This article contains spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077, and discussions of sexual assault, suicide, and self-harm.
If all you knew about sex workers came from gaming what would you think about this group of people?
Well, for starters, you wouldn’t call them sex workers. “Prostitutes," “whores,” “hoes”—that’s more likely to be your lingo for the men and women of this industry. But names aside, what would be your impression?
Sex workers have long suffered the worst from misogynistic writing in all forms of media, but particularly with video games as they are more interactive. Sex workers in most video games can hardly be called characters. They are there to be used, abused, and disregarded.
Cast your mind back to high school. It was common classroom bragging to say that your parents let you get Grand Theft Auto, and then you slept with a prostitute and killed her to get your money back. Before we go any further, no, I am not saying Rockstar allowing you to do that will lead to it happening in real life. There is no evidence of any long-term violent behavior stemming from video games. However, years upon years of prolonged exposure to GTA prostitutes as one of the few cultural representations of sex workers will absolutely influence how a person views them in real life, even if it isn’t violent.
This manifests itself in an inherent dislike of people, especially women, who at all use their sexuality in their line of work. “Tit streamers,” “Only Fans thots”; some people in the gaming community can't seem to live and let live. They must hurl abuse at them and their fans. Because in Grand Theft Auto, Fable, and Saints Row, we saw sex workers essentially used for decoration—they were there to be gawked at and do what you want with them, not consider their feelings.
Even the least offensive examples, say Fallout 3, don’t give an ounce of depth to sex workers. There’s no character, and they just serve their titillating purpose: to start an awkward sex scene as we giggle at the voice-acted moans.
“Tyger Claws Killed One Girl too Many, so People Took Matters into Their Own Hands”
Too often, the argument against sexualizing women in video games is perceived to be “no sex." Critics are seen as puritans trying to keep tits out of games, cover everyone up. Cyberpunk 2077, for all its faults, proves it can be more nuanced than that, and it does it through its depiction of sex workers.
Cyberpunk 2077 shows some truly horrific stuff. We see naked bodies butchered for parts. We read emails describing graphic sexual abuse. We even see a sex worker who has taken her own life. And yet this manages to be easier to swallow than most other mainstream depictions.
At first, this struck me as odd. Excessive depictions of sexual violence against women is something that unnerves me greatly, and not just because it's obviously meant to, but because it can feel unjustified and put in for shock value rather than to depict this horrific subject with care. Sure, at times Cyberpunk could border on voyeurism, but for the most part, I felt it was doing something right. Then, it hit me. There’s a simple reason why it works here: It’s because these sex workers are actual characters.
Obviously not completely. You have the odd “joytoys” hanging about in case you want to sit through an oddly well-animated sex scene, but for the most part, they have more character behind them.
Evelyn Parker is the obvious example. When we’re introduced to her early on, it’s revealed that she works as an escort for Yorinobu Arasaka, but she is so much more than that. She’s intelligent, she’s driven, and she has people who care about her, as she does them—especially Judy. Most importantly, she has dreams and worked in her profession to achieve them.
This comes to a tragic end after the catastrophic failure in "The Heist" mission, which sees V and Jackie witnessing Yorinobu kill his father. Fearing for her life due to her role in the plan, she goes into hiding at Clouds, a futuristic brothel. Despite this, she’s attacked and rendered comatose, yet aware of what’s happening around her. V and Judy find her eventually, but she is unable to go on after what she suffered through and takes her own life.
But because this is a futuristic setting, it isn't just any brothel Evelyn ended up in. In Clouds, the workers are known as “dolls" and quite literally are treated like sex dolls. They are given personality chips to make them perfectly fit the tastes of clients and are not meant to have any memory of what is done to them, giving the clients a lot of free range to do as they please.
This is a classic cyberpunk warning about where we’re heading as a society. The gang that operates Clouds doesn’t care about the workers at all. They don’t care about their safety. When Evelyn is comatose, they assault her and dump her. And yet they are more than happy to reap the benefits of the services of the sex workers, both financially and sexually. This reflects our world eerily accurately, as many show absolutely no respect to those who have an Only Fans or do cam shows—but nevertheless surf PornHub whenever they fancy.
As difficult as it is to see, it’s a full story, much more than sex workers have got in the past in video games. Rather than reveling in the violent misogyny, Cyberpunk reflects it in all of its ugliness and comments on how we ourselves view the people in that line of work.
In many ways, the only thing stopping us from having a Clouds in the real world is the technological limitation—definitely not our morality. Just look at how many men and women go the way of Evelyn already.
Official figures on the violence sex workers face are hard to find, due to lack of police reports. However, one study conducted in Liverpool, U.K, found that 80 percent of sex workers they interviewed had experienced violence in their line of work, with reasons for not reporting to the police including the fear of not being respected or taken seriously, and worries about revenge attacks. Another report into the subject from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects lists the annual rate of violence experienced in this line of work at between 40 and 70 percent in any given year.
Yes—Evelyn’s story is happening all around us in our world. She too didn’t seek professional help; she just hid, and it didn’t work. That very same thing is playing out right in front of us.
On a more positive note, the study conducted in Liverpool found that once police forces worked alongside groups that campaign for sex worker rights, the rate of reports and prosecutions had “unprecedented increases." In other words, a way we might tackle this issue is to simply take it seriously; to know it happens and leave our preconceptions about these vulnerable people at the door. More games adopting this aspect of Cyberpunk could influence this.
Opportunities for Thought-Provoking Stories
During my research, I tried to find an actual figure for the amount of sex worker deaths a year, and one of the worst things of all is how hard they were to find. The closest I came was the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which collects the names of those who lost their lives and reported 48 deaths in 2020, as well as eight reported missing—even with worldwide lockdowns keeping most people inside.
After a year like that, it was reassuring to play Cyberpunk 2077: a game where sex workers have the Moxes looking out for them, going after abusers. Thank God we got a story which might get players thinking more about the scourge of violence—often misogynistic, racist, and transphobic—against this vulnerable group of people.
In Grand Theft Auto, you kill a stripper and maybe the police come after you for a bit. Kill a Doll in Cyberpunk, then their friends will come after you and fight for a world where they can work safely and with respect.
Asking this from games needn’t be restrictive. Judy’s questline is a highlight in some otherwise fairly dull side missions in Cyberpunk. And other games showcase it superbly, such as Fallout: New Vegas, which explored the issue of exploitative pimps and drug use within sex work.
This isn’t to demonize Rockstar or those of us that like their games. Despite the problems, I like them a whole lot too, and they excel in their own ways. And this certainly isn’t to pretend CD Projekt Red are woke saints who have smashed the glass ceiling (I mean Christ, have you seen the ads around Night City?).
This is just to sit back and appreciate that a mainstream game said, “Hey, people who do sex work are human beings with stories to tell." The bar is low, but it’s a start.