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The following is partially taken from the Token Skeptic podcast #127, where I interviewed Dr Magnanti, on her book The Sex Myth.
What is a sex myth and how do we spot one? Where do our assumptions about sex and sexuality come from, and do they have merit?
The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong investigates the various dark corners of sex and the media, with Dr Brooke Magnanti examining the data for widely believed truisms, like the one that adult entertainment – strip clubs, massage parlours, and the like – cause crime; the medicalisation of female desire; the denial of women’s appreciation for erotica, and whether “sex addiction” is a disease.
Drawing both on her career as a scientist and experience as a sex worker, she plumbs the depths of sexual myth-making and exposes that what we think we know, may often show that we don’t know much about at all.
Dr Brooke Magnanti, perhaps better known as previously anonymous author Belle de Jour, wrote the award-winning blog ‘ The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl’ that inspired five books and a television series. She has a doctorate in forensic science, and has also worked in cheminformatics, genetic epidemiology, and cancer research. You can read more about her book at http://www.sexonomics.co.uk.
Kylie Sturgess: What inspired you to write “The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong“?
Dr Brooke Magnanti: It actually came out of right after I came out in 2009, late 2009. There was quite a lot of criticism. There always had been when I was anonymous. But after I came out it got very heated about what sort of message am I sending to young women? “Don’t you know people look up to you, etc., etc.?”
It was very tough to sort of take all of those things, and really take them apart and try to answer why it is we shouldn’t be so afraid of things like sex work – like pornography, like women’s sexuality. I was talking to my editor about this, and she said “Well, why don’t you write a book about that?”
It kind of started from that – from really wanting to answer the critics who seemed to really latch onto this idea that I was somehow personally responsible for corrupting the youth of today, which if true would be a remarkable achievement! I’m just far too lazy to actually go out and ruin an entire generation!
Kylie: I can say that reading the first Belle du Jour book, when I picked it up at Heathrow Airport I remember years ago, it certainly made the flight from Heathrow to Perth, nearly, oh God, I can’t imagine how many hours… 13, 15 hours of flight? It improved that at least…
Brooke: Oh, good, good. You see if I’ve reached out and made one person’s flight shorter, then my job here is done!
Kylie: I found the book The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong to be more akin to Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science.” Since, at the same time I was reading your book, I was also researching Mark Henderson’s “The Geek Manifesto”, I found it echoed beautifully with those.
Was it difficult to research all the topics that you had, because looking at Goldacre’s book, it’s more general science. Mark Henderson, of course, is very much looking at the zeitgeist of changing attitudes towards science and political change regarding the promotion of science. Was it difficult to take the particular tack that you did, because it seems difficult to get into that research, and do it fairly, from what I saw?
Brooke: I was really lucky in that a lot of the people in sexuality research in that community actually reached out to me. I think they realise that kind of whether I wanted to or not, I was going to become a de facto spokesperson for sex work, even if only for a short time. I did meet a lot of people such as Belinda Brooks Gordon, and others who are really involved in this kind of research.
They helped enormously, and really helped open my eyes to the variety of what was out there. A lot of it I’d known about before, or you hear about, or you read on a blog somewhere. It was fantastic fun to just dive straight in, get up to my elbows in the research. Really enjoyed it.
Kylie: Was it difficult narrowing down just to the myths that you chose?
Brooke: Yes, absolutely. You should have seen the chapters we left out! In a lot of ways, though, I think because there is a book coming out, she writes for “Vanity Fair” about men and about masculinity – Hanna Rosin. Actually, a lot of the stuff that I left out would have duplicated what’s going to be in Hannah Rosin’s book about masculinity. In a lot of ways if she hadn’t been writing that book already, I would have wanted to write a sort of companion volume that was much more focused on masculinity.
Kylie: I was interested in the earlier book that you wrote under the name of Belle du Jour, “The Guide to Men” - I could see echoes of that in The Sex Myth as well. Did any of the experience from the time writing that (obviously, it was more personal than research based in comparison) have an influence on this book?
Brooke: Yes, I think maybe not overtly, but in the sense that when I read a lot of the research, because I read a lot things on both sides, and every side of every issue. I read a lot of books that I really did not think I was going to agree with at all, but that is what you do when you’re doing a book like this. You get your hands on as much stuff as possible. It certainly helped inform the way I read books. One thing that the book goes into a lot is about agenda setters.
My own experience really primed me to look for, and ask the question: “What is the agenda of the person who’s writing this? Even in terms of people I agree with, what is their agenda with this? Is it an academic publishing agenda? Are they trying to further their careers, get grants?” That is behind so much of research that’s published, especially when things hit the media very, very hard. I’m always, and I think this is something Ben Goldacre talks about in “Bad Science” as well – always a bit suspicious of scientists who go with the press release before their research is actually published. That’s definitely something in all areas that you have to be asking yourself.
Kylie: Was there any particular myth that was personally challenging to tackle, thinking, “Oh dear, people aren’t going to like this one...”, or “This one is going to be taking more time than any other chapter just to get into the nitty gritty”? Was it like that?
Brooke: Sexualization. That was the big one. This was one I have to give a shout out to my husband. He really helped shape that chapter a lot, because his opinion regarding the exposure of children to sexually explicit material is almost the complete opposite of mine. That was really good, because basically, I had an in‑house reader who was prone to disagree with absolutely everything I was writing.
What it made me realise was that I could get to a point where people would understand the logic of what I was saying, but I had to be careful not to dismiss people’s concerns about this issue outright – because, when we talk about anything to do with children, numbers go out the window. It is an emotional thing, and I completely understand where people are coming from with that.
Trying to get to a point where I was trying very hard not to patronise people, because I myself, I’m not a parent. It would be very heavy handed of me to come in and go “Well, I know the way parents should do it”. I think a lot of the point I ended up trying to make in that chapter is “Let’s all slow down and take a deep breath. We don’t actually know what the effects are yet.” Rather than trying to make an argument either way about whether it’s a good or a bad thing.
Kylie: Yes, the rise of evidence‑based policies – I mean that you say you have great hope, eventually.
Brooke: It might be hope without any evidence to back up its actual appearance in the world!
Kylie: My fingers are unskeptically crossed at the moment, yes!
Brooke: Yeah. It’s really unfortunate, because I think people have picked it up as a buzzword, and governments pick it up, and you do notice when you follow politics the way politicians do, they tailor their messages to the group that they’re talking to. They’ll say things like “evidence‑based policy”. I don’t know if you were aware, a year or two ago, there was a bit of a campaign among scientists in the UK to lobby government not to reduce government funding.
…A couple of years on scientists are really still struggling, particularly people who are at the kind of level in their careers that I was when I took a break from science. We haven’t really seen much more policy that seems to reflect any kind of science, so it is worrying.
Kylie: With issues like prostitution, sexualization of children, pornography – incredibly highly charged words, even just saying them out loud…
Brooke: Yeah, yeah.
Kylie: Do you think that in a way makes it even tougher for people to think about the evidence behind them?
Brooke: Yes. Absolutely. I mean I knew that. As soon as you say prostitute, even if you say it in a very neutral way, that conjures up an enormous response from people, whether it’s a stereotype, or an emotion, whether they’ve known or heard about somebody who is in prostitution. Really, knowing that, that was what I was up against. It was pretty difficult, and in spite of the fact that if you cut me straight through, you won’t find bones, blood, and guts. You’ll just find solid scientist!
I did know that I had to try to illustrate things in a way that tried to bring it home. In the book I wrote a lot about the death of Michaela Hague who was a woman in Sheffield, and she had been working in prostitution, and was murdered and her murderer has never been discovered. That really affected me directly, because I was actually working in the mortuary when her body was brought in. That was before I was a sex worker.
It’s something that’s always been in my mind that this very sort of personal, to me – a sort of connection to seeing what it is people fear, what it is people are afraid of, and that worst possible outcome, seeing it in concrete right there in front of you.
Kylie: What’s been the overall response to the book? I’ve noticed a few reviews, and they’ve been kind of mixed, but in general they’re very positive…
Brooke: They’ve been a lot more positive than I anticipated.
Kylie: Oh good!
Brooke: When the book was going through being edited at the publisher, my editor kept coming back to me and saying “It’s really funny. Everybody who’s read the book finds something they agree with and something they vehemently disagree with”. I think it’s good. If readers pick it up, and they agree with me on some things, and not on others, that’s fine.
It’s really about opening up the discussion, and getting people to try to frame these concerns in a very different way – a way that isn’t exclusively tied to stereotypes and emotions. If someone puts down the book and says they didn’t agree with a thing in it, but it’s made them think about these topics? That’s fine by me.
Kylie: You continue to blog. In fact I’ve found three of them…
Brooke: I know. I can’t help myself!
Kylie: And you raise issues again and again online. Were there any things that you’re blogging about now, or now post‑book, that you wish you could have included?
Brooke: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, partly the things to do with the research into desire, both in women and men, that has been expanding and expanding and expanding. And of course, at some point you have to stop writing your book, and say,“Right, this is the point at the manuscript goes, and I’m not going to add anything more to it”!
But of course, the book was mostly written in 2009 and 2010, and went through a massive editing process, and it’s funny because the book only came out this year. We were still editing it, really up to the wire, in the fortnight before it came out.
But there just come a point which you can’t add anything new, or you’d never finish. And that’s partly why I’ve kept the blog going and keep writing about these particular topics; hopefully to try to alert people to, you know, it hasn’t just stood still here. It’s kept going, and the research is still out there, so go look for it.
Kylie: Anything that has inspired the next book? Do you think you’ll continue on in this field?
Brooke: I would love to. I’m probably going to turn somewhat away from sexuality, but try to pull in things that I have experience of. I’ve had some ideas, mainly to do with drug discovery, because I used to work in cheminformatics. Also forensic science. Because I think there’s a lot that people don’t understand about what forensic science can and can’t do. I actually still do l give guest lectures at universities on this particular topic. The fallibility of certain areas of forensic science. We’ll see which way it goes, but I would love to dive into those topics more.
You can read more about the book and the blog at The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong.