A Few Questions for Belle de Jour, Call Girl and Scientist

November 20, 2009, 1:30 pm

In 2003, a young American woman in London studying for her PhD. ran into money trouble. To support herself while writing her thesis, she joined an escort service. Under the assumed name Belle de Jour, she started to blog her experiences. That blog led to a series of successful, jaunty memoirs beginning with 2005’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The books were adapted for television in the U.K. (where she is portrayed by Billie Piper) and later in the U.S. All the while, as Belle de Jour garnered more attention — and criticism, for portraying prostitution as a glamorous career choice — the woman behind Belle de Jour struggled to keep her anonymity. This month, as an ex-boyfriend threatened to blow her cover, Belle approached one of her critics, the London journalist India Knight of the Sunday Times, to reveal her identity. That resulted in an article, published Nov. 15, outing her as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, 34, a neurotoxicologist at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. This week, she agreed to answer a few questions for the Freakonomics blog, about her work as a call girl and as a scientist.

Q. You went to extraordinary lengths to stay anonymous; I understand that even your agent didn’t know your true identity. How did you manage that feat?

A. It turns out he did: I forgot that I had shown him an ID when we first met. He reminded me after the Times piece came out. I really believed Patrick didn’t know and therefore would have been incapable of outing me. In the end it turns out he was simply very trustworthy rather than actually kept in the dark. But for the most part, my accountant handled all the details. He set up the shell corporation which received payment for my writing, which then passed on the money to me as dividend payouts.

Q. On your blog recently, you considered whether men or women have it easier in life, and concluded that “if men had it easy, there wouldn’t be prostitutes.” Care to elaborate?

A. While there are many reasons why men go to prostitutes, I noticed a few trends that had to do with women. The inability to ask a partner for kinky sex, for instance, came up more than once. There were a couple of virgins as well, though that is less common now than it once was. And to some extent, my clients were men who were addicted to success. They knew I, as a call girl, would respond positively to their advances, whereas outside of the transaction a woman like me might not. After all, women are widely perceived as the gatekeepers to sex, so in theory they can have it as often as they like, and men do not get a say in that. It’s not universally true of course, but that is a dominant dynamic.

Q. What’s struck you about the controversy in the press that followed your revealing your identity?

A. There seems to be a lot of chatter in the U.K. papers surrounding me, about how my experience was a matter of class — though of course that isn’t strictly true. It can affect the level of agency one has. I suppose it does take a certain amount of awareness of value for someone, even in dire financial straits, to be able to say “I will have sex for £200, not £30.” That confidence can sometimes be more associated with social class, but I think it’s more to do either with education or self-esteem, which are not necessarily related. In any case, the capability either to believe you deserve to be valued more, or to imagine that, is required wherever it comes to payment. In a way I see it as being similar to the question of who believes they are candidates for university education and who does not, regardless of origin or native intelligence.

Q. How do you respond to critics who say your work sanitizes and normalizes prostitution, luring women into a career that is, in their view, inherently ruinous?

A. It’s a pity they think I’m the only one. If I had not written about the experience, I probably could have got away with never telling anyone, which would have been an attractive option — in fact, the one most women in the same situation make. I particularly like the word “luring.” It comes up a lot; must be the evocative, almost onomatopoetic cadence — it sounds so corrupt and oily. And it makes no sense that I would be luring people into this. Where is the advantage for me for even more people to be working as escorts? Shouldn’t I want all the quality clients to myself? They try to have it both ways: that I am an arch materialist only out for as much as I can get, and at the same time, that I am on a recruitment drive. It makes no sense really.

I have always tried to say on the blog and in interviews that prostitution is not a suitable career choice if you have doubts about your ability to handle it. Many women wrote to me asking advice and I tried to discourage most of them. You usually can tell even from an email who had their mind made up and who hasn’t.

Q. What’s a good predictor of being able to “handle it”?

A. Someone who asks about the specifics of the work, rather than how it feels or how I decided to do it. Someone whose requests show they’ve done research already, i.e. “I like Agency x and Agency y, which do you think would look after their girls better?” as opposed to “do you think I can do this without telling my boyfriend?”

Q. SuperFreakonomics profiles a woman, who goes by the name of Allie, a former computer programmer who turned to sex work and is now going back to school to study economics. Does the book’s description of her ring true to you?

A. Yes, very much so. At the time I was writing I was in contact with courtesans who were also blogging, such as Jet Set Lara. The difference between my earnings and theirs was great, but I was probably having more actual sex while they earned far more. It’s also covered in the TV series of my book, in fact –- Billie Piper’s Belle starts earning a lot more when she stops the by-the-hour work and goes independent, setting her rates higher and having fewer clients.

Q. What of the question in SuperFreakonomics, then — why don’t more women take to prostitution?

A. Sex with strangers squicks them out? I’ve noticed a tendency in some of my female friends to rationalize sex decisions they make — a hookup or one-night stand. If they had to do that several times a week, it would be tiring, if not emotionally devastating. Being able to divide sex-for-love and all-other-sex is not something especially usual.

Q. Is it especially strange seeing yourself portrayed on television, considering Piper’s Belle is a kind of double of a double of you?

A. Very. At first it was uncomfortable because the show is an adaptation of the book, so it diverges from me pretty widely — someone even started a Facebook group called “Belle de Jour knows what a palindrome is!” because the character didn’t. But because I was anonymous, I came to view it as an advantage: if people imagined Billie Piper was me, they would start looking for girls like that, rather than girls like me. It was an added measure of obfuscation I came to appreciate.

Q. You quit the escort business in 2004. What kind of work are you doing now?

A. I’m working on an E.U. project that is meant to be translating research into public policy. Specifically, we look at the evidence for pesticide exposures causing neurodevelopmental disorders. There are pesticides which are banned from indoor use in the U.S. for this reason, but they’re still legal in E.U. So my job entails collating that evidence into coherent documents that policymakers would find approachable.

Q. Has anything you learned as a call girl proven useful in your life as a scientist?

A. It taught me a lot about being able to talk to a variety of people with different backgrounds and relating to their points of view. Also the value of listening to them instead of rabbiting on about Fact This and Evidence That quite so much. Also, the power of being a decent-looking blond woman in the world. People may not take you seriously at first but they don’t resent your approach. Once the door is cracked open, it’s up to you to show your value as an intelligent person. Leveraging my sexuality to promote my work? You bet.

Q. Do you expect your outing as Belle de Jour will affect your scientific work?

A. I imagine people will know who I am now, and I’ll have to answer the same three questions over and over. But if I then get to shoehorn in something about the work I do, that’s a price I can put up with.

Q. You’ve written a couple of bestselling books. Which writers do you look up to?

A. I’d love to be a Simon Singh someday, but in terms of my current writing abilities that’s a long way off. It’s a goal though.

Q. So you have a popular science book in the pipeline?

A. Well, I can rabbit on endlessly about chemoinformatics and the problems thereof. Whether anyone would enjoy reading that, outside the small group of people who do it, is another question. But starting with the proposition that if we were to make one of every possible drug-sized molecule that could exist, they would more than fill the entire universe. I think that’s a compelling image and a good place to start when talking about the challenges of drug discovery.

See original at NYT


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