Dr. Brooke Magnanti has revealed her dual identity as Belle de Jour, the £300-per-hour London call girl whose life in the sex work industry has documented in four books, a television series on Showtime, and her ongoing blog, Diary of a London Call Girl. While some have offered support, including her colleagues at Bristol University and many of her fans, others are using this self-outing to bring out tired tropes of sex work and to lambast Magnanti for being a successful instance for how de facto legalized prostitution can potentially serve an individual’s best interests.
Magnanti’s revelation defies stereotypes of sex workers as being either drug-addicted, helpless victims, or unintelligent enough to support a “real” job. From 2003 through the end of 2004, her work for a London brothel supported her PhD studies in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science at The University of Sheffield. In the case of Magnanti, erotic labor has more than paid off her educational debts, it also helped to launch her into two highly successful careers as a published writer and scientist. She currently works as a research specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology for a hospital research group at Bristol University. Her books include The Intimate Adventures of Belle de Jour (2005), The Further Adventures of Belle de Jour (2006), Playing the Game (2008), and Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men (2009). She is currently working on a novel, which she plans to publish under her given name rather than her pseudonym.
Her comic, tongue-in-cheek style often uses literary references to great effect in what comes across as almost conversational and seemingly effortless writing. She writes about her experiences with candor and humor, proving that raunchy jokes aren’t just the exclusive province of Judd Apatow. After all, it’s not every writer who can make a casual reference to both anal sex and Indian food, yet Magnanti joked that her answer to “Can you do anal?” was, “Oh, right. Yes, I can do that. Provided I haven’t been out for a curry the night before.”
Her blog was even named by The Guardian as its Best Written Blog of the Year in 2003. Beating out top-rated blogs such as Call Centre Confidential and Beyond Northern Iraq, Magnanti’s writing proved to be irresistible to the newspaper’s judging panel. Judge Bruce Sterling noted that:
“Archly transgressive, anonymous hooker is definitely manipulating the blog medium, word by word, sentence by sentence far more effectively than any of her competitors. It’s not merely the titillating striptease aspects that are working for her, but her willingness to use this new form of vanity publishing to throw open a great big global window on activities previously considered unmentionable … She is in a league by herself as a blogger.”
In her interview with The Sunday Times, Magnanti claims she doesn’t object to the concept of “hookerdom,” yet throughout the interview, she does not once refer to herself as a “hooker.” Yet, people like Bruce Sterling, India Knight – The Sunday Times interviewer, and other journalists seem to have no issue with offhandedly using this incredibly derogatory term for sex workers. The first six words of the ABC News story “Diary of a Call Girl Blogger Is Revealed – Gasp – as a Scientist” refers to Magnanti as “[t]he most celebrated high class hooker in the world.”
I would even argue that beyond its fundamental lack of respect for Magnanti’s story, the word isn’t even used correctly: “hooker” traditionally refers to those who solicit sex in public places, like street corners, while Magnanti was a “call girl,” or a sex worker who accepted and set appointments via a brothel. Regardless, if Magnanti hasn’t used the word “hooker” to describe her erotic labor, it’s debasing for journalists to refer to her as a “hooker” rather than utilize Magnanti’s preferred self-identifying label.
Although there has been great speculation for the past six years as to Belle de Jour’s real identity, Magnanti may never have come forward if not for the potential danger of being thrust into the spotlight by her ex-boyfriend. Magnanti made a bold move in going forward with her story, since only a handful of her co-workers knew her background; her agent did not know her real name, lest it slip out during book promotions, and her parents must have found out all about it this week. In coming forward, Magnanti has had to deal with unwanted visits to her workplace at Bristol University, as well as new threats of public harassment, slut-shaming, and other unwanted attention.
Ironically, Magnanti has not revealed her ex-boyfriend’s name to the media, referring to him only as a “big mouth lurking in the background.” Owen (last name unpublished) has come forward to the Daily Mail with a tell-all story to the tabloids, arguing that it’s somehow less pathetic to date a call girl than to be one. “She has brought the Sword of Damocles down on herself,” he told the publication. “While she thinks she hasn’t been cut, I think she’ll find that she has when she goes for another job in a couple of years.” And yet, she has book deals, a successful career in medical research, plenty of money, and a new boyfriend of just over a year, whereas her ex-boyfriend has… a thwarted attempt to blackmail Magnanti. How’s that for pathetic?
Even as some readers will gasp in horror at Magnanti’s travails in the sex work industry, their opinion means little in the face of her enormous accomplishments as a writer, scientist, and public figure. Through it all, she has maintained a sense of irreverence toward her work, claiming that, “I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money.”
Perhaps Magnanti will soon pave the way for other sex workers around the world to come forward and offer their stories of using this complex underground industry to further their educational goals, fund their travels, care for a family, or support other “acceptable” pursuits. As Magnanti condemns human trafficking and involuntary prostitution, her story still stands as proof that those who enter the industry with free will, savvy and clear goals can use this unique opportunity to reshape public perceptions of what might otherwise be considered kinky promiscuity.