Nikki Thomas argues for decriminalization of sex work

On June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada began to hear Canadian sex workers’ case challenging three Canadian laws pertaining to prostitution. To mark this important milestone, Nikki Thomas, Executive Director of Sex Professionals of Canada, wrote two powerful pieces about sex workers’ rights that summarize some of the information we are trying to convey through our video game.

In “Sex Workers Deserve to Have Their Voices Heard”, Thomas gives an overview of the major feminist divide concerning sex work. Some feminists view all sex workers as victims, and sex work itself as a form of violence against women. These feminists argue for assymetrical criminalization, where the purchase of sexual services would become illegal, but the selling of sexual services would remain legal, criminalizing the clients.

However, Thomas argues that this position is paradoxical to one of the core values of feminism- that all women should have the right to control what they do with their bodies. She goes on to explain that this “abolitionist” stance towards sex work undermines and devalues the agency of sex workers. Furthermore, she highlights that strategies to abolish sex work will only push the profession underground, leading to more exploitation, not less.

In “5 Reasons Criminalizing Sex Worker Clients Doesn’t Work”, Thomas expands on her critique of the “abolitionist” stance on sex work. Thomas explains why this approach would not eradicate sex work, but would in fact make sex work more dangerous. Clients would be less willing to share information about themselves, making it impossible for sex workers to adequately screen potential clients. Thomas also points out that while this approach has been adopted in Sweden, it has only exported the industry to neighboring countries, instead of decreasing demand. She highlights that clients would be less likely to report suspected exploitation or violence against sex workers out of fear of being arrested. Lastly, she argues that the “abolitionist” approach discriminates against both clients and sex workers by painting them as exploiters and victims.  Thomas sees decriminalization as the best way to improve working conditions for sex workers and eradicate exploitation.

Sex in Video Games

While video games are often stigmatized as being overtly sexual, scholars and game critics have pointed to the fact that most mainstream video games actually steer clear of depicting the act of sex. Floyd (2008) highlights that while sexual acts were present in video games since their inception, in the 1980s this came to an end. Nintendo forbade sexual content in games made for their first home console, and most mainstream game developers followed suit. While there has been a steady rise in hypersexualized characters in games, as well as a limited but healthy adult game market, most mainstream games today are free of overtly sexual content.

Ironically, video games today are often slammed for depicting sex, but not violence. Many retailers won’t stock video games rated “Adult Only” (AO) (Gallagher, 2012), a rating almost exclusively reserved for games with sexual content. Floyd argues that any amount of violence is rarely given that same rating. Furthermore, as video games continue to be defined as a children’s pastime in society’s consciousness, many games that have depicted sex have faced media, legislative, and consequently economic backlash.

Therefore, mainstream game designers avoid depicting sex, and instead rely on titillation and innuendo. “Sex continues to exert a powerful influence on video games as an absence or limit” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 400).   While sex is often implied (in romantic storylines, where players’ actions are rewarded with sex, etc…), the act itself is never shown (Kryzwinska, 2012; Cox 2009). Instead, video games’ use of suggestion “capitalize[s] on sexual knowledge it presumes its audience already to possess rather than risk addressing or representing it directly” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 403).

However, Krzywinska (2012) argues that games don’t only explore sex through sexual imagery. Other forms of representation, game mechanics, and even gameplay itself can conjure up sexual themes. For example, characters’ power or agility can evoke themes of desire and sexuality. Furthermore, Kryzwinska discusses the “erotics of play”. While sexual imagery may be nowhere to be found in certain games, these games can still “please, tease and excite the player” (p. 154). Similarly, Gallagher highlights the work of Suits (1978), who “compares games to sex on the basis that both play and sex may be understood as activities in which ‘trying and achieving may be sought as ends in themselves’ ” (p. 405).

Krzywinska and Gallagher do discuss video games that do use sexual imagery. Krzywinska distinguishes between these games and virtual sex simulators. “Sex sims are generally designed to be consumed as porn, while the situation with games that incorporate sex within the sphere of game mechanics is more complex” (Krzywinska, 2012, p. 151). She uses the example of Playboy: The Mansion, a game where a player embodies Hugh Hefner, who must use a variety of techniques to pull together his magazine. The player also has the option of having sex with the mansion’s guests. “Sex here is couched as a normal activity partaken of by consenting adults who do not necessarily have deep ties” (Krzywinsk, 2012, p. 153). Interestingly, these guests are more easily seduced after Hefner builds relationships with them. However, sex is still represented as something to be coaxed out of female non-player characters by the male Hugh Hefner through saavy gameplay.

Fable II is more progressive example of a video game that deals with sex, offered by Gallagher. While the sex act itself is not portrayed, events leading up to it and following it are. Players can please a potential partner with gifts and trips before hand, and then decide on whether to use contraceptives and later deal with the consequences of that decision. “The game understands that sex is most gamically compelling when it requires strategy and entails consequences, and renders it a matter of planning and problem solving rather than one of acting out our fantasies on quiescent digital bodies” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 409).  The game also offers players a choice of engaging with a range of sexual preferences and identities.

Despite this example, critics agree that mainstream games currently do not adequately represent the complexity of sex. Gallagher argues that games’ current approach, “allusion, paraphrase, and innuendo, [are] techniques better suited to the restatement of reductive, clichéd, and simplistic attitudes rather than the nuanced treatment of complex issues” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 404).  Mainstream games also lack representations of sexual diversity. Polansky (2013) rightly criticizes video games’ “aesthetic of objectification for the viewing pleasure of presumably straight, largely white….men” (n.p.). Similarly, Alex Raymond (2009) argues that when sex appears or is implied in video games, it is often framed as a commodity to be won from female non-player characters by male players. He advocates for games to move towards a representation of sex as collaborative.

However, Polansky points out that more interesting work about sex is being done in independent games. She points to Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme, a video game about the dominant/submissive relationship. “Encyclopedia is a game that requires sensitivity, attention and active exchange between the player and the system to be able to achieve not only a positive, climactic ending, but to explore one’s relationship with physical transgression and power dynamics as elements of kink eroticism” (Polansky, 2013, n.p.)

Overall, these authors agree that video games as a medium can explore complex issues in a revealing way, and this potential should be used to explore sex. Many call for games to explore intimacy, relationships, and a diversity of sexual preferences. And Gallagher and Kryzwinska highlight that sexual imagery may not be the only, nor the best way to explore sexuality in games.

Should and how could we represent, evoke or suppress sex in our game? We want to frame sex work as an issue of labor rights, and focus on the legalities that endanger sex workers, and not on the sex acts that most commonly evoke sexual moralism in the public. However, what does it mean for a representation of sex workers to overlook the exchange between a sex worker and their client? Is there perhaps a way to highlight the relationship and intimacy that can be built between a sex worker and client that might work in favor of the message we are trying to convey? Or is the lesson to be learned from the public’s scorn against sexual games is that incorporating sex confuses the real issues at play?