Thursday, December 17, 2009

THE Mistress and Belle de Jour — Perfect Together

Finally, a wonderful interview of the fabulous Belle de Jour by a woman who is a legendary sex worker in her own right: The Mistress Matisse!

For those of you who are unfamiliar Belle de Jour, that had been the nom de plume of a celebrated British erotic author, and award-winning blogger, who was also a London call girl for two years.

On Nov. 15, Belle revealed her true identity, she is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a noted scientist. She disclosed her identity through a voluntary interview with the London Sunday Times. Brooke’s specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and is now working at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. She is currently part of a team researching the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a prostitute via a London escort agency; she started blogging as Belle de Jour — after the Buñuel film starring Catherine Deneuve as a well-to-do housewife who has sex for money because she’s bored — shortly into her career as a call girl, after an incident she thought funny enough to write down.

She charged £300 an hour for her services, of which she got £200. The average appointment lasted two hours; she saw clients two or three times a week, “sometimes less, sometimes a great deal more,” she has said.

As Belle de Jour, Brooke, who lives in Bristol, England, has written four books in addition to her blog about her work in the sex industry.

As a US fan since her first blog post hit the internet in 2003, I had never fully understood how devotedly the UK media had gone to unmask Belle. Nor was I truly cognizant of the amazing number of theories about her even existing. Apparently, the most popular was that Belle was a construct, a fake, a non-person created by a famous male writer or journalist! How utterly insulting and deeply chauvinistic.

To me, the truth is quite simple: Brooke continues to break every mold, and challenge tired and offensive stereotypes, while having a wonderfully sex-filled time of it all! As a reader, it never occurred to me that Brooke was anything other than she purported to be. Her writing is real, and her literary voice completely authentic and utterly unique. I still check her blog every day. I’ve never missed a post, not because she’s famous or controversial, but because she’s a lyrical, important writer who’s had a deep impact on my life.

Since Brooke’s big reveal and because I remain a deeply avid fan, I have devoted space to any and all news articles, features, or columns related to her. Thus, I have carefully sifted through the media deluge on both sides of the Pond and have found some that were mildly interesting, some insulting, and most poorly written. A very, very few have been exceptional. I am proud to post one of the best of the bunch now, written by Mistress Matisse, of whom I am also a huge fan.

Mistress Matisse has been active in the BDSM community for more 18 years. Mistress is a professional dominatrix, wonderful blogger, and columnist for the Seattle-based alternative newspaper, The Stranger. Her bi-weekly columns, entitled The Control Tower, offer sexually-related advice about polyamory, kink, sex work, and the BDSM culture at large.

If you would like to read her column about Belle at the newspaper site, I have included the link. I also whole-heartedly recommend her great blog.

The following is the Mistress’ column in its entirety, unedited.

The Stranger
Control Tower
Seattle, WA

by Mistress Matisse

“The best-kept secret of the sex-blogger world was revealed recently when the long-anonymous author of the blog/book-turned-TV-show Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl revealed herself as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist in child health at Bristol University. I asked Magnanti how she feels about being out as Belle.

Sometimes people change their behavior toward me when they find out I'm "Mistress Matisse." Are your social acquaintances treating you any differently?

People in my life are treating me exactly the same. This may be because I've never made any secret of being sex-positive. If I were still working [as an escort], it might be different, but everyone seems to take it as just another one of those crazy stories about me, like the time I kept sneaking out of a friend's birthday to have sex in the loo.

I talk to women who say, "I'd like to be an escort, but no one can ever find out!" I say, "If your world would end if people found out, then don't do it." You kept your secret for a long time. Any strategies for that?

Legally, I protected my anonymity as a writer by setting up a shell corporation that took all the payments for my work. I was undone not by legalities, but because I told the wrong person—my ex. Bottom line, if you don't want anyone to find out, don't tell anyone. That's an unlikely situation for most people. I would go with the same advice: Don't do it if coming out would destroy you.

Many women who keep their sex-work careers secret find that stressful. Did you pay a price, emotionally, to keep your friends from knowing?

It would have been far easier to be out as a sex worker. As a well-known writer and sex worker? I don't know. My friends seem prepared to handle the odd twists and turns in life, but the reaction from the press has been so stereotypical, so reductive. They are always looking for the pat, easy "explanation." Their agenda seems to be writing off any woman who has sex.

Has anyone recognized you on the street?

I was paranoid that people kept looking at me, but it seems [they were only looking at] this new red hat. Not saying it won't happen, but you have to look at a face in 2-D pretty often before you recognize it. Friends of mine read the entire Times article and didn't recognize it was me.

Now that you're out, are you enjoying the freedom to make jokes or casual references to your former career?

Love the jokes. It helps defuse the tension when I'm in a group, too; people seem to be afraid to take the piss now that I'm slightly famous. Kissing of ass and preserving of ego is not to be encouraged, ever.”

Thankfully, Mistress also dedicated her current blog to writing the remainder of questions she’d asked Brooke, but was unable to include in The Stranger column because of space considerations. Here is her blog, in its entirety. Enjoy!

"In Which I Sort Of Go All Fangirl

The lovely and talented Belle de Jour was good enough to grant me an interview recently, in the wake of her coming out as (gasp) a intelligent, emotionally balanced woman who did sex work for a while, had nothing particularly terrible happen, moved on with her life, and has no regrets about having done it.

Apparently that's a really shocking concept for a lot of people in the media. (Or at least, they pretend it is.) And a lot of them have tried to shake her from that position. But I saw a clip of Belle on TV not long ago, and I was thrilled because she was perfectly poised and composed, and she just seemed so blessedly normal.

I mean normal in the most flattering sense. Anytime I see a sex worker on a talk-show, I pretty much expect her to come off looking like a train wreck. Because that's the kind of person talk-show producers want to have on their shows, and most of the time, that's who they get. Particularly when the topic has anything to do with sex that's the slightest bit non-traditional.

And if you aren't a train wreck when you walk onto the stage, you'll probably be one by the time you walk off. I have known sexual outlaws who were able to hold their own with aggressive media people – Allena Gabosch comes to mind, and Veronica Monet - but most of us aren't trained for that, and so we get flustered and look stupid.

But when I watched Belle, she just seemed – sane. Calm. Rational, even. Just... normal! I was immensely pleased – and absurdly proud of her, even though I didn't have a thing to do with it.

Okay, so, enough fangirling.

However, since my column space at The Stranger is strictly limited to not-quite 500 words, I never have enough space to talk about everything I really want to. Here's the questions and answers I couldn't make fit in the Stranger piece.

Thanks again, Belle!


Mistress Matisse: There’s this habit I’ve seen in a lot of women in sex work that I call thinking in “Sex Worker Units.” Whatever one earns per hour, one forms the habit of translating dollars into time and making spending choices accordingly. A woman who thinks in Sex Worker Units will look at the price tag on, say, a dress, and think, “$900? Hmm, that would only take me 3 hours to earn.”

I find it generally skews towards being freer with money – three hours doesn't really sound like very much, really. It's easier to justify dropping cash on this or that.

The other way of saying this, that I used to hear a lot among dancers in particular, was "I'll make it back." As in, "I spent X dollars at the mall today, but it's okay, I'll make it back tonight." As if one had temporarily mislaid the money, but would soon find it again.

For good or for bad, these ways of thinking about money seems to be a hard habit for women who leave the sex industry to break. Belle, do you still catch yourself thinking in Sex Worker Units about money? (If you ever did. I suppose not everyone does.)

Belle de Jour: You know, I don't. But the main difference between you and me is that sex work was like an agreeable summer job for me, whereas it's your real vocation and talent. I tend to think in "scientist units." (As in, if I get that research grant, I can squeeze that extra conference in Rome this year...)

Mistress Matisse: What is the question that no interviewer has yet asked you, that you wish they would? (And what’s the answer?)

Belle de Jour: I wish they'd ask what I think of funding in research and academia. Not everyone in my situation would have chosen this (sex work), but plenty do. It's a crime when the slightly dim are running the banks into the ground and the truly clever are fighting over a pittance. People think once you're in science you have a job for life - I know people who sell shoes and make more than me, and I have to fight for my position every year. And we wonder why no one takes climate change science et al. seriously - it's because scientists are so little valued."

Told you it was a wonderful interview! Cheers to the Mistress, and as always, to Brooke! May these two important women write forever.

Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, published by Orion Books, hit store shelves in the United Kingdom on Oct. 1. Not yet available in the US, it is widely available across the pond at UK bookstores, or via Amazon’s UK division.

When you’re there, be sure and check out Belle’s other books: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, September 2005; The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl, May 2007; and Playing the Game, June 2009. Not a ringer in the bunch – trust me!

— The Curator

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