Pick any political debate or news article about prostitution, and there’s a high probability there’ll be a quote along the lines of “It’s a far cry from Pretty Woman.” As if that’s going to come as a surprise. As if everyone doesn’t already bloody know that.
The pseudonymous blog, Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, paved the way to three books (and another on the way), a column in the Sunday Telegraph, and a TV series starring Billie Piper. On 15 November 2009, Belle de Jour’s identity was finally revealed as Dr Brooke Magnanti, now a research scientist at Bristol University, who worked as an escort while studying for her PhD.
Ever since Secret Diary of a Call Girl hit the screen, Belle’s been the new Pretty Woman for clueless politicians and lazy journalists, but this is experiencing a revival now that she’s come out. In an interview with India Knight, Magnanti comes across as smart and thoughtful. Having previously believed that Belle de Jour was all a hoax, Knight is now generally sympathetic towards her, yet frequently reveals her own preconceptions about sex workers despite the fact that Magnanti has been writing about her own life since 2003. “I scrutinize her face without quite knowing what I’m looking for — dead eyes, maybe, like in a movie, or something a bit grim and hard around the mouth.” Knight asks Magnanti what she will tell her future children about her previous occupation, and she says, “There’s nothing I can do apart from trying to be honest. I can’t not ever have children because there was a brief period in my life when I had sex for money.” Good answer, but it’s telling that Knight felt the need to ask a question like that.
In case anyone still likes to think that the very existence of escorts like Belle de Jour serves to glamorise prostitution, she’s clear that a) it’s not the best thing in the world ever, and b) it’s not for everyone: “I didn’t think I’d be doing myself harm, no. I didn’t go into it cheerfully, but I wasn’t resigned and broken either. If anyone’s ever thinking about prostitution and they have that doubt about harming themselves, they shouldn’t go into it. You need a pretty good gut feeling that this isn’t going to screw up the way you think about yourself, because that’s not worth it.”
Seems pretty sensible, no? Nothing she says here looks like a newsflash to me, but there are an awful lot of people who still refuse to listen and instead make up for themselves what sex workers are saying and thinking. Let’s check out the Mail on Sunday reaction:
According to Dr Brooke Magnanti, who as Belle de Jour wrote The Intimate Adventures Of A London Call Girl, nothing could be nicer than supplementing your meagre postgraduate income with a bit of flexible high-class whoring.
What a silly cow.
Back to the India Knight interview: Magnanti makes it clear that she’s aware of the big picture – and why wouldn’t she be?
“Look, of course trafficking occurs. It’s awful. Awful. Desperate. But you don’t have a go at prostitutes — you have a go at border controls. You do something on the policing front. I thought [Archbishop of York John Sentamu's] remarks were so reductive and also slightly patriarchal, and I was upset at being used as a counter-argument — ‘Belle de Jour says this, but she is of course fake.’
“The thing is that people are complex. People lead complicated lives. I’m not the only person walking around who’s an ex-call-girl, believe me. And you can’t say I’m not real, and that my experience isn’t real, because here I am.”
I worked at a project for sex workers in Edinburgh for six and a half years. I didn’t focus on just one area of the industry: I spent two nights a week with women working the streets, one or two days a week visiting flats, saunas and massage parlours around the city, and whatever remaining time I had on internet outreach with escorts across Scotland and beyond. I’ve read Belle de Jour’s blog only a handful of times. I didn’t find it massively interesting, and I didn’t see the TV show. I was never in any doubt, however, that she was a real person, and it’s always been mind-numbingly tedious to sit through pontifications from people who are outraged that an empowered sex worker could stick her head above the parapet.
The abolitionist agenda seems to be to propagate the myth that all sex work is 100% awful, all of the time; rather than lobbying to address actual abuses within the industry, they’ve prioritized the Sisyphean task of getting rid of the whole damn thing. This is especially convenient when the laws that they have campaigned for put sex workers in greater danger: any rise in violence, or, god forbid, murders, can be blamed on the inherent risks of the job and be recycled as further evidence that the sex industry as a whole needs to be eradicated.
So when somebody like Belle de Jour shows up, an astonishing amount of energy seems to get spent on rushing to remind the general public that she is not representative of prostitution. Because after all, the only acceptable representations of prostitution are of the drug-using street-based sex worker – who accounts for around 10% of Edinburgh’s sex industry (and I’d expect percentages to be similar in most other UK cities), or the victim of trafficking, whose numbers have been ludicrously inflated. This latter point is compounded by strategic redefinitions of prostitution and trafficking by some politicians and campaigners:
Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister, in January 2008 [told] the House of Commons that she regarded all women prostitutes as the victims of trafficking, since their route into sex work “almost always involves coercion, enforced addiction to drugs and violence from their pimps or traffickers.” There is no known research into UK prostitution which supports this claim.
In November 2008, Mactaggart repeated a version of the same claim when she told BBC Radio 4′s Today in Parliament that “something like 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp, or their trafficker.” Again, there is no known source for this.
Still, why bother thinking about inconvenient little things like reality when you’ve got an agenda to push? Instead, let’s turn to Tanya Gold’s Guardian piece. The title, in full:
Dr Brooke Magnanti says she enjoyed her life as Belle de Jour
Please don’t let this distort the grim reality of prostitution
This bit alone is so headdesky it’s already clearly a lost cause. It doesn’t get any better from here, as Gold goes on to lament the “sanitisation of prostitution”. Prostitution is, she claims, “simply put, a condition that kills women.” No, it isn’t. Prostitution is, simply put, the exchange of sex for money, and that’s what Magnanti was doing. She is perfectly entitled to talk about her experience, and it’s tiresomely predictable that Gold’s take, in painting her as a “glamorised outreach worker for prostitution”, when Magnanti has never presented herself as any such thing, isn’t a million miles away from the Daily Mail attitude.
What follows is a link to a report conducted by Melissa Farley (whose research has been routinely called into question) and a bunch of selective statistics. For example, “according to a 1985 report, [...] 89% wanted to get out [of the sex industry].” Which report was this? What sector did they work in? What were their needs? How does this tie in with Belle de Jour 24 years later?
The most worthwhile bit of this article, to my mind, is one of the comments:
I don’t recall Dr Magnanti or Belle de Jour for that matter ever claiming for a minute to be typical of anything… but newspapers and websites need content, I suppose. Next week – why it’s important to remember not to drive like those blokes off Top Gear when on the motorway.
Exactly. ‘This Thing’ In ‘Not Like That Thing’ Shocker.
Here’s a really radical idea: if your focus is trafficking, you talk about trafficking. If your focus is drug dependency, you talk about drug dependency. If your focus is working on the streets, you talk about working on the streets. And if you want to talk about sex work in general, you don’t throw a strop and remind everybody every five minutes that a former sex worker’s experience wasn’t ‘real’ enough. Because you should be mature enough to accept that the sex industry is diverse, and although you may care deeply about trafficking victims and drug users and street-based sex workers – and I’m glad you do – they’re no more representative than she is.
Nobody is representative. Figuring that out shouldn’t be rocket science.
Illustration by Laurenn McCubbin