The Real Problem With Sex Workers In Video Games

The Real Problem With Sex Workers In Video Games

When you’re playing a game as infectiously compelling as Grand Theft Auto V, it can be difficult to take a step back and reflect on all the wanton acts of destruction in which you’ve participated.

This can be weird in its own right considering how much of a time sink open world games can be. But when it comes to a game like Grand Theft Auto that helped popularised soliciting and brutalising prostitutes for fun, players’ and developers’ continued reliance on sexualised gameplay tropes can have disturbing implications both on-screen and off.

In the latest episode of her YouTube video series “Tropes vs Women”, critic Anita Sarkeesian examines how female characters are often consigned to the background of popular video games. As with all of Sarkeesian’s work in the Feminist Frequency series, this is required watching for any gamers with a strong interest in the big-budget games she digs into here like Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, and the Saints Row series.

This isn’t just a matter of women being relegated to supporting roles in popular big-budget games, however. More often than not, these female subjects that fill out the background of the world in a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Red Dead Redemption aren’t subjects at all. Rather, they’re built as virtual playthings to serve the every need of the male protagonist and punished violently and brutally if they ever fail to do so.

And while these are technically optional behaviours players don’t have to indulge in, Sarkeesian argues that it’s not a simple matter of allowing players who are offended by the material “opt out” of it, in a manner of speaking.

The Real Problem With Sex Workers In Video Games

“The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,” Sarkeesian says at one point in the video, “because they were designed, constructed, and placed in the environment for that singular purpose.”

Furthermore, repeated exposure to this kind of media can have real-world effects on players. Citing recent academic research, Sarkeesian says that “long term exposure to hypersexualised images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women, and more readily accepting of rape myths.”

Watch this and more installments in Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women series at the Feminist Frequency website.


  • For all comments related to this article, please refer to the previous topic ‘Tropes Vs Women Explores The Issue Of Women Being Used As ‘Decoration’‘.

    • Yeah, I was expecting this article to talk about how real sex workers don’t so easily take their clothes off for low pay. With many of them having screening interviews or such for potential clients.

      • Yah, hiring prostitutes and reloading guns are grossly misinterpreted actions in video games … I imagine.

        • Screw you! I wish games made you lose unused bullets when you reloaded!

          It’s all become a habit now.
          Shoot a guy, reload, shoot a guy, reload.

          • We’re slightly off topic now, but one of the Rainbow Six games had a great mechanic for this. You “cycled” through your magazines with each reload, so eventually you’d come back to the magazines that were only half full. It made so much more sense.

          • Depends on the kind of gun though, right?

            Also, I never reload manually. Also, not very realistic.

          • Plenty of games do that, well maybe not plenty. Games like cry of fear do and ammo is scarce. You got 2 rounds in a mag and you really have to decide if it’s worth reloading.

  • Most of these games depict seedy areas and prostitution has been described as one of “the worlds oldest professions”.

    Most people in these games are seen as walking money bags to shoot, rob or maim. (gta, saints row, assassins creed etc). So being seen as a “virtual plaything” is likely a step up from most npcs/bystanders in these games who are basically walking bodybags.

  • This is true if you only use a perspective wholly uneducated in representation in media. Many of the “tropes” in GTA have a meaning behind them which must be ignored if this kind of irresponsible discourse is to continue. There are many examples where women provide meaningless decoration in other games that don’t have a single thing to say about the actions you’re performing.

    It’s sad that in order to support a relevant issue it seems we have to pay in our understanding of the medium. Whenever an issue become relevant to society, art is encouraged to be insightful, scathing, satirical, exploratory, subversive, provocative etc. which promotes relevant discussion on the issue. I feel as if games sit outside this rule or perhaps it just isn’t allowed to be seen lest another punching bag is removed from the line-up. I’m worried that all we’re doing with this finger pointing (in any direction) is discouraging genuine reaction to the issue from our designers and artists and simply enforcing a moral rule that must be followed and never questioned or scrutinized by any means. (Because asking why or how is a display of punishable ignorance)

    It seems that there is no way the morality police would allow even the tamest of provocative commentary, no matter how insightful or relatable it might be to the issue. If it’s there in any capacity whatsoever, it will be condemned, end of story. Girl must be lead and must not be sexy. That’s it? We’ve got people giving scathing, subversive criticism of the bro culture and masculinity reverence inherent in the industry today but we just ignore everything and say “well, the girls are just decoration”.

    • Uh, no. I think you’ve missed the point.

      Women can be sexy, women can be sex workers. This is completely fine. However most games relegate them to just this, and make no effort to give them any dimension or ground their work in real life.

      I’d love to see a game where women are portrayed in the “appealing to the bros” stereotype (as they almost always are), but then also be given greater substance. But they rarely do become fully drawn characters – there are a few exceptions.

      Watchdogs takes it to the lowest of lows, with sex workers being victims in need of rescuing, or drug addicted air heads with no moral compass and no role to serve other than to illustrate how awful and brutal the (mostly black) men are.

      I’ve lost faith in video games – especially the big titles – to even attempt anything meaningful with their characters generally, let alone female characters. They are eye candy, and then fodder for a meat grinding “plot” and nothing else. Victims to be avenged or saved. There are exceptions, but very, very few.

      • You (and Anita) seem to be suffering from confirmation bias. There are thousands of female NPCs in games like GTA5 and Watch Dogs, extremely few of whom work in the sex industry, and fewer still that you can interact with. In Red Dead Redemption the vast majority of female characters are perfectly normal frontiersmen appropriate to the setting that have nothing to do with sex. How can you judge the portrayal of ‘women’ (a large and diverse group) in these games based solely on a handful of experiences at an in-game strip club or back alley?

        In Watch Dogs, rescuing people from crime is one of the most prevalent themes of the game. There’s an entire mechanic built around locating a potential crime and intervening to prevent it from happening. The victims of these crimes are a diverse range of men and women, white and black, young and old. Sex workers can be both victims and aggressors. I don’t see how you can view the fact that some sex workers are victims in a game where almost everyone can be a victim as any kind of gender-oriented statement whatsoever, let alone “the lowest of lows”.

        If you focus too much on finding ways a particular group is mistreated, eventually that’s all you’ll see. It won’t matter that all the other groups are treated the same way because the only one you’re looking at is the one you hope to find evidence for.

        • So…background NPCs are the best place to find exceptions?

          That many games are built on creating these characters is not a problem, it’s the games people want to play!

          And because everyone is treated the same, except the male hero, it’s equal opportunity neglect!

          Okay. Fair enough. But I’m also talking leads. There are lots of female leads, and often make leads are a flat and poorly drawn as their fewer female counterparts…but to deny there is disparity particularly when talking about sex workers specifically, is naive.

          • Not sure I understand your first question. You were talking about strippers, which in GTA5 and Watch Dogs are background NPCs. It seems fair to compare them to all the other background NPCs in those games for noticing that they’re not really treated differently to any of the others.

            Can you give an example of a game with a lead character who is a female sex worker that shows the disparity you’re talking about? I can’t think of any, off the top of my head.

          • I’m talking more generally – female characters. NPCs on the street, greater characters in cut scenes.

            And you can’t deny there is disparity because there are no empowered, unjudged female leads that fit the description. This is as much the point as anything.

            When Chainsaw Lollipop springs to mind as one of the few sexuality confident, empowered female leads we’re in trouble – she’s 16 and created as a wank aid.

          • So you want more games with sex workers as lead characters, is that what you’re saying?

            As far as I know there are no 3 month old babies as lead characters, nor wheelchair-bound octogenarians. I’m not aware of any desalination plant technicians, ministers for the arts, Foxxcon workers, haberdashers, bus conductors, sign writers or Seventh Day Adventists as lead characters in video games either. Sure, you can call this a disparity in the strict sense of the term, but that doesn’t mean it’s a problem that requires attention.

            Creators will create characters that fit the story they want to tell. If you’re bothered by a lack of stories about sex workers, create one. There is no disparity in the opportunity available for all of these people to become lead characters, and it’s not anyone’s responsibility to create stories about any particular kind of person. We’re all free to tell the stories we want to tell, unhindered by the pressures of others.

          • Do you really think that’s what I’m saying? Because: no. I am not.

            And yes: content creators will give consumers what they think they want. There is a fine line between capitulating to an intellectually-lazy, tits-n-‘splosions-please audience that you know will generate a degree of income and taking a leadership role and presenting nuanced, challenging characters that may not immediately be loved (read: wanked over) by a core audience.

            I actually find the idea that some of these games are giving the audience what they want deeply insulting to us – the audience. Well, some of us.

            Clearly some gamers/media consumers have no awareness of the world around them, and the ongoing harm that negative & stereotypical portrayals of sex work, women, drug use, (etc etc) in media (games, movies, ads et al) can create. I could argue that those people aren’t aware because there has been a near-complete failure of video games & the media they consume to actually engage in realistic, challenging, interesting and diverse stories and characters.

            Studios really miss out on the opportunity to challenge thinking, push us out of a narrative comfort zone. And that goes beyond just representations of sex workers, or women. It’s stands as a general comment, too.

            Stories just aren’t compelling and rarely scratch the surface of what they’re trying to achieve with the narrative. And while focusing on representation of certain groups of people may not fix that, it’s certainly a glaringly obvious place that some studios can start. And there have been some games that have done so, and not only created a great narrative piece, but also great games that sold and rated really well.

            Two games i’ve played recently that had really hackneyed, lazy stereotypes and tropes (towards women, sex workers, drug use and generally) have been Infamous: Second Son and Watchdogs. So many opportunities missed to actually say something, challenge the audience instead of presenting titillating voyeurism that has no real point beyond…well, exactly that.

          • @pewpewmcgoo It’s really not clear what you want or even what your point is.

            You complained all women were relegated to be sex workers in ‘most games’ (such as Watch Dogs), even though there can be as many as thousands of women in these games and only a fraction are strippers or sex workers. You complained about strippers being portrayed as victims in a game where everyone is portrayed as a victim, falsely suggesting they’re treated differently to everyone else. You then said ‘the point, as much as anything’ was that there are no female sex worker lead characters, but later deny that’s what you want when it’s spelled out. With due respect, I feel your views have been sufficiently countered, but rather than acknowledge that you evade and try to carry momentum on a different and equally invalid argument.

            You have a cynical and unjustified view of the creativity within the games industry, and of the audience for video games as a whole. I used to work in the industry only a few years ago before I moved into business software development, and while certain genres and concepts sell well and have some influence over the choice of games made in large studios, you overestimate the amount of influence it has and your assumption that race or gender pressures have any significance whatsoever is misguided. By far, the bulk of the creative influence in a new franchise is what the company and the designers want to make. I find it both arrogant and unfair of you to judge both developers and consumers so dismally.

            The rest of your comment seems to boil down to little more than “I don’t like this type of story therefore it’s a bad type of story and/or there’s impropriety involved in its creation”, and there’s nothing of actual substance in there worth responding to.

            I’m sorry that you see the spectre of sexism or job prejudice everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. I’m sorry you have such a bitter opinion of an industry that doesn’t deserve the amount of scorn you’re levelling at it. I hope you find games that interest you, maybe you might even join the industry and create games that you feel are under-represented. But if all this conversation is going to be is you engaging in evasion and undeserved superiority, then your opinion doesn’t matter to me and I don’t see any value in continuing.

            Best of luck to you.

          • @zombiejesus anecdotal opinion is not countering. And even if it is, there is one point that is not countered, and that’s representation of women in video games – yes, with a whole raft of exceptions that should not be ignored – is generally woeful.

            Perhaps try suggesting you’re a sex worker in a multiplayer chat session to see what sort of attitudes are the default, and common. Or even read half the comments above or below ours. Hell suggest you’re a woman. I’ll let the bulk of online gamers make my point for me.

            Again: I am not talking in totality.

            If you honestly think there is no issue with representation of women, sex workers or hell, even women’s sexuality in games than you’re blinded – quite possibly by your personal attachment to the industry that (in part) is being criticised here. If you think that isn’t part of a feedback loop of the boys-y nature of the industry and the perception of “what games make money”, then please enlighten me – you’ve not countered this *reality* simply by claiming it isn’t true.

            As for me “not liking a certain type of story” – hello, opinion, meet opinion. Which one is right? Neither? Jolly good!

  • But the hookers in the games I play are barely props! Even if I can give them money, I never get to see my character give them the pounding.


  • More often than not, these female subjects that fill out the background of the world in a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Red Dead Redemption aren’t subjects at all. Rather, they’re built as virtual playthings to serve the every need of the male protagonist and punished violently and brutally if they ever fail to do so.

    This is absolute rubbish. In both of those games you mention, prostitutes are no more than a backdrop, just like any other NPC. They cannot be interacted with sexually whatsoever. In fact, in RDR the protagonist will refuse sexual activity and reminds himself that he’s married. The statement above may be true for some games, even though it’s still quite a stretch, but it’s absolutely not true with these examples.

    Yes, in some games prostitutes act as playthings for the player. But in the vast majority of them they’re only there to make it very clear the morality of the environment the player is in. For example, in New Vegas they make it explicitly clear the the prostitutes are badly treated by the casino bosses and you even get the chance to do a quest where you can help some of them escape from their mistreatment.

    I can’t quite argue with some aspects of this article and video such as the advertising back in the day that just blatantly using sex to sell but come on, it’s no different from any other medium. I really still do not understand the huge uproar this topic brings about.

  • If the sex workers in The Wolf Among Us were removed you would be getting rid of some very memorable characters.

  • Gaming boys – and I assume they’re boys, regardless of the bodies they walk in – need to understand they’re not under attack.

    That rhetorical discussions are not absolute.
    That you are not an abuser or mysoginist just because you enjoy these games.
    That there is a serious problem with representing women in video games.

    It doesn’t invalidate those games, nor does it ignore the good work that some studios and devs are putting out there that address these concerns.

    Welcome to a nuanced world where women are demonstrably – on both sides of the gaming “camera” – often second class citizens.

    • They seem to ignore the fact there are games with female main characters though.
      This article contrary to the tittle just seems like flavour of the month gta bashing.

      • The reality is a majority of games with female leads often have just as many issues of representation. Putting a woman in a position of power doesn’t just negate exploitative themes if they’re still just under the surface.

        Also: you can focus on a set of games without touching upon others and still be perfectly valid in your criticisms.

        • The tittle says “video games” then the article is about one game. I have no problem with focusing on one game. But tilting the article to sound like multiple games instead of just the one is what got me.

          • The FemFreq video covers a bunch of games.

            And even then I don’t think there is an issue with expanding a discussion like this to cover games generally, or to look at one specifically – but you do need to specify what context you’re presenting your argument in or confusion/hostility will ensue.

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