Posts Tagged ‘Sex work’

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.

Write Less, Listen More is a piece of advice given by Megan Morgenson, to people who write about sex work without having much or any experience of actually doing it. Her post here is really worth a read:

It was in response to a piece at Freedom In A Puritan Age here:

The ‘twitter friend’ Megan mentions in her post, who had her comments deleted at FIPA Journal is me!

I find it interesting that there is quite  a heated debate in the comments section, and yet my comments were deemed ‘inappropriate’ for their publication.

Red Umbrella Diaries

Posted: August 8, 2010 in Blogging, Writing
Tags: ,

This post, for once, is not all about me, me, me!

I have been following this amazing project online, called The Red Umbrella Project. It is a forum for sex workers to write and tell their stories, both online and in performance, facilitated by the absolutely amazing campaigner, writer and activist, Audacia Ray. Have a look at the project here:

The blog carnival posts writings by sex workers and their allies, and then Audacia and others read some of them at performances in New York. I decided to contribute to the current issue. The subject is ‘demand side’, i.e. the people who pay for sex, the clients.

Now, I don’t know much about paying for sex or working as a sex worker. But I know someone who does.

So this is going to be an interview, via the comments of this post, with the equally amazing Emily Jones, escort extraordinaire, among many other things, based in London. Check out her blog.

So I am going to start with some questions and hopefully Emily and I will get chatting:

Who are your main clients? e.g. Gender/age/ethnicity/anything else?

How do your clients find you and contact you for your services?

Are they all upfront about it or do some of them seem shy/embarrassed or conflicted about calling an escort? How does this show itself?

What is the best thing about your clients?

What is the most annoying aspect of working with this client group?

Do any of your clients seem to want more than sex or something other than sex from you? what kind of things? are you comfortable about giving those things?

The second Sex In The City Movie has just been released, and judging by my little corner of the interwebz it seems to be causing something of a furore.  I keep being sent links to article after article, blog after blog, all wailing about how utterly awful it is. If the majority of the (feminist in the main) detractors of the film are to be believed, SATC2 is the worst misgogyny to come out of Hollywood since Roman Polanski. The main thrust of these feminist writers’ arguments is that what was once an entertaining, empowering, feminist TV show about independent, career minded women, has now descended into a turgid shopping and fucking fest. With a little bit of racism sprinkled on top for good measure.

I don’t understand these tirades. It feels to me like these people have been watching a completely different show from the one I have. I thought SATC had always been about shopping and fucking. Oh and eating, and drinking cocktails, and most of all talking. Women talking about shopping and fucking. The careers of Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda were merely backdrops to their decadent sex-filled lifestyles. A private view at Charlotte’s gallery for example, was just an excuse for the girls to pick up men between the canapes. A new male PA at Samantha’s firm was a lead-in to some hot on-the-desk fucking. And perhaps the iconic image of the show, Carrie typing away on her laptop, wearing only a bra and pants, was always about the bra and pants not the writing.  But I didn’t think we watched SATC for stories of empowered women, making it in the male dominated professional world. We have The West Wing for that don’t we?

God knows there is enough to criticise the TV show for, let alone the films. Its representation of anyone who doesn’t belong to the whiter than white, middle to upper class, all-American Hamptons set was pathetic. The constant refrain from the main characters of ‘I need a fuck/boyfriend/husband’ to complete me, got boring after a while. Though the programme was made by Gay writers and producers, the portrayal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters was cliched and grating. But I forgave it all that and more, because this was the first time in the history of mainstream, primetime TV that women had been shown in leading roles, seeking out, enjoying, and talking about orgasmic, pleasure-filled, exhilarating sex. This is the revolutionary aspect of SATC, and its legacy for feminism. No Hollywood feature length moneyspinner can take that away from us, can it ladies and gents?

Ah, but wait. I am not sure everybody does agree on this one. In reading these diatribes against SATC2 (which by the way I am sure is a terrible film), I have noticed something. The sexy, exuberant, experimental sexuality of the characters in the TV programmes, was not what these feminist critics enjoyed at all. They actually seem to have found it kind of vulgar. Take this quote from a review by Lindy West that has been Retweeted to notoriety on twitter today

‘Samantha, being the prostitute (< crossed out)  sexual revolutionary that she is, rages against the machine by publicly grabbing the engorged penis of a man’

What was that word you crossed out in this new, faux ironic way Lindy? Prostitute. Oh. That word.  Now I am a supporter of sex workers and I would love to see a sex worker character in a hit TV comedy. But Samantha Jones is in no way shape or form a prostitute. Her character has always been based around someone who has assertively sought out sexual experiences, on her own terms, for their own sake, and she has dated men from a range of economic backgrounds. She is the type of woman you could imagine hiring a rent boy for the night, and think nothing of it. Samantha’s longest most serious relationship was with Smith, a young out-of-work actor, whose career she boosted with her PR contacts and marketing know how (and cash). This is not the narrative of Pretty Woman.

Samantha is a feminist hero to me. She is sexy, intelligent, funny, independent, a bit guarded emotionally, but also vulnerable, sexually adventurous and fearless. What’s not to like?

Underneath the veneer of outrage at feminine stereotypes, objectification of women, and needy female heterosexuality, these critiques have revealed themselves to be just another attack on women like Samantha, who enjoy, speak openly about and experiment with their sexuality.

Another feminist hero of mine, Zoe Margolis, has recently won a libel case against the Independent on Sunday newspaper, who, in an article about her latest book: Girl with a one track mind: exposed, called her an ex ‘hooker’. When she won her case, Zoe said that she was celebrating her win as  ‘a small victory for feminism’ because it was a successful challenge of a sexist media, which ‘conflates female sexuality with prostitution’. It is depressing to find that it is not just the media, but also influential feminists, who are making this same, sexist conflation between women’s sexuality and sex work.

I support sex workers. And I support women who want to enjoy and discuss their sexuality, without being labelled prostitutes or hookers. I am sure sex workers themselves do not want to be defined only in terms of their job, and that they would like also to be treated as women with sex lives,  women who watch SATC  maybe, and laugh and talk about sex with their mates as we all do.

So basically, what I am saying is, fuck you neo-puritans. Samantha rocks!