Much to the surprise of the folks over at GameDaily and trigger-happy GTA fans alike, sex workers are people too -- even when it comes to video games.
SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, recently issued a statement denouncing Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto for encouraging the mistreatment of prostitutes. "In the interest of furthering sex workers' human and civil rights to life and personal safety," the statement says, "we object to any media which represents sex workers as legitimate targets of violence, rape and murder."
While SWOP stresses their stance against censorship, they feel their boycott is warranted, given the circumstances, and call upon consumers to "vote with their dollars by refusing to purchase products which encourage the denigration and destruction of prostitutes." The statement goes on to suggest -- with the help of a David Walsh's "Video Game Violence and Public Policy" -- that players who act out against prostitutes in GTA are more likely to take out real-life aggression against them as well.
Whether or not GTA fans are actually running out to reenact their in-game rampages, a possibility that seems over-stressed both here and in other anti-game rhetoric, SWOP is making a valid point about the portrayal of sex workers in video games (Even if they have some of their details wrong; players can't rape and don't "accrue points" for murdering prostitutes.). Sex workers deserve to be seen as real people, not just disposable NPC's. However, as in the real world, where prostitutes are commonly regarded either as comic caricatures or pitiful victims, they're often looked at as non-persons.
To that extent though, games like GTA are merely reflecting the ideas of our larger culture. Even the impetus to sleep with a prostitute and then kill her, to reassert her supposed inadequacy with a bullet -- and to enjoy doing it -- is part of our socially-constructed view of proper and improper members of society. Do video games allow us a level of interactivity, of engagement and agency that other mediums lack? Sure, but they don't create new urges. And like all art forms, they have the right to portray respectful ideals or violent realities as they choose.
Of course, not everyone who shoots a hooker in GTA is thinking these issues through. Those impressionable players who aren't influenced in their actions by the in-game violence might well be influenced in their thinking. A virtual act, like killing prostitutes willy-nilly -- or just being able to do so -- can reinforce real-life stereotypes and preconceptions about sex workers.
Personally, having never shot, or even slept with a GTA prostitute, I've always found this element of the game amusing. I take the ridiculous violence as a satirical critique, or at least a comment, on our absurd attitudes toward sex workers, and the pop culture that reifies them -- of which, of course, GTA is the epitome. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way: not many of the players, and, as an understandable result, not the real-life sex workers themselves.