Recently, several women who live in Australia petitioned their local chain of Target stores to stop selling Grand Theft Auto, due to what they saw as its awful depiction of sex work. That Target chain agreed. Take Two stated that they are “unaffected” by that decision.
I was 15 when Grand Theft Auto III came out. That was the age when I first watched my gamer guy friends get very invested in murdering virtual sex workers.
I didn’t have a copy of the game myself; most people’s parents wouldn’t allow it. In the fall of 2001, I was in the early stages of begging my parents for a GameCube and a copy of Super Smash Brothers: Melee, anyway. I had made my choice in the Console Wars, and I didn’t think I needed a PlayStation 2—my best guy friend already had one.
We all had a friend like this guy, growing up—or at least, most of us did. You know the one: the guy whose parents seemed a little bit too distant, too permissive. Maybe your parents wouldn’t buy you that high-octane, blood-soaked “murder simulator,” but his parents would … and you could always just go to his house. His mom never seemed to come downstairs to check on anything. His Dad never seemed to be home at all.
We could play games for hours in his basement, uninterrupted. He had his own fridge, his own bathroom, a separate bedroom with a door that locked. It’s no wonder that going to his house filled me with a particular kind of grim terror. It was fun, sure, but deep down, it didn’t feel right. I always felt relieved when I saw my Dad’s car pull in to retrieve me at the end of a hang-out. The complete lack of rules made me feel vulnerable and unsettled—not liberated.
I guess it’s no wonder I didn’t care for Grand Theft Auto III, then, given its infamy with encouraging the player to break rules. You can do whatever you want, my friends would whisper to each other excitedly in high school hallways. Anything—you name it—it’s in there. They put in everything.
They didn’t, of course—you can’t play as a woman, which was always the uncool-and-therefore-unspoken question in the back of my brain when I heard my guy friends bragging about their in-game bank heists, cop chases, and conquests. Over a decade later, and you still can’t do “everything.” But I’ll get to that.
I’ll never forget the first time. “It’s so cool,” he had promised me. “It’s hilarious. You’ll see.”
We sat down together on his couch. He was in the driver’s seat—on my left side—clutching a controller, directing his virtual car to pull over next to each in-game sex worker, waiting for one to lean over by the driver’s side window and make him an offer. Then, ever so slowly, she rose back up to her full height and ambled around the back of the car, opened the door, and slid inside.
“She won’t do anything until we find a secluded location,” he told me, eyebrow waggling as only a 15-year-old boy’s eyebrow can. I laughed.
“Wow,” I said. “They really thought of everything.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’re not going to show anything.”
He meant the sex.
I don’t remember what she looked like. But I do remember the secluded location: gray structured polygons. An abandoned warehouse? An office parking lot? Something like that. Nothing ever really looked all that much like anything, back then. At the time, it all felt more than real enough.
“Check this out,” he said. We laughed out loud together as the car jumped up and down. As though that was what sex was like! Ha ha! Sex is nothing like that, of course! (We were both virgins.)
He showed me how his wallet’s counter was ticking downward slowly, and how his health was increasing. (Ha ha! Sex increases health! Ha!) He showed me the view through the windows of the car, the way that the man and the woman were stiltedly sitting, staring straight ahead, not moving or touching one another. The car leapt about of its own accord, like a theme park ride for which our hero had unwittingly paid.
“This is actually the best way to get health in this game,” he said. “You can get all the way up to 125.”
“Well, yeah, but you have to pay for it,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” he said. “Hold on a second.”
The woman got out of the car and began to slowly walk away. Her job was done.
“This is how you get your money back,” he told me, matter-of-factly, as he issued the first of several blows to her head.
“Wait!” I gasped. I don’t really remember what I said, exactly: Can’t you just let her keep it? Is it really that much money? Aren’t you going to get in trouble?
He didn’t laugh. He seemed annoyed, confused, surprised. “This is the only way to get your money back,” he reiterated. What other explanation did I need? This is how the game works.
He drove the car back to the road. “Do you want to do a mission?”
No. No, I did not.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s hard to talk about Grand Theft Auto.
A surprising number of gamers have grown up to develop a sort of indignant attachment to this particular Grand Theft Auto mainstay, which has remained in the game since the third title, along with other mini-games that allow you to objectify and assault women, especially female sex workers (strip club sequences, etc.). Attempts by others to suggest alternatives—such as, for example, Naomi Clark’s proposed solutions, including “Tarantino 70s revenge flick version—mess with one sex worker and the rest hunt you down repeatedly”—are often met with cries of “censorship,” or at the very least, accusations that the critic does not “understand” GTA or that GTA is not “for” them.
Violence against sex workers is not a hilarious fantasy so much as a sad reality, and one that is greatly exacerbated by the job’s illegality and cultural stigmatization. Countries that have legalized prostitution, such as Germany, have seen declines in violence against sex workers as a result. The world’s oldest profession isn’t going anywhere, but it’s still seen as shameful, especially here in the States. Our embedded cultural shame about sex and prostitution is an integral part of how those Grand Theft Auto scenes work; they fit right in with our socialization that sex work is not only a crime, but a “disturbing” one that should be “covered up”—as opposed to an unnecessarily dangerous job done a human being with a personality and a life.
The abuse of sex workers, and the systemic portrayal of sex workers as victims who don’t fight back and whose deaths have no in-game consequence (and, in some cases, provide actual benefit to the player in the form of returning wallet funds) has become inextricably associated with Grand Theft Auto. This element of the games is so entrenched that any attempt to remove or alter its depiction at this point would be seen as a sign of ultimate betrayal to the core GTA fandom—that is to say, straight men who think that this depiction of sex work is charming and even hilarious.
The main reason why this is hard to talk about is that you’re either a person who thinks that the horrific nature of this depiction of sex work speaks for itself and sets a reprehensible and irresponsible precedent, or you’re a person who doesn’t understand what the problem is. You’re either me, or you’re the guy who showed me this scene for the first time and had absolutely no idea why I wouldn’t think it was as hilarious and cool as he thought it was. Remember: he couldn’t wait to show me. He didn’t think it would bother me, let alone haunt me for over a decade after the fact.
That’s the root of the problem, though—the inability to see the problem. I could link all day long to studies that show how media depictions contribute to how people see themselves in real life; the most light-hearted example of this is Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut, who cites Star Trek’s Uhura as her personal inspiration for a career path. So, media can be inspiring. But that inspiration cuts both ways.
No 15-year-old believes that any of the media that they see actually affects them. I’ve found that when I try to talk about this with anybody, actually, of any age, they give me the same types of arguments: “What, you think I’m going to start stealing cars? You think this game brainwashes people into stealing cars? Do you think I can’t tell fantasy from reality?”
And, the cherry on top: censorhip! The sprinkles: freedom of speech! The whipped cream: you can’t tell artists what to put in their art!
The art that we make says a lot about us as individuals. And the role of a critic is to point out when art is bad. And Grand Theft Auto is, to put it mildly, not a particularly good piece of art.
What are you going to say to that? Ooh, I bet I can guess this one, too: “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.” But my individual choice not to buy Grand Theft Auto until they make this change has affected absolutely nothing over the years. I never bought a copy of any GTA game—not since my experiences seeing the third one at my friend’s house. And my decision has not affected Take Two at all.
The attempt by these Australian women has, allegedly, not affected Take Two at all, either. I’m not sure that asking stores to stop selling the game would produce the intended result, but I get where their intent lies; they’re trying to vote with their wallets on a more massive scale. The constant repetition by others—”if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”—probably rang hollow to them. They wanted to actually do something.
I don’t know how to get Take Two to listen to criticism. If I bring this up, my friends tell me it’s a lost cause. Grand Theft Auto will always be sexist, they’ll say. It’s not even worth arguing about.
I just don’t agree with that mindset at all.
On the contrary, I think the most important and valuable action that we can take is to talk about Grand Theft Auto more often, not less. We need to think about what these games say about not just the people who make them, but the thousands and thousands of people who buy them, for whom this depiction of sex workers as disposable victims has become normalized past the point of even seeing the horror in it. If these games are always going to exist and never change, fine. But that does not excuse our own ignorance of them. And that does not remove our responsibility to talk with other people who play games, especially young teens, about what is being depicted.
As a critic, I’m disappointed in Take Two and I believe there are better ways to tell a story about sex workers than the ways that they have chosen for over a decade. Even if you don’t see their storytelling as reprehensible, at the very least, you must concede that it is boring. There is a better and more nuanced story to tell. And it is not being told. (Depictions of sex work in other games tend to be awful as well, but that is an argument for another day.)
As a human being, though, I’m disappointed in everyone else I know. The assumption that this is what games will always be—the jaded eyerolls, especially from people with more social power and institutional backing that I have—is just as irresponsible to me as Take Two’s game. Maybe you think the petition in Australia wasn’t the right move. Maybe you laughed at it. Fine. But it’s on you to keep pushing back against these assumptions, not to let them become normalized. We have become collectively desensitized to this. And that should scare you.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.