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

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.


David Chowes, New York City

Over the many years beginning with the "pill," feminism, the destigmation of what used to be called "sodomy" into the mainstream, homosexuality evolving from "sin," and "psychopatholgy"...

Now "gay mariage" is being claimed as a civil right by many -- unimaginable -- a decade ago.

Formerly labeled decadent -- now, liberation. Now the grey old lady has evolved today with this blog and a "One in a Million" display where a woman talks of how pleasureable discussion of her enjoyment S&M, bondage... A prostitute and a S&M advocate in the same edition of The New York Times.

The times -- they are a'changing as well as the Times. Is this good? I don't know. Intelligent call girls legitimizing the world's oldest profession? I don't know.

However I do know that decadence is practiced because it is pleasureable. But, there are other considerations -- like...

The speed of the changes in one of our most primal behaviors is exponential -- so, we don't have sufficient time to fully consider the many implications. And, of course the potential . . .

Unintended negative consequences.

I don't know!

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Samurai Scientist

Great interview. I never heard of her before, but I really liked the idea.

Nicole

If having sex for money is so great, why did she stop? I always ask myself this whenever I read these stories. Free sex, money, communication practice--what's not to like? (/sarcasm)
For every former prostitute that managed to get out with plenty of money and integrity intact, there are several who are emotionally scarred for life. A close friend is a social worker and she sees the boys whose treatment of women is affected by how they view their mothers' sex work; the pimps' violent control of women; etc. it's not a pretty sight. I can assure you that these women don't get Ph.D's and face time with the head honchos.
I would be interested in knowing how Belle manages her personal relationships. It's hard for me to believe that such partitioning would not degrade one's capacity for true intimacy.

Allen

David - It will be OK.

BR

discretion is most important for this kind of work, as well as compartmentalization: there's this part of my life, and there's that part of my life, and never shall they meet

both discretion and compartmentalization require a high level of mental discipline and control

so the problems come in when this lifestyle is attempted by women, and men, who don't have these abilities

let this serve as a warning to anyone who considers this lifestyle attractive: are you really cut out for it?

John Edward

Nicole #3,

I think it's obvious why she quit; her goal was to become a doctor, not a prostitute. She was able to realize this goal, et voilà.

Kent

@Nicole #3:
Why did she stop? Because she wanted to be a neurotoxicologist more than she wanted to be a prostitute. My understanding is that neurotoxicology was always her goal.

In this, we can compare prostitution to any number of jobs people take while working toward a broader goal. The aspiring actress who waits tables, for instance.

While Dr. Magnanti seems to have at least marginally enjoyed her experience with prostitution, the point here isn't that prostitution is a great career choice, but that she's proof that it doesn't have to be an awful experience for the woman.

And therefore, that there is nothing inherently wrong with having sex for money. There is nothing wrong with the prostitution/sex trade industry that can't be changed with re-educating society and implementing/enforcing positive safety regulation for the sex industry. Which is admittedly much easier said than done, but still.

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Nicole

John Edward #6,

The thing is, in her books and interviews, Belle presents prostitution as so fulfilling, so satisfying on a level beyond mere work. If it's so great, why stop? Why not earn some on the side?
I can't help but notice that in the articles I've read in which professionals describe their former satisfying lives as prostitutes, all are either out of the business or planning to leave soon. There's a reason for that.
These "happy hooker" stories are tiresome, for they perpetuate a myth that anyone who enters into sex work can stop in, earn their tuition, and get out without any long term effects or regrets. Again, for every success story, there are many tragedies. It's part of the new "anything goes" culture.
Finally, policy-makers in Bulgaria and elsewhere have found that when legalization merely 1) increases the market for it and 2)provides a front for trafficking:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/06/world/europe/06bulgaria.html?ex=1192334400&en=5ccabcf8007bf0ad&ei=5070&emc=eta1

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Julian

Brooke (aka Belle) has nothing to be ashamed of as far as I'm concerned. She did what she had to do and becoming an call girl was her own decision.

Being a sex worker myself, I can attest to the fact that it's not a profession for everyone. The need to compartmentalize and lie to friends/family can take a toll on those unable to do so.

I also believe that class has something to do with this. The higher-up someone is on the socioeconomic ladder, the less likely they are to be victimized in the business. Simple as that.

http://post-gradgigolo.blogspot.com/

Joe Smith

Seems like there are a fair number of people projecting their sexual demons onto this woman - and without even paying her the 600 quid that her customers had to pay for that privilege...

gcc

I'm happy for Brooke, and I don't judge her or her choices. I do, however, think that it's a small minority of women who can take on sex work with that kind of positivity.

When it comes to sex, Americans are very prudish and the Pretty Woman scenario is incredibly attractive to us - I'd say even a fetish. Yet, these are the stories we hear more often than the more common realities, and I find that harmful.

The average age of entry into prostitution in the US is 14 years old. 14!!! Thousands of women are trafficked into the life across the globe, and many die from the dangers and poor conditions they are forced to endure.

I think it's important to realize that sex work is diverse and complicated -- but also keep in perspective the probably percentages. Brookes do exist, but when it comes to prostitution, the majority of cases you'll find are women, girls, and boys in dire situations, with no choices, struggling in pain.

A question I've been pondering -- why are the men at Freakonomics so obsessed with female prostitution? And when you pose the question "why don't more women take up the life" -- do you wonder that for your own daughters? ;)

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Philippe

@nicole I would imagine it depends greatly at what age you start doing this job and how mature you already are. Some women would take it as "just another job, but better paid" and other would see it as utter disgrace and loose all self-esteem (if they had any in the first place).

To a lesser extent but for the same reasons, women whose parents divorced when they were in their teens often struggle with relationships.

David Moody

I have read her blog from start to finish and she is telling the world who she is. I know married couples who dont do this and hence her profession for those years.

We somehow have missed her need to download and share and have projected our misgivings and stereotypes upon her.

She is a girl, someone's daughter - so let's respect her and her parents and remember that we all need a little understanding.

She has a surprisingly adorable writing style...

Ingrid Nevin

The statistics about average entry into prostitution being 14 are based on research conducted in street workers. They do not account for the multitude of indoor workers and independent escorts and as the result, tell us nothing about the picture at large.

An unscientific anonymous poll was recently conducted at a review board I frequent. Out of 46 respondents, only 6 entered the profession before 18. See what a difference a change in samples can do? Of course, they don't represent the full picture either. With the amount of prejudice going on, it is extremely hard to reach the more socially adjusted sex workers and show their true numbers.

It's said that for every success story there are many tragedies, implying that success stories are a minority. I think that implication is wrong. I think we have no idea of real proportions. All I know is that in 3 years of being an escort, the number of women who project a successful picture that I came across is numbered in hundreds - whereas tragedies were only dozens. But my samples, once again, are biased.

And projecting a successful picture is different than being one. On the other hand, the demands we place on sex workers to have an unblemished background to be considered well off are stricter than in any other occupation. For example, depression affects a significant proportion of population, but is a sex worker admits to depression, we blame it on her occupation. The figures of women who have experienced sexual abuse in population are staggering, and they can be found in every single walk of life. However, nobody looks at how many waitresses, actresses, or psychologists have experienced sexual abuse in their past.

As to why quit... Do you have any idea of the burden of double-life? The risk of discovery and its consequences if you are engaged in a day-time career you care about? The challenges of having a relationship? All of that, not because of violence or inherent demands of the occupation - but because of the stigma and prejudice you people impose on us and perpetuate? It's you, the public, who continues to believe in stereotypes and denies our experiences, that is responsible for a more mental anguish than all the bad clients in the world.

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Robert

Nicole - "These “happy hooker” stories are tiresome, for they perpetuate a myth that anyone who enters into sex work can stop in, earn their tuition, and get out without any long term effects or regrets. "

If you actually read what is said you will see that it what Dr Magnanti says:

"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."

and later

"Being able to divide sex-for-love and all-other-sex is not something especially usual."

So Dr Magnanti is very clear that sex work is something only a small number of people should try. Your claim, therefore, that this story "perpetuate a myth that anyone who enters into sex work can stop in, earn their tuition, and get out without" is false. I think what you are trying to say is: "this story must be suppressed because it lets people know that not everyone who does sex work has a terrible time." Maybe you should just say that next time.

You asked:
"If it's so great, why stop? Why not earn some on the side?"

This is a silly question. She stopped because she wanted to. If you are doing something you enjoy, do you keep doing it until you stop enjoying it, or are you emotionally mature enough to stop doing it before you stop enjoying it?

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Grace

Brooke comes across as self-aware and brave. She decided what was right for her. She didn't allow a bunch of nameless, faceless people -- who wouldn't have given a rat's arse if an exhausting Mac job ended up compromising her phd -- to dictate her every move.

I enjoy her blog, and take my hat off to her as a woman with a mind of her own.

Bill

Joe Smith #10,

Your comment that "people are projecting their sexual demons onto this woman" struck deeply. But a fair analysis should ask whether her writing deliberately provokes those demons. To sway the readers emotionally is writing's holy grail, after all, and it was surely not lost on her that some of our deepest and most powerful emotions, wrapped in layers of insecurity as they are, were uniquely available to her alter ego.

The test of maturity is not the ability to identify and scorn other people's demons, but the honesty to know and accept one's own. One has heard now many times that compartmentalism is necessary to be successful in the sex trade. What is the spiritual cost of compartmentalism? I want to know myself, all of it. Yes, the demons, but the angels as well. When one walls off the demons from the angels, how can the demons ever hope to rise, or the angels ever hope to understand?

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science minded

I find this discussion real bothersome. Why? What is the difference between a woman selling sex for the purpose of surviving and gaining for herself the advantages of becoming a doctor) and a woman selling her book cheaply in the interest of surviving i.e., making for herself a lasting contribution to science. In both instances, if we women (pursuing our goals) were treated respectfully i.e., listened to along the way, would this be necessary? If men respected women as individuals, would they be paying for the sex altogether? Wouldn't they be seeking real full relationships. In my case, it goes back to parents who always compared me to their dead first child.

I was having a discussion this week with my husband about this matter. He went out to dinner with a bunch of guys. One of them was having a problem with his wife who recently lost her parents. the wife had become withdrawn and one of the guys suggested he see a prostitute. I told my husband he should suggest that the fellow buy his wife some flowers or something that she likes i.e., try to relate to her as a person struggling herself to overcome grief..

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Ian Kemmish

The proposition that the kind of men who are prepared to undergo the ultimate humiliation of paying for sex are "addicted to success" makes one wonder whether it's the tarts or their customers who are the greater victims of self-delusion.

Joe Smith

On her blog, Belle du Jour said she would "steal" my line about projecting demons and hoped I would not mind. I do not mind at all - its not stealing, its recycling. Use the line in good health. Attribute it to "Joe Smith" if and when you wish.