Sunday, November 15, 2009

Secret Diary of a Poor PhD Student...wait, Call Girl?

Some of you may be familiar with the blog Diary of a London Call Girl by Belle de Jour. The stories of a professional woman's secret life as a high class prostitute won the Guardian's Blog of the Year in 2003 and has spawned multiple books and a Showtime series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. The author had been working behind a pseudonym, but has now outed herself as Dr. Brooke Magnanti.
Until last week, even her agent was unaware of her name. But now Magnanti, a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol, has spoken of the time six years ago she worked as a £300 an hour prostitute working through a London escort agency. Magnanti turned to the agency in the final stages of her PhD thesis when she ran out of money. She was already an experienced science blogger and began writing about her experiences in a web diary later adapted into books and a television drama starring Billie Piper.


Magnanti said she was working on a doctoral study for the department of forensic pathology of Sheffield University in 2003 when she began her secret life. "I was getting ready to submit my thesis. I saved up a bit of money. I thought, I'll just move to London, because that's where the jobs are, and I'll see what happens.

"I couldn't find a professional job in my chosen field because I didn't have my PhD yet. I didn't have a lot of spare time on my hands because I was still making corrections and preparing for the viva and I got through my savings a lot faster than I thought I would."

This fascinates me for a number of reasons. My initial reaction was how sadly underpaid PhD students can be, which I'm sure I'll be experiencing first hand fairly soon. Not only is it hard to find a job during and after getting your doctorate, but the only decent paying job you can get is prostitution.

But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's not a job I'd want, but I'm not going to judge those who choose that path. Magnanti stressed that she greatly enjoyed her job, though she was lucky in that she was a high class escort with a generally safer pool of customers. I'm personally in the camp that thinks prostitution should be legalized and regulated (background checks, STD testing, etc). We shouldn't punish people for being naturally sexual beings (and really, is prostitution that much different than buying someone dinner or jewelry with the hopes of sex?), but we should try to protect sex workers from potentially dangerous situations.

While that's my opinion, I know many disagree with me. I'm afraid what sort of bad press this may get for female scientists. I don't think it deserves bad press - more power to her for enjoying what she did - but I know the slut-shamers are going to come out of the woodwork. Women in science already have to deal with being in the minority and dealing with all sorts of biases and stereotypes. I'm just waiting for someone to go, "See, brains don't matter because she still had to resort to being a whore."

What do you guys think?

(Via BoingBoing)


  1. I see no problem in being a prostitute, no matter if you're going to be a scientist.
    However, no false excuses: "I *had* to do it" my ass. You *choose* to do it, it was an easy way to get a lot of money. No problem in that, I repeat, but be honest and admit that was a choice.
    You can take a Ph.D. making fries ad McDonald's, if you choose to.

  2. Way I see it, prostitution holds a striking number of similarities to another societal evil, marijuana. It’s perfectly harmless except in rare cases; it possesses numerous advantages, whereas the only problems are societal (ie. other people’s perception of the issue and not the issue itself); it’s so prevalent and accessible that it almost makes you wonder whether it’s outlawed at all; and the only real troubles arise if you get caught doing it.

    And, just like marijuana, I see no good reason why it should be criminalized to begin with. I fully support its legalization – though (again as with pot), with strict regulation for health and security reasons.

    If someone needs to make some money to sustain him-/herself and decides to enter the prostitution business for loads of quick money, I really don’t have or see any problems against it. It’s their bodies, they can do whatever they wish. Anyone who tries to deny them the right to have sex for money is really just a self-righteous meddler and little else.

    * Though, agriculturists and hunters may wanna argue that point.

  3. I totally agree with you, and with Joé also. Don't think there is much to add, except that I think the main problem is the strong lobbyists that support religious affairs and agendas. They have so much money it would be very difficult to change those aspects of society.

    Why is it that religion always seems to be in the way of progress? Crap.

  4. I've never been able to work out why prostitution is illegal is the first place, it doesn't have any problems that other service businesses don't also have and certainly no problems that couldn't be dealt with by simple regulations. So it has to be historical and there I can't find any reasons that didn't ultimately end up being sexist or classist.

    Ultimately, Dr. Magnanti made the money she needed to get the education she needed to do what she wanted and at a job she was happy with. The only problem that might come from this is if small minded people choose to attack her.

    Obligatory George Carlin quote:
    "Selling is legal.
    Fucking is legal.
    Why is selling fucking illegal?"

  5. @Incidence: That quote is teh awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I agree with Jen.
    The worst part of prostitution is that it isn't regulated.

  7. Prostitution is legalized in the Netherlands since some years, which makes regulation possible. This proves to be difficult though. Only a *very* small percentage started out working as prostitutes because they willingly chose to do so. Women are lured into prostitution by pimps posing as boyfriends, by promising immigrants a job and then forcing them into prostitution, etc. etc. And some are forced by monetary problems, because they see no other option.

    I am not saying prostitution should be illegal, but legalization doesn't solve a lot problems, that seems to be forgotten here. 'Happy' stories like Magnanti have a tendency to obscure all the sad stories which are much more prevalent.

  8. How do you know they're more prevalent? I'm wondering if that isn't just a stereotype. Not saying that there aren't cases of abusive pimps, wommen trapped into it, etc., but is that the majority, really?

  9. @ olifantje, what is your source for the *very* small percentage??
    I believe there is a problem with human trafficing and forced prostitution but those problems are everywhere.
    If prostitution is illegal, those that are forced into it are not as willing to come out if they are facing criminal charges...

  10. *HOPEFULLY* this will UNDO stereotypes of "whores" rather than create stereotypes of female scientists.

    A lot of women who work in prostitution actually *aren't* the drug addicted emotionally destroyed, option less creatures popular conceptions of them indicate.

    So all I say is more power to her, she's an awesome woman. I don't think this will hurt other female scientists... but I sure hope it won't hurt her either, I'm not sure about the second one though :(

  11. oh yeah, and immigrant and poor women are also forced into slave conditions as domestic servants and agricultural workers too... I don't think we have any *more* problem with this kind of thing with sex trafficking than these other problems which need fixing, and legalization will certainly not make the situation worse... women will have more options to go to the police for help and not be blackmailed or victimized there as well.

    (Well, in the case of immigrant women, we ALSO will have to revamp the immigration policy as well, as it does no good if your job is legal if *you* are labeled as illegal.)

  12. My country has criminalised the customer (only), and the travaux préparatoires to the legislation explicitly make it a crime to pay for sex with flowers or dinners. And no, there is no debate about the legal philosophy or boundaries involved.

    Percentages and methodologies: here, illegal immigrant women are given six months' residence permits and welfare benefits if they produce the narratives of male-led trafficking demanded by the people who have brought us this legislation. If not, they're put on the next plane out. Someone do the math..... So, Olifantje, it might be the other way round, the sad stories concealing the reality.

    Here, it's almost impossible to get contrary narratives into the media. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if they next enact a criminalisation of the "glorification" of prostitution (in the same way as Tony Blair enacted regarding the "glorification" of terrorism), so that both Dr. Magnanti and Jen could be silenced.

    Jemand: you are so right. I have met a lot of prostitutes who had day jobs where they needed to be together --- including a paramilitary policewoman; now she would have been in deep do-do if outed! Above street level, probably the majority go on the game like the good doctor, both part-time and limited-duration. To pay debts, to build a house, to start a business, sometimes to finance a big wedding. People who have the "whore" stereotypes you mention assume they don't know any ex-prostitutes, but are they ever wrong. They might even be colleagues of/married to one. Anyone see a forehead stamp on the good doctor? I thought not. In the UK, so many law students are on the game that it is only a matter of time before the PM or the Lady Chief Justice is an ex. Tee-hee!

    I can't even imagine this discussion in my country. There is only one permitted feminist/progressive viewpoint, and this isn't it.

    Thanks for the Carlin quote!

  13. I think there is a good argument for legalization and regulation. Slowing the spread of AIDS may be one of the big benefits. It also helps women avoid being robbed and worse because if you can track who the prostitutes are you can keep better track of violent people who would harm them in the guise of a john.

    Though one person I often (not always) agree with or think has a worthwhile opinion said that prostitutes are emotionally victims and that it is a crime, partly against them. Not sure if this lady disproves his understanding.

    Joe McKen, I actually see pot as being a bad thing because, like smoking regular cigarettes, it puts some kind of air pollution inside your lungs and, I suspect, could end up giving someone lung cancer or something.

  14. "and really, is prostituion that much different than buying someone dinner or jewelry with the hopes of sex?"

    EXACTLY! How is it different than any exchange that involves one person using their body for pay? Models, athletes, construction workers . . .all are providing services with their bodies for pay.

  15. @Anonymous:
    Not trying to change the topic of the thread, but I wanted to reply to your comment. Yes, pot (like any and all drugs) does have some negative health effects; in fact, researchers even say pot smoke is in fact worse than tobacco (cigarette) smoke in terms of carcinogens and other effects. But, the thing is, I support the legalization of medical marijuana (sorry if I didn’t make that clearer in my first post), not just for potheads who smoke it all the time. This would mean smoking only in rare cases of injury and the likes, which would equate to a vastly reduced risk.

  16. @Gwenny: I use that argument myself, in the form "No to sale of hairdressers' fingers!"

    Reason: Here, it is mandatory to describe prostitution as "sale of women's bodies", thus (quite deliberately) conflating purchase of services with chattel slavery, block and all. And that independent of the trafficking issue; for example, Belle's clients should, it is held here, go to prison for buying her body, even though she is under the impression that she still has it. It's an odd trope, because whenever a customer "buys a woman's body", he nevertheless find himself going home with a male one.........

  17. @Joe and anonymous... I don't think the limited health risks of pot are a reason for the state to step in and make the decision for it's citizens. People can decide to partake reasonably with minimal risk, just like they can sky dive a couple times without killing themselves. But... skydiving does come with inherent risk. Lots of what we do can be dangerous, but I don't think prostitution or pot is essentially so dangerous that we must be banned from participating/partaking in it.

    So yeah, it should be legal medically, but I also believe it should be legal recreationally. No smoking in public buildings, parks, etc. whatever, but you *can* use it.

  18. @Jemand:
    I see your point. I’m really kinda torn in between legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, and just outright decriminalizing it for all, like cigarettes or alcohol. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize it should be legalized completely – hell, how many people are put in danger health-wise, or killed, due to cigarettes or alcohol? Yet, they’re still perfectly legal …

  19. Same anon person as before.

    We may be slowly making tobacco illegal as a society. Tobacco and alcohol were grandfathered in, thus they get treated differently.

    Making it legal to the same level as alcohol (and allowing the same level of distribution) could relate to an increase in other things (such as driving high).

    In sum the best way for us to deal with the 3 is to find out what is the "least worst" situation for them.

    We could make pot legal or just reduce the price related to using it illegally to that of getting a traffic ticket (not nice but not a level of punishment that appears to overly harm someone at first glance).

    Of course one of the things we could do with drunken driving is increase the penalty for doing so in a measurable way. For, instance seize the offender's car and let him/her walk a significant way back to town (I heard that is one of the ways a Scandinavian nation deals with drunken driving-drink all you want, but drive drunk and the night suck for you).

    Sorry for drifting from the prostitution topic.

  20. @anon.... that "walk back to town at night" might be *brutally dangerous* for certain people at certain locations... like deadly or get gang raped or get permanently disabled. I'm all for impounding your car permanently and removing your driver's license for years after driving drunk... but not abandoning someone alone in the dark with no transportation.

    That's just too low. And that's coming for someone who has absolutely *no* love lost for drunk drivers.

  21. @Jemand: Well, unlike certain other countries, we in Scandinavia have public transportation..... I think if a woman driver were busted for DUI in the small hours, the police would drive her to somewhere safe. Or at the least hang around until the cab arrived. Never heard that rape/murder/cannibalism of drunk drivers was a major issue here. And in the summer, which is one of the two seasons in which people go nuts with the booze (the other being winter), there isn't any dark anyway.

  22. @Hugo, oh yeah, forgot you all were civilized over there ;)

    lol, I suppose that would be ok, and I doubt you have as strong racial tensions especially in certain locations, which was my other thought of a vulnerable population. It kinda sucks as well sometimes being a minority after dark in many locales.

    I just don't see how it really could be generalized to here, at least with our current culture.

  23. The most civilised thing I ever heard of was in Finland, where DUI convicts had to break rocks to make the runway for the new airport. The twist was that the rocks were broken by all classes up to and including CEOs, cabinet ministers and IIRC the chief justice. Nowhere else, I think......