The Sex Myth: A book review

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…

Reported rapes in Camden 1999-2008. Original figure based on data from p87 of The Sex Myth

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.

To conclude

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.

4 responses to “The Sex Myth: A book review

  1. ” occasionally one gets the feeling that she’s just that little bit too keen to prove her critics wrong.” Believe me, this book was not done in the interest of uncovering any truth. The whole book was written as a shot at her critics. Magnanti is infamous for skewing research (and none of this was her own original research) and making up quotes when she can’t find any to back up her agenda. And she has a DEFINITE agenda, which is quite funny considering her complaints about others’ alleged agendas (to Magnanti, it’s an “agenda” when someone is saying something that does not align with her own opinion.) You can find many better, more honest writers on sex than Magnanti.

  2. Out of interest why does it bother you that there’s no original research? I can’t think of a single pop science book that does contain original science. Ben Goldacre discusses other people’s ‘Bad Science’. Matt Ridley describes the human genome through references to other people’s papers. Even Richard Dawkins just rehashed theories from various fields of evolutionary biology. If Magnanti had done some primary research, she’d be publishing it in Pediatric Blood and Cancer or Toxicology Letters, like her other papers, not writing a book. That’s not how scientific research is disseminated.

    I agree that she does seem to have an agenda to push, but it seems a little extreme to write off the entire book (which does make plenty of interesting and valid points, backed up by solid research) just because some of it points to a personal agenda.

    • I say that about research because Magnanti is known well for displaying her status as a researcher, (even if the type of research she does is not connected to the subject she is writing about) while routinely going after her critics for not supplying research in their commentary on her work. These are the rules she creates for what she considers valid discussion, yet she does not apply them to herself. It’s just another example of the questionable tactics she uses in her writing that leads one to believe that her focus is on her agenda, rather than information.
      And I disagree, I belive it’s valid to “write off” a book when an author has been so blatant about her bias. Sure, even if, say, 1 percent of a book is honest commentary then the book has some value, but that value is also relative to the amount of misinformation the book supplies.

      • one thing I forgot to mention– at least some of the research in the book really is presented as her interpretation of it. That is, she often highlights single elements of the research and puts them in a context they are not meant to be in. I’m not saying to not read the book, just warning that people should think very critically about the voice presenting it.

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