Last weekend I went to visit my other half, which involves 2 hours on a train both there and back. This is prime time to do some reading for pleasure, which I otherwise never find time for (despite having been a huge book worm for my entire life).
On this particular occasion I was getting my teeth stuck into a new pop science book by Brooke Magnanti called The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. (Which, incidentally, lead to some surprisingly horrified looks from the businessman sat opposite me). I’m always slightly suspicious of anyone who feels the need to advertise their PhD on the front cover of a book, but in Magnanti’s case, she has good reason for wanting to emphasise her credentials. Better known as the Belle de Jour, while writing up her doctoral thesis Brooke worked as a £300 / hour call girl in London, and took the nation by storm with her memoir blog, in which she gave a rather positive view of prostitution. As it happens, she’s also a fully PhD-ed and postdoc-ed forensic scientist and statistician.
Ben Goldacre with Boobs
The premise of the sex myth is a pretty good one. The book looks at nine different ‘myths’ about sex: things like the effect that viewing pornography has upon the human psyche, and the numbers of women trafficked into the UK as sex slaves. She looks at the actual scientific evidence behind any number of public outrages, and discusses how this poor-quality research actually comes about in the first place (covering groups with hidden agendas and so on).
For instance, she discusses the now-slightly-infamous report that showed when lap-dancing clubs in Camden opened, there was a 50% increase in sexual assaults in the area. She points out the long term trend, the increasing population, the general trend in other equivalent areas of London that do not have lap dancing clubs…
Much of this and other chapters is social science rather than life sciences, (something which, bizarrely has been seen as a source of unreliability in the author) but the key more often than not is in the reporting. Where were the control groups? Was the rate calculated? What is the overall trend outside of the two years of ‘before’ and ‘after’? It is essentially Ben Goldacre (aka writer of the Guardian’s Bad Science column) but with boobs.
The plot thickens
Having said this, while I feel very positive about Magnanti’s dissection of various sexual myths, there is an underlying current that is rather uncomfortable. It is unsurprising that, after numerous people essentially accusing her of misremembering or being dishonest about her time as a call girl, the author would be keen to dig her heels in and dispel various notions one might have about the sex industries. And along the way she does cite some interesting studies and make some very good points. There is data, for instance, relating to job satisfaction and levels of qualification among prostitutes: and she compares this to the general public.
But… occasionally one gets the feeling that she’s just that little bit too keen to prove her critics wrong. While criticising them for unfounded assumptions, she makes statements about the overall proportion of prostitutes who are street walkers, or European, and then cites nothing to back this up. In one chapter, she mentions how much more money women earn in pornography; and the way in which women (unlike men) can ‘make a name’ for themselves, and then uses this as the basis for suggesting that women are neither oppressed by porn or its unwilling participants. Having berated others for equated correlation and causation – she then goes on to do it herself. The tone borders on smug. Some of the conclusions are just a bit too much of a leap for me.
Overall, I approve of the book. I think it needed writing, and I think Magnanti does a very good job of highlighting the ways in which our news and policy are determined by people with a moral agenda, without hard science to back it up. The dissection of the UK Consultation on Sexualisation of Young People (by Jacqui Smith, Danielle Lloyd and Linda Papadoulos) is kinda jaw-dropping. But I can’t help but feel disappointed that in trying to dislodge others’ agenda she seems to be shoring up her own. It just makes me a little bit more sceptical about everything else she says.