Leaving Sex Work and Writing Complexities

We are getting closer and closer to the final stages of game design, but there are still some questions that haunt us, particularly how to end the game’s narrative in a way that represents the diverse experiences of sex workers. Representing and writing complexly has been a challenge throughout the entire project. The more and more research we do, the clearer it becomes that there is, of course, no singular experience of sex work. However this becomes particularly more nuanced when we consider the ending of the game, as the note we decide to end on will likely leave the most lasting impression on the player.

Our solution so far has been to brainstorm more than one end state for the game, so that players’ experiences can vary between playthroughs. But the player may not realize there are different end states and therefore will still be left with one, very specific representation of sex work. In order to challenge stagnant representation, we are considering ending the game with a variety of quotations from sex workers that will further complicate how leaving sex work is represented, both in our project and more broadly.

While researching end states for the game, I came across a piece published by the Pacific Standard about “Getting out of Sex Work.” The unnamed author describes their experiences leaving sex work and how difficult it was to get out due to lack of experience in other kinds of work, the stigma place on sex workers, and financial need. Sex workers are told by advocates that they should leave, but they are not always given the tools to make that transition.

Hearing about the diverse experiences of different sex workers is critical to the development of our project, however what I found particularly interesting about the Pacific Standard piece was that the author also pointed out how interviews with sex workers don’t always a fully complex picture either:

So desiring to think and to project an image of themselves as decent, respectable, free-thinking human beings competent of making decisions and running their own lives, the women I interviewed refused to disclose anything that might be construed as evidence to the contrary. How could I blame them? At this time in my life, I couldn’t have either.

This is what I’ve wanted for the past decade. But at 19, the idea of sex work as a subversive and transgressive act — which emerged as part of a series of discourses glorifying sexual practices which were seen to destabilize or “trouble” the categories of sex — was a theory that enticed me. Pro sex industry rhetoric was an improvement on radical feminism’s representation of sex workers as disempowered victims, which fails to recognize women as agents in their own right. For me, claiming that sex work was transgressive was a way of reconciling my identity as a feminist with my chosen occupation.

And yet, I failed to take into account the truth of my experience. For starters, I didn’t make a lot of money as a stripper, I realize today — only a couple hundred dollars a night. Beyond this, the work hadn’t been easy. Whereas I experienced what Foucoult would describe as “moments” of transgression, my experience as a sex worker was that these moments became fewer and farther between. More often, it was, well, as I described in the Huffington Post article — physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Within weeks what was once exciting had turned boringly routine.

I find it important to acknowledge that, throughout all the research on this project, we have also encountered very different testimonies to this one, and that we are by no means dismissing the importance of each of these narratives. What I think is useful to remember is how complex these stories are on every level of their telling and the subsequent importance of maintaining that complexity. In what ways can we best represent these complexities in our project?

Prostitution in computer games

Prostitutes are often depicted in video games as minor, non-player characters. These representations are usually negative, associating prostitutes with social ills and perpetuating stereotypes of sex workers as deviant, subservient to male desire, and victims of violence and drugs. Player interactions with sex workers can sometimes lead to a “health boost” or some other form of reward within the game. Prostitutes are therefore represented as objects to be exploited for the player’s personal gain. Often, prostitutes are simply present in virtual worlds to contribute to a seedy atmosphere, meant to convey that a particular environment is crime-ridden. Few video games offer insight into the perspective of sex workers

Prostitutes are repeatedly depicted as victims of violence and drugs. Some games depict them as victims of horrendous murders (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the RipperHo-Tel), others portray them as drug addicts (Liberal Crime Squad). Sometimes, players are given the option of intervening or allowing for the prostitute to be killed (as in the case of Red Dead RedemptionHeavy Rain). In other games, most famously in Grand Theft Auto, the player is actually given the option of beating up a prostitute for gain within the game.

When prostitutes are characters in the story, as in the case of Gun Showdown or Heavy Rain, the narrative situates them as looking for ways to escape the world of prostitution. Sex work is not depicted as a choice but the product of difficult life circumstances. In both of these games, the prostitutes are attacked and players decide whether to intervene or not. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a somewhat positive representation of a prostitute in the character of Mei Suen. She runs a brothel, takes care of her employees, and is clever and strong enough not to succumb to the wills of the criminals that eventually take over her business. However, she can be knocked out or killed by the player.

Ho-Tel, “A Game of Ho’s & Whores”, puts the player in the position of a pimp who must build a sex industry empire. This game explicitly depicts sex workers as objects to be controlled and exploited. Although to have a successful business the player must keep their employees happy, this can done through buying sex workers cocain or allowing them to “suck on your dick”. All other options the player has, such as buying employees “whore clothes” or paying for their plastic surgery, have to do with making sex workers more attractive and therefore more profitable.

Because prostitutes are non-player characters, they are awarded no agency within game play. Prostitutes are never portrayed as empowered subjects but as victims to their profession. Furthermore, interactions between a sex worker and a player are not portrayed as negotiated business transactions. Prostitutes simply succumb to the sexual “desires” of the player at the click of a console.

RESOURCE: Giant Bomb