“I’m going to kill you, you professional sex worker” – Ira Glass on The Daily Show

I am a huge fan of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show but I was disturbed when last week’s Thursday episode trotted out an old and tired source of humor – that of murdering whores. The show segment featuring Ira Glass in a green body suit, running gun in hand as he weakly declared, “I’m going to kill you, you professional sex worker,” was intended to spoof the controversy surrounding violence in video games. It wasn’t apparent if this “moment of zen” was making light of concerns that minors are playing violent video games but there was no mistaking the show’s reliance on the fact that audiences will laugh at dead hooker jokes. 

I understand there isn’t much comics can make fun of nowadays without running afoul of the PC police or getting picketed by some special interest group. But in my opinion, humor which relies upon lampooning a downtrodden sector of society is just plain lazy. More pertinent to this sex worker rights blog, perpetuating the idea that dead sex workers is funny, helps to create a culture which insists upon denying the most rudimentary human rights to men, women and transgenders who work in the sex industry.

Prostitutes Call for a Ban on GTA: Sex workers cry foul, say game “accrues points to players for the depiction of rape and murder of prostitutes.”

By Tim Surette, GameSpot

Posted Feb 14, 2006 3:48 pm PT

The Grand Theft Auto franchise is getting attacked from all angles. Joining the ranks of politicians, policemen, and attorneys in their crusade to see the game lifted from shelves are the nation’s sex workers. On its Web site, the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA is asking parents to assist them in calling for a ban of Take-Two Interactive’s controversial game.

Citing a 2001 document from the National Institute on Media and the Family’s David Walsh, SWOP is calling “on all parents and all gamers to boycott Grand Theft Auto.”

The organization quotes various points from Walsh’s paper, including, “Children are more likely to imitate a character with whom they identify with. In violent video games the player is often required to take the point of view of the shooter or perpetrator.”

Though the organization admits to being “adamantly opposed to any and all forms of censorship,” as concerned parents themselves, they “wish to inform other parents of the potential danger extremely violent video games pose to children.” Likewise, in the interest of promoting the rights of sex workers, the organization is opposed to the depiction of the rape and murder of prostitutes.

In the games, players can solicit “services” from prostitutes by driving their cars slowly near them. No sexual acts are in clear visible view, but during the “transaction,” the player regains health and loses money. Though the player cannot actively rape prostitutes in the game, a possible rape is alluded to once during the storyline of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The prostitutes, like every other character, are also subject to homicide at the hands of the protagonist.

According to its Web site, SWOP USA is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of sex-industry workers and to the promotion of a safe working environment for the industry.

I wrote the above referenced call to boycott the video game GTA in 2006. Despite the pains I took to decry censorship, many readers conflated the issue of hate speech with first amendment rights. GTA gamers responded online as well.  Here are some of the more memorable comments (and no, I haven’t bothered to protect their identities – given the circumstances it just didn’t seem appropriate):

“raping prostitutes, isn’t that like having your cake and eating it too?”   –lmelo

“Grand Theft Auto taught me how to boink hookers.”  –AgeOfConsent

“….. ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….. stupid hookers….. no one is going to listen to you….. you’re not even real people”  –uncle_cheddar

“prostitutes and parents unite hmm does those parents know tat prostitute is spoiling thier kids more than GTA?? banning gta won`t make them become a better person but banning porn should help them more”  –Lazberia

“I have to laugh to that Prostitutes Fighting BACK!! LMAO!!”  –murrayblake339

“I don’t rape the prostitutes, I just kill them cause thier in my way.”  –Kayrod29

“prostitutes have no right to complain so they can stfu for one thing and leave there moaning for the back seat of some old farts car”  –stayc360 

“How can they blame a game for the rape and murder of prostituts??? I’ve been killing ho’s since 94′ and I blame nobody but my parents….(My dad tought me how)”-mhpfly

“How can you rape prostitutes? That’s kinda the whole point…”  –Megadanxzero

“You know… i’m sorry but when a pimp wants his money back in the game after a nice knocking in the car… there’s only one thing you CAN do… kill a b**** !! hahahahah.”-SN1P3RZ

While games like GTA may express violence toward a wide variety of people – not just prostitutes – prostitutes remain a population which IS targeted for violence in the real world.  Other populations who face threats to their safety have succeeded in convincing some video game companies to alter the content of their games. For instance, Take-Two Interactive Software, the parent company of Grand Theft Auto manufacturer Rockstar Games, was pressured to remove racist dialog from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in 2004 because the game targeted Haitians, a minority which is targeted in real life.. Other games such as Resident Evil, Ethnic Cleansing, RapeLay and KZ Manager Millennium also contain extreme forms of racist and sexist content but efforts to modify the offending content or remove the games from circulation have been largely unsuccesful.

Gaming enthusiasts insist that the violence which occurs in video games is “just for fun” and has no residual effects which might extend to family, community or society at large. Many parents fail to investigate the content of the videos their children and teens play. Yet these same people are convinced that pornography is “harmful to minors” and would be horrified at the thought of allowing their children to view a pornographic film depicting sex without violence.

The idea that one form of entertainment has absolutely no effect on the minds and emotions of children while the other form of entertainment can cause irreparable damage to young minds is ludicrous. You can’t have it both ways. Either our brains, emotions and behavior are impacted by the images and stories we expose ourselves to or they are not. To say sex can corrupt but violence only entertains is the height of stupidity.

The Supreme Court is currently reviewing  Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 08-1448, California’s 2005 law which would prohibit anyone under 18 from buying or renting games that give players the option of “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”

At issue of course is our constitutional freedoms. Justice Antonin Scalia said “It has never been understood that the freedom of speech did not include portrayals of violence. You are asking us to create a whole new prohibition which the American people never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment.”

I find his obvious omission of sexual material to be glaring and almost comical. Are we meant to believe that the founders wished to protect our right to consume violent images while prohibiting images of consensual sex? And since our federal government DOES control sexual imagery, is it really such a stretch to include violent images under that umbrella of control?

Justice Stephen Breyer also smells an hypocritical standard. He posed this question: What if a video game showed “gratuitous torture of children? ‘Now you can’t buy a naked woman, but you can go and buy that,’ you say to the 13-year-old. Now what sense is there to that? Why isn’t it common sense to say a state has the right to say, ‘Parent, you want this for your child? You go buy it yourself?’ “

Mark Twain was quoted as saying there are three kinds of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  There is a lot of truth in that statement and as someone who has spent a great deal of my free time reviewing various statistics, I know how easily the facts can be bent to create a desired outcome.  And in fact there are many seemingly contradictory studies and findings on the topic of video violence. However, if you spend a few hours reviewing the literature, it becomes apparent that violent video games have an effect on human behavior. Even Christopher Ferguson, one of the more vocal defenders of gaming violence, admits to negative short-term effects.

Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D. (Iowa State University) had this to say at the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “The Impact of Interactive Violence on Children” in 2000:

 “The effects of TV and movie violence on aggression are not small. Indeed, the media violence effect on aggression is bigger than the effect of exposure to lead on IQ scores in children, the effect of calcium intake on bone mass, the effect of homework on academic achievement, or the effect of asbestos exposure on cancer. . . Repeated exposure to violent media also reduces negative feelings that normally arise when observing someone else get hurt. In other words, people become desensitized to violence. Finally, exposure to violent media teaches people that aggressive retaliation is good and proper. . .  The more relevant question is whether many (or most) people become more angry, aggressive, and violent as a result of being exposed to high levels of media violence. Are they more likely to slap a child or spouse when provoked? Are they more likely to drive aggressively, and display “road rage?” Are they more likely to assault co-workers? The answer is a clear yes.”

Of course these comments come from a university professor who has built his career around criticizing violence in all forms of media – not just video games – and his research has garnered more than a little criticism. But what do people who work in the video game industry have to say?

Gamasutra blogger, Adam Bishop, had this to say in his October 16th post last month:

“One of the things that often comes up from people who defend that sort of behaviour is that it’s harmless and not really an indication of anything in the broader world.  Well, in my experience that’s very wrong, and I’m writing this post to demonstrate how.  Earlier this year and last year I worked at a large game developer where I witnessed sexual harassment on a scale I’ve never seen before in any other industry that I’ve worked in.   One distinguishing factor of a lot of this behaviour was one of the justifications for it that was given by some of the people engaged in it – that this kind of behaviour should be expected because this was the video game industry and this is how gamers behave.”

In his May 31, 2010 article in PC World, entitled ZOMG, that’s racist! Exposed: the most culturally insensitive video games of all time, GamePro Australia’s Chris Jager, had this to say:

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the most culturally insensitive thing about gaming is the gamers. If you want proof, just play a few online rounds of your FPS of choice. If you don’t get called the N-word, the F-word or a portmanteau that combines both, then you probably need to get your headset fixed. From the constant, foul-mouthed tirades against gays and blacks to the grotty practice of corpse-humping, online gaming brings out the absolute worst in humanity. Nothing is off-limits when it comes to trash talk — colour and creed included. In comparison, most of the examples on this list look like all inclusive hippie love-ins. Can’t we all just get along?”

If only things were that simple.  One thing is for certain – when you feed any thought or feeling, it has the effect of making that thought or feeling more potent. Playing video games which encourage us to rape a mother and her two daughters (RapeLay) or pour gasoline over someone, set them on fire, and urinate on them (Postal II) may not cause you to run out and kill someone. But what does it do to your ability to feel empathy for the plight of others? What effect does it have on your propensity to create loving, positive interactions in the world?

Sex workers, like other minorities, already experience less safety and fewer rights than other members of society. While they work to secure the most basic human rights, jokes, humor, games and other forms of entertainment which make light of their plight exacerbate an already dangerous situation. I do NOT support censorship. But information is power and it is a constitutional right to vote with your dollars. Educate yourself to the content of popular games and movies and if you are a parent, get involved in what your children under the age of 18 are viewing and playing. If you are an adult who enjoys gaming, pay attention to your own reactions and mind-set after playing a violent game. Do you find yourself feeling more inclined toward conflict or prejudice? If so, you may want to reconsider your recreation. After all, in a free world, it’s up to you to choose whether you will be a force for good or for evil.

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