Belle de Jour writer Brooke Magnanti. Photo by REX Features
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Brooke Magnanti's The Sex Myth review: How Belle de Jour got her figures wrong

Brooke Magnanti's skewering of others' bad stats is excellent. It's a shame she isn't blameless herself.

Brooke Magnanti is one of our best-known female scientists – albeit not for her research. Accounts of her time as a high-end sex worker, published under the nom de plume Belle de Jour, were made into a glossy TV series fronted by Billie Piper. Her new book, The Sex Myth, attempts to join her two lines of work, cutting a useful, Ben Goldacre-ish furrow into areas where sexuality meets public policy.

Magnanti pulls apart the canards in the government’s review into the “sexualisation of childhood”, led by the Mothers’ Union president, Reg Bailey. She zaps away a widely cited claim that lap-dancing clubs in Camden led to a 50 per cent rise in rape. At her hands, zombie statistics get a brutal comeuppance. A chapter on the wild exaggeration of sex trafficking builds on work by the Guardian’s Nick Davies.
 
These are all fascinating but the book does not quite hang together. This is principally because, as well as a dissection of bad social science, it is a pro-prostitution-and-porn polemic. Even if you are sympathetic to her arguments about the weak evidence for the harm they do – and I am – melding these two approaches makes for one unsatisfactory encounter.
 
First, because she introduces an irritating Aunt Sally: the feminists. Magnanti cheerfully generalises about them in exactly the way she claims they do about sex workers. The feminists hate porn. The feminists hate prostitution. The missing word is “some”. (Incidentally, Magnanti refuses to talk to me, citing an online argument I can neither find nor remember.)
 
Her lack of nuance in engaging with critics and unwillingness to see her own viewpoint as anything other than objective are weaknesses. She is upset that the Secret Diary of a Call Girl TV series was “accused of glamourising sex work”. Her distress is baffling: it’s bleedin’ obvious that it did. It was a glossy star vehicle.
 
The most important flaw, however, is that Magnanti is not as careful in deploying research to advance her arguments as she is in debunking the statistical sleight of hand of others – particularly on prostitution. The Magnanti who debunks Bailey would sneeringly gut the Brooke who writes about sex workers.
 
Take the centrepiece of her argument on prostitution: a pair of studies of sex workers, the first by Suzanne Jenkins of Keele University and the second by Eaves, a charity, and London South Bank University. The second study was the more negative of the two about the effects of sex work on prostitutes, finding physical, mental or sexual health problems in lots of cases. Magnanti criticises this because “the sample they’ve recruited is not representative of UK sex workers overall”. It focuses too heavily on streetwalkers, a minority who have “more chaotic” lives.
 
“As a former statistician dealing with population-based data,” she says, “I know that one of the most important criteria for an acceptable study is to make sure the sampled population reflects the status of the population as a whole. If this is not done, the results are not reliable.” 
 
The Keele research, on the other hand, is commended for “turn[ing] almost everything we know about sex work on its head”: a third of the respondents had degrees, 85 per cent of the women were aged 26 or older and a top answer to “How long do you plan to do escort work for?” was “I have no plans to stop”. Magnanti praises it for using “not simply street-based women, either, but women, men and transgendered sex workers in all areas of the business”.
 
Case closed. Except the word used to describe the sex workers in the Keele study was “escorts”, which usually means those who advertise themselves on the web or with agencies. Not streetwalkers. A look at the original study reveals that Jenkins confined her research “to sex workers who advertise their sexual services via websites as escorts”.
 
The Eaves research may well be skewed in favour of the experiences of streetwalkers. But the Keele study is skewed against them. Neither is representative of the industry as a whole, yet Magnanti mysteriously claims the one that supports her views is.
 
The error rather bulldozes her argument and undermines the book. If you’re going to be a smart arse – and she is, relentlessly – make sure you’re right. Magnanti, although fascinating on the misuse of statistics generally, does seem to have come a cropper when using them to push her own agenda.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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