Thirteen: Writing Sex Work Online: The Case of Belle De Jour

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines responses in the British media to the autobiographical writings of Brooke Magnanti, known as Belle de Jour. In her blog and in the related book and television series, Intimate Adventures of a London Call-Girl, published anonymously, Belle de Jour details her largely positive experiences as a highly paid sex worker. A key aim of this article is to examine how Belle's self-authorship becomes problematic for media accounts of sexual labor, and how her multiple and intersecting identity performances challenge widely accepted myths about what constitutes reality and fantasy.

Writing Sex Work Online: Belle de Jour and the problem of authenticity

Unless you have been a sex worker, or know one intimately, you have No. Fucking. Clue. (Belle de Jour, cited in Saner, 2008).

One of the best-known contemporary autobiographical writers on sex work is the blogger Belle de Jour. Belle de Jour is the nom de plume of Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist at Bristol University, who subsidized her graduate studies by working as a high-class prostitute in London for eighteen months between 2003 and 2004. Her blog was later adapted into three bestselling books, The intimate diaries of a London call-girl series, as well as a novel and a self-help book, Belle de Jour's guide to men. These books were further adapted into a long-running television series in which Belle was played by the popular British television actress Billie Piper. Notably, Belle's trademark intimate and direct address to the reader was conveyed by the actress speaking directly to the camera, thereby mimicking the way Belle's writing seemed to open up a window, through the computer screen, onto the hidden spaces that made up a virtual map of the hidden sexual economy of the city.

Belle's memoirs are as notable for their positive account of her experiences as a sex worker, as well as for the cool eroticism and ironic detachment of her writing style. It was this literary accomplishment, as much as the content of her blog, that led many commentators to raise doubts as to her identity and to suggest that she was really either a male novelist, a collective of writers, or a single writer, perhaps Rowan Pelling who edits the Erotic review, a journal of erotica with a mainly educated middle-class readership (Saner, 2008; Knight, 2009). Although the blog contains much more than simply explicit sex, media critiques tended to overdetermine this aspect of her work, dismissing the blogs as pornographic fantasy intended to give voyeuristic pleasure to the reader. This assumption that Belle was a writer, not an authentic sex worker, led to her being taken to task in the media for glamorizing prostitution and denounced as part of a wider postfeminist sexualization and commercialization of popular culture which destroys young women's capacity for "real" intimacy (Walter, 2010a, 2010b, 38, 43). The anxieties surrounding Belle thus center on questions of authenticity. The popular feminist critique of Belle mobilizes fears about the disembodied nature of cyberspace to position her as doubly inauthentic: as a writer posing as a prostitute, and as one who misrepresents the reality of sex work.

This need to fix whether Belle was "real" led to a media campaign to expose her true identity in what scholar Feona Attwood has termed the "hunt for Belle" (2009, 6). As Attwood notes, this form of exposé journalism is typical of the ways in which the British tabloid press perpetuates narratives of shame and stigma around women's sex writing, not only writing on prostitution. A cause celèbre in blogging culture is that of Zoe Margolis, author of the sex blog Girl with a one-track mind, who has spoken eloquently of the violence of such exposure following an exposé by the Sunday Times which involved the stalking of Margolis and her family by journalists and paparazzi (Attwood 2009: 6-8, Margolis 2006). In 2009, when a former partner threatened to sell his story, Magnanti was similarly forced to "come out" in an interview with the London Times (Knight 2009). …