Posts Tagged ‘Brooke Magnanti’

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, [redacted] 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 [redacted] 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.

Belle de Jour, now known as Dr Brooke Magnanti, is writing a book called Sexonomics.

She is blogging about the topics that will be covered in the book: mainly pornography, sex work and the sex industry. It is a critical look at the media, research and feminist analyses of these areas. It sounds great, but I have had quite a few problems with what I have read so far on her blog.

1) Just The Facts

The first problem I have had is her attachment to ‘science’ and ‘facts’. Sex and the sex industry are a very complex area, and we all bring our own subjectivities to the table. Brooke is someone who made a name for herself writing about being a ‘high class’ sex worker. This identity is never far from her analyses. She seems most concerned with ‘women’ in the sex industry, and also with media and social attitudes to sex/sex work/porn, from a white, middle class perspective, which is her own perspective. But Brooke is also a scientist by trade, and so she presents herself as able to critique ‘science’ of sex, and offer the ‘true’ factual version of events as a scientific researcher. For me, as you know from some of my previous writings, ‘science’ is one of the most problematic areas in sex and sex research. I do not rate it above social studies or personal accounts, that is for sure.

When I did challenge Brooke on her use of one particular study by J Michael Bailey:

she blocked me on twitter, sent me a rude email and basically told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I am not a scientist. I do have a PHD though, as does she. But just in social science. And, as she does not allow comments on her blog, her version of the ‘facts’, her ‘truth’ will always be what takes precedent. She is not allowing other voices to even attempt to enter into her writing process. How lonely it must be, being a true scientist.

2) No, seriously, what about teh menz?

I just had this great blog brought to my attention:

It is a question I should like to pose to Brooke: what about men in porn, in sex work , in sex itself? Her focus, for example in this set of posts about porn, is all on women. As porn actresses, as potential ‘victims’ of porn, as the people most qualified to comment about the role of porn in people’s lives. The newsnight debate she took part in recently that she refers to, included only women guest speakers, but she does not comment on this. I expect she would if it had have been all men! Brooke distances herself from ‘feminism’ as a dogma, but her analysis is ‘feminist’ in that it is women-centric. This, for a forthcoming book aimed to be a serious study of sex in the economy, is a huge oversight in my view. When she does mention men, e.g in the post ‘does porn make men see women differently?’ it is always in relation to women, and nearly always (with one brief exception)  with men cast as consumers of porn, women as subjects/objects. And again, in these posts she seems to be aiming to reveal the ‘truth’ about pornography as opposed to the ‘myths’ put about by the media. But I do not think there is one truth. It is a very complex area. One which includes men!

3) You so heteronormative, girl!

Brooke Magnanti is not stupid. In fact, she is very, very clever. Much cleverer than me. She is actually making money out of writing about sex. I am the stupid one in many ways.  She is also clever in that in her current writing about the sex economy, she is using a lot of the ‘right’ words, that make people think she is a good, liberal critic of draconian attitudes to porn and sex.

For example, in her recent posts about pornography debates above, she mentions ‘queer’ porn, and how a lot of the discussions are very ‘heteronormative’ in approach. She also discusses ‘feminist’ pornography and mentions some big names in the field like Anna Span and Jiz Lee. These people have currency not just in the industry but in the ‘critical’ industry of how we talk about pornography. She gives them a nod. They will think she is covering their interests and their work.

But is she? I have found all Brooke’s essays so far completely and utterly heteronormative in themselves. In her post on whether or not porn ‘makes men see women differently’ for example, she does not once refer to gay porn, or the fact some men are either not heterosexual or do not watch exclusively heterosexual pornography. Or, the big, bulging pink elephant in the room that I like to bring up every now and again, that when ‘straight’ men watch ‘straight’ porn they are not just looking at women but also at naked big-cocked men and their naked big ejaculating cocks.
The studies she refers to in this piece also fail to mention that not all men are heterosexual.

So, to summarise, I am very impressed by Brooke Magnanti. She is convincing a lot of people whom I respect, that she has a balanced, ‘scientific’ and politically sound approach to critiquing pornography, sex work and the sex economy.  She is doing this despite (or because of?) her unquestioning acceptance of the value of ‘science’ in the study of sexualities, her complete focus on women in the sex economy, and her heteronormative perspective.

I am sure she will sell lots of books.

But will she bust the ‘myths’ about sex in consumer capitalism? I don’t think so. She is reinforcing them.

I am being patient with Doctor Lady Madame Sexy Scientist, Brooke Magnanti and her paper on What Women Want.  I think it is based on Bad Science as I showed in my previous post. But I am going to explain further why I think she is wrong, both in her interpretation of Bailey et al’s research, and her approach to ‘what women want’ in terms of pornography in general.

Magnanti wrote:

‘Previous studies of men and sexual orientation showed that in general, male responses are straightforward. Heterosexual men respond strongly to heterosexual porn, and weakly to homosexual porn. For gay men, it’s the opposite: gay porn turns them on; the hetero stuff, not so much. So for men the psychological and physiological desires are in sync – what turns them on is also what they report enjoying emotionally.’

Now I think she is referring in part to research by Bailey and his colleagues, but also to research which will have influenced them. She does not cite it as she takes it as a given, that ‘male responses (to pornography) are straightforward’. i.e. Heterosexual men who claim to enjoy hetero porn, are indeed turned on by it. Gay men who claim to only like gay (m/m) porn, are indeed aroused by that and not porn which contains-shock horror!-women.

This, my dearies, is a load of old tosh. If men’s sexual responses are straightforward, and straight men only like straight porn, and gay men only like gay porn (and bisexual men don’t exist?) then what have writers such as  MS  (yep-HIM), been going on about throughout their careers? Why do straight men get so excited watching men every Saturday hurl themselves at each other on a football pitch? Why is advertising packed full of fit, sexy men showing off their packets? Why do rugby players get drunk and then get it on with each other? Why are all male boarding schools, and The Catholic church, and The Armed Forces, full of men who have sex with other men? This line between ‘heterosexual’ and ‘gay’ men is a false one.

The fact is, Doctor Magnanti, that the statement ‘what turns [men] on is also what they report enjoying emotionally’ is so wrong that the converse is probably true. Men are so anxious about their sexuality being seen to be that which they say it is (especially straight men) that even their cocks ‘lie’ about what is turning them on when they watch porn. And talking of cocks, let us not forget, that there ARE plenty of COCKS in ‘heterosexual’ pornography. So when heterosexual men say they enjoy heterosexual porn, they are still enjoying images of other men’s cocks.

But enough about cocks for a moment. Onto ‘what women want’. According to Magnanti’s report of Bailey et al’s research:

‘Participants ranked the films in order of how aroused they felt watching them. The heterosexual women in the study ranked male-male films the lowest, followed by female-female in the middle, with finally female-male films rated highest. But when the genital arousal data were compared to these rankings, something interesting emerged.

It turned out that the genital engorgement data told a completely different story from what straight women were putting on paper. They claimed male-male porn interested them the least, but looking at the physical response, male-male and female-female films ranked similarly – and very high. On paper, straight women ranked heterosexual pairings as the most arousing… but their physical response while watching these films was actually lower than with the other types of films. Straight women were getting more physically turned on watching homosexual pairings, even films with no women in it all, than they were by straight scenes’.

This ‘fluidity’ of women’s sexual responses can be explained to quite a large degree I think, by the fact that women are not as conditioned as men to worry about admitting to finding images of other women hot, or even real life other women. As Simpson has written about, ‘male bisexuality’  rather than ‘female bisexuality’ is the main cause of ‘bisexual anxiety’ in our culture. In fact when it comes to images and porn, ‘female bisexuality’ is a major aspect of ‘heterosexual porn’. You get a lot of girl-on-girl action in straight porn, but if there is any man-on-man action, it immediately gets classed as ‘gay’.

Feminist pornographers claim that this is because nearly all pornography is aimed towards men. So straight men get to see girl-on-girl films, and gay men get to see boy-on-boy films, but what about the women? Well, I think a lot of women enjoy boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl films, so they are being catered for by both ‘heterosexual’ and ‘gay’ pornography. Because, as I have tried to say before,and got shouted down, we don’t look at pornography with our genitals, we look with our eyes, and we all have those. And our eyes don’t have a ‘sexual orientation’.

Magnanti quoted Doctor Professor Scientist Mister Bailey:

“The fact that women’s sexual arousal patterns are not all predicted by their sexual orientations suggests that men’s and women’s minds and brains are very different,” said Bailey. That much we already suspected, or at least I did, because airbrushed images of men hoovering? Is certainly nice, but not exactly erotic. But who could have anticipated just how different they would turn out to be?

Well. I disagree with Bailey’s conclusion, with the methodology of his research, and with his crusade to use research about ‘sexual response’ to make rash statements about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. Not to mention gay brains. Not to mention, because he doesn’t ‘bisexual’ brains. And I disagree with how he turns this brain crusade into an attack on transgender people, especially trans women, and on bisexual people, especially bisexual men.

The study of sex and sexuality is the study of people. It is a human study of people in social contexts. If any kind of science is going to be used to try and understand the complexities of sexual bodies in culture, it has to be ‘social science’ surely? Psychology is a social science, but when it dresses itself up in the language and the machinery of clinical science, it becomes a very dodgy exercise indeed. Suck my dick, Science. And taste the real world for a change.