Ken Loach is widely acclaimed for his uncompromising and cutting portrayal of the realities of poverty in his films, but Kate Bradley argues his depictions of sex work fall short.
I, Daniel Blake (2016) was heavily praised for its frank depiction of the struggles of poverty faced by benefits claimants in post-austerity Britain. In the film, Dave Johns plays Daniel, a former carpenter who is currently signed off work. Hayley Squires plays Katie, a young single mother who has recently moved away from family and friends because she and her son cannot afford to live in London anymore. The friendship that emerges between Daniel and Katie soon takes on a paternal edge, with Daniel helping Katie around the house despite his poor health. They begin to support each other emotionally in a compassionate and desexualised way.
After trying unsuccessfully to find employment as a cleaner, Katie’s difficulty finding a stable income leads her to turn to an offer made by a predatory security guard in a local shop, who spots women in financial difficulty by identifying shoplifters and offering them work surreptitiously. Katie meets with the security guard in private, and, without telling Daniel or her son, begins to work as a sex worker.
The main problem with this film’s depiction of sex work emerges when Daniel finds out about what Katie’s doing and decides to turn up at her workplace – presumably to berate, implore, or discourage her from her chosen path. Katherine Angel, in her new book Daddy Issues, points out how the father in pop culture is usually shown as a righteous defender of his daughter’s sexual purity or safety against other men’s presumed sexual predation (or usurpation). True to form, Daniel Blake as Katie’s surrogate father steps in to be horrified at her sexual transgression, and she is shown as ashamed about his discovery of her secret job. The scene is a denouement, a revelation of just how low the cruelties of modern capitalism and the benefits system have made Katie sink to earn a living – and yet we never hear her full decision-making process, what she has agreed to, or what she actually felt when Daniel barged in on her at her workplace. Katie’s reaction is painful to watch:
Katie: Oh, no, Dan.
Daniel: Katie, you don’t need to do this.
Katie: You shouldn’t see me like this.
Daniel: I’m sorry.
Katie: No, this, this is cut off. This is separate. Can you… You need to get out.
Daniel: Listen, I couldn’t speak to you in the flat, I need to speak to you now.
Katie: Dan, please, get out.
Daniel: Oh, Katie, please, I need to speak to you. I just wanna speak to you. Katie!
Katie: Dan, please, just go. Dan, please, I don’t want you here!
Who are we meant to sympathise with here? We could argue that it’s both of them: Katie is ashamed because she has been trying to keep her work ‘cut off’ from her personal life, but Daniel is suffering just as much seeing Katie in this lowered state. And yet it’s that second part that sticks in my throat – because the only way of sympathising with Daniel here is to feel his pain at her ‘fall’, the poor decision she’s made to ‘do this’ when she doesn’t ‘need to’.
When I watch this scene, I’m angry with Daniel. I’m disturbed at the silences between the scenes, where Daniel, suspecting Katie of turning to prostitution to pay her bills, must have sneakily made an arrangement with her agency to see her, thereby ambushing her at work. Is it any wonder she doesn’t want to talk to him after this undignified intrusion into a part of her life she has chosen to keep separate from him? Is it not possible that the shame itself is generated not by the work, as he thinks, but by his moralistic judgment of it? In that situation, I wouldn’t want my paternalistic neighbour arriving at my place of work to decry my moral decisions.
It’s obvious Katie isn’t in a good place when she takes the job, and that the people that have offered her this job are not benevolent. But the elision of her decision-making process and any actual description of the work she has chosen to do is significant. Instead of exploring sex work as part of working-class experience, Katie stops being a character with whom we are meant to identify and becomes a symbol: of absolute degradation, the lowest place to which one can sink. It is simply assumed that we will agree that sex work is and should be a last resort for women – and that men like Daniel are right, if powerless, to defend them from this type of work (despite themselves being manual working-class labourers, and assumed to have a certain nobility because of it).
It is not the first time that Loach and his writing team have chosen to use sex work as a symbol of extreme working-class indignity for women. In Bread and Roses (2000), Loach’s critically-acclaimed film dramatising the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign in the early 1990s, sex work is again used as a climax of the film, when Rosa admits to her sister that she has been a ‘whore’ to pay the bills for the family. Rosa reveals her secret to lash out at her sister for being ungrateful to her after Rosa has shopped them in to their bosses for union organising. The scene is meant to make Rosa a tragic figure, to help us understand why she has scabbed, even if we are angry with her for it. She shouts:
Suck their cocks, Rosa! Do it!
Fuck, Rosa, fuck!
Do it. Your family
is starving to death.
Suck their dicks!
Come on! Fuck, fuck!
Sounds ugly, right??
Whilst many sex workers do express distaste for their working experiences, and this should be explored in depictions of sex work, this scene handles it in a confusing way. The inevitability of her shame at ‘whoring’, like Katie’s, is assumed throughout and never questioned. The usually pragmatic Maya does not attempt to reassure Rosa that she is not a ‘traitor to herself’, or to understand her experiences. She is simply horrified, and repeats ‘I had no idea’. This is the end of the scene. It is not returned to, and so Rosa is simply shown as carrying the disgust and self-hatred that her past sex work has instilled in her. The scene doesn’t feel like a well-integrated part of the plot. Like in I, Daniel Blake, it is merely an emotional climax, highlighting the degradations of poverty.
I am not trying to imply that every Rosa in every popular film should be shown as proud of, or empowered by, sex work. In some ways, in being sympathetic, this depiction is better than the completely objectified or sidelined sex worker characters in the majority of popular culture, even in other left-leaning films (e.g. in The Big Short). That sex work is the last resort for many and can be felt as degrading and exploitative, should not disappear from our conversations about sex work. That powerful men (and sometimes women) make massive amounts of money from the commodification of women’s bodies and their continued objectification and removal of agency should unsettle us as socialists and feminists, both as an extension of the exploitation of the body seen in manual labour jobs, and because of the normalisation of sexual violence and male entitlement that it can represent for sex workers and other women in wider society. However, approaches like that of Ken Loach in Bread and Roses and I, Daniel Blake do not handle sex work or women’s oppression with the complexity and nuance they deserve.
I think this speaks to a much deeper paternalism in left politics that we need to face up to and disavow. From the phrase ‘women and children’, used so casually to group together the imagined ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’, to the idealisation of the stoical oppressed woman as the essence of the working poor, we keep lazily imagining women as sexualised victims rather than subjective beings with a level of agency managing the choices available to them. Where we do explore sex work in art, we shouldn’t use it as a throwaway symbol of gendered humiliation or disempowerment. Nor should we see solidarity only as ‘saving’ women from sex work, since this approach fits quite comfortably with a patriarchal society that already tries to ‘save’ its daughters from the impurities and allures of sex, denying women desire and agency in the process. If the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself, we need to see that sex workers in Katie’s and Rosa’s positions can and should fight for themselves – in art and in the real world.