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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.