A Tale of Two Belles

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.

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Nat Wilson Turner

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  • The thing to remember about the DC madam ring is that it had intelligence connections. You could easily generate defamatory blackmail to control political figures. Dick Cheney’s alias was ‘Bruce Chiles’ when he was with Halliburton apparently.

    Palfrey’s phone list was an element in this situation – her own hanging seemed improbable because she indeed obviously had the chutzpah to just go with it & expose the hypocrisy of the decidedly patriarchal/covert deviant structures around this. Shirlington Limousine, Kyle Dusty Foggo, Porter Goss, all of this is interlocking shadiness.


  • What kind of twists of logic does it take to find slavery highly offensive, totally unacceptable but, at the same time, give a wink and a nod to prostitution. Who would call it a “victimless crime”?

    Pimps are simply modern day slave holders who invest their property in time with people who pay for that time. Pimps maintain the ongoing services of their human holdings through drug addiction. It is the micro economic version the introduction of opium to China by the British. The only difference is that women enslaved in the sex trade can’t fight back.

    Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Using that criterion, I know for sure that the movie “Pretty Woman” has to be one of the best examples of pornography ever produced. There’s no connection to reality and it normalized sexual exploitation in a way that is simply unimaginable.

  • I have a much harder time seeing a reason to criminalize what Belle du Jour or Britten did. Pandering, procuring, pimping, most definitely criminal, but it seems to me that making call girls felony criminals just victimizes them further.

  • For those who may have missed Adrena’s really excellent coverage of the topic. http://agonist.org/adrena/20081203/thoughts_on_human_heterosexuality_part_1



    One intriguing upshot for me from that work was the introduction to me of the Swedish approach to helping women involved in prostitution. The core of the approach was to make selling by the prostitute legal but buying and pimping illegal. I say that was the core because as I understand their approach, they also do a lot of outreach to prostitutes themselves and offer training, economic assistance and counseling as well.

  • to find pop culture accurate: Our pop culture currently lionizes pimps as the apex of shrewd capitalist masculinity? These days, shrewd capitalism is to convert every human value into instruments of gratification. Actual pimping of human beings that the perpetrator sees face to face has the emotional immediacy to embody what we feel the CEOs in their bubbles of privilege do.

  • I view pop culture as a diagnosis more than a symptom.
    I personally love Jay Z, Ice T and many of the other rappers who have led the way in creating the pimp myth. In my mind they’re just expressing what is out there in the culture to begin with.

  • smh – The National Gallery in London, one of the world’s great public collections, has put on display a seedy reconstruction of Amsterdam’s red-light district in a rare foray into contemporary installation art.

    When plans to house Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s The Hoerengracht were announced last year, critics asked whether the normally reserved National was “prostituting itself” to contemporary art designed, at least in part, to shock.

    But at a press preview on Tuesday, curator Colin Wiggins defended the decision to feature the installation which recreates a street and buildings caked in grime where life-like models of scantily clad women display themselves in windows. He also underlined the links between the piece and famous Dutch paintings from the 17th century that belong to the gallery’s permanent collection.

    Wiggins also argued that the sordid subject matter, portrayed in all its “squalor,” was not as out of place at the National as visitors may initially think.

    “This is like walking into a 17th century Dutch painting of Amsterdam,” Wiggins said.

    “We have pictures of gang rape, we have pictures of incest, we have pictures of murder and torture and mutilation, but because people put them in gold frames and cover them in varnish … they’re safe, they’re tame.”

    The National has installed the piece in a darkened room lit only by the red glow of colored light bulbs and lampshades.

    Visitors walk along a “street” complete with bollards and old bicycles chained to them, and small alleys down which they can walk and view the women on display.

    The prostitutes are modeled on the bodies of friends of the Kienholzes in Berlin, where the giant work of art was created.

    Each has a glass box over her head with the lid open, suggesting that at any time she could close it and in so doing shut off the outside world and the “voyeur.”

    Notable is the attention to detail, particularly the Kienholzes’ attempts to convey the sordid, grubby nature of the streets and building interiors, complete with half-filled ashtrays, dust-covered magazines and dirty windows.

    “It is an extremely serious exhibition and it does not in any way glamorize or romanticize prostitution,” said National Gallery director Nicholas Penny.

    “I also think the connections with traditional art in the National Gallery are very genuine ones.”

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