Noah Berlatsky talks about feminist videographer Anita Sarkeesian’s criticism of the portrayal of sex workers in video games and how that contributes to negative views toward all women and the sex workers who take issue with Sarkeesian’s presentation:
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 [PDF], 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.