Spare me the hackneyed, hollow, "There’s still work to be done", headlines that surround International Women’s day. What about the other 364 days of relentless media stereotyping? There’s the nag (frigid feminists banging on about women’s rights), the hag (women too old to be on tele, i.e. over 40), the WaG (Coleen “the handbag” Rooney) and the reality show must have -"glamour models".
Dr Brooke Magnanti's life is currently being serialised in “Secret diary of a call girl”. Magnanti’s account of the happy, well adjusted hooker, as portrayed in the series, is as flawed as it is misogynistic. But, like Twiggy’s wrinkles and Kate Winslet’s curves, inconvenient truths are airbrushed out.
Recent research highlighted the “pornification” of society and that 60% of teenage girls aspire to be “glamour” (AKA soft porn) models, like Jordan, the woman who thinks Silicone Valley is the place to go for breast implants. The woman whose two year old daughter recently appeared “tarted up” on face book. Glamour models are ubiquitous. Women who dare to make a bid for power, using their minds rather than their bodies, however, are either invisible or pilloried by the press. The media’s handling of Brooke Magnanti “coming out” as Belle de Jour is just one example of how disconnected it is from women and feminism. From my own cursory research I encountered a lonely, insecure woman who saw prostitution as a kind of dating agency. A way to meet men and have an excuse to get dressed up on a Saturday night. “Belle de Jour” is an alter ego created, in my view, to escape the demons that possess Magnanti. Her marketing campaign hangs on us buying into a series of unconvincing myths, which have been perpetuated, not exposed, by the press.
Myth 1: Honesty: In her blog Magnanti recounts scenes of a waltonesque family life. She claimed, “My parents stayed married and I’m close to them both”. They’re not and she isn’t. When she “came out” as Belle she said of her father, “He’s a bit of a do gooder, he helps women”. It has since emerged in the press that he's actually a drug addict who has used over 150 prostitutes, some of whom he introduced to his daughter (as you do). A female relative is also a prostitute. Not quite the wholesome family scenario Magnanti invented.
Myth 2: Healthy sexuality: Magnanti said she watched porn as a teenager and had anal sex with a man twice her age at 16. The same time that she was grappling with the “disfigurement” of acne (ahead of a recent TV interview with Billie Piper Magnanti grudgingly divulged that teenage acne left her with facial scars). Far from being sexually empowered, it seems more plausible that a troubled, insecure Magnanti sought comfort and approval from an older man by offering him what she knew (from porn) would please him. Sex.
Her first “job” as a prostitute (according to her blog) involved going to the house of a man she’d never met before, getting drunk on two bottles of Chardonnay, having sex, sleeping there, then having had such a lovely time, she gives the client her direct number. Other incidents include a client urinating on her neck and having a chewed finger nail stuck up her vagina (you won’t find these unsavoury scenes in the secret diary series). Anyone who describes this as healthy sexuality or worse, empowerment, is deluded. It’s disturbing that the BBC’s This Week didn’t spot the tragic irony when they recently invited Magnanti to lecture teenagers on sex and self respect. In the Piper interview Magnanti gaily described being made to wear a pair of glasses so a client could come on her face. She was then ordered to wipe the sperm on the carpet and lick it up. Magnanti said she does what she’s told because it’s inappropriate “etiquette” to question clients. It was like listening to someone tell a story of excruciating abuse in a manner that made Lady Macbeth look like Morrissey on Prozac. The dissonance and psychotic disconnect between her light hearted banter and the actual humiliation she described made for cringe worthy viewing. Has she become so desensitised (from growing up on porn), so accustomed to being abused by men, that she can no longer recognise when she is being demeaned and humiliated? Or does she think being treated like a dog (literally) is OK as long as you get paid for it?
Magnanti suggests that women bereft of skills should be allowed to sell their bodies. The fact that 70% of prostitutes start as children and have suffered abuse seems insignificant to her. Dr Magnanti is currently working on child health. She might be interested in one of my previous cases. Cathy was a child and a prostitute. From the age of four her parents had sex parties. The adults would abuse each others children. On the few occasions that Cathy found the courage to tell trusted adults, no-one believed her. Her parents were both doctors. Respectable people don’t behave like that. She was living on the streets at 12, a drug addict at 13 and by the time I met her, at 14, she was “owned” by a pimp in central London. I spent Christmas with her in casualty. She had been raped with a broken bottle and was severely traumatised. She was bright, and beautiful. But she wasn’t “qualified,” or rather psychologically or physically capable, of doing anything (according to her pimp) except prostitution. It fed her habit, which numbed the pain.
There was no fairytale ending for Cathy. The best Dr Magnanti, a child health specialist, can do is tell Cathy, and girls like her, that the only thing they’re good for now is prostitution. Magnanti will know that Cathy’s scenario is more typical than Belle’s fictitious one. It’s not in her interests to dwell on the unpleasant reality of the sex industry. It would sully her brand. Magnanti is sanctimonious when talking about street walkers like Cathy. She places herself in a higher league. As if charging £200 makes the urine running down her neck Chanel instead of the £60 version of Eau de toilette. Women of her class should be allowed to dip in and out of prostitution, depending on the need for shoes, but street walkers should stick with it. It’s all they’re good at, or for.
Myth 3: Feminism: Setting aside the aforementioned acts of degradation, Magnanti claims she’s a feminist. Her lack of female friends makes that declaration tenuous at best. “The surest way to tell the prostitute walking into a hotel at Heathrow is to look for the lady in the designer suit. Fact”. On behalf of all the women harassed by sleazy men in flammable shirts, we thank you Dr Magnanti. Boob tube or business suit, unaccompanied women are always fair game. She does have concerns about rape though. We should stop banging on about it. Yes, women get raped but… “If being a man was easy, hookers wouldn’t exist. Fact”.
Myth 4: Passion: Magnanti claims to like sex and boasts about being good at it. If she likes it so much why fake orgasms? and if faking orgasms is criteria for being good at sex then we can all do that (women obviously). If not enjoying being urinated on and other acts of degradation means I’m frigid (as Magnanti implies), I’m guilty as charged. Sex without intimacy is like Glastonbury without mud, an anticlimax. Prostitution has nothing to do with passion. See Magnanti’s blog. The only passion I discerned was in response to her critics. Reacting to protests against her winning a Guardian blog competition she wrote, “Reckon your life is more interesting, your insight more relevant, your wit more sparkling? The Guardian hath spoken and laid a garland at this doorstep”. There was something menacing about her tone. Magnanti offered to donate her winnings to charity but reneged after all the to do. In order to teach her dissenters a lesson, she decided to keep the money because, “Mama needs a new pair of Jimmy Choos” (so there).
Myth 5: “There’s no comeuppance”: Only people without a conscience can sever the link between their actions and consequences. They’re called psychopaths.
The consequences I’m concerned with are socio-cultural. The sexualisation of girls has become so endemic we don’t even notice it. Playboy duvets, “tart in training” shorts, padded bras for prepubescent girls and TV soaps depicting sex at 14 as normal. Half of school girls are considering plastic surgery to make themselves thinner and prettier and 90% of eating disorders are amongst females, with a disturbing trend in five and six year old girls presenting with the illness. Girls have never been under so much pressure to conform. But to what? An airbrushed, pumped up, sexualised fantasy of perfection.
Portraying women as sex objects perpetuates gender inequalities. Objectification is dehumanising. That’s the point. It’s much easier to abuse (or discriminate against) a non person reduced to mere body parts. Tits and ass usually. The sex industry, of which Dr Magnanti is a part, has vested interests in normalising the objectification of women. To them women, and girls, are just commodities. To be bought and sold. Magnanti is still a prostitute, albeit with a more lucrative remit. Publicity. Along with her cohort of pimps (step forward ITV and the BBC), she’s selling women and children down the river without a paddle. Magnanti reckons “everyone has their price”. I say to her what I said to the man who assumed I was a prostitute (I was in a hotel lobby, alone and wearing a suit. It was reckless). “I’m not for sale. Not at any price. Fact.”