'In the past women would have borne abuse quietly but we speak about it openly today, largely thanks to social media'
With her dark crime novel out next week, former call girl turned writer Brooke Magnanti talks about domestic abuse and science with Katie Law
Dr Brooke Magnanti still occasionally hankers after her old life as hooker Belle de Jour, especially on days such as today. "I was on my way here, doing my eyeliner in the back of the taxi because I was running late," she says, "and thinking it's been more than a decade since I've done this and I'm not as good as I used to be. It was such fun and I do miss it sometimes - it was fun to dress up, to be admired. Even if it was fake, it was still fun."
Her days as a £300-a-session London escort may be over but at 42 Dr Magnanti, in a sleeveless grey silk dress, sporting a gamine crop and barely any make-up, still exudes girlish flirty charm. We are talking about her latest novel, You Don't Know Me, a dark story perfectly packaged for the domestic noir market, about a woman in an abusive relationship who discovers that her best friend from her past - a prostitute - has been murdered. The case lands on the desk of a (bisexual and alcoholic) female forensic pathologist.
Domestic noir is having a moment, Magnanti thinks, "because it's not just about what's happening to a woman externally, it's about what's going on internally". She has always been interested in writing about the inner life, as anyone who read her (at the time anonymous) call girl chronicles may recall. It wasn't just about sex. She was examining the female condition too, and it was clever and sophisticated - hardly surprising since she was studying for a PhD in forensic science at the time.
"When I started writing this one I thought it was going to be straight forensics but I found I wanted to write about characters with complex histories and motivations for doing what they do," she says, adding that it is also partly autobiographical. The protagonist - well-educated and middle-class - endures a seemingly endless stream of verbal and physical abuse from her boyfriend.
"My research shows that victims will put up with an average of 70 instances of abuse before they act. We ask ourselves, 'Why does she stay, why doesn't she walk?' But for people in these relationships it's very difficult because you're so emotionally invested: you believe things will get better and that when they say sorry they mean it," she says, suddenly serious.
"In the past, women would have borne it quietly but we speak about it openly today, largely thanks to social media. The police recognise how people can be coerced and controlled without being physically abused." The theme of domestic abuse has indeed proved a rich seam for the current crop of grip-lit writers and, thanks to The Girl on a Train, we all know what gas lighting (a form of emotion abuse) is.
Asked about her own experience of domestic abuse and Magnanti pulls a face. "I can answer that but you won't be able to print it without being sued. There's a litigious individual I'm not allowed to speak about. You could certainly mention something that's on Wikipedia," she replies, referring to a libel case brought against her by an ex-boyfriend.
Since 2009 Magnanti has been married to fireman and aspiring novelist Nick Wilding, whom she met on the casual sex section on Gumtree. It turned from sexy to serious after he started leaving his toothbrush at her place, she tells me, chuckling in mock outrage. "I was like, 'How dare you'. Then one night he said, 'I've got something very special in my bag' and he pulled out the box set of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I realised he saw it as a relationship and that I wanted that too." Wilding was sanguine about her past. "I did tell him very early on to give him the opportunity to run away, and he didn't."
Magnanti goes on to talk about having "a lot of addiction" in her family, including her alcoholic father. Raised in Florida, she came to the UK in the late Nineties, became a naturalised UK citizen in 2013, and now lives in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, "the most beautiful place on Earth", where she still attends Al Anon and Nar-Anon meetings. "It's an ongoing thing. All the coping strategies you get from being the child of an addict, covering up and trying to fix the other person - you take all that forward into your other relationships and start enabling them, whether they're addicts or not. Sitting in those meetings, learning to listen, is all part of the process."
The Belle books continue to sell, boosted as they were by The Secret Diary of a Call Girl on TV, with Billie Piper as Belle. "She was so good but nothing like me. She's a serial monogamist, so very out of her box to be playing somebody who was dipping in and out of all kinds of weird things."
Although Magnanti is "in my head 100% a scientist" - she has written at least as many scientific papers as she has sex books - her call girl past has given her a powerful voice on many feminist subjects, from the need to decriminalise prostitution to Donald Trump.
On sexuality and gender, she says: "It's so complex, it's certainly not binary and everyone knows trans people whether we know we do or not." She regrets having shared a platform with Germaine Greer, who, she says, comes from a generation of feminists who think they know better and won't listen. "If I was offered something with her now, I'd have to glitter-bomb her or turn it down."
Last July, together with trans activist Paris Lees, she went before the Home Affairs Select Committee to make recommendations in favour of the full decriminalisation of prostitution, including wiping the records of women arrested for soliciting. "I listen to sex workers and try to boost their voices," she says.
Whether it's Kim Kardashian, a model on Instagram or a lap dancer, she believes all women should be able, indeed encouraged, to use their bodies as they please. "I'm so pro-monetising whatever you can get out of men. It's all there to be got. Historically we talk about specific cultural or ethnic groups getting reparations. How many reparations are women owed? Can we get that in cash out of men right now?"
She pauses and smiles, clearly enjoying being provocative. "Men aren't as picky about women as you think," she continues. And with that, Magnanti peels off her flats, puts on a pair of sparkling silver stilettos, kisses me and heads off for the photoshoot.