Pixelated Prostitution: Feminist Sex Work Debate Bleeds Into Video Games

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Anita Sarkeesian criticizes the treatment of sex workers in video games, such as in "Hitman: Absolution" in which characters can dump the dead bodies of strippers to distract police. drdrillvga/YouTube

In her series of controversial videos critiquing sexism in video games, Anita Sarkeesian often focuses on the way games treat sex workers.

She points to games like Hitman: Absolution, in which characters can dump the dead body of a stripper over a railing as a way to distract police; or Saints Row, in which characters are encouraged to steal prostitutes from one pimp and deliver them to another; or Grand Theft Auto, where having sex with a sex worker increases health much like quaffing an energy drink.

Sarkeesian concludes that sex workers in many video games are viewed as commodities and objects, rather than as people—and that they are often targeted for violence. In Red Dead Redemption, for example, the player is rewarded with an achievement for kidnapping a sex worker and murdering her.

Violence against sex workers is a serious problem, both nationally and internationally, and Sarkeesian makes a good case that the games she discusses treat that violence as fun, enjoyable or even laudable. But Sarkeesian's videos have not garnered much praise from those most directly affected by these tropes. On the contrary, many sex workers have argued that Sarkeesian's videos contribute to the objectification and stigma that she claims she is trying to reduce.

Much of the criticism of Sarkeesian has centered around her terminology. She doesn't call sex workers "sex workers." Instead she refers to them throughout her video series as "prostituted women." That's a term often used by writers who see all sex work as automatically exploitative or harmful to women, and by those who want to criminalize sex work.

Sex workers have repeatedly tried to ask Sarkeesian on social media to reconsider her language, but she hasn't responded and has continued to use the term. For example, in this recent tweet she says that fans of Grand Theft Auto have been harassing her by sending her images of "gameplay of the use & murder of prostitutes."

The fact that gamers are using images of sex workers to harass Sarkeesian seems like it fits into her analysis—violence against sex workers is deployed in a misogynist way, in order to harass and intimidate a woman. But at the same time, Sarkeesian, by referring to the "use" of sex workers, seems to buy into the same logic, treating sex workers as things or utilities, rather than as human beings. (Sarkeesian did not respond to a request to comment for this article.)

This seeming contradiction is tied to longstanding tensions between some strands of feminist cultural criticism and sex workers. Sarkeesian's criticism of video games is in a tradition of feminist analysis that goes back to the 1980s, when theorists like Andrea Dworkin argued that "Pornography is used in rape—to plan it, to execute it, to choreograph it, to engender the excitement to commit the act."

Dworkin saw sexualized images of women as directly implicated in misogyny and violence against women—which could mean that women taking part in pornography, or in sexualized imagery, were seen as themselves culpable or morally flawed. Thus anti-porn feminists like Julie Burchill declared that, "When the sex war is won, prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women." Anti-porn feminists and video games here come together in celebrating violent attacks on sex workers.

Author, media consultant and former sex worker Maggie McNeil cited the Burchill quote when discussing why she mistrusts Sarkeesian and her criticism of games. McNeil says that to her, Sarkeesian's position is "summed up by the fact" that she does not refer to male sex workers as "prostituted" but does refer to female sex workers as prostituted women.

"What this tells us is that she sees men as creatures able to make sexual choices," McNeil says, "but she sees women as creatures who can only have sex for traditional reasons—love, or romance or whatever. But if women are [having sex] for tactical reasons, then she sees this as somehow suspect—that a man must be doing that. Hence the [term] prostituted; someone has done this to her."

Another sex worker who questions Sarkeesian's position, at least indirectly, is Mia Isabella, a transgender porn star who was hired to voice "Prostitute #1" in Grand Theft Auto V. Isabella saw her work as providing a "fantasy" for teenage boys and she didn't see it as necessarily exploitive.

Instead, she said she was "honored" to be asked, in part because few, if any, transsexual women have been included in video games. "For me it was an opportunity to cross boundaries," she told me. Isabella saw voicing a character in a game as a way to contribute to diversity in gaming.

Not all sex workers reject Sarkeesian's arguments. For example, N'jaila Rhee, an adult Web model, phone sex operator and co-host of TWiB After Dark, is sympathetic to many of Sarkeesian's points. Rhee has played games since she was 3. "If you give me a life milestone," she says, "I can remember what game I was playing during that milestone."

For Rhee, many of Sarkeesian’s arguments seem so familiar as to be almost clichéd. "It's so Feminism 101," she said. "As someone who plays games, these are conversations I've been having all my life. Unless you're some kind of space alien who can't differentiate between human genders, you notice that the only person who can save the world is a gruff, kind of scruffy-looking white dude with pale skin and brown hair."

Rhee said, too, that there is a lot of violence directed against sex workers in games and that representations of strip clubs or sex work in games (like such representations in other media) are often wildly inaccurate and exploitive.

But while Rhee finds Sarkeesian's criticism reasonable and even obvious, she's also put off by the way in which she seems tone-deaf in her treatment of sex workers. According to Rhee, the term "prostituted women" says that "no sex worker has their own choice, and no sex worker can have control over their lives."

The massive backlash against Sarkeesian's videos, encompassing both criticism in the #gamergate hashtag and rape and death threats, has polarized discussion of her work; any criticism of her is likely to be seized on as evidence of her iniquity, and/or of her critic's bad faith.

Still, if—as Sarkeesian contends—prejudice in cultural products matters, then it seems like sex worker's criticisms of Sarkeesian should matter as well. Anti-porn feminism has a painful, ongoing history of stigmatizing sex workers.

Cultural critics like Sarkeesian should be especially careful when using feminist analysis to talk about sex worker issues. If Sarkeesian cares about the representation of sex workers in culture, it seems like the least she could do is to respond and rethink when sex workers tell her, repeatedly, that her videos fail to represent them.

Noah Berlatsky is a Chicago-based writer. He blogs at The Hooded Utilitarian. This article first appeared on the reason.com website.