“Powerful … constructively controversial.” - Telegraph
“As entertaining as it is erudite.” - Observer
“Ambitious, meticulously researched and passionate.” - Independent
"Impeccably well-researched" - Huffington Post
"I disagree with just about everything she has to say" - Julie Bindel

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Newquay Lap Dance Claims Wrong

Via Lori Smith, I was alerted to this claim last week by police in Cornwall that a lap dance venue license application should be rejected because such clubs 'might' cause sexual violence. As Lori points out over on BitchBuzz, this is territory I've covered before: the widely-publicised claims that lap dance clubs in Camden caused more rape turned out to be false.

Of course the statistics for a specific area of London over a certain number of years are only that: specific to London and those years. It's dangerous to take a trend for one area, at one point in time, and generalise it to all places at all times. In order to claim that "Factor X causes Outcome Y" you need a lot more data. In the book I set out some comparisons, then, with London and other locations summarising what we know from the scientific literature, national statistics, and so on.

So what's interesting is that The Sex Myth discusses not only the situation in cities like London but also specifically, as coincidence would have it, Newquay.

Guess what? The link between lap dance and sexual violence that the police claim 'might' exist? Not only does it not exist, local media in the Southwest have already reported on this.

In 2010, the Newquay Voice obtained Devon and Cornwall Constabulary’s figures of sexual assaults. They found that the total number of recorded sexual assaults (including rapes) in and around Newquay peaked at 71 in 2005, the year before Newquay's first lap dance club opened. In 2006 however,  following its opening, the number fell to 51.

In 2007, when the town’s second lap dancing venue opened, the total number of recorded sexual assaults fell again to 41, then dropped to 27 in 2008 when a third lap dancing club opened. In 2009 the number rose slightly, but with a total of 33 offences, it is still less than half the total than before the clubs appeared.

Using publically available population data, I took these figures and calculated the incidence rate (since population varies from year to year as crime stats do, if you don't calculate a rate, the numbers are not very informative). Here are the incidence rate calculations using midyear population levels for the council of Restormel where Newquay is located:

Looking at these numbers, you'd be tempted to think that lap dancing actually reduces sexual assault. In other words the opposite of what the BBC article claims.

This like the Camden data is only a single example. Making such a broad conclusion would be rash – to conclusively demonstrate that an increase in lap dancing corresponds with a decrease in rape and sexual assault, there would have to many more such results, over longer time periods, from many places. What it does do is reinforce the same thing the statistics from Camden show: lap dancing does not correlate with higher occurrence of rape. And if there is no rise in rape, then it is impossible to claim that lap dancing “causes” rape.

Unfortunately, the myth that sex work causes violence has become so deeply embedded in media and criminology storytelling that one only needs to raise that dread spectre for the city council to take such claims seriously. In spite of the fact that the real data are easy to find and analyse, and the local papers in Cornwall have already suggested the opposite to what the police claim is true, the BBC and other media outlets don't seem to notice or care.

In the end it looks as if the council rejected the application. St Austell  and Cornwall MP Stephen Gilbert tweeted that this was "a victory for people power". And indeed if the rejection was made because the majority of residents decided they did not want it, then so be it. Nothing wrong with not liking things for the simple reason that you don't like them.

But consider that the information put about by police and reported by the BBC is misleading and poorly researched. What if, instead of the council's main criterion being what residents preferred, the decision was made because of police and media scaring people with potential crimes that turn out not to be true at all?  I don't know about the good folks of Cornwall, but where I come from, that's called lying.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to)

Further to yesterday's post, this is a list of thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego on the topic of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how-to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did, things I should have done, and things I learned.

It's not up to me to decide if you "deserve" to be anonymous. My feeling is, if you're starting out as a writer and do not yet feel comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out, please don't be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out of 100 people who claim 'if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear' are talking out of their arses.

The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet-based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle more than one of these categories. All three are important.

This is written for a general audience because most people who blog now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to write and be read. That's a good thing by the way. If you already know all of this, then great, but many people won't. Don't be sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to help protect your identity from being discovered are.

Disclaimer: I'm no longer anonymous so these steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any outcome of following this advice. Please don't use it to do illegal or highly sensitive things. Also please don't use pseudonyms to be a dick.
This is also a work in progress. As I remember things or particular details, I'll amend this post. If you have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know.

1. Don't use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail et al. for your mail.

You will need an email address to do things like register for blog accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be something entirely separate from your "real" email addresses. There are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an email from many of them also sends information in the headers that could help identify you.

When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog with Hotmail. Don't do this. Someone quickly pointed out the headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of people and even more computers, but still more information than I was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail instead, which I still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.

A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party investigating crimes. If you're handling information some governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google some alternatives: you're looking for something secure and encrypted.

There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the secret, don't use this email address for communicating with them even if only about matters related to your secret (and don't use your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one address for press and general interactions, one for things related to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my agent, publisher, and solicitor. I've also closed and opened new accounts over the years when it seems "too many" people are getting hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each, don't make these passwords related to your personal information, and so on.

I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there. That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to out me. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would have preferred to avoid.

People can and do register internet domains while staying anonymous but I never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn't know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In particular Ian Shircore got a bit of unwanted attention this way.

Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that. But just in case you might be thinking "who would bother looking there?" read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo was unmasked. This is what happens when you don't cover your tracks.

2. Don't use a home internet connection, work internet connection, etc.

Email won't be the only way you might want to communicate with people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially exposes your IP address, which could be unique and be used to locate you.

Even if you don't leave comments just visiting a site can leave traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method to confirm his suspicion of who the "Tabloid Troll" twitter account belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble of not using your own connection, also make sure you're not using the same connection for different identities just minutes apart. Don't mix the streams.

The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog started in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press became interested.

Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own - a previously published author or even journalist - that they never looked in the right place. If they'd just gone to a London blogmeet and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people and was fairly promiscuous, they'd have had a plausible shortlist in minutes.

After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home internet connection - something I should have done right from the beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other activities as Belle. This offers some security... but be wary of using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone is actively looking for you. It's not perfect.

Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers ("work remotely"). I've not been in that situation and am not in any way an expert on VPNs, but you may want to start reading about it here and do some googling for starters. As a general principle, it's probably wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired, and don't do anything that could get you fired while also connected to work remotely on your own machine.

3. There is software available that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can block tracking software.

I didn't use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor and browse the Web and check email through their tools.

If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don't then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from today! I've seen people do this. Discretion fail.

I also use Ghostery now to block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway even if you're not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your movements and you clearly don't want that.

4. Take the usual at-home precautions.

Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know? Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts when you're finished using them, every time. Have a secure and remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard stuff.

Another thing I would do is install a keystroke logger on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004 that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the right approach. See also item 7.

5. Be careful what you post.

Are you posting photos? Exif data can tell people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken, what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here's one).

The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or references to things only a small group of people will know about? Don't do that.

If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete these things? Good, do that.

Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because the world of British weblogging was so small at the time - a few hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging tops? - that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.

Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine means everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still exists. And it's searchable. Someone who already has half an idea where to start looking for you won't have too much trouble finding your writing history. (UPDATE: someone alerted me that it's possible to get your own sites off Wayback by altering the robots.txt file - and even prevent them appearing there in the first place - and to make a formal request for removal using reasons listed here. This does not seem to apply to sites you personally have no control over unless copyright issues are involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you... do it.

6. Resist temptation to let too many people in.

If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don't say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested in protecting your anonymity as you will be.

Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret - both the sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books) didn't know. 

I met very few people "as" Belle. There were some who had to meet me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of Secret Diary at someone's house, but met almost no one else involved with the show. Paul Duane and Avril MacRory met me and were absolutely discreet. I went to the agent's office a few times but never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that - explained below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.

The idea was that if people don't know anything they can't inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn't tell them anything a journalist would have considered useful.

When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a "missed opportunity" because it didn't link to an agency website or any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn't want clients to meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to preserve a level of pseudonymity and link your public profile to your work, Amanda Brooks has the advice you need. Not me.

Other sources like JJ Luna write about how to do things like get and use credit cards not tied to your name and address. I've heard Entropay offer 'virtual' credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although they can't be used with any system that requires address verification. This could be useful even for people who are not involved in sex work.

Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you'd really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how not to stay anonymous.

7. Trust your intuition.

I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.

When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT. The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door, leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you don't trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without compromise. A "let them down easy" approach only prolongs any revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having strong personal boundaries all the time... but failed to carry that ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.

As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear already, get it and read it.

See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the secret don't make it people already involved in your private life. Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.

There is a very droll saying "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead." It's not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen. Them's the breaks.

8. Consider the consequences of success.

If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target. Some people assume all anonymous writers "want" to be found, and the media in particular will jump through some very interesting hurdles to "prove" anything they write about you is in the public interest.

In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and the loss of a career when they left the "sex-pos" bubble was probably something of a shock. I'm not saying don't do it - but please think long and hard about the potential this has to change your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this way forever. For every Diablo Cody there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros. For every Melissa Petro there are probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get quietly fired and we don't ever hear from them.

If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I probably would have said no. I'm glad I didn't by the way - but realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the UK) so I didn't have anyone else's experience to rely on. I really had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot has changed even now. I'd be lying if I said that didn't have an emotional effect.

Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that people going into it should consider the consequences. I'm not saying don't do it if you risk something, but be honest with yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be okay with that.

9.  Enlist professional help to get paid and sign contracts.

Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith and let in more. Mil Millington emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh, saying he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was right.

Patrick put me on to my accountant (who had experience of clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret when there's a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but rarely is. Don't kid yourself, there is no such thing as a unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.

With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up - Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong, by the way - keep in mind, I don't deal with Bizrealm's day-to-day at all.

There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone's time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a couple of people ABSOLUTELY. I'd underline this a thousand times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn't know everything.

There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time, making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.

I can't stress enough that you might trust your friends and family to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex-partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever think that's a good idea.

So how do you know you can trust these people? We've all heard stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have been in Patrick's interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he's a really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.

If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that journalists absolutely did go to Michael's office and ask to see the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns, and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.

I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around, follow your instinct, and make sure it's someone you can trust. Don't be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you don't trust them utterly. They're professionals and shouldn't take it personally.

10. Don't break the (tax) law.

Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What you really don't want is the police or worse, the tax man, after you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be helped. If you're a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant who has worked with sex workers before - this is applicable even if you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Don't be like Al. If you are a non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and affiliates on your site, declare this income.

In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I can't even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an accountant to deal with them!

Bottom line, you may be smart - I'm pretty good with numbers myself - but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them do it. They are worth every penny.

11. Do interviews with care.

Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email (encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all). This was not ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it's worth it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don't give out your phone number.

12. Know when les jeux sont faits.

In November 2009 - 6 years after I first started blogging anonymously - my identity was revealed.

As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something was coming, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let the Mail on Sunday have first crack at running their sordid little tales, or pre-empt them.

While going to the Sunday Times - the same paper that had forcibly outed Zoe Margolis a few years earlier, tried to get my details through that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion as me - was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard, best get that out of the way up front.



So that is that. It's a bit odd how quickly things have changed. When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books, much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.

As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect your identity. All writers - whether writing under their own names or not - should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting 'publish'. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward) precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

On anonymity and outing

As some, many, or all of you may know, a certain anonymous blogger was "outed" by a celeb on Twitter yesterday. For those who know, just nod along; for those who don't, I'm not going to rebroadcast names here - sorry to be maddeningly vague.

There's a thing bloggers of the old school variety often refer to. Like the UK constitution, it's not written, and asked to define it, we'd probably all have a different take. But almost one thing is constant in the so-called blogger's code: you don't out publically without good reason.

It's probably no secret that while several circa-2000 bloggers had their suspicions I was writing as Belle de Jour, and more than a few had personal reasons to dislike me, not a one of them was the person who outed me. Some others even went to great lengths to observe and in some ways protect my secrecy without my knowledge.

If I had to hazard as guess as to why, my suspicion would be that they kept the secret because they knew that what I was risking (my career, my residence in this country) outweighed the short-term thrill of putting a name to a blog. And some of them probably also liked being in on the secret, because who doesn't like that?

This sense of a code extends even where people have exchanged unkind words in public. Zoe Margolis and I, for instance, have not often seen eye-to-eye on many topics. But there is a shared sense of communitas when we get together and talk about being outed. There were times, hearing what she went through, that I wished I'd talked to her earlier or had otherwise made more explicit how my anonymity was maintained. It might not have stopped the press from doing what they did but it might have helped slow them down. On the one hand, the anonymity details were kind of tedious and not something many blog readers would have been interested in (blah blah shell company blah dividends blah). On the other, giving the impression that maintaining secrecy was a breeze was a misleading thing to do. It wasn't easy and it wasn't airtight.

The flavour of blogger outings has shifted over time into a kind of retribution. People are outed whom others think "deserving" of outing. Trolls, basically. And here's where things get slippery and hard to handle. There are times I've applauded an outing. The case of Alexa DiCarlo is one example. There are other outings I have to admit feeling a sense of relief about. Most people think there are folks whose actions make it necessary to reveal their true identities. Usually because someone else is experiencing or fears a kind of harm. When trolling starts to verge into harassment, threats and stalking, for example. But that line between harm and common-or-garden "this person is annoying to me therefore let's grass them" is not always crystal clear.
As Dan Savage once said, "Outing is brutal and it should be reserved for brutes."

Often the intention of the outing backfires. Plenty of people you may have thought would skitter into the shadows don't. Plenty of people who were just finding their true voice are scared away. Some who felt vindicated in outing are perceived by others as bullies. Sometimes they are.

It's a delicate balance and we're not too good at that yet.

Outings are something to approach with caution. Twitter does not excel in this regard and the discussion there is depressing. There are a few formerly anonymous writers - and I am talking here about ones who risked little by writing, and who outed themselves - who seem to think if they can handle it we all should. That's appalling logic. There are people who think writers should be "brave enough" to write under their real names or not at all; surely most of us can see the problem there. And no shortage of tweets saying that the only people who should use anonymity are the people who "need" to. Someone remind me again where the unanimously agreed Needs To Be Anonymous checklist got to? I can't find it anywhere...

In the instance that provoked this blog entry (sorry again to be so opaque) the outed writer seems to be exactly as resilient and provocative as the image they project. It probably won't affect them negatively and there's a book in the pipeline anyway. The writer is someone I don't always agree with and whose reasons for anonymity are far different to my own: does that make outing okay? If you answered yes, are you sure? There's a part of me that would like to believe the outing was done in service of principle. There's a larger part that thinks the person who outed showed unspeakably bad manners in doing so. Linking it tenuously to the spirit of the Leveson inquiry doesn't pass the sniff test.

Following the drama as it developed, a lot of people went down in my estimation. The collective high horse was shown to be about the stature of a Shetland pony. After years of being constantly scolded for my manners and morals I had begun to wonder if the scolds might be saintly enough pick discretion over rank tribalism.

I needn't have wondered. Silly me. They're just as feral as the rest of us.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Truth About Julie

A number of people have asked if I would respond to the piece Julie Bindel wrote about The Sex Myth in the Grauniad. Clearly as she took the opportunity to let rip, so too must I?

Maybe, maybe not. Because the truth about Julie Bindel is that she is - shock, horror - actually decent company. You would totally have a drink with her as long as you stayed off the topics of sex work, trafficking, porn, trans issues, gay marriage and... well you get the idea. There are definitely people with whom my politics are more closely aligned whose company I have enjoyed a lot less.

But in the interest of "setting the record straight" (as if such a thing exists) here are my notes on the encounter:

- I approached Julie to ask if she wanted to interview me, in part because I figured she would write about the book anyway. Since I criticise her writing extensively in The Sex Myth it seemed fair to give her a face-to-face.

- She's prettier in person than in her photos. Not that that's relevant, or important, but she is.

- We met three times that week: once for lunch, once for the photos, and again on Sky news. The first words out of her mouth on the air at Sky were "As much as I hate to say this I agree with Brooke." I did a little mental air-punch at that one. (It was also approximately the first thing Claire Perry said when we were on the Today programme. File under: win.)

- The "offal", by the way, was calf's liver and very good it was too. Though I did wish I'd ordered the lamb sweetbreads special instead.

- The dessert was an Eccles cake with cheddar cheese ice cream. Hand on heart, I loved the ice cream. The Eccles cake was not nice. If you have occasion to go to The Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, ask them for a bowl of that ice cream.
- She thought my criticism of Swanee Hunt mentioning her father's political background a bit out of line. My reply to that is if Hunt's still trading on his name and his connections, then she has to expect that. Her extreme privilege (yes, even in supposedly classless America; yes, even when your work is deemed charitable) is a huge hurdle to overcome. Eye of the needle and all that jazz.
- Julie's a big fan of Viz, especially Eight Ace and Sid the Sexist. Who knew? Also she liked Fat Slags better when it was shorter whereas I prefer the longer ones.

- In principle we both agree that sex workers themselves should not be criminalised. After that our thoughts on sex work are mainly opposed. When I put it to her at lunch that the much-talked-about "Swedish model" and Icelandic approaches could never work in the UK, she agreed.

- Julie's piece was filed after we met for lunch on the 17th April, I believe before we had photos on the 20th. The final edits to the book were made on the 25th and approved on the 27th. First edition came off the presses May 1st. (Yes, we cut it fine.) This unfortunately means some of the things from her piece may not be the book.* I'm not sure if it is the writer's or the editor's responsibility to check reviews against the published copy, but someone should have done.
- We both think the Grauniad will cease to exist in printed form soon. Probably most people think that though, so no news there.
- She seemed concerned that I think feminists of her stripe/generation are against sex, and took pains to assure me plenty of sex was going down among the redfems in the 70s and 80s. I said "I bloody well hope so," because what would be the point of rejecting the model of virgin-to-wife-to-mother only to not get laid? However, in my experience, the lesbian-identified feminists when I was at uni in the very early 90s were not so free and easy with the sexual favours. Not that I'm bitter, mind. It wasn't a great place or time to be a woman who slept with both women and men.
- She think my husband looks like a model. As far as independent assessments of attractiveness go, that's about as airtight as they come.
- Her claim that I was 'roundly criticised' by Catherine Hakim for my educational background is a misrepresentation of Hakim's review; you can read it here. My education is in anthropology, maths, forensic science and epidemiology. I've also worked in chemoinformatics and child health research (mainly cancer). If anyone thinks that makes me unqualified to comment on academic research... with all due respect, check yo self.
- The last thing I said to her, when we were leaving Sky news: "Civilised is the new uncivilised."
So there it is. No particular desire or need to fetch a hatchet, because who benefits? (It might also help that I have professional experience of finding common ground with just about anyone for two hours as long as they're buying.) The Grauniad is a known quantity and the "pity" angle of her article frankly unbelievable... you don't bother tearing down someone if you feel actual pity for them. You might even wonder why I bothered. To which I say: lunch? On their dime? Admit it, you so would. And so I did.

Right now you're probably thinking I should go to the cinema with Tanya Gold and discover maybe she's not as bad as all that? Hey now, let's not get crazy.

tl;dr - I was expecting a snarling nemesis, what I got was a lesbian Michael Winner... hugely offensive, yet surprisingly charming, bon viveur.

Believe it or not The Sex Myth is not only about columnists, or trafficking, or even feminism: those are only a small part. Most reviews have barely touched on any of the other chapters. It also discusses the medicalisation of female desire and the denial of women's appreciation for erotica, for example. It examines the criticisms of "sex addiction" as a disease. It champions under-reported sexualisation research that is more interested in representing real families than in reflecting a political agenda. It includes citations of all referenced material so you can read them and decide for yourself. My aim is not to force people and certainly not Julie Bindel to think the way I do: it's to open up the discussion in ways we simply are not doing around these topics. It's a call for less panic, not more.

Go get it. Read it. Make up your own mind.



* [Update:  Yes, I have checked this against the email record between me, my editor, and the Orion legal bods; and yes, I have run this blog past them and got the thumbs-up. Proceed to question it at your own risk.]

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Naked Book

So, the other night Scott Pack and I were on Radio Litopia's The Naked Book talking about the topics we had been set to do on Newsnight (until they cancelled last minute): namely, ebooks, fanfic, and the cringe-inducing "mummy porn". All inspired by the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, of course.

This raised some interesting issues for me: as a product of early blogging which later led to a few "dead tree" books, I'm a big believer in the traditional publisher way of doing things. Blogging is a great crucible for some writing but not for long-form, in my opinion. It's not only incredibly hard to focus on writing a full book that hangs together without the steering and support of an editor, but also having the publicity and legal backup of a publisher is reassuring.

Back in the day a lot of excitement around blogging and bloggers seemed to be this idea of the 'mass amateurisation of publishing' - a notion that, even then, made me uncomfortable. There are some great things to come out of the internet (such as using YouTube to get instructional baking videos) and some real rubbish (such as the growing echo chamber that is political blogging).  Someone once described the internet as being in a library where all the books are on the floor. When everyone's a critic and everyone's a writer, how do you discern what's worth reading from what isn't? Popularity is not always the best guide; blogging and social media reward personality-led content, flash in the pan stories, and attention-getting tactics over measured consideration.

As well there is the race to be "first". First to post a news story, even if you don't add anything to it; first to comment on a phenomenon, even if all the commentary consists of is "I don't like this idea/person". This does not make such comment invalid, but it does cheapen the experience of being a writer and of being a reader. In the race to score points in the game of internet we lose a lot of valuable nuance.  I like a witty epigram as much as the next person but man can not live on zingers alone. The proliferation of technologies that some people hoped would broaden discussion too often narrow it. I've lost count of the number of issues on which the so-called discourse basically amounts to black-and-white moralising, both sides equally rabid in their conviction, both equally wrong. And I've lost count of the number of contributors to those discussions who get filed into one or the other camp when their opinions belong to neither.

The fact that most successful bloggers et al. drop the format at the merest whiff of a proper publishing contract says a lot about how important these phenomena are (in other words, not very). Everyone went into a tizzy when Jonathan Franzen dissed Twitter, but deep down I think we all knew he had a point. If your deepest beliefs can be summed up in a tweet, or perfectly align themselves with a ready-made ideology, you're doing it wrong.

With more and more resources directed at the comment box, however, writers who would otherwise have developed more slowly and organically are pushed into a corner before they really know what's happening. My writing, while not likely to win a Booker anytime soon (and not only because I'm American), has been allowed to develop in unexpected ways through of the consistent help of my publisher and editors. Without their expertise I might still be turning out zingy little blog entries and wondering why I was getting no closer to writing the kind of books I want to write. Are the writers who forego this setup scuppering their chances in the long run in favour of short-term attention?

Part of this feeling comes from my experience. I've felt that, generally, it would have been far harder to write what I'm writing now without the support of a publisher. Writing memoir-slash-erotica is one thing, turning to corner to write more serious nonfiction is another. Having been fortunate enough to get noticed at all I am throwing myself into writing for the long game (sorry, haters). So the prospect of already self-published authors having their works snapped up for mainstream publication, while a Good Thing, also leads me to wonder whether those writers are going to get a career out of it or just a single book... you know?

Anyway... you can listen to the whole conversation here. I know I learned a lot (such as, there is no chart for ebooks! Which seems bizarre). And we all agreed that "mummy porn" is a terrible, though possibly apt, term. And that any and all discussions of erotica go better with a little drinking game. But you probably suspected that already, no?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Sex Myth is out now! After much huffing and puffing the time has finally come to blow all the myths about sex down. Read the whole controversial truth, and decide for yourself...

E-books: Kindle user? Get it here. Kobo Ereader version is available. You can buy it at WHSmith, and it's at the iTunes Store for iPod and iPad.

Trade paperback: You can order The Sex Myth on Amazon and on the Waterstones site.

Outside the UK? It's £9.29, with FREE worldwide delivery, from The Book Depository where if you order by 14 May, you can use the code APMA12 to get a further 10% off.

You can catch me at The Sex Myth blog... including this post on blogging anonymously

“Powerful … constructively controversial.” - Telegraph
“As entertaining as it is erudite.” - Observer
“Ambitious, meticulously researched and passionate.” - Independent
"Impeccably well-researched" - Huffington Post
"I disagree with just about everything she has to say" - Julie Bindel

The Sex Myth - out now!

After much huffing and puffing the time has finally come to blow all the myths about sex down. Read the whole controversial truth, and decide for yourself...

E-books: Kindle user? Get it here. Kobo Ereader version is available. You can buy it at WHSmith, and it's at the iTunes Store for iPod and iPad.

Trade paperback: You can order The Sex Myth on Amazon and on the Waterstones site.

Outside the UK? It's £9.29, with FREE worldwide delivery, from The Book Depository where if you order by 14 May, you can use the code APMA12 to get a further 10% off.

Due to a printer error the first print of the paperback is missing some of its endnotes. A number of copies with the error intact will have already gone out. If you get one of these, I apologise. The missing citations are at the bottom of this section on the Resources page.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Countdown and Housekeeping

Only two days until The Sex Myth is released! Maybe what you've heard about the book is true... and maybe it's not. Read it for yourself and explore where you stand on issues like sexualisation, sex work, pornography, anti-sex agendas, insubstantial "research" and more. Until then here are a few interesting links from around the web.

 

London charity x:talk is promoting a campaign for a moratorium on sex work-related arrests during the Olympics. The whys and wherefores are on their briefing paper here. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter here. If you are someone committed to decriminalisation, harm reduction - even if we disagree on the ethics of sex work - please lend your public support to this important campaign.

 

If you've been following the recent online porn and sexualisation discussion, you'll be pleased to know excellent resources for parents to talk to their teens about pornography do indeed exist. Check out Planet Porn by the good folks at Bish Training, and get the conversation started! (For a free sample of the material in the pack, see this Bish page).

 

Dr Marty Klein's seminal book America's War on Sex is rereleased soon, his interview over at Salon. As he says, look out, the prudes are winning:

In terms of sexuality, I think people are so afraid of their own sexual impulses, people feel so guilty, and people are so wigged out by the complete failure of monogamy to deliver what they desperately need emotionally that they’re open to demagoguery. When it comes to sexuality we’re looking at the Weimar Republic here, we’re looking at 1933 in Germany.

 

I'm a guest on Radio Litopia's The Naked Book this Wednesday night. Also featured will be Friday Project supremo Scott Pack and we'll be chatting about self-publishing, bloggers, erotica, and "mommy porn". In other words: the discussion Newsnight didn't want you to hear!

 

Maggie McNeill writes about how groups of sex workers organising in developing countries are an example to Western groups:

Banks recognizing sex work as a profession?  Schools and sports teams for the children of openly-declared prostitutes?  That’s like science fiction in the United States, where fanatical prudes pretend escorts are incapable of charity and government agencies steal their children (a tradition “trafficking” fetishists are trying to export to India).  The industry, ambition, courage and teamwork of Indian sex workers put the weak, diffuse and toothless efforts of their American sisters to shame.
(via Swaay)

 

Issue one of Howard Hardiman's The Lengths, a gripping graphic novelisation of the life and times of a male escort, is now free to view online. You can order the other issues here.