:: Article

The Trouble With Libertarians

By Max Dunbar.

The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong, Dr Brooke Magnanti, Orion 2012

Make being disapproved of your hobby.

Make being disapproved of your aim.

Devise new ways of scoring points

In the Being Disapproved Of Game.

Let them disapprove in their dozens.

Let them disapprove in their hordes.

You’ll find that being disapproved of

Builds character, brings rewards.

‘If People Disapprove Of You’

– Sophie Hannah

Brooke Magnanti quotes this poem on her blog, and it seems to define her life pretty well. Magnanti spent a year working as an escort girl, wrote about her experiences under an assumed name, then outed herself as an Italian-American research scientist. Instead of a misery memoir narrative Magnanti delivered popular and engaging writing on relationships, love and sex. She presented her decisions as a financial choice, and went on the record defending prostitution. Modern feminists recoiled. Magnanti was accused of promoting a ‘happy hooker’ myth, and of detracting attention from real victims.

More curious than the hostility was a tendency to treat Magnanti as a victim. The feminist writer Julie Bindel, although she maintained that ‘As a radical feminist and long-time campaigner against prostitution, I immediately have an issue with Magnanti’s credentials’ she also reported ‘feeling sorry for Magnanti, and wonder[ing] if she is happy with the continued exposure, and if she would not be better off focusing on building her career in children’s health.’ A Telegraph piece delivered revelations about Magnanti’s childhood, and was circulated on Twitter by another feminist campaigner, Ruth Jacobs, who wrote ‘Not such a ‘happy hooker’ after all then’. Unlike Ruth Jacobs and the Telegraph, I don’t feel qualified to speculate on Magnanti’s motivations or family relationships so I won’t go into this here. Magnanti is a successful writer and a research scientist, married and living in the beautiful Scottish highlands. It’s true, in Britain we don’t like to see people happy and successful, and the tone of her critics is a kind of gloating pity. I would also say that people’s lives are complex, and don’t often fit simplistic explanation. As Philip Roth wrote: ‘What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows, Professor Roux.’

In The Sex Myth Magnanti sets out to smash popular delusions about contemporary sexuality. The philanderer’s cop-out of sex addiction, the correlation between strip clubs and sex assaults, the idea that children are becoming ‘sexualised’ – these assumptions melt and die under her forensic gaze. There is no evidence that we are sexually obsessed as a society. In terms of internet hit rates, pornographic videos are consistently outranked by YouTube films of cats and Lego men. There is no evidence that young people are having more, and earlier sex than previous generations. Children understand that sex is worth waiting for, and most people tend to lose their virginity around sixteen, have a few years of relationships and casual sex before settling down some time in their late twenties or early thirties. There’s a truth to the old-timer saying ‘You young people, you think you invented it.’ Only now the government thinks that too.

Western feminists waste a lot of time in pointless culture wars. An exasperated Magnanti declared: ‘I genuinely do not get the third-wave bluestocking professional feminists in this country. Genuinely. I’ve tried to give a shit about maternity leave and who does the housework… Why this need to publish endless tomes on the subject? It seems a pretty lame preoccupation when there are still eight countries in the world where a woman can legally be put to death for adultery.’ The culture wars on erotic entertainment are not just a poor use of time and energy, they also slide into cultural campaigns run by people with a very different agenda.

We British like to laugh at Tea Party Republican craziness, knowing that we are far too reserved and sophisticated to lapse into such emotive conservative fundamentalism. Lose these illusions, Magnanti warns. Whitehall is riddled with well-organised, professional Christian lobbyists, armed with self-selecting survey results, media connections and astroturf groups, roaming like malignant cancer cells. These people want what they have always wanted. Many have links to the theoconservative right in the US. Magnanti: ‘the transplant of American hyperconservatism to UK shores seems to be doing just fine.’ The tone of both Labour and Conservative governments is increasingly authoritarian, with moral panics over smoking and alcohol as well as sex. I don’t believe that David Cameron is a closet fanatic – to his great credit, he made a firm commitment to equal marriage – but he is happy to let the moral panics rage, because it distracts attention from the coalition’s disastrous austerity strategy. As Magnanti puts it: ‘Bread and circuses, kids. Bread and circuses. Only, wasn’t there a time when these circuses used to be more entertaining?’

The book is less convincing on issues of harm. Although there are, no doubt, emotive exaggerations of the levels of sex trafficking in this country (Magnanti points out that most trafficked migrants are trafficked for menial labour, not prostitution) her chapter as a whole reads like RCP quack libertarianism. The chapter on pornography is also a letdown. Although I do believe pornography is harmful, I agree with Magnanti that it should not be censored, and that web blocking is stupid and counterproductive – Magnanti once worked in a hospital where breast cancer doctors couldn’t search online for the word ‘breast’, as the NHS porn filter autoblocked it. But if you’re going to campaign for sexual freedom, then porn is a lost cause.

It was a liberal convention of the 1990s that pornography is an intelligent art used by couples to develop their sex lives. Magnanti must know that this dog is shot. I’ve lost count of the number of female friends who’ve had relationship problems because they have caught their boyfriends watching extreme, exploitative pornography – a woman being fucked up the arse, as part of a job interview, is the example that comes to mind. Porn is used by inadequate men to develop fantasies of domination. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Vincent Tabak. He murdered Joanna Yeates by strangulation in 2010, and a search of his computer revealed an internet history full of hardcore, violent pornography that depicted women being bound and choked. Nothing to see here, says Belle. ‘The judge made the right call, and Tabak was convicted of murder on a case that was strong enough on its own.’ She is right that the evil came before the influence, and that attributing the murder entirely to the effect of hardcore porn takes away the responsibility that Tabak should carry forever himself. But can we really say that Tabak’s obsessive interest in sadomasochistic imagery had no influence whatsoever on his crime?

The libertarian fallacy is to assume such a thing as the pure individual. I hate communitarian thinking. But no one lives in a vacuum. Every day we are assailed by a multitude of competing influences – from peers, family, colleagues, newspapers, radio, new media. Contrary to puritan assumptions, most of us are aware of these influences and assess them critically, but it’s crazy to assume what’s around us won’t have an impact. James Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist, wrote that ‘When the soul of man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.’ Unfortunately, not everyone makes it.

Magnanti is a fantastic writer and the book is worth reading despite the flaws, for even her flaws have style. Science is the art of doubt, but newspapers don’t do doubt. We need writers like Magnanti, Ben Goldacre and others to take us through the stats behind headlines such as ‘How pop became porn’ and, er, ‘Is your shampoo making you fat?’ The papers will tell you: ‘This definitely proves that’. Any scientist would probably say ‘Well, we’ve been working on the project for six months and there’s a few trends which might lead us to be able to say that this proves that, but we’ll have to work on the project for another six months and compare it with some other stuff and then we can say that this definitely proves that. Or not. Maybe.’

The book is an intelligent counterpoint to the ‘feminist schoolyard gossip’ that so often dominates discussions like this. When the British write about sex we either go into full-on, inappropriate speculation or retreat into a spurious lordly detachment. The Romans were obsessed with eroticism, and kept bizarre and explicit status and artworks in sealed rooms. Magnanti’s achievement is to take the statues from the hidden chambers and put them in the streets, and her own personal history as a call girl is the least interesting thing about the woman.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 17th, 2012.