On science and prostitution

Belle de Jour: On science and prostitution. Under the name Belle de Jour, Brooke Magnanti wrote about her experiences as a prostitute for a London escort agency, and her blog became a bestselling book, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, and a television series.

She has a master's degree in genetic epidemiology and a PhD from the University of Sheffield's department of forensic pathology.

She currently works at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health and told her agent: "if New Scientist asks for an interview, I'll do it". We did ask.


In one of your early papers you established a possible link between thyroid cancer in women in Cumbria, in north-west England, and fallout from Chernobyl in Ukraine.

The trends in thyroid carcinomas in young women in north-west England show a consistent rise since the late 1980s. But our research also shows an increase in areas that didn't receive fallout from Chernobyl, so there may be multifactorial causes at work.

You've also looked at policy for the assessment of risks from organophosphates.

There are pesticides that have been banned from indoor use in the US but are legal in the European Union, which may cause developmental, emotional and possibly autistic-spectrum disorders.

We're collating the evidence and consulting experts to put forward a case to policy-makers to implement a similar ban to the one in North America.

Your colleagues have reportedly been very supportive but do you worry that the publicity around you being Belle de Jour will hinder your career?

Yes. That was the main reason for my anonymity. If I had just wanted to be a writer it probably would have been more profitable to come out sooner, but working in science is important to me.

Science was so important to you, in fact, that you worked as an escort.

Let's be frank, postdocs are not well paid - being debt-free enabled me to continue to choose science jobs I love rather than changing career.

So for you the benefits of not being in debt outweighed the dangers of prostitution?

The particular situation I was in was far less dangerous than streetwalking and paid sufficiently well that I didn't have to do it for very long. Also I met fewer men than a streetwalker would in the same period, and again that decreased the chances of a bad experience.

I trusted my instincts, and the agency was very good about vetting clients as well.

Should British PhD students be paid a proper wage, as they are in other countries?

I'm in two minds about this: if paid a wage, they may also be expected to do more teaching, which would result in the PhD taking far longer, as it does in other countries.

I had offers of PhD places both here and in the US, and chose Sheffield because it would take half the time.

You are currently writing a novel. How does being a scientist inform your writing?

Science is my main career ambition. Writing up a project is an especially satisfying pursuit, which probably puts me in a minority of scientists.

What do you say to the charge that you have glamorised prostitution?

Call girls existed long before I got into the game, and details of what that life is like were well established before I started writing about it. Implying I single-handedly turned the business around is flattering but doesn't stand much scrutiny.

There are science-based arguments to be made for legalising the sex trade: for example, it would reduce the spread of STIs such as HIV. Is this something you would support?

In the UK, prostitution itself is legal - pimping, soliciting and brothels are not. This results in a huge safety gap between call girls and streetwalkers.

Doesn't it make sense for women at all price points in the sex business to have the same protection I did, and in doing so, possibly gain the leverage over traffickers and clients they need to protect their personal and sexual health?

How were you able to conceal your identity as Belle de Jour for so long?

My anonymity was maintained the old-fashioned way: good old confusing paper trail. We set up a corporation with other people on the board.

It wasn't internet sleuthing that led to my outing: it was because I'd told someone I couldn't trust.

The papers didn't find me, not because I'm a master of subterfuge, but because they assumed I would be one of their own - not a small-time blogger. ( newscientist.com )

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