Emine Saner on Belle de Jour the new Billie Piper TV series

Belle de Jour, the blog about a prostitute who loves her work, is now a TV series starring Billie Piper. Its creators claim it is a realistic portrayal of one woman's story - but doesn't it simply glamorise the sex industry, asks Emine Saner

Controversy has followed "Belle de Jour" - supposedly the pseudonym of a high-class sex worker - from the launch of her prize-winning blog in 2003, to the publication of a couple of books, and now to a television drama. First of all, was Belle, who claimed to be a twentysomething university-educated prostitute, for real? There was much speculation that she had been created by a writer or a collection of writers; that she didn't genuinely sell sex; that she wasn't even female. Her experiences, said some people, including sex workers, didn't ring true. For a start, Belle was a prostitute by choice - she claimed to love sex and enjoyed meeting people and that, after graduating, working as an escort for £300 an hour seemed far preferable to badly paid temping work.

And whether she's real or not - with her rather jolly tales of expensive underwear, luxury hotels and literary discussions about Martin Amis - don't her stories glamorise prostitution? The television adaptation, The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starts on ITV2 next week and the makers have been accused of the same thing (though I suspect they were well aware of the hype this would bring the show, one of the digital channel's first original dramas).

The show stars Billie Piper as Hannah, whose life as Belle de Jour is kept a secret from family and friends, who all think she is a legal secretary. "This is the story of a witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it," says Piper, who apparently lobbied for the part after reading the book. "She makes no apologies for it. It is her choice and she is very much in control." Belle de Jour, who no longer works as a prostitute (but I thought she liked sex and liked being paid for it?), still keeps a blog and added her own thoughts last week about the growing controversy: "Unless you have been a sex worker, or know one intimately, you have No. Fucking. Clue."

Other blogs written by supposed sex workers have popped up where Belle de Jour left off (Manhattan Call Girls, Brazilian Call Girls, Married Call Girls), no doubt with half an eye on a publishing deal. Others go straight to the papers. Tyese Cunningham, a 19-year-old who worked for an escort agency in Leeds, sold her story this month to the News of the World, claiming to have had sex with Premiership footballers. Her boyfriend said, echoing Piper: "She is in the perfect profession - getting paid to have sex. She loves it." But that doesn't explain the palpable sadness in Cunningham's interview, in which she said that the experience had made her feel cheap and that it hadn't made her feel as if she was a Wag, as she had hoped it would. Pretty Woman still has a lot to answer for, it seems.

Of the estimated 80,000 women who are sex workers in the UK, the vast majority do it because they have drug problems or families to support and have no other viable way of making money. Two-thirds of sex workers have experienced "client violence", including rape. According to the Home Office, at least 60 sex workers have been murdered in the past 10 years; while the average conviction rate for murder is 75%, when it is the murder of a sex worker, this falls to 26%.

Politicians are conflicted about what to do: some think the solution is to legalise brothels, while others point to what has happened in the Netherlands, where legalisation has increased trafficking and violence against prostitutes. Last week it was announced that ministers were considering plans to criminalise the men who pay for sex, which brought a mixed reaction - many seemed irritated that it was women ministers behind the idea. Some see it as a step in the right direction away from punishing the women; otherse fear it would force prostitutes to work in less visible, less safe places.

Against this backdrop of what finally seems to be a move to take the issues surrounding prostitution seriously, in comes Belle de Jour to fuel the idea that it can be a fantastic career choice for young women. According to ITV's publicity material for this "naughty new drama", Belle's mission is "to make money by satisfying male fantasies. As she tells us in the first episode: 'Work out what the client wants as fast as you can and give it to him.'" Perhaps the same could be said about ITV2's mission. In photographs that have been released, Piper is shown wearing stockings and suspenders or a rubber dress, and the channel has been accused of titillation, reflecting a male stereotype and misrepresenting the reality of sex work. "This is TV so it looks slightly glamorous," Piper said. "But this is going on ... being a prostitute was her choice - she wasn't forced into it. It's not about sex trafficking and it's not drug-related. Obviously these things go on but I'm just telling this one person's story. Everyone knows that prostitution can be hideous, abusive and destructive. But I'm playing the woman who wrote this book, and she has a very different story to tell."

Sarah Hedley
Editor of Scarlet, a sex magazine for women

Could this be the show to finally fill the void left by Sex and the City? It has a lot in common with that iconic show. There's intimate diarist narration from the protagonist, Belle, played by the likable Billie Piper, who possesses the same girl-next-door appeal of Sarah Jessica Parker. There's stiletto porn with Belle's well-heeled shoe collection. Erotic taboos are played out for all to see - pony play, anyone? - and there are sex tips aplenty.

But while Carrie Bradshaw was plagued by an endless stream of questions about the hairier sex, Belle is equipped with the answers. She understands men's needs, and when it comes to airing her knowledge, she's as frank as SATC's Samantha ever was. "Convince them that you're wet and you're halfway there," Belle tells us in her opening yarn as she prepares for a punter by slathering on some lubricant.

Explicit sex scenes accompany the candid dialogue, and ITV2 is no doubt bracing itself for a rush of complaints from self-appointed moral guardians who will also question whether Secret Diary of a Call Girl glamorises prostitution. The answer is: yes, of course it does. If Pretty Woman suggested a whole new career option to young women wishing to spend their days working out of five-star hotels, Secret Diary is likely to do the same.

Belle's pimp is referred to as her "agent", bringing a touch of celebrity to the role. The desperately unsafe working conditions typical in prostitution aren't in focus, and Belle swears she thoroughly enjoys the sex she's selling. Piper, in turn, swears she met high-end call girls who felt the same way when researching the part.

It's a credible claim. I've interviewed a few escorts myself who have boasted total job satisfaction, and though I drilled for some explanatory tales of child abuse, drug addiction or prospects of abject poverty, I was left reassured that their choice of career was exactly that: their choice. Sure, they're in the minority - but that doesn't mean their story shouldn't be told, dramatised and glamorised.

As a compelling home-grown production that doesn't mince its words, Secret Diary deserves to be aired - and bravo to butter-wouldn't-melt Piper, who is down on her knees for the most part. The girl's clearly got range.

Roger Matthews
Professor of criminology at London South Bank University

In Secret Diary of a Call Girl Billie Piper does a good job of presenting the well-worn, but very marketable, "happy hooker" myth. Popular media presentations tend only to be able to manage prostitution in one of two forms - the women involved are depicted as downtrodden, diseased, damaged and drug- addicted prostitutes, or as the young, attractive, independent, well-balanced, high-earning call girls who enjoy their work and have no dependencies or addictions at all.

While the depiction of the downtrodden and drug-addicted prostitute captures something of the desperation that many women working on the streets of Britain experience, it does not make for very happy television. The alternative depiction, however, provides a convenient format for programmes that aim to present soft porn and voyeurism as a form of popular entertainment. However, to achieve and sustain this effect television and film producers must play down the reality that the independence attributed to "call girls" is largely illusory. They have little or no control over their clients and limited control over the sexual services that have to be performed. One of the paradoxes of prostitution is that the women who work on the streets can exercise some degree of control over the selection of clients, the services available and the price charged.

Nearly all of the women whom I have interviewed at the "top end" of the trade carry considerable emotional baggage, consume significant amounts of illicit drugs and alcohol, feel lonely and isolated, find it difficult to maintain any type of meaningful relationship - particularly with men - and have little or no contact with their family because they feel ashamed. And very few manage to save any significant amounts of money. At the same time these women live in constant fear. To be in a flat or a hotel room with an unknown man for an hour or so is a daunting prospect for any woman, particularly where the client is paying for the use of the woman's body.

If this programme scores well on the ratings - and it probably will - then what will come next? Programmes extolling the attractions and benefits of pimping? Alan Sugar selecting sex entrepreneurs to run escort agencies and brothels? Or perhaps Celebrity Punter Confessions featuring the likes of Wayne Rooney and Hugh Grant?

Martin Daubney
Editor, Loaded magazine

Prostitution: sexy, isn't it? Well, it is when it's a dizzying world of hotel sex with Jude Law-alikes, board meetings at Mezzo and you've got a sultry female pimp who used to be in the Kenco ads - as it is with Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

This is a drama that has more in common with Pretty Woman than Band Of Gold. Described by one critic as "Bridget Jones, but with fisting" (sadly left out of ITV's dramatisation), Billie Piper was more believable when she was chatting with the Daleks. But for all that, the show is undeniably titillating. It's Queer As Folk, but for straights. Within minutes of the opening credits, Piper's character, Hannah is talking about "giant cocks" while giving a blow job to a rich farmer.

Piper's is a world conveniently free of crack, brutal violence and rubber johnnies left at bus stops. This is a female fantasy, some non-existent, romantic take on prostitution: sex at The Ritz, followed by dessert at Harvey Nichol's diamond counter. I've never paid for sex, but I would hazard a guess that most whores' post- coital chat doesn't involve discussing what a palindrome is, as it does with Hannah. Theseries grand conceit is that it glamorises the world's least glamorous industry.

You don't have to live where I do, on London's Commercial Street - the old stomping ground of Jack the Ripper which, to this day, is one of London's sorriest areas for prostitution - to know that most hookers are not internet-savvy entrepreneurs who make millions from blogging, but it helps. No doubt Belle, or Piper, wouldn't offer a blow job for "a fiver for the train back to Croydon" as I was offered while enjoying an alfresco ciggie last week.

But I digress. Secret Diary is about as socially searing as Confessions of a Window Cleaner, who at least had a day job and paid taxes. And the sad truth is that, for all its cod "women on top" feminism, Secret Diary will be watched by the same demographic who use prostitutes: virginal schoolboys and lonely losers who fancy a cheap thrill.

Professor Liz Kelly
Child and woman abuse studies unit, London Metropolitan University

I saw Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour in 1969. Based on a novel written decades earlier by a man, it depicts the secret life of a married, middle-class French woman who sells sex in the afternoons. Even as a naive adolescent I baulked at the central message that prostitution involved sexual discovery and genuine passion for buyer and seller alike. Later, feminism gave me a language to explain why this was not sexual liberation.

We now have a 21st-century version of the story, which has to engage with feminist ideas and the fact that some of us know that most prostitution is prosaic, grim and decidedly unsexy, not to mention dangerous. The entire first episode of Secret Diary is set up in order that Belle can knowingly separate herself from this. Not only does she have rules that ensure she is safe and in control but she likes sex and has her eye on a house in Hampstead. In this show, there are no exploitative pimps, just an even smarter woman who looks after her girls in return for almost half their earnings. Just another everyday story of prostitution as female empowerment.

What bothers me about Secret Dairy is not whether it is authentic, but that at root it is the same story as in 1969 - told to protect the interests of men. That there are a few women like Belle does not balance the dire circumstances of most women globally who sell sex. As Josephine Butler knew more than a century ago, the key issue is what prostitution tells us about gender relations and the possibility for equality between women and men.

In commercial sex women must learn not only to perform whatever men desire, but also to reward customers with reassurance about their "performance". Our recent research at London Metropolitan University on men who pay for sex showed that, while many know they are paying for an illusion, it none the less shores up their masculinity. Disturbingly, some would carry on even where the women were clearly unwilling. What I see is not female empowerment, but how the male entitlement to sex whenever they want it is taken for granted. That women make money from this reproduction of male dominance does not make it either a fair exchange or any kind of women's liberation - just business as usual.

Cari Mitchell
English Collective of Prostitutes

The Secret Diary of a Call Girl has a ring of truth about it for the minority of sex workers who work in this way. But, of course, it is also a rose-tinted, commercialised view of the job with a bit of soft porn thrown in. It is obviously aimed at clients.

When Belle says she does it most of all because she likes to be her own boss, she speaks for many - most women work independently. Belle also says she does it because she enjoys sex and loves money - undoubtedly true for a few, but not for most. Wherever we are in the world, women are primarily pushed into the sex industry by poverty and a lack of viable economic alternatives.

The seriousness with which women take security is well highlighted. Belle's agent, a necessary evil who rips her off, is needed not only to find and vet clients but most of all for safety and protection - someone to check in with at each job. Even high-class call girls know that if they are attacked, the police and courts are likely to treat them as though they "asked for it" and put them on trial rather than their assailant/s.

The programme doesn't touch on many of the daily realities women face; the horror of being separated from your children by imprisonment, being driven from premises (where it is 10 times safer to work) by police and immigration raids, unremitting rape and other violence. Belle is presented as a world away from all this when, in fact, women working on the streets and women working in premises are not so far apart, and may even be the same people.

Rowan Pelling
Writer and former editor of the Erotic Review

To claim that Secret Diary of a Call Girl glamorises prostitution is a bit like saying Harrods food hall glamorises groceries. With sex, as with other commodities, there's a limited but none the less very real luxury market and I see no reason why it shouldn't be as legitimate a subject for drama as any other. As Belle says in the opening sequence, "There are as many different kinds of working girls as there are kinds of people, so you can't generalise."

Clearly most British prostitutes don't slip on a chic designer suit before meeting respectable-looking men in swanky London hotels. But before we reach for the smelling salts, let's not forget that the most common representation of prostitution on TV is the grimy or coercive and criminal type that we see in Band of Gold and Sex Traffic. Are women really so daft that they're going to think prostitution is a prestigious and easy career choice just because they've seen Billie Piper in plush lingerie pretending to give blow jobs for cash? Admittedly one of Piper's clients in the first episode was a preposterously handsome young man, but Belle de Jour made it clear in her blog, on which the series is based, that she did find a number of her punters attractive - and this is her story, not that of women's lib.

In any case, the other client depicted is suitably middle-aged and paunchy: proof, if any is needed, that a good escort requires a uniquely undiscriminating nature. I can't be that rare among women in believing I'd rather scrub loos than shag a large sweaty man with wiry sideburns. At least the producers have gone to a modicum of trouble to show the more prosaic side of paid sex: condoms, lube, exotic kinks, erectile dysfunction, and the grasping escort boss who takes 40%. Compared with, say, Pretty Woman, this is a masterpiece of verisimilitude (incidentally, I don't believe there was a national stampede of females clamouring to be hookers after Julia Roberts donned her PVC thigh boots).

The main problem is that whereas Belle de Jour the writer has a patently dark sexuality, which allows you to imagine why she embraces her trade, Piper is about as noir as a chipmunk. She's like a naughty nurse dispensing therapy, rather than a humanities graduate with a genuine sadomasochistic streak. The writer Belle clearly has a rare ability to separate sex from emotion in her working life, but Piper doesn't have the range to convey this. Still, if this were a period drama featuring, say, an 18th-century courtesan, we'd all enjoy the sex romp without fretting over the scruples.

'Tarts with hearts' and other stereotypes How prostitution has been portrayed on screen

Before there was Billie Piper, there was Catherine Deneuve. In the 1967 film, Belle de Jour was the pseudonym of Severine, a rich but repressed, bored housewife with a lot of spare time. Rather than writing a novel, going back to college, perhaps taking a lover, she decides - of course! - to offer her services to a local brothel, where she is able to indulge her degradation fantasies (flashbacks of childhood abuse explained that one). How this was supposed to be feminist and empowering, as critics and film theorists have said, I don't know. Maybe she should have taken a part-time plumbing course.

Then there are the films where the love of a good man can straighten out a "fallen woman" (Klute, Moulin Rouge), and the "tart with a heart cliche" (Leaving Las Vegas, Crime and Punishment). At least the TV series Band of Gold highlighted the reasons that women are forced to become sex workers (one of the main characters was a single mother being harassed by a loan shark), but it was still prostitution as entertainment, with added murder. Sex Traffic and Lilya 4 Ever highlighted the horrors of sex trafficking, but unsurprisingly were never seen as mainstream entertainment.

Sometimes the idea of prostitution is just not palatable. Just what does Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's get up to with her "rats" and "super-rats" in the "powder room"? In Truman Capote's novella, no such modesties are required. It showed that prostitutes can make it in a romantic comedy, so long as the sex work is ignored.

In the 80s teen comedy Risky Business, Lana is a prostitute hired by a high school student Tom Cruise - she is beautiful, young, blonde, and has a penchant for ice-cream rather than a heroin problem. Still, it doesn't glamorise prostitution to the extent that Pretty Woman did, in which a kerb-crawler played by Richard Gere picks up a prostitute (Julia Roberts). Except this is Hollywood, so the kerb-crawler is kind, handsome and rich and the sex worker is sweet and unscarred, physically and mentally, by her line of work. The old "being saved by the love of a good man" story is revisited, only this time it includes the healing effects of a shopping trip to Rodeo Drive.

Marginally less believable (but only just) is Respectable, a comedy series on Channel Five set in a brothel, where the sex workers are jolly, happy and love their jobs. Hayley, whose ambition is to be on Big Brother, falls for one of her customers. When he takes her out for dinner to an expensive restaurant, he can't afford the bill. Not to worry! Chirpy Hayley just gives the waiter a blow job. Hateful doesn't even begin to describe it.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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