THE REPUTATION FILES: Pseudonymity, Exposure, and Impact(s)

The tale of Belle de Jour has taken a new turn, with an ex-boyfriend turning to the courts and media with his claims that his association with the sex worker/academic/blogger has destroyed his career and that her claims of having been a sex worker are fabricated.

The site Diary of a London Call Girl debuted in 2003, purporting to be a record of the experiences of a young woman as she began and then continued to work for an escort agency.  The author identified herself as Belle du Jour, and as the site become more popular and the franchise grew to include published books and a spin-off television series there was much public speculation as to Belle’s “real” identity. 

That speculation ended in November 2009, when Dr. Brooke Magnanti outed herself as Belle de Jour in the Sunday Times.  Dr. Magnanti is a research scientist at Bristol University in the UK, and has stated that she was employed by an escort agency for 14 months while completing her Ph.D. thesis. 

Now she is being sued in a Scottish court by Owen Morris with whom she had a 6 year relationship.  Writing as Belle du Jour, she bestowed upon Mr. Morris the pseudonym “The Boy” – he claims that when she revealed herself publicly, his identity too was exposed.   Accordingly Mr. Morris is suing her for damages and loss of earnings on the basis that she cost him his job and RAF career, breached his privacy, and defamed him. 

She says: Dr. Magnanti

The use of the pseudonym `Belle de Jour` allowed Dr. Magnanti to journal her experiences and later to commodify the popularity of her site while continuing separately to build her own academic career.  Clearly, the use of a pseudonym to keep these “selves” separate not only allowed Dr. Magnanti to develop professionally, but to build strong parallel reputations.  It is worth noting that both the university and her publisher have been publicly supportive of her. Bristol University has stated that Dr. Magnanti’s past is irrelevant to her university position, and her publisher has lauded her for the courage it had taken to come forward. 


An entry on her blog the day of the public revelation spoke about the importance of reconciling the different aspects of her personality, and denied that her offline self was any more “real” than her pseudonymous online self.  Both in her decision to unmask herself and in her subsequent comments, Dr. Magnanti demonstrates many key aspects of the interrelationship between privacy, identity and anonymity.  Choosing to control information about herself via the use of a pseudonym allowed her the privacy and freedom to develop both selves, both reputations, without confusion or dissonance emerging between them. 

He Says: Owen Morris

In contrast with Dr. Magnanti’s focus on authenticity, Mr. Morris’s lawsuit strikes a dissonant chord.  While alleging defamation and breach of his privacy, he is also challenging her backstory, claiming that the blog was begun before her time in London and that in fact the clients and characters she detailed were fabrications built upon her sex life with him. 

This dichotomy is interesting –his claims rest on the idea that being associated with someone of her reputation (as sex worker, not as academic) has damaged him and his reputation professionally and personally.  Simultaneously, however, he seeks to undermine the validity of that reputation at all, refusing the notion that he had ever been involved with a sex worker to begin with.


Dr. Magnanti, in a blog post dated 11 August 2013, responds to Mr. Morris’s claims in the media and in court.  She lists significant documentary evidence that she is prepared to produce, including entries from his own journal where he acknowledges he knows that she was a sex worker, tax records showing earnings and appropriate taxes paid upon those earnings, diaries of her engagements during those years and more. 

At the close of her entry, Dr. Magnanti states that:

It matters because this is a concerted and direct attack on my work as a writer. Is it libel to say someone wasn't a sex worker? Well, it's libel to say someone was lying. When I was anonymous, being real was my main - my only - advantage. Mr. Morris and the Mail on Sunday have made some frankly nonsense claims, and I will be going to town on this.

Because I know people do not trust the word of a sex worker, that is why I saved everything.

Reputation Wars

What then is the real issue here? Whose reputation is at risk and why?

Sex work is not illegal per se in the UK.  Accordingly, the question of whether or not Dr. Magnanti’s experiences are real or fictionalized seems like a red herring. 

Was Mr. Morris damaged by Dr. Magnanti’s activities as a sex worker?  Was he damaged by her revelation of her “real” identity in 2009?  Have either of these in fact led to him suffering personal and professional harm that should be redressed?

Or is it Mr. Morris’s pride that has been damaged?  His insistence that he never knowingly slept with a sex worker seems to speak to a particular notion of masculinity that might be seen as “diminished” by such an association. 

This case revolves around many complexities of identity and reputation.

The case is in the Scottish courts and to my knowledge no decision has yet been reached.  It will be interesting to see what approach is taken in assessing whether Mr. Morris has indeed suffered tortious injuries, and in articulating what those injuries might in fact be.