What happens in the blog, stays in the blog

In light of the unmasking of Belle de Jour as a scientist, Petra Boynton, who blogs about sex and science, says institutions must balance privacy, scholarship and advocacy

November 22, 2009

In the early 1990s, sociologist Lynn Sharon Chancer created a hypothetical case of a student who completed her PhD on prostitution through participant observation. When Chancer told academics about this “student”, they reacted with comments such as: “What are you talking about, a joke? She’d be a whore, right? I’d give her a job right then – lying down.”

Such reactions aren’t that unusual for academics researching prostitution, who may struggle to have their work taken seriously, particularly when research collides with one’s personal life. Academics with links to the sex industry (as sex workers, erotic performers or supporters of prostitutes’ rights) have faced everything from accusations of being biased in their research through to abuse and harassment.

Direct attacks on those involved in or supporting sex work are not unusual in academia. The now-infamous 1982 Barnard Conference in New York resulted in a battle between radical feminists and sex-positive delegates, who went on to contact the radicals’ employers and threaten their livelihoods. Earlier this year, US academics campaigning for sex workers’ rights found themselves outed in the press by prohibitionist campaigners, who also complained to the scholars’ institutions.

To date, these debates have been limited to those involved in researching prostitution or related areas. But what about academics who may be involved in teaching and research in other subject areas but who also sell sex?

Witness the recent exposure of blogger Belle de Jour as scientist Brooke Magnanti. After several years writing an anonymous blog detailing her life as a high-class prostitute (and following a lucrative book deal and spin-off TV series), Dr Magnanti was threatened with exposure, so she revealed herself. The media have been thrilled to finally out “Belle”, not least because – gasp – she is attractive and articulate, she was a prostitute and is now a scientist.

The science community seems, for the most part, to have either accepted Magnanti’s past or to have been pleased to see the stereotypical image of the geeky scientist overturned. The media have been fascinated, intrusive and often critical – reviving accusations against Magnanti for glamorising prostitution or contrasting her story with grim stories of trafficked prostitutes or the Ipswich murder victims in the name of “balanced” journalism.

Neither the media nor the academic community seem to have questioned Magnanti’s professional qualifications on the basis of her past career. Which is only proper, although I wonder whether this would still be the case if Brooke was still working as Belle.

The case of Belle/Brooke raises a number of questions for universities. How should institutions respond to staff or students involved with prostitution?

It would help if we had a clearer idea of how many students and staff are involved in prostitution, without assuming that prostitution is an automatic or very common choice for postgraduates or postdocs, as some media reports have suggested.

While many universities are embracing blogging as a teaching tool, keeping a separate blog that talks frankly about sex (regardless of whether you’re paid for it) is something universities may also be squeamish about – and uncertain whether they have any control over.

It would be a pity, if, as a result of this case, universities clamped down on the external lives of their students and staff – or restricted what can be discussed in blogs.

In an ideal world, having a current or former prostitute in your institution should not affect your academic reputation. However, this may be difficult given the negative view many people hold about prostitutes. Or the big divide between prohibitionists and those who choose prostitution or who support sex workers.

I would sincerely hope that Magnanti can continue with her academic work without negative repercussions. Given the problems others have experienced, this may be optimistic, particularly as there are some vocal critics of Belle who now have a named person to target. It would be wise for Magnanti’s institution to offer her security and support during this period of intense media scrutiny.

It may be that prostitutes and supporters of sex workers will want Magnanti to become their advocate or spokeswoman. This is entirely the choice of Magnanti. Some well-known writers such as Tracy Quan have done this, but it should not be expected. There are many academics working to understand prostitution and support those currently or previously involved in sex work who will undoubtedly stand by Magnanti whatever the future holds. I wish her well.

Petra Boynton is a lecturer at University College London who writes a popular sex and science blog at www.drpetra.co.uk

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