Saturday, April 9, 2011

Belle de Jour Discusses Sex Education/Educators

If you have not been following HUGE blog news recently, you might not know that Belle de Jour has launched a wonderful new blog under her real name, instead of her famous pen name.

After almost a year hiatus, Dr. Brooke L. Magnanti, 35, the woman behind the famous erotic British author and award-winning blogger, launched Sexonomics last week.

But, this new blog proudly proclaims her name and is adorned with a beautiful photograph of Brooke, who writes:

"Hi! My name is Brooke Magnanti, but you may know me better as the author of theBelle de Jour blog and books. This is where I write about social & political stuff, mostly relating to sex. Yes, there's going to be a book.

As an ex-sex worker, you can imagine what my bias is. Nevertheless, I am also a scientist, so will do my best to present the evidence base for each post.

I love discussion but don't have the time to moderate comments. By all means, feel free to discuss on Twitter or your own blog!

Speaking of which, I'm on Twitter — you can follow me here."

Brooke is beyond bright, articulate and educated, she's a writer with an important voice about many topics that happen to include sex work and sex workers.

In 2009, Brooke revealed her identity after a newspaper was about to disclose it without her permission. Brooke, formerly of Bristol, England, was a noted scientist whose specialist areas were developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and had worked at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health as part of a team that researched the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a high-class call girl for a London escort service. She has written an award-winning blog and several bestselling books based on her experiences as a sex worker. Her writing also formed the basis of the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl on Showtime, starring Billie Piper in the title role of "Belle."

As any fan of Brooke's knows, she'd been dating then living with a man referred to only as "T" in her books and blog — because he first began leaving his toothbrush in her flat, then gradually the rest of his belongings. While Brooke has not publicly named him, they have will have been married a year this month.

Recently, she and her husband moved to Scotland, after Brooke decided to take the hiatus from penning new entries for her award-winning blog (Where she says simply, "Belle de Jour is the pen name of Brooke Magnanti, a UK-based writer and science researcher. Interests: whiskey, taphonomy, PGP encryption), in favor of concentrating on writing the new book, a variety of articles, and now as it turns out — her wonderful new blog.

She also decided to leave the field of science behind because of the funding crunch in the U.K. for research projects. She has said that since she has other means of support — name her incredible writing — she didn't want to take a science slot from a researcher who does not.

Since the debut of Sexonomics, it has already generated some lively commentary. As a loyal fan of everything that Brooke writes, I am re-posting her latest blog entry that was posted yesterday. Please read it in its entirety below, or directly at her new blog site:


Preaching to the Converted

"When ancient cultures looked at the night sky they saw groups of stars, just the way we do today. They drew imaginary lines between the stars to make pictures and tell stories. The pictures were constellations.

One of the most easily recognisable constellations is Ursa Major (you probably call it the Big Dipper, or the Plough). From Earth the stars seem inextricably linked and for most of history we have had no way of telling otherwise. But we now know that they’re not close to each other at all. Some of the stars in the Plough are 78 light years away from us; others over 120. It’s the particular angle we see them at that makes them look close to each other. If you were living on a planet orbiting some other star, the Plough wouldn’t look the same because you would see the stars from a different direction. And constellations change over time. The last two stars on the handle of the Plough are moving quickly; in 50,000 years it will look completely different from how we know it today. Even here on Earth.

Making constellations from unrelated information happens a lot. But just because things seem to be connected to each other doesn’t mean they are. Humans are hard-wired to find patterns and seek explanations, but sometimes, this tendency can lead to the wrong pictures being drawn.

When it comes to the subject of sex, the habit of making constellations is so pervasive that we take it for granted. Myths, assumptions, and preconceptions take hold even when there is rational evidence to the contrary.

Recently, inspired by a post by Jane Fae on Freedom in a Puritan Age, I contributed a bookending piece. By and large, I agree with Jane's assessment (and Dr Petra's prediction) that the mainstream discussion of sex is getting narrower and more judgmental. I don't like the way in which people invoke pornography, child sexualisation, trafficking, and other issues in the same breath as if they are the same things. I especially don't like when MPs and government do it. But they're responding to a perceived issue that some poll somewhere tells them is important. The problem, as I see it, is how to reach out to people whose views are being influenced by a heavily biased media, and other sources all to happy to join up a constellation and call it the truth.

The title of my piece on FIPA is slightly misleading... while I do believe the 'anti-sex lobby' is irrational, I also think the majority of people worried about these topics are anything but. I can sympathise.

Plenty of people have opinions about these issues, and why not? After all, sex is virtually a human universal. It’s something most of us can claim, if not expertise, at least an enthusiastic amateur interest.

Which is fine, when it comes to something for which we have (ahem) hands-on experience. But once reality diverges from what we know first hand, all kinds of strange rumours can take hold. And once a rumour starts to spread, it’s often hard to stop.

From the first rumours in the school yard, to the first fumblings in the dark, has there ever been a topic more talked about, thought about, argued about? We begin by learning about sex and sexuality from the things we tell each other, and later, learning from our own experiences.

As we get older and gain more insight, our gaze widens: from When will I have sex? What will it be like? How are other people doing it? to broader questions of sexual orientation, relationships, and gender issues. We’re fascinated with the periphery of sex as well as the nuts and bolts of it – prostitution, porn, and sex crimes, just to name a few. Stories about these topics are guaranteed to get news coverage, magazine features, and column inches in the papers. Memoirs, exposes, and kiss-and-tells fly off the shelves. We get our expertise however we can.

But the less direct experience we have, the more we turn back to gathering information the old-fashioned way. The schoolyard way.

Sex, sexuality, and sex work minutiae — for people outside the loop — can be confusing. It's difficult to get and process information about things most of us are never directly involved with. We've a sense all of this stuff is important, but neither the time nor the energy to peruse the scholarly literature, discuss the issues in depth, and get involved. (See also: the problem with science journalism.)

For example, it was once easy for people to believe secondhand stories and rumours about homosexuality, because most people didn’t know anyone who was out. As homosexuality has become more open and more visible, and therefore more people know that they know gay people, the malicious rumours and hatred have finally begun to wane. According to polls by the Washington Postand ABC News, the percentage of people supporting equal marriage rights for gay couples has risen in direct proportion with the visibility of gay people.

But they and other groups who are not widely accepted deal with the brunt of the rumour mill’s damage. Sex workers are another such group. Because a lot of people don’t think they know anyone in sex work, the assumptions and stereotypes hold a lot of sway over opinions in that area. After all, without firsthand experience, who’s to say otherwise? Especially when there are many reasons why sex workers stay "in the closet". What is clear is that we need some way of telling what is real from what is myth.

Also, it's clear that there is a certain amount of (for lack of a better word) circle-jerking in some corners of the internet. I use the term 'the converted' advisedly — some of the harshest, and most underhanded, critics can be people whose point of view is indistinguishable from yours to outsiders. There's a danger in addressing every niggling internecine concern that alienates the mainstream and diverts energy from getting most of the message to most of the people most of the time.

Take for instance the previous entry, which mentions research by (among others) J Michael Bailey. Certain aspects of his methods have come under criticism — though not particularly the studies I mentioned. However, it was as if the word Bailey was a red rag to particular people. Simply by mentioning the relevant findings by a person they hated, I woke up to a Twitter and email storm. That's a pity, because the more I read of Bailey's work in the past year, the more I found that while his critics had a point, there was a lot I agreed with. I could ignore the stuff I agree with. That would probably keep the circle-jerk happy. But it does nothing to advance what this blog is trying to say to a wider audience... those for whom the idea of scientific investigation of human desire may be a new and interesting idea.

Long story short (too late!), I may have lost a few people over daring to mention Bailey, but worrying about breaking a few eggs on the way to an omelette? Never been something that keeps me up at night.

The way I see it, if you're liking and linking to this blog, then you probably are already one of the people who more-or-less sees things the way I do. And if so, I love you for it. Without the research and commentary generated by the sex-positive community, I would have almost nothing to write about. But we spend a lot of time either talking to each other, or arguing with the entrenched opposite. There's a giant group of people in the middle, getting skewed and outdated information because not so many of us are appealing to them. With acceptance such a big issue for so many of us, maybe that's where we should be targeting effort... rather than losing energy on the few whose minds, frankly, will never be changed.

Blogs by sex and relationship educators do a pretty decent job of attempting to bridge this gap. And there are some academics, such as Laura Agustin, who blog about their research and writing. These sorts of things are a vital link between the people who have information, and the many who want it. But there are vastly more people with expertise in these topics who operate entirely within the academic context or only have the time and energy to focus on their jobs. And while informative blogs and sites by current and ex sex workers are popular, there is still the assumption that these people are for some reason the "exception" rather than the "rule". Effective public outreach by the sex-positive (or even just hype-skeptical) community still struggles to get off the ground.

What are ways we can open the discussion, inform and involve the undecided middle? Ideas on the back of a postcard to the usual place, please."

Posted by Belle de Jour 04:57

If you have any interest in thoughtful discussions about sex-related and scientific topics, I urge you to follow Brooke's blog. She is a unique woman, and an equally unique writer who should NOT be missed. It would be a genuine mistake to reject her blog simply because she mentioned some relevant facts from a man who is very unpopular in some circles. [Note: To read one of the counterpoints, see QuietRiotGirl's comments.]

I would be remiss to discuss Brooke and not to mention her wonderful books, which include: Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, 2009; Belle’s Best Bits, 2009; 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.

Each one is well-worth reading and re–reading, you can trust me! You can find all of her books at the U.K.’s largest independent bookseller, Waterstones.

Also check out Brooke's op-ed articles on a variety of topics including reforming libel law in Britain, and well as the importance of ensuring the rights of sex workers.

Thank you Brooke, for giving us all something well-worth reading again! Long may you reign, m'dear!

— The Curator


  1. Thanks for linking to my blog. The URLs for the two posts responding to Brooke's posts are:

    The research she refers to really should be put in the context of the extensive critiques of it that have been made since. Bailey's paper is nearly a decade old and so writing about it as if it is a new discovery is a bit odd.

    But the real problem is one of 'epistemology'. How do we know what we know about sex/uality? My view is we can't find out much about our sexualities by hooking ourselves and each other up to plesmographs.

    Incidentally this technology has been used in Europe to test if gay asylum seekers escaping homophobic regimes are 'genuine'. If they don't get a hard-on to gay porno they don't get asylum. This is one of many many reasons I don't like this kind of research!!

  2. When Brooke asked this on her post:

    'What are ways we can open the discussion, inform and involve the undecided middle? Ideas on the back of a postcard to the usual place, please.'

    I felt quite despondent. Because she does not allow comments on her blog, and has blocked me and one other person who criticised Bailey's research, on twitter. So I don't know how she expects to engage with people who are knowledgeable about sex/sex ed/sex research, let alone the 'undecided middle'.

    Answers on the back of a postcard please...

  3. IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS: Brooke has literally thousands of followers so she generally does not even see blogs that have picked up her posts, like this one.

    As a result, she has no way to respond directly to these critical remarks, thus I believe that it was unfair to post them, beyond the links that Brooke has already addressed.

    Therefore, I urge you to refer directly to Brooke's new blog, Sexonmics at, which is also linked in this report, as well as topping this blog-roll.

    It is important to read her posts to fully understand and appreciate Brooke's important views on this issue. I appologize for any confusion that may have arisen over this.