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This article was published 10/12/2014 (926 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sex work is work, and sex workers are people.
To many people, that sentence is a radical statement. Our cultural attitudes surrounding sex work are complicated. Many believe prostitution is inherently exploitative and all sex workers are victims. Discussions surrounding sex work are often framed in moral terms, not labour terms. Sex workers, meanwhile, are thought of as dirty, amoral bad girls who put themselves in harm's way -- or, worse, devalued, dehumanized and viewed as disposable. Which is why Robert Pickton was able to kill Vancouver sex workers and feed them to his pigs before authorities noticed.
Challenging -- and ultimately changing -- people's attitudes about sex and sex work is what a team at Montreal's Concordia University is hoping to do with The Oldest Game, a web-based newsgame (a type of video game that literally combines gaming and journalism) that seeks to show how the newly enacted and widely criticized Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act will affect the lives of sex workers in Canada.
The act has been roundly decried by sex workers, advocates and allies who argue it does very little to protect sex workers. Critics -- and I include myself, here -- argue the new law puts the workers it's ostensibly supposed to protect in greater danger. "C-36 will make life harder for sex workers, it will make their work more dangerous, more complicated and will probably lead to poorer health and social outcomes," said Claudyne Chevrier, an ally and researcher with the Winnipeg Working Group -- which is part of the The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform -- a vocal opponent of the bill and the law. She, like others, are concerned sex workers will be forced underground because they will have to meet clients in remote locations; be prevented from hiring support workers (such as drivers) and properly screening clients. "It also has the very real and very scary potential of criminalizing partners and family members of sex workers who may live with them and 'live' off their salaries," she says. And that's just a handful of the potential repercussions.
Led by Sandra Gabriele, associate professor and interim chairwoman of the department of communications and Lisa Lynch, the associate professor in the department of journalism, both at Concordia, The Oldest Game, which is now heading into the beta-testing phase, aims to normalize and de-stigmatize sex work by putting the player in the role of Andrea, a sex worker. It's a level of engagement that goes beyond traditional news media.
"It's easy to get wrapped up in the morality questions around sex work," Gabriele says. "We lose sight of the fact that, for many people, it's a question of survival. It's a question of working. It's a question of earning money. The same kind of questions that every other person has."
The Oldest Game forces the player to confront real-world situations facing sex workers under the new law. How do you handle a client who, for example, has become suspicious about your line of questioning? Or how do you counsel a fellow sex worker who fears deportation? "You need to make those decisions quickly," Gabriele says, all while living under the constant threat of arrest, injury or death. The idea is a player will absorb and internalize the consequences.
The team of designers, researchers and writers worked closely with sex workers and sex-work organizations to create a realistic depiction of sex work in Canada. They had to tackle big questions: What would the sex worker look like? How do you show violence without playing into the expectation there will be violence? How do you depict sex acts without being salacious but without erasing them from the conversation? Offering a nuanced look was critical, which is why Concordia hired a sex worker to serve as a consultant on the game.
Players are able to work in three different Canadian cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver -- and engage in different kinds of sex work. On that front, the game works to challenge the idea of sex work as monolith. "We don't assume that an elementary school teacher does the same kind of work as a university professor, or that a high-end steak house waitress does the same kind of serving as a barista," Gabriele says. "We wanted to show the complexity of the work."
You cannot win The Oldest Game, just as sex workers cannot win under the current law. Gabriele hopes this leads to empathy for and understanding of the reality faced by sex workers, who deserve the same rights and protection as any other worker.
"This isn't to say that we should be teaching (sex work) as a vocational possibility in schools," she says. "It's acknowledging that this exists, and the unreasonable expectation around work. A safe work environment is a fundamental right we have as Canadians. We are obligated to protect that right for every worker."
For that to happen, we'd do well to start treating sex work as work, and sex workers as people.
Jen Zoratti is a Free Press columnist who writes about women and popular culture. She is the founder of the blog SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS: another feminist response to popular culture.
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