Belle de Jour – one year on

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It’s a year since the Sunday Times broke the news to a nonplussed nation that sex blogger Belle de Jour was actually the clinical research scientist, Dr Brooke Magnanti. In an article for the broadsheet’s News Review section yesterday, Magnanti reflected on life since she was forced to claim the Queen of Escorts crown. Much of it she regaled in more detail ‘in conversation’ with India Knight at the Oxford literary festival last Sunday. Surprisingly, considering the amount of coverage she has had since she was outed, it was the first time Magnanti has spoken in public about her experiences of working as a high-end escort as she struggled to fund the final term of a PhD.

In characteristic jugular-busting style, India Knight bored straight in and asked: after giving that crucial record-straightening interview a year ago, in which Magnanti said she just wanted to get on with her life, why was she speaking again about her travails as Belle? After all, it’s not as though she’s become a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, or appeared on Newsnight, lobbying for the decriminalisation of the sex trade since her démaquillage-ing. So what is the real reason for her still slipping intimacies about what kind of man makes a bad client (hirsute is no problem, apparently, but there’s an optimum length of beard when it comes to sensitive areas)? Well, it doesn’t take a clinical research scientist to conclude that money may be the answer. It may be vulgar and cynical to suggest it, but with a further book of exploits, Belle’s Best Bits, out now, another series of Secret Diary of a Call Girl commissioned, plus further blog-based books and even a novel in the pipeline, Ms Magnanti’s three-hundred-a-pop escort rate has had a return that has far outstripped anything she could have envisaged when she first crossed the threshold of that escort agency back in 2003.

Fiscal ambition or otherwise, Brooke’s self-revelation was perhaps the most positive PR coup for sex work since Samuel Pepys referred to a certain prostitute, actress and Mistress of Charles II as ‘pretty, witty Nell’. Aside from the revenue, and give or take a few death threats from the more perverse progeny of the Mary Whitehouse school of moralism, the media have embraced this genial, intelligent and attractive woman. Even the Mail journalist I chatted to in the book-signing queue afterwards pronounced her, “just so charming!” And although Magnanti is now an established cancer epidemiologist, clear to make the point that she would never return to escorting, what harm her revelling in her ubiquity, when it is by and large, so genially framed?

During her ‘chat’ with Knight, Magnanti made it clear that she would never posit herself as a sex-working role model, and said that she has never received a letter or email, saying ‘thanks to you I’m now a prostitute’. Not that she could admit it, even if she had, of course, unless she wanted to engineer her own fall from media grace). But by revealing herself to be a savvy, serious-minded young woman taking a pragmatic approach to financial hardship at a crucial point in her studies, she inadvertently proved to be the exception to the desperate escort rule, subverting so many of the stereotypes surrounding sex work. She got in, got the money, got out, and carried on with the rest of her life. Until an seemingly vindictive ex turned up.

Crucially, Magnanti has always made the point that her blog never aimed to be representative of the majority of women’s experiences of the sex industry. Instead, what she has demonstrated is that a woman that has worked in the sex industry could be more than just the sum of her body parts. If women employed in the sex industry are ever to be given the humane respect afforded any other working citizen, then it is important that we demonstrate the women doing it can be all kinds of other things too: doctors, nurses, educators, legislators, artists, charity workers. They can be care-givers. They can volunteer in their communities. They can have relationships, hobbies and multi-variegated personalities. All of which challenge the prevailing reductionism, which currently compounds a sex worker’s status as sex object, endlessly titillated by the fact of her profession and unable to see her as anything more than a living doll heap of loose limbs and amenable orifices.

Of course, in Magnanti’s case, the ultimate proof she had managed to transcend her call girl alter ego, would be if she stopped resurrecting her. But she doesn’t because there are thousands of pounds to be made in the Lazarine parading of Belle. And if she could sell her body comfortably in the first place, why not continue to sell her story now? Besides, if she can be known as both a prostitute and a scientist in one lifetime, Magnanti will have done more to challenge attitudes from Wolverhampton to Whitehall, than anything either a government lobbyist or Billie Piper could achieve.

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