by Terry Moon
The new movie playing on Hulu and starring the fantastic Emma Thompson missed a great chance to be political in a meaningful way, although it appears that is one of the main reasons Katy Brand wrote it and Sophie Hyde directed it.
The story is of a repressed—sexually and socially—intelligent woman who wants to live the rest of her life as a person who can love herself—including her body—and be authentic in the world, that is, be who she wants to be. She begins this quest by hiring an escort who is young, thoughtful and who at one point accurately calls himself a sex worker. While she presents him with a list of acts she wants them to perform, most of the movie is dialogue between the two.
SEX WORK AS ‘A PUBLIC SERVICE’
The heart of the story and the political point it wants to make is in the following exchange between the two, with Leo being the major political spokesperson:
Nancy: You make it sound like [sex workers] should be available from the local council, a public service. Leo: Can you imagine how much less bullshit there would be?…Nancy: It’s different for women though, in your line of work. It’s more dangerous, isn’t it? Leo: It can be….
Leo: I think it’s much bigger than that, the whole idea. Just think how civilized it could be if it was just available to all and there’s no shame attached, there’s no judgment. You want sex and you’re frustrated you can’t get it for whatever reason, you’re shy, you’re unwell, you’re grieving, you’re physically struggling, so you just hire someone like me. It’s all regulated and safe. For you. For me. Better for everyone. And I help you, or I pleasure you, even better.
This…The thing is, lots of people like the secrecy. They get off on it, or they just want the fantasy, and that’s totally fine. But I quite like the reality and it’s my actual job. You know [here some music starts to let us know this is important], one thing I love, Nancy, is just to watch someone’s face when they feel pleasure. When they let go, when they succumb, when the body goes with it. That heat. That feeling. Everything just loosens. It’s so… It’s just so great. Nancy: You do like it. Thank you for telling me that, Leo.
Here Leo has put forth a utopian vision of the “whole idea” of sex work: “civilized,” “no shame attached, there’s no judgement,” “regulated and safe.” This is how sex work should be, and it is a beautiful idea. But it is not our reality and this movie covers that up.
At the end of Leo’s speech, Nancy frees herself from any worries about paying Leo for sex saying: “You do like it.” Furthermore, the movie has already taken care of the dangerous part of sex work when Nancy brings up her concern for women sex workers, saying it would be different for them. Leo responds with “It can be,” and admits to being slapped around a little now and then. But sex work is very dangerous for women, for men and for teenagers. Trafficking and slavery are activities that have increased tremendously during the pandemic and the war on Ukraine. It is not even alluded to, yet it is hugely important to those who exploit sex workers.
CAPITALISM—THE HARD DISCUSSION
Katy Brand left out the hard part of this discussion by creating characters who live in a safe world that doesn’t exist.
You can’t comprehend prostitution, sex work and sex workers without talking about capitalism and how it alienates and destroys human relationships. Sex work is work, and in a capitalist society that is an exploitative, alienated relationship, whether you work for Amazon, Starbucks, or Nancy. It’s possible to have a good boss, but they are still your boss, and you’re working for them because you need the money and you need that money even if you enjoy the work.
Brand’s argument made me think about the history of surrogate motherhood and how it became exploitative. When the techniques to plant a fertilized egg in a woman different from the mother were first worked out, the women who became surrogates were friends or relatives of the woman or couple who couldn’t have a child. If money passed hands it was to pay expenses, not to rent another woman’s womb and buy her eggs. But it soon became a lucrative business—and not so much for the surrogates but for the broker who makes the deal. Now it is mostly desperately poor women, many in India and Ukraine who do this for money, and the drugs used on these women are, to this day, severely undertested.
Brand and Hyde needed to take up the complications of capitalism, sexism and racism if they are serious about changing the nature of sex work. It would have been a very different movie and might not have left the audience feeling happy and satisfied, but it would have gone a long way to raising the kinds of questions we need to be working out.