Looking at a different kind of science fiction: Portrait of a call girl as a scientific researcher

Credit: Hannah Gordon/Art Staff Credit: Hannah Gordon/Art Staff
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Belle de Jour is your typical high-class London call girl: blonde, sophisticated, and... in possession of a Ph.D.? The blonde bombshell and great literary mystery recently revealed herself to be Dr. Brooke Magnanti, developmental neurotoxologist, cancer epidemiologist, and apparent literary figure. We now know the real Belle de Jour, the pseudonym that spawned the book Secret Diary of a London Call Girl, which spawned the eponymous TV series.

Ever seen the TV series? “I’m very high-class,” British actress Billie Piper says breathily, “which means I charge by the hour. And I charge a lot.” The hotel elevator doors close in on a busty Belle headed for a client’s penthouse. “Escort, hooker, prostitute, whore... I don’t mind what you call me. That’s just semantics.” The trailer flashes to Belle wearing only balloons, Belle in bed with two other girls, Belle pulling up black stockings. How did an aspiring neurotoxologist get herself into this bind?

It turns out the then-Ph.D. student ran out of money in the final months of completing her dissertation and turned to a quick-fix job that doesn’t require much training or skill.

For 14 months, the soon-to-be Dr. Magnanti worked as a call girl and documented her adventures in what some consider to be quite excellent literary form.
Her recent revelation went viral, from criticisms about glamorizing prostitution to praising her openness about the situation. In an interview with New Scientist, Brooke explained that getting that extra cash allowed her to pursue science rather than change careers. She also touched on the underpaid status of Ph.D. students.
As someone who aspires to go to graduate school, this got me worried. I was going to be that underpaid, underappreciated, overworked graduate student. What’s an ambitious student to do under the current educational system? I investigated both sides.

To Belle’s proponents, or those who will refer back to her situation when the dissertation is unfinished and the bank is empty, here are two reasons why Ph.D. students should not double as call girls, hookers, escorts, or whatever the semantics may be:

In the TV series, Belle advocates that one should keep life and job separate. “Hannah,” Piper says, motioning to a rack of business casual. “Belle,” she says, motioning to a rack of negligees and black lacy things. “Never the two shall meet.”

I would hate the hassle of separating laundry into even more piles: light-colored normal clothes, dark-colored normal clothes, devilish-colored lingerie, and your presumed white lab coats. Clearly, having two identities escalates the amount of effort it takes to do laundry. You wouldn’t want those see-through panties to accidentally end up in the pockets of your metaphorical white lab coats.

It probably isn’t so glamorous. To state the obvious: Magnanti is smarter than your average hooker. Though she does get prestigious penthouse clients, servicing those with less — ahem — experience, and probably n = 0 PubMed citations isn’t exactly the scientific fantasy.

To Belle’s critics, who argue that her past is shameful, that she is ruining the collective reputation of higher education, and that there are much better options to get through a tight time, well, there are two jobs I’d consider to be lower than a prostitute or whore, whatever the semantics may be:

Whoever the idiot was that thought of imposing a 1 percent tuition tax on the city’s colleges, further ingratiating the financial strain of students... a.k.a. the mayor of Pittsburgh.

Whoever thought about supporting it. The financial situation of students is dire as is. Are they working to perpetuate more situations like Belle’s?
Finally, to Dr. Magnanti, for using her newfound fame to promote her current research on how pesticide exposures cause neurodevelopmental disorders: Brava, Belle, brava.