Stop Killing Sex Workers in Futuristic SciFi
by e. whitney buck
cw for violence against sex workers, miscarriage
Science Fiction loves including sex workers in their visions of the future. The presence of sex workers codes a lot of things to a viewer about the future. Sex workers convey the illicit, they convey the sexy, they convey the Other, and they convey superfluous and the expendable. The viewer sees sex workers and it is understood that this is a gritty future, where women in particular have little choice but to “sell their bodies,” suffering abuse and violence to make a living. Sex workers in science fiction are often aliens, robots, or some other futuristic-coded Other identity, which showcases how cool and weird sex and sexuality will be in the future. It also further pushes them into the margins of that world, devaluing them to the main characters and viewers. Making it sad, but not too sad, when they are invariably, and in some creative, futuristic way, killed. This is a problem.
For instance…Altered Carbon
This is called the Disposable Sex Worker Trope and it is an extremely prevalent one in science fiction. Take the Netflix series Altered Carbon (spoilers ahead!). We have Lizzie Elliot, occupying the trope of a Hooker With A Heart of Gold, who is a sex worker at Jack It Off brothel. There, she has a regular in the slumming billionaire Laurens Bancroft. When she becomes pregnant by him and seeks support from his family, his wife instead beats her to the point of miscarriage and then has Lizzie driven insane within virtual reality to prevent her from ever talking. Fun. Her trauma is ultimately overcome through the patience and dedication of a (male-coded) AI, although she can never return to non-virtual reality and ultimately gets erased from virtual space.
Altered Carbon furthermore features the Head in the Clouds brothel, a floating “Satellite of Sin,” where the super wealthy can have their extreme fetishes catered to, in particular, murdering their sex worker. In this sci-fi world, one’s consciousness is housed in a “stack,” a cluster of tech housed in the spine, with the body it’s inserted into being one’s “sleeve.” As long as one’s “stack” isn’t damaged, they can be “resleeved,” in perpetuity. The sex workers who consent to being murdered do so with the understanding that they will be resleeved afterwards and richly compensated. They are not.
Or we have the advanced AI robots of Westworld (spoilers for season 1), in particular Maeve Millay, the badass and beautiful madam of the Mariposa saloon, along with her employees, also sex workers. Maeve and company were created to be a part of a highly immersive theme park, where the human guests are given full rein to explore the world, follow story lines, and interact with the AI “hosts” however they desire. This includes, certainly, having sex with them. But over the course of her existence, Maeve is constantly murdered- as a part of her different storylines, and by guests according to their own whims. She is then rehabilitated, memory wiped, to continue her role, fully committed to it and unaware that her reality is artificial. It is the brutal memory of being killed, and watching one of her sex workers being killed, leaking into her rehabilitated self that first clues her in to what’s going on and kicks off her journey into self-awareness.*
Maeve, while a more fleshed-out character than some sex workers are allowed in other stories, discovers that her emerging sentience and going off-book were themselves scripted, orchestrated by the male puppetmaster/AI creator. Even her agency, then, is completely undermined. Once again, we see the fate of the sci fi sex worker: one’s [lack of choice] life and inevitable death at the whim of men.
But why, though?
The reason why sex workers would be so demeaned, the recipients of humiliation and violence, is hardly a mystery, as it’s true in other media as well as in the real world. Sex workers, in their stigmatized and often criminalized role, are viewed as expendable in society and therefore an easy target for those wishing to exercise power and dispense violence. Plus, sex workers existing in the sexual realm places them in the line of fire for a violent instigator’s own projected shame and humiliation around sex and power. For depictions of sex workers who are women, misogyny is certainly at play.** So to replay the disposable sex worker over and over again in sci-fi is to demonstrate a depressingly common male power fantasy, but in the future.
Sci-fi creators are hardly coy about what the male gaze is having fulfilled in this trope. Luc Besson of The Fifth Element fame directed Rihanna playing a sex worker for his critical flop Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets. She plays an alien, shape-shifting stripper named Bubble, where, after an amazing acrobatic pole dance, obsequiously makes clear she will be whoever the main character wants her to be. He then points a gun at her and then she is both afraid and willing to do whatever he wants, and then she dies in battle and in a show of gratitude for letting her perform for him she grants him her kingdom. Rihanna, the person, is a 9-time Grammy award-winning artist with a net worth of $550 million. So what did Besson value about her contribution? He said, “I love the scene where she says, ‘Did you really like my performance?’ To have Rihanna, who is the biggest star in the world, say, ‘Did you really like my performance?’ is something special. And the face. She’s so vulnerable and sweet!” To see a powerful woman brought low, as if the arc of the character weren’t providing enough service to Besson’s gaze.
Why it matters
What does the trope of the denigrated and killed sex worker mean about the future we’re collectively imagining through sci-fi media? Essentially, that the future will be a terrible place to be a sex worker. That sex workers will have been forced into that role by desperation and circumstance, and will sacrifice their personal safety to serve those in power. That the future somehow has interstellar travel, time travel, space portals, aliens, and what have you, but still, still, still, not basic respect for (/NOT MURDERING) sex workers, and often marginalized people(/aliens/robots) writ large.
Beyond not meeting this terribly low bar, this portrayal of the future does little to show an expansion of our understanding of sex beyond rigid sexuality and gender, instead sex work is shown to be primarily cis, and hetero-normative. Surely sci-fi should be the realm in which we can take current trends of increasing generational queerness to new, interesting places. It seems more likely as not that the future will have new genders and sexualities growing on trees- instead we get almost exclusively cis-women, the sex worker, with cis-men, the client.
The SWERFy/whorephobic implication that being a sex worker is inherently being a victim contradicts with many, many lived experiences of sex workers in the past and present day. Sex workers who actively choose this work can have as diverse opinions about their jobs as in any industry, from begrudging and loathing to enjoyment and empowerment. At the end of the day, it is a way of earning a living like many other jobs. That fear of violence is a part of the work is often pointed out by sex workers as being a result of criminalization and stigmatization of sex work. It’s the very fact that sex work is pushed into the dark corners of society that it becomes unsafe, not necessarily the other way around. But the ubiquity of the disposable sex worker trope in sci-fi merely reinforces this victim narrative, doing nothing to challenge our present societal mores in a genre that ostensibly sets out to do just that.
Sci-fi’s depictions of sex workers mostly provides a platform for more and more scintillating, inventive ways for sex workers to sex work (a VR lapdance! animal holograms! extra limbs!) and then more and more sadistic, inventive ways for them to die. But why does it have to be like that? This trope across media is a dangerous one: misogynistic, whorephobic, and perhaps of particular concern for the sci-fi realm’s attempts to be expansive, quite limiting. The worldbuilding– the speculative elements meant to excite and intrigue us– comes in the form of what kind of sex work is on offer, and how the sex worker is killed, otherwise not varying from the trope. But this science fiction worldbuilding could do what it sets out to do and provide actually interesting alternatives to ponder.
Inara, from Firefly, provides one, and maybe only, such example (although fuck Joss Whedon and all of his enablers right to hell). Inara is a sex worker in a profressional guild, sex work being legalized in this universe. She is shown renting out a pod in a spaceship to safely work out of, studying her craft in healing and sensuality, choosing her own clients, getting tested to maintain her sexual health, and not standing for Mal’s whorephobia. She also has class privilege in a way we see later contrasted with the non-guild brothel in the episode “Heart of Gold” (Hooker with a Heart of Gold is a literal trope, Joss. Geez). Inara’s role resembles that of the shuyu, “the high-status prostitutes of 19th-century Shanghai, who shared…Inara’s social status, silk outfits and provision of services.” This also makes Inara and sex work in this universe an example of Asianness without Asians, an important critique to level at a great deal of science fiction. Regardless, Inara exists, she is a named character with her own arc, how she does sex work contributes to the worldbuilding of the Firefly universe, and she remains alive by the end of the sequel film. Bravo for stepping over one of the lowest bars in the trans-galactic universe. ***
Going beyond the minimum
One of the most ludicrous aspects of the usage of the disposable sex worker trope in sci-fi is that sex workers are often on the vanguard of the future of sex. Examples of this in the present provide lots of exciting and still empowering ways the future could deal with sex workers. For instance, six whole years ago, the sex worker Lisa Ann invited her followers to a “virtual gang bang,” where attendees could purchase a smart sex toy that would allow them to experience the sensation of being inside her, live, from anywhere in the world. How cool, and clever, and yes, futuristic. Surely, if Lisa Ann can enact this futurism in this moment, we can extrapolate creatively into new realms of consensual client and sex worker interaction. Look forward to additional writings here about the future of sex writ large, but rest assured that if there is a way to profit creatively from new technologies and modes of interacting, sex workers will be on the forefront of doing so.
One would think in the very least that in our sci-fi futures, sex work could be broadly decriminalized, a policy advocated for by sex workers all over the world. This could look like a lot of things, but it would likely separate the portrayal of sex workers from the assumption of victimhood and risk. In a world where sex work is decriminalized, we could see sex workers with safe places to advertise and work, sex workers with their own security details and sex workers occupying “respectable” roles in society. Decriminalization and destigmatization would open up so many fascinating possibilities. Maybe a sex worker not having to constantly fear the cops, but also… wouldn’t you want to watch a show about a worker-owned brothel-spaceship, breaking hearts across the galaxy? Or about a conspiracy between the street-walking companions of alien political leaders? Maybe an alien from a small moon moving to the big ecumenopolis to try and break into the most prestigious VR strip club around?
Maybe a sex worker doesn’t have to die in science fiction. For once we could imagine a future that has overcome both faster-than-light space travel and one of the cruelest manifestations of misogyny. Beyond just that, we should imagine what the genre of sci-fi could help to envision and create, for an exciting and consensual future of sex work led by none other but sex workers themselves.
* Footnotes *
* Maeve and company are both sex workers and robots/AI. That means they occupy at least two identities that in scifi frequently exist in a subservient, lesser-than role, surviving abuse, and violence at worst, cringe-worthy obsequiousness at best. I will delve more into this overlap in the future, but for now The Establishment (rip) had a great article about misogyny and robots here.
** Not all sex workers are women or cis, so an analysis of sex workers in our depictions of the future should not exclude those who are not women or are trans, but there aren’t many in sci-fi. We do have Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” AI sex robot from A.I. Artificial Intelligence, who is not killed on screen at least, but is taken away by the authorities, having been framed for murder. But, by and large, tv tropes’ generalization stands for scifi as well: “male and transgender female sex workers are almost never given mention in fiction or real life, despite being just as likely or even more so to be victims of violent crime.”
*** A technicality to this is Humans 2.0, which does feature a sex worker killing an abusive client, but she then in turn becomes the villain of the show. There may be other examples, but they’re few and far between. The exceptions here unfortunately prove the rule.