Thursday, 23 August 2012

104/111 - The Sex Myth by Dr Brooke Magnanti

Bought this book recently and it has totally blown my mind in a lot of different ways. Really really interesting and loads of stuff to think about.

Dr Brooke Magnanti is the real name of the woman who wrote the 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl' series several years ago, which was subsequently made into a TV show. She was an anonymous blogger who was later 'outed' by a newspaper, and I found out recently that she had written and released another book earlier this year, which is not directly about sex work, however it does talk about it quite a bit.

I have read the 'Secret Diary' books but it's been a few years and I don't remember too much about them (but did enjoy reading them). I remember at the time reading some criticism of the books which claimed that they were harmful because her experiences were not representative of sex workers as a whole and that she was the exception. Most people are obviously very unhappy it sex work etc etc. At the time, I didn't question this viewpoint at all, because it was a viewpoint which was backed up by what I had heard in mainstream media my whole life. Since then, I have learned a lot more and my response to the books now would perhaps be quite different.

One of the things that Brooke points out is that people are usually very closed off and once they have made up their minds about a particular topic, they will usually only listen to evidence which supports their particular point of view. So I decided that I wanted to make a concentrated effort to approach the material with an open mind. I don't know much else about Brooke's life and career, except that she is educated and has a background in science. As it turns out she has an extensive background in research and as a statistician, which is one of the elements I found so fascinating in this book, because it's a subject I know very little about.

The book is divided into a number of chapters which are broadly broken down into different widely-held opinions regarding sex. For example, that the presence of strip clubs increases sexual assault rates, or that pornography makes men more violent towards women. Her theory is that these beliefs that many of us gold are actually based on faulty evidence and are created by various organisations and individuals who have a particular agenda that they want to force on others. Some of these beliefs are ones that I have held, pretty much without question, which is actually a pretty frightening idea, now that I think of it.

One of the best examples she talks about is the myth that sex trafficking is a huge problem, when in actual fact numbers have been inflated by the thousands. The reason that some of these numbers have been inflated so much is due to the fact that various groups have something to gain if the public believe that sex work is a terrible thing, or they have money to make in order to implement policies which fight sex trafficking. I'm not going to re-hash all the evidence here because she puts it much better than I could and if you want toerless it then you should really buy the book. But it's brilliant. Another part which I really liked was her examination of rape statistics after claims that strip clubs had increased sexual assaults in the borough of Camden. Turns out its bullshit!

I would like to think that I am suitably intelligent to know when to question statistics and news stories, however I guess I've been a little naive, which I don't mind admitting. After all, I'm not an expert and it's pretty horrifying to think that someone would make this stuff up with no scientific basis. For example, the huge moral panic regarding the sexualisation of children is pretty much a fabrication. A good example is the scandal of padded bras and thongs for little girls which was taking the nation by storm, in reality, almost no major chain stores were actually carrying this so called 'sexualising' clothing. In another instance, reports showing that pornography is unhealthy and causes violence were actually funded by a right wing Christian lobby group who had also written a report entitled 'virgins make the best Valentines'...

On the whole, it seems like these crises are pretty much entirely fabricated in order to get some sort of shady policy in place, whether it be the criminalisation of prostitution or implementation of abstinence-only education for adolescent girls. In almost every instance the studies quoted were totally unscientific and without merit of any kind. Some of the reports produced which contained interviews did not even bother to survey the group of people they were referring to. When it comes to sex work, there is a lot of time and money invested in promoting the idea that sex work is bad, exploitative, bad for sex workers' health and that they are victims. In studies where sex workers themselves were interviewed it was discovered that enjoyment and high self-esteem were actually on par (or even higher) than the general population.

Those are just a small few of the points I particularly enjoyed, but I guess what made these arguments so compelling was that they were not based on intense emotions and bad science, but that the views I had taken for granted were actually questioned in a way that used proper evidence and science to back it up. Admittedly, I guess there is a potential problem in that it could be argued that as a former sex worker, Brooke herself could be seen to have an agenda of her own. Nevertheless, her arguments were compelling and backed up with evidence, and therefore I feel confident that I have questioned my own opinions in the right way. And certainly in the future I will question much more rigorously where certain evidence comes from, or what the agenda behind it might be.

There were a couple of bits that disappointed me a little bit, one of which was that Brooke has distanced herself from the label of 'feminist'. I find this really sad because the genuinely cruel attacks she has suffered from so-called feminists are pretty appalling, and this is something that I have witnessed myself during some of the reading I have done. A little while ago I was reading some information about how certain groups of feminists are against inclusion of trans-women, or non-biological women who nevertheless consider themselves women. I was horrified by some of the things I read on blogs, which were so full of hatred. That is a part of the movement that I would also prefer to remove myself from. In addition, recently I have been trying to find a local feminist group to join in order to share ideas and fun with like-minded women. The first group I joined began to talk about lobbying against local strip clubs, which really doesn't interest me in the slightest. I also think that she's spot-on in her criticism of feminism to mainly be concerned with the needs of white middle-class women.

I disagreed slightly with her analysis of some recent books I have read, such as Natasha Walter's 'Living Dolls' and Kat Banyard's 'The Equality Illusion' because I enjoyed reading them. When I think about women and sex work, I don't have a problem with it in principle. I think that if you want to do it, then good for you. However one thing that concerns me is that I sometimes feel as though the women who are making these choices are not doing so with self-awareness, which makes me sad. There is a lot of talk about 'choice', like the choice of a woman to get her tits enlarged. It's totally a choice, she can enlarge her tits if she wants to. However it would make me sadder to meet a woman who was doing it out of social pressure to have large breasts, or to have the 'perfect' body, or to please someone else. If women are making these choices with full agency and awareness, that's totally cool. And anyway, who am I to judge?

One last thing with regards to sex trafficking of women from overseas. I think I may have written about this on here before, but during one of the internships I undertook for a publisher, I was asked to proofread a memoir by a woman who claimed to have been trafficked into prostitution and sex slavery from age 12, all the way across Europe until she was eventually kept as a sex slave and then 'saved' by a UK reporter who was doing an undercover investigation of the sex trade. The book was awful. It was supposedly written under a pseudonym because the woman who was now supposedly married and living in France was still in hiding from the men who had trafficked her. It sounded like total horse shit and was a total Cinderella story. The publishers eventually reached the point where they had out quite a lot of work into the manuscript and were starting to get worried that they were being conned. They had not yet met the author as she has kept stalling over and over again, and when they had finally made plans, she mysteriously died the following day. What a coincidence!

I never found out whether it had all been a con, but to my knowledge the book was never published. As far as I could work out, the 'translator' of the book, who worked for a sex trafficking charity, appeared to have made up the entire story, and when different members of the publishing house had been contacting the author and her family, they had in actual fact been contacting the same person behind the curtain. Odd.

Anyway, this has been long and rambling, but I really enjoyed this book, and it has definitely changed my outlook.

Next: not sure yet, haven't read any fiction in a while, so maybe I should do some of that.


  1. I would keep in mind that Magnanti, for all her warnings about "agendas," has a pretty obvious agenda herself. If you've followed her writing in the past, she has regularly Misquoted people, taken research way out of context, and made no attempts to hide that she really just has it out for people who question her. For whatever reason, she really wants sex work to be acceptable (maybe to validate the choices she's made in her life) but the issue is not as simple as "libertines/sex positive vs. Puritan/ sex negative.". Magnanti is very quick to start the shaming and name calling with anyone who criticizes her, and that name calling usually involves calling people who disagree with her "prudes." ) not very sex positive if you ask me. Sex work also has to do with the commodification of women. Magnanti will even agree that it is primarily women's bodies fueling the sex industry. Also not very sex positive. So, please do not be so quick to make Magnanti your voice of truth.

  2. Hi, I think you're absolutely right to question the motivations of the author, and this is something that was in the back of my mind while I was reading the book. The main thing I would like to take from this book is to decide not swallow every viewpoint without question, even when it agrees with an opinion I have previously held. I think in the past I have possibly been quite naive in assuming that everyone has positive intentions when researching in this field, however this is obviously not always the case.

    Just out of interests do you happen to have any links or articles which contradict the material presented in the book? It would be different to see different sides, especially since this particular topic has encouraged me to be more open-minded in my approach.