Belle de Jour writer Brooke Magnanti. Photo by REX Features
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR