog, but I reserve the right to delete any abusive or off-topic threads.