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.
Belle de Jour writer Brooke Magnanti. Photo by REX Features
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.