The blogosphere abuzz

Actually it was probably more the Twitterverse. Regardless, either way the breaking news earlier this week was that sex-blogger and author ‘Belle du Jour’ was a PhD scientist about my age. Not a professional writer. Suddenly the lines about how it was so well-written make sense–in this business, doing science or research is only a small piece of the pie, we have to communicate our results both in person and in print. So I’m not terribly surprised that she is an academic type in the sciences, we have to be able to construct sentences.

Overall, my interest in the story should be obvious: blogger, female, PhD, similarly-aged, in the UK, etc. Although I confess now, I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a sex-blogger OR a prostitute. There we go, you’ve heard it first. I promise that my semi-anonymity on this blog has nothing to do with a secret life as a lady of the night.

What interested me most about the ‘breaking news’ was the apparent contradiction that I saw in how Belle du Jour, now Dr Brooke Magnanti, was described. In the above-linked article, she was in one paragraph “an obscure research scientist” and a few paragraphs later “a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol.” Surely there’s a contradiction in being both obscure and respected? In order to be respected, someone must know of your work (and I mean the science kind, not the other thing) and thus by definition one could not be obscure,

relatively unknown: as a : remote, secluded b : not prominent or famous

Although when I entered her name into the search engine for finding academic publications (the mark of respect vs. obscurity in the research world) alas there were only a few, which tends towards ‘obscure’ in the general community (although perhaps respected by immediate colleagues).

The obvious mind-game that an expat in this situation must play is to imagine what would happen had the same thing transpired in your own country. Here in the UK we saw lots of press and a great deal of publicity for bit-players related to Dr. Magnanti (her father was apparently not happy, but I don’t link the story here as it reeked of spotlight-gathering). Other ousted sex bloggers took to the ether in the form of twitter, blogs, and daytime chat shows. There was commentary about the glamorization of prostitution. Apparently Dr. Magnanti is supported by her employer and work colleagues. And here is where we see the big difference between England and America.

If anyone, as a PhD and engineer/scientist with a good job in research, were to come out as a former prostitute while living in America, they would not be in the position of Dr. Magnanti. They would be in hiding. They would not have supportive colleagues or a job anymore. They would most likely have ruined their professional careers for life. Now some time will have to pass before we can ascertain whether Dr. Magnanti does or does not go on to have a fulfilling and productive career in research (and given the leaky pipeline we can guess that the odds are against her). Regardless, the fact that this is even an option is what makes England different from America, and makes me happy to be here in the UK as this story unfolds.

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6 responses to “The blogosphere abuzz

  1. “…I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a sex-blogger OR a prostitute….”

    Gee, and I was saving up 😉

  2. ”If anyone, as a PhD and engineer/scientist with a good job in research, were to come out as a former prostitute while living in America, they would not be in the position of Dr. Magnanti.”

    That’s for sure. There would be crowds waiting to stone her to death (well, not really but just about). The funny thing is that while her career might find itself in a nose-dive, her blog would gain even more popularity and someone in Hollywood would immediately flag it for a major motion picture!

  3. I agree with you on that.
    I mean, if Janet Jackson loses her entire career over an exposed nipple, imagine the consequences of a doctor being a former prostitute – “The diseases she could carry!” would shout the mothers behind their WWJD bracelets, or “Get her out of the lab and back on the streets” would shout the fathers hiding their porn in their underwear.
    Oh, the confused world of America.

  4. It is possible to be obscure and well respected both at the same time, surely?

    Doesn’t it mean that the person’s work isn’t known to many people, but to those few to whom it is known, it is highly thought of?

    > They would most likely have ruined their professional careers for life.

    Interesting that different rules about sexual behaviour appear to exist for American presidents! 🙂

    • I think Howard has a point here. Clinton is a well-documented philanderer, but many of us still adore him (like me! though I don’t mind Belle being an academic and a prostitute either, so maybe I’m not a good sample).

      Maybe we’re assuming that Americans are more prudish than they actually are, NFAH. There is certainly a (disproportionately vocal) contingent of the population that wouldn’t accept Belle, but is it a majority? I actually dont think so. We like a good comeback story.

    • Howard, It is possible to be obscure and respected by those who know you, but to say someone is a respected scientist typically implies that others in the field area aware of their work. Without publications, that’s hard to imagine–that’s the manner by which we become respected as scientists, and we are graded on both the number of publications and the number of times they are cited by others in the field.

      Emma, female scientists already (still) have a really hard time getting respect from male colleagues (especially, but not only, older ones). I think there’s a different standard for politicians and celebrities than for academics.

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