The Sex Myth begins with an anecdote. Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour) describes a phase in her childhood when she and her friends were in competition to discover the ‘truth’ about the naked body of the opposite sex. The girls were particularly inventive, and would look under cubicle doors in the boys’ toilets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of a fleshy member (p1-3). I found this story engaging, fascinating and not a little Freudian. For, as Magnanti states, one of the ‘sex myths’ of our age is that children are innocent and sexuality only develops with the onset of puberty in our teens. But Magnanti uses her childhood investigations of how not to do sex research. Now she is a grown up, a doctor (PhD), a scientist, she knows the difference between ‘bad science’ and ‘good science’. Or does she? This is the main question I had whilst reading her book. And, unfortunately, I think the answer has to be ‘no’.
Worryingly, I don’t even think Bagnanti knows the difference between ‘science’ and ‘social science’. Right at the beginning of the book she writes:
‘In recent years a large number of researchers have looked into areas of human experience previously assumed to be untestable. Questions such as whether porn is harmful, or how childhood is affected by sexuality, can now be examined in a way that is consistent with evidence-based reasoning. Not only that, people who study different disciplines are starting to realise the advantages of interdisciplinary study, with social science enriching the finds of quantitative methods and vice versa. [emphasis mine]’ (p5).
This suggests that ‘social science’ does not include ‘quantitative methods’ when in fact a large section of sociological study is based on quantitative (numerical) data. I found this to be a glaring error and a sign that this is a book by an academic with little interest in the complexities and value of social science. My reaction is borne out by the lack of bibliography in the book. Magnanti includes her references in endnotes, which, on close examination, reveal that she uses very few social science/theory books in her work. Most of the references are from scientific academic journals and the popular media. This is a ‘bias’ that should be acknowledged I think. For one of the greatest myths I know of in sex research is that ‘science’ is objective, rigorous and the best way to get to the ‘truth’. My experience has shown otherwise.
The most obviously ‘bad’ science that Magnanti uses is in her chapter one, where she sets out to debunk the myth that ‘when it comes to sexual attraction, men are visually stimulated and always interested in sex – and women aren’t’ (p9). To do this she uses the scientific ‘experiments’ of a group of American researchers from Northwestern University. The most well known of these is J Michael Bailey. He found his way into the news last year when he included a live sex show in one of his lectures to students. The two adults involved were consenting, thankfully. Serious ethical questions were raised however, over whether the audience were consenting, the value of the results from such a sensationalist method, and the effects of the media reaction on everyone involved.
But my concerns about using Bailey’s work uncritically are not limited to that one incident. You only have to google his name to find a string of controversies relating to him and his research. The most famous relates to his book The Man Who Would Be Queen: ‘The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism’. Even the title sets off alarms, with its use of such loaded terms. Basically, in this book Bailey used his ‘sex science’ (which includes hooking people up to penile plesmographs to measure their sexual response to viewing pornography) to claim that gay men’s homosexuality is genetic. And that trans women are actually gay men. Nice. Bailey was investigated by his university, NorthWestern, and was demoted. But he remains an academic at that institution. Whatever one’s views, it seems irresponsible of Magnanti to completely ignore the furore surrounding Bailey’s research, and to present it as solid, reliable ‘science’.
Another point about Bailey that Magnanti failed to mention is that only last year, he and his colleagues had to revise their theories on bisexuality in men. They were commissioned to re-do their experiments which back in 2005 had shown that bisexual men don’t exist! The penis plesmograph never lies, except sometimes it does. This latest set of experiments, surprise surprise, showed that bisexual men do of course exist. And that even ‘science’ can be wrong sometimes. On reporting this news, Mark Simpson asked:
‘So why the turnaround by Bailey? Well, it seems the loud and angry protests from bisexual organisations that Bailey’s 2005 findings understandably aroused has taken its toll -– and indeed one bisexual organisation even funded this recent research.
They got the result they wanted, but I fear they’re wasting their money and merely encouraging more bad science. Some of course will hold these findings up as proof that this Heath Robinson kind of bio-mechanical sex research can correct itself. But they would have to be true believers to see it that way. All that has been proven is that measuring penile blood-flow in a laboratory is a highly reductive and highly abnormal measure of male sexuality. Men are not just penises. They are also prostate glands. Perineums. Earlobes. Inner thighs. Brains. Nipples.
It also shows that you get the result you’re looking for. In 2005 Bailey wanted to prove that male bisexuality didn’t exist. In 2011 he didn’t. QED. Perhaps the worst thing about this new finding is that Bailey et al will now try to turn male bisexuals into a ‘species’ to be studied and dissected. Bisexual men may quickly come to the conclusion that they were much better off when they didn’t exist. Unless of course they themselves have a bit of a fetish for penile plethysmograph play.’
Could it be that Brooke just didn’t know about the controversy surrounding Bailey? Like I said if that is the case she failed in doing basic research, such as googling his name. But she blogged about his work in 2011, and both Mark Simpson and I tried to tell her about the problems with it. This is the reply I got from Dr Magnanti:
This is a sign that when ‘objective’ science that is not objective at all, is questioned, it and its ‘scientists’ do not stand up very well to scrutiny.
So the first chapter of The Sex Myth showed its methodology and ‘theoretical’ basis to be seriously lacking. I read the rest of it with a sceptical arched eyebrow. I also did not learn much that was new. As another reviewer, Heresiarch noted,
‘I find a lot of this yawningly familiar by now, but many people won’t and Magnanti’s book provides an entertaining compendium of tabloid myths, as well as a source of ammunition. Whether it can do much against the juggernaut of the Daily Mail, currently engaged in a crusade to introduce compulsory web-filtering, remains to be seen. ‘
The chapter on the false correlation between rape statistics and the increase in adult entertainment establishments was the best (p79-99). I had read some of it on Brooke’s blog before, but it stood up as a tight piece of research, in comparison to some of the less rigorous work in the rest of the book. However even in that chapter, and the one questioning the motives of people campaigning against the sex industry (p209-222), Magnanti was very vague about politics. An uninitiated reader of The Sex Myth might come away from it thinking Brooke was the first person to criticise ‘feminism’ and its views on sex/sex work. This is of course not the case.
Magnanti fails to acknowledge the politicisation of sex workers, who have been campaigning for years against anti-sex work feminists such as Julie Bindel. She also makes no reference to Sex Positive Feminism which has too been going for years, and has posed a direct challenge to draconian ‘conservative’ anti-sex feminism. And, even in the realm of science, Magnanti ignores the ‘skeptic’ movement and the critical approach to science and science reporting employed (often very selectively I might add) by people such as Ben Goldacre.
It seems to me as if Magnanti is trying to reinvent the wheel. And to stand alone as a unique ‘sexpert’ in the field of sex, science and politics. Well she is actually one of many women (and men) who has staked a claim as having knowledge in this field. I was particularly disappointed in The Sex Myth because I actually think Magnanti is a very able writer. Of all the ‘sex bloggers’ and sex writers I have read including Zoe Margolis, Susie Bright, Bitchy Jones and Hugo Schwyzer I think Belle de Jour was one of the best. I would have been happy for Magnanti to have continued from her childhood anecdote that she began the book with, rather than promoting herself as a scientist as she did. Especially since she has relied upon and peddled such bad science.