The "Glamor" Of Prostitution And The Outing Of Belle De Jour

The recent unmasking of prostitute/blogger Belle de Jour has the British press talking about everything from anonymous blogging to what her mom thinks. But what her story really shows is how much prostitutes differ from one another.

Belle de Jour revealed herself as scientist Brooke Magnanti in an interview yesterday with India Knight of the Times of London. She says she took up prostitution as a way to make quick money while finishing her Ph.D, and that she had begun to feel "it was time" to acknowledge that period in her life openly, not just in her anonymous books and blog entries. Knight's piece also references "an ex-boyfriend with a big mouth lurking in the background," but Helen Pidd of the Guardian says the real impetus was a forthcoming exposé in — of course — the Daily Mail. Pidd also writes that some are angry at Magnanti for "glamorising and normalising" prostitution.

Magnanti says she charged £300 an hour (her cut was £200, or about $335), and was "very lucky" never to have had any problems with her clients. But Pidd also quotes Finn Mackay of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, who fires back:

To come out saying, 'It's so wonderful' is a slap in the face to the great majority of women who have had horrendous experiences in the sex industry. I'm glad to hear that she hasn't been burned, beaten, buggered, raped and spat on, but she shouldn't sell down the river those whose experiences are different from hers by glamorising and normalising sex work.

On the other side, public health professor Helen Ward says,

Belle de Jour's case is not the norm, but it's not that unusual either. Policy makers tend to portray sex workers as either drug-addicted young women [...] or as trafficked migrant women who have no control over their lives. But I've been working with sex workers for over 20 years as a researcher and as a doctor, and I know that there is a wide range of people involved in sex work.

This last statement is key. Not all prostitutes are graduate students pulling down hundreds of dollars an hour for safe sexual encounters, nor are they all streetwalkers exchanging blowjobs for drugs. What separates Magnanti from women Mackay mentions may be simply the presence of other options. Magnanti says she chose sex work over waitressing or borrowing from friends and family. She also worked as a computer programmer at one point but found prostitution "so much more enjoyable." Magnanti had both a support system she chose not to utilize and other marketable skills — sex work, for her, was freely chosen as the most attractive of a number of possibilities.

For many prostitutes, that's not the case. The Chicago street prostitutes Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner spoke to for Superfreakonomics often don't have education or monied friends to fall back on, and for them prostitution may be more necessary than "enjoyable." As Levitt and Dubner point out, their experience with sex work is also very different — they make less money than Magnanti, and they face greater risks. Levitt and Dubner don't really address the fact that prostitution is just one of the many areas where being middle class and white gives you a significant leg up. But Magnanti is now in a position to address this.

Now that she's out in the open, Magnanti could point out that her writing doesn't "glamorize" prostitution — it merely reveals that for some women, sex work can have big payoffs and manageable risks. For others, it can be exploitative and dangerous. Women (and men, and children) around the world need protection from forced prostitution, no one should have to view sex work as the only option, and prostitutes living in poverty deserve protections (like legalization of their activities) that might not necessarily be popular with high-end prostitutes who rely on illegality for high prices. The truth is that prostitution as a whole is neither glamorous nor dangerous. Instead, it's as complex as the sexual urges prostitutes satisfy. Magnanti is well-placed to examine its complexities — let's hope she does so.

Belle De Jour Drops Her Anonymity [BBC]
Belle De Jour Revealed At Last: Scientist Who Penned Diary Of A London Call Girl Outs Herself To Foil Daily Mail [Guardian]
Now I'm Not Anonymous... [Belle de Jour]
Sexblogger's Tale: How My Life Changed Forever [Guardian]
I'm Belle De Jour [TimesOnline]
Belle De Jour Says Her Mother Supports Her [Telegraph]