Brook Magnanti: taking on moralising left and evangelist right

Sex: Accepting assertion as fact

Sarah McDonald reviews: Dr Brooke Magnanti The sex myth: why everything we’re told is wrong Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2012, pp272, £14.99

Brook Magnanti’s book is a very worthwhile read. Over the course of 270 pages she makes a good job of debunking the myths, breaking through the hype and addressing the moral outrage and panic surrounding issues of sex, albeit from a liberal perspective. The book is well researched and covers a range of controversial topics - recognising women’s sexual arousal by visual stimulation, questioning the numbers behind sex trafficking statistics, tackling the perceived early sexualisation of young people and its negative effects (or lack thereof).

Dr Magnanti herself comes from an interesting background. While an American (very noticeable from her writing style), she studied, lives and works in the UK, and so she discusses these issues with reference to both UK and US politics. Magnanti has professional interests in population-based research, standards of evidence, human biology and anthropology - all of which are evident within this study. In addition to her academic qualifications in genetic epidemiology and forensic pathology, she has worked as a call girl and authored the bestselling Belle de jour memoirs, which went on to be adapted into the TV series, Secret diary of a call girl. This, rather than giving her kudos for her real-life experience in the sex industry, has caused her to be discredited (and arguably patronised) in the eyes of intellectual feminists, Guardian columnists and well-meaning liberals alike.

In this book Magnanti takes on both the moralising left and evangelist right. She has three terms: “agenda-setter” (companies, NGOs, etc with an interest in a particular view); “constellation-makers” (those who draw conclusions from information “based on their exact position on Earth at a given time”, without any hard evidence); and “evangelisers” (those who spread the word because it suits their world view). She views these three groups as key to creating accepted views about sex and sexuality that often have little or no factual basis.

The book begins with an exploration of women’s sexual arousal. It is still a commonly held view (among both men and women) that, while men are sexually aroused by visual stimuli, it is emotional attachments that trigger sexual arousal in women. Magnanti cites a series of studies which analyse visual, verbal and genital responses on groups of both heterosexual and homosexual men and women watching a range of pornography. The results are perhaps surprising. While (straight or gay) men’s physical responses are in line with their verbal description of what turns them on, straight women who claim to be aroused only by heterosexual intercourse in fact respond to a variety of other images.

Magnanti goes on to describe the concept of ‘sexual addiction’ as a false epidemic that particularly seems to affect celebrity types. (Of course, the religious right have a lot to say about sexual addiction - possibly because some of their leading practitioners have been afflicted by it - and they seem to make a lot of money out of ‘curing’ it.) She quotes Dr Patrick Carnes, co-founder of the Gentle Path sex addiction programme (the centre that treated Tiger Woods), who defines sexual addiction on his website as including at least some of the following: “compulsive masturbation, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child-molesting, incest, rape and violence” (p37). As Magnanti points out, child molestation and rape require a rather different response from, for example, approaches to excessive masturbation.

Carnes also boasts a “sexual addiction screening test” - a truly absurd series of questions, to which the respondent answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A prime examples is: “Has sex (or romantic fantasies) been a way to escape your problems?” I would suggest that such a definition would make everyone reading this a sex addict and, as Magnanti points out, “Isn’t that more or less the very definition of a fantasy?” (p38). The issue is, of course, as she goes on to explain, that if you start to diagnose something as a disease then you offer ‘treatment’ for it. Which means that therapists, insurance companies and evangelical churches, with their anti-porn, anti-sex moral crusades, also have an agenda at play here. Aptly, a researcher is quoted at the end of this chapter as quipping: “A nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you.”

Moral panic

In the next chapter Magnanti challenges the idea that contemporary culture leads to the early sexualisation of children - a notion that has driven a moral panic espoused with relish by the tabloid media. Quite correctly, she points out that this is simply a matter of what is considered acceptable (and who are considered children). While some would consider skimpy outfits immodest, others would take the same view of female uncovered hair (and, of course, such standards of ‘modesty’ apply only to women or girls).

Magnanti goes on to argue that responsibility for what is acceptable should lie with the family. This is where it is worth taking issue with her, insofar as that may be true to an extent with young children, but, as the author herself points out, what is appropriate for a toddler would not be suitable for a teenager. In any case, children and young people should not be regarded simply as the property of their families.

Magnanti questions the media furore around push-up bras for pre-teens, etc (even on supposedly intelligent programmes such as Newsnight), on the grounds that they might actually be needed, as the age at which girls are reaching puberty continues to get younger. She takes on the ‘evidence’ of reports into the sexualisation of young people, such as that of the UK government in 2009, which was launched by then home secretary Jacqui Smith, glamour model Danielle Lloyd and psychologist Linda Papadopoulos (who, as I recall, used to feature regularly on daytime TV shows). The 2009 report, Magnanti argues, “describes a world where girls who can barely walk are given high heels and Playboy tees”, and this is blamed for everything from violence to anorexia (p59). The report introduced no new material, but relied solely on referencing existing research (ie, it was a literature review, not a piece of research in its own right), but this did not stop it coming up with policy recommendations for the Labour government.

Magnanti goes on to question the academic integrity of other papers of this nature, querying the agenda of those behind them, and pointing to their merely anecdotal evidence and assumed correlations. In terms of academic integrity, she takes issue with data produced by public opinion polls used to influence policy. The data can be affected by the way the question is posed or simply how the researchers choose to present the figures. Anecdotal evidence is all well and good, as long as one recognises it for what it is. And the fact that an opinion is widely held does not make it factually correct: eg, in parts of America creationist ideas might hold sway in popular belief, but this does not negate the evidence for evolution.

One of my favourite chapters in the book is entitled ‘Myth: when adult businesses move into a city, the occurrence of rape and sexual assault goes up’. This is interesting, as it challenges commonly held views of feminist groups and campaigners against domestic and sexual violence, just as much as those we would more readily expect to find ourselves oppositing (the church, pharmaceutical companies, the state). Remember the Socialist Workers Party, Respect and George Galloway wanting to ‘clean up’ London’s East End in 2006? This shows that ‘evangelisers’ of all types are all too eager to endlessly repeat data that supports their world view, even if it has long since been discredited.

The chapter looks at incidents of rape in the London Borough of Camden since a licence was granted for Spearmint Rhino to open (Spearmint Rhino differs from other lap-dancing establishments in that it features full nudity). A 2003 study showed that incidents of rape had risen by 50% in areas surrounding lap-dancing clubs - sparking many a headline. But, as Magnanti points out, “correlation is not the same as causation” (p84) - a very basic principle in all scientific research. The women’s charity, Lilith, published data showing an increase in reported incidents of rape in Camden from 72 to 96 (actually a 33% rise) comparing 1999 and 2003. This was a very small sample dealing with just one borough, but, even so, the report failed to take into account the increase in population, which would leave us with a proportional rise of just under18%. Neither did it factor in the trend over a longer period for the number of incidents to fluctuate considerably year by year - sometimes up, sometimes down. The overall trend shows that rapes in Camden are thankfully falling, not rising (assuming that the ratio between reported and actual rapes has remained constant).


Other chapters ask whether pornography objectifies women and whether restricting or banning prostitution would end the exchange of sex for money. The motivations of those who oppose sex work are examined, revealing the hypocrisy and often ignorance of the moral crusaders, both left and right.

While most of what is raised here is no doubt fair, Magnanti occasionally bends the stick too far. Although she makes valid points about the favourable pay and conditions for porn actresses, as opposed to their male counterparts, she argues that the men are mere “living props”, performing feats that would be more suited to sex toys, and are often reduced to “faceless entities” (p104). Because male actors are more easily replaced than the actresses, without whom the show cannot go on, they are generally paid significantly less, she claims - though I would imagine they have longer careers than the women, who will find it harder to get work as they get older.

Magnanti has a go at feminists (although she is not directly referred to, Caitlin Moran springs to mind as a recent example) who draw a distinction between erotica and pornography - ‘Burlesque good, strip clubs bad’. She cites Ellen Willis, who makes the point that “this kind of hypocrisy appeals to an idealised version of what kind of sex people should want rather than what actually arouses them” (“what turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic” - p109). This criticism of contemporary feminists is refreshing - so much popular feminist literature, with its trashy, anecdotal finger-wagging, is utterly tedious.

The author makes use of her direct experience of the sex industry to write with a clear sense of frustration of the liberals and feminists who know little about prostitution, but are quick to make broad assumptions about the women (never the men or transgender people, who are largely forgotten) working in the trade. The perception that these are mainly young, abused or fleeing abuse, drug-addicted or uneducated is not true, when looking at sex work as a whole (though these are prevalent within street-walking). Magnanti produces data claiming to shows that 85% of women prostitutes were over the age of 26, and around a third (both male and female) have a university degree, which compares favourably with the UK population as a whole (p178).

Magnanti is offended by the one-dimensional, patronising notion that prostitutes are merely exploited women. That is a view I experienced at first hand within the Scottish Socialist Party, whose 2006 conference debate on ‘prostitution tolerance zones’ threw up many a crude example of the left’s failure to engage with the issue in any serious way: prostitution is a form of violent oppression and all prostitutes are ‘victims’ to be rescued (by the state). Once again it is important not to overstate things, however: it is worth bearing in mind that there are many people on the harder end of the game who are vulnerable and exploited. It is also true that some women are forced into this line of work against their will - but there are, of course, laws against forced labour, as well as those against assault and rape.

What The sex myth reveals is that data from governments, NGOs and charities based on incomplete statistics and anecdotal evidence have become accepted wisdom (the chapter on trafficking is very illuminating in this respect, though too complex to sum up here). Journalists with tight word limits and TV presenters of two-minute news items end up reinforcing the official reports. They, like the layperson, rely on the so-called ‘experts’. Information is repeated and repeated, taken as gospel even when factually inaccurate. The resulting prejudices permeate social attitudes, with very few people even thinking to question what lies behind the data, the reports and the policies.

Early on in her book, Dr Magnanti refers to the Chinese proverb: “Three men make a tiger”. The idea being that the individual is likely to accept assertion as fact if they have heard it from three different people. In summation, “It only takes a handful of persuasive voices to convince people something exists, even if it may not” (p37).