I’m going to say right up front that I don’t come to any conclusions in this post. I was simply struck the contrasting outcomes in these otherwise very similar stories.
First there is the news that the pseudonymous call-girl and author “Belle Du Jour” has revealed her true identity, as a PhD level cancer researcher named Brooke Magnanti. Check out how her illicit activities have paid off for Dr. Magnanti:
The Belle du Jour blog became a hot media property, spurring speculation about the true author, a lucrative book deal. The book was serialized on UK prime time television in 2007’s ”œSecret Diary of a Call Girl,” starring actress of Billie Piper, and eventually played on pay cable in the US.
When I read this story, I couldn’t help but recall the sad story of Brandy Britton, an American college professor who similarly dabbled in prostitution, but with a very different outcome:
More after the jump.
With Brandy Britton’s trial planned to start next week, the former University of Maryland Baltimore County professor apparently took her own life over the weekend, hanging herself in her living room, Howard County police say. A family member found the body Saturday afternoon. Police say they do not suspect foul play.
It was a grievous end to a life that friends and colleagues say was once filled with remarkable promise and ambition.
Britton, 43, was the first in her family to go to college, double-majoring in biology and sociology. Her first sociology professor, Sheila Cordray, told The Washington Post last year that Britton was “one of the brightest students I’ve ever had.”
I’m not even going to raise the fact that Britton was swept up in the D.C. Madam scandal (which also ended with the principle, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, committing suicide) or the likelihood that both cases were related to the Bush administration crack down on high end prostitution that also brought down New York Governor Elliot Spitzer.
Admittedly, Dr Magnanti plied her trade in the UK where prostitution is not quite illegal so she didn’t have to face the criminal prosecutions that destroyed Britton and Palfrey, but our societies aren’t so very different. There are numerous educated American women who have worked as prostitutes, written about their experiences and profited while facing no legal consequences.
It seems to me that there is a tacit approval in our society for any kind of criminal conduct that is gotten away with and used to produce a series of media properties.
Britton and Palfrey had the misfortune to have powerful Washington D.C. political figures on their client lists which dramatically changed the tenor of their cases, but I still can’t help having the nagging feeling that had they had the presence of mind and chutzpah necessary to transform their experiences into something the media-industrial complex could promote and profit from they might have survived.
This feeling is dramatically intensified by watching the documentary “Very Young Girls” whose central dilemma is summarized in this NY Sun review:
“Very Young Girls” explores a loophole in the justice system that is frequently exploited for profit. According to the law, underage girls are protected from adult men trying to have sex with them; but if money is exchanged, they are held quite accountable.
In “Very Young Girls,” one mother’s complaint gets to the heart of the matter: “Instead of taking her to the hospital,” she laments, “they took her to the jailhouse.” After her child was kidnapped and forced into prostitution, she escaped the control of her pimp only to be taken into police custody and charged with prostitution.
Our pop culture currently lionizes pimps as the apex of shrewd capitalist masculinity. But watching “Very Young Girls” exposed just what a horrifying trade pimping really is. I was first struck by the psychological brutality of pimping when I read Pimp by Iceberg Slim. I’m a certifiable crime buff who’s read hundreds of true crime books at every level from pulp trash to academic studies on every aspect of crime from pick pocketing to serial murder, and I have to say that Iceberg Slim’s memoir is the most chilling I’ve ever read.
The recent case of Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped by Phillip Garrido in 1991 and forced to endure 19 years of sexual slavery provides an interesting contrast. Garrido is rightly reviled as the most loathed kind of criminal — a child molester. But if he had followed the much more common practice of the pimp and forced the underage Dugard into prostitution rather than simply tormenting her for his own pleasure, she would instantly have partaken of his criminality. Had she been sold to other men by her kidnapper, she would have been subject to arrest and prosecution just like the girls in “Very Young Girls”. And Garrido would have instantly transformed himself from the lowest on the criminal hierarchy to the highest. No longer a child molester and pedophile he would instead be a pimp and a playa, the category of criminal whose feats are celebrated in story and song.
It reminds me of the old Cyndi Lauper song, “Money Changes Everything”. If you’re a call girl, you can transform the social stigma into social and financial capital by turning yourself into a media property. If you’re a sexual sadist with a taste for young women, you can transform yourself into the toast of criminal and pop culture by selling your victims to others.