This review discusses the role that prostitution plays in the life of Katie, the young single mum in Ken Loach’s 2016 film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’.
We meet Katie as she moves into a council house in Newcastle and starts to clean it and make a home for her two young children. She has moved there from London, far away from her supportive mum and auntie, in order to take up the only offer of housing available to her. In Norman Tebbitt’s famous terms, she has ‘got on her bike and gone to look for work’, and we soon see her doing just that, pushing notices through letter boxes advertising her services as a reliable cleaner. In theory we should soon see her find work and and start to make a better life for herself and her kids.
But no. In a now famous early scene of the film, Katie is at the benefits office being ‘sanctioned’ (i.e. losing benefit) because she is late for her appointment. Her reason is that she is new to the area and got on the wrong bus. She has the two kids with her. I have done something similar many times. I expect everyone has.
When Katie loses benefit she is referred to a food bank where, not having eaten for days, she falls prey to temptation and is caught stuffing food into her mouth. She asks at the food bank if they have sanitary pads or deodorant, but is told no. Loo rolls yes, sanitary towels, no.
We ask ourselves, how is a woman on her period supposed to take her kids to school, attend appointments and queue at the food bank when she has nothing to stem her menstrual flow? Again we see Katie humiliated and degraded by her enforced poverty and the inhumanity of the system, even though she is one of the ‘deserving poor’ who move away from their roots and try to make a fresh start. Later, Katie’s daughter tells how her shoes fell apart again at school, so that she was laughed at and bullied.
When the benefit starts again, we see Katie go shopping. She buys food, but is stopped at the supermarket door by a store detective who has seen her put items in her bag without paying. He refers her to the store manager, who, on seeing that she has taken sanitary pads and deodorant, lets her go. On her way out, the store detective apologises to her, giving her his number to call if she wants to earn some money.
Multiply desperate, as we have seen, Katie calls him and attends an interview in a pub. We next see her inside an anonymous terraced house dressed skimpily to receive men who will pay her for sex. She has £300 in her pocket with which to buy clothes and good food for the children, and can see no other way to achieve this. As we know, she really has tried.
Even those apologists for the sex industry, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), admit that the poverty associated with single parenthood is the main reason women ‘choose’ to enter prostitution. They see it as a choice, but as the film shows, there is little or no choice involved. Prostitute yourself or starve, prostitute yourself to buy shoes for your kids, to buy sanitary towels, to buy food. Any mother given that choice and no other would do the same.
As a long-term single parent I know how hard it is to combine work and care of young children with no family help. When one child is sick, you lose days off work. When the other child is sick, you lose days off work. Then there are the days when you are sick because you are so run down with cooking every single meal, washing every single garment and supervising every single hour of your child’s life. You can’t start work before 9.15, later if your job is far from your home, because of the school drop-off. You have to be at school at 3.30 to collect them.
I was lucky to have a home, an education and a career before I had kids. Kind colleagues quietly covered for me for years so I could leave at 3.15, knowing that I more than pulled my weight at work and that I would lose the job if they didn’t. It was almost impossible for me; I developed a health condition which did not stop until my kids grew up. And I had a lot more backup than Katie. I cheated and occasionally stole, but fortunately did not get caught.
I congratulate Ken Loach on presenting a realistic picture of how a responsible, self-starting, adaptable and determined young woman ends up with prostitution as her only realistic choice. However the portrayal of prostitution in the film is optimistic and sanitised, perhaps because we only see Katie at the start of it. We do not see any of the brutality, rape, objectification and humiliation which survivors tell us is the norm.
Katie has not yet felt the muscular forearm across her throat to hold her down and silence any possible protest, or been threatened with a gun or a knife. She has not been forced to submit to rough anal penetration, penetration by an object or penetration by a penis without a condom.
She has not yet had to lie to her kids and her mum about what she does, and worry in case they ever find out. She has not had to go to hospital with a perforated anus, visible injuries or an STI.
Katie has not yet been sent on any ‘out calls’, delivered alone to a stranger’s flat in an unknown area where anything can happen, as it did to the two women working in prostitution under the names Alice and Jesse Lorena in Hong Kong who were ‘taken home’ by British banker Rurik Jutting and then tortured, humiliated and murdered there (Guardian 25/10/16).
Nor has Katie been sent on a ‘boss job’ where her pimp arranges for her to be beaten up on an out call in order to keep her in line when she has perhaps been trying to lay down too many rules about what she will or won’t do. Like not doing anal, for example.
In the film Katie walks out of the brothel on a whim – this would not normally be allowed during working hours. Katie has not yet had to change her place of ‘work’ so that the local johns can have ‘fresh meat’. We assume her glamorous skimpy clothes have been given to her to start off with, but we know she would be charged a high price for them eventually.
She will feel pressured to keep changing her look, her hairstyle, hair colour, makeup, nails, jewellery etc, all at her own cost, because johns like variety. She will soon need (expensive) drugs of one kind or another to get through her shift, and, as she gets addicted, these will affect her ability to parent her children. Social services may get involved, and, devastatingly, the kids for whom she has gone through so much may get taken into ‘care’.
Katie may not know it yet, but she will have to pay the pimp, the madam, the maid and possibly the message runner. The £300 that seem like such riches at the start will have to cover a lot of expenses. And there is no sick leave, no holiday pay and no career progression. Most women after a life in prostitution leave with precisely nothing.
It is hard to get out of prostitution once you are in – you have no CV, no references, and live with the constant fear that you will run into one of your clients who will shame you by revealing what you do for a living. I’m leaving out the likely existence of a criminal record because everyone agrees this should be removed for everyone who has personally sold the use of their body, and hopefully it soon will be.
All the above circumstances, not to mention the constant need to pretend to yourself that everything is fine and that you are doing valid work, are likely to cause you ongoing mental health problems, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stockholm Syndrome, eating disorders, problem drug use or depression.
Towards the end of the film, Katie’s new friend Daniel Blake finds out what she is doing and tells her to stop. He does not give his reasons, but maybe, if he knew, he could have run through a few of the above dangers with Katie.
Do go and see this film, and then go online and see what survivors of prostitution have to say about their experiences. Check out the blogs by Rae Story, Rachel Moran and the Survivor Megaphone. And then make up your own mind about what Daniel Blake should have said to Katie. Maybe in Ken Loach’s next film?
Janice Williams, Nordic Model Now!
Why didn’t she just claim Income Support?
29 October 2016: We are adding a note to this review, because discussions on Facebook and elsewhere indicate that not everyone is aware of the changes that the Conservative government (or the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition before them) have made to the UK benefit system.
When the youngest child of a single mother with no other source of income reaches the age of five, she is usually put onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, with most of the same restrictions and potential forsanctions as for adults who do not have children.
Research by the Women’s Budget Group shows that 86% of government cuts since 2010 have come from women’s pockets, with single mums being one of the hardest hit groups.
We are living in an emergency situation for women and children. That is why there is such urgency about the campaign for the Nordic Model. Once it is institutionalised that poor mothers are expected to turn to prostitution to make ends meet, it will be very hard to turn the clock back.
- The deaths, sanctions and starvation that prove I, Daniel Blake is accurate – despite what some critics say
- It takes a special arrogance to say the poverty in I, Daniel Blake is unrealistic
- Creating child poverty for a whole new generation. Take a bow, Theresa May
Meanwhile The Times reports from the trial of Rurik Jutting in Hong Kong for the murders mentioned above of two prostituted women:
‘He moved to Hong Kong in October 2013, with a job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch that paid more than US$500,000 a year. How does a young man with no dependents spend such sums, he asked himself in his video diary. “The short answer is drugs and prostitutes.”’
We call for a fairer, kinder world.