All the Air in the Room – Women and Whorephobia in Tech

18 March 2016

Another gaming event, another booth babe controversy. While strictly referring to “women…employed by brands to staff booths at trade shows”, the term is increasingly used to also refer to women hired as dancers or models to staff parties and other industry events. The use of booth babes is by no means limited to the gaming and wider tech scene, but it’s in our industry that we’ve seen the most vocal fightback against the practice. The most recent outcry has come with Microsoft’s decision to hire women to dance at their party at this year’s GDC. Several people have pointed out that their use of such dancers is particularly egregious given the fact that they’d hosted a ‘Women in Games’ lunch earlier the same day.

Large numbers of women in tech and their allies have spent years complaining that having performers who utilise sexuality at tech events makes them uncomfortable. Obviously, everyone has a right to feel comfortable in tech spaces. Companies that continue to book booth babes are clearly happy to ignore that, which is something that needs to be addressed. However, often these complaints go further. A woman may complain that the presence of booth babes devalues her and her work. That it “sends a bad message”. That these women propagate misogyny in the industry. And just like that, we’ve ended up in a whole mess of whorephobia.

Tech has a whorephobia problem. Whorephobia in tech takes on many permutations, from the player’s infamous ability to murder sex workers in Grand Theft Auto, to exclusionary abolitionist hackathons, to the systematic shutting down of sex workers’ accounts at PayPal and other payment processing services. Every instance serves to propagate dehumanising attitudes about sex workers, to prevent them from working safely and making a reliable income. Booth babes may not be sex workers, but criticism of them because their work involves the utilisation of sexuality is couched in whorephobia.

The women in tech movement has a whorephobia problem too. For instance, look at Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games video ‘Women as Background Decoration’. In it, women sex workers are repeatedly referred to as ‘prostituted women’ - a phrase many sex workers object to - and no distinction is made between characters offering consensual sexualisation and non-consensual voyeurism by the player character, among numerous other issues (Azura Rose wrote up a great critique of the video at the time that you should really check out). Too frequently, those who push for ‘better’ depictions of women in games dismiss any depiction of a sex worker as misogynist, regardless of context. Too frequently, the shuttering of sites like RedBook or Rentboy that helped sex workers to work safely is ignored, or even celebrated. Too frequently, sex workers are thrown under the bus.

This is part of a worrying trend in mainstream tech feminism, in which the tenets of intersectionality and universal struggle are ignored in pursuit of the singular aim of getting and retaining more (cis, white, middle class) women in tech. This is a goal that has sucked the air out of the entire movement to push for better diversity and inclusion in tech. There is no time for race issues, for queer issues, for trans issues, for class issues, for disability issues, for any issues faced by those read as men or non-femme non-binary folk. There’s certainly no time for issues surrounding sex work.

Criticise the fact that by only hiring women dancers, Microsoft are reasserting the idea of tech as a space solely for heterosexual men. Criticise Microsoft for excluding those made uncomfortable or triggered by displays of sexuality (though also criticise other exclusionary aspects of parties like these - alcohol, loud noise, inaccessible venues etc.). Criticise the wider misogyny in the industry. But ensure that your criticism doesn’t work to privilege the women attending Microsoft’s Women in Games lunch over those working at its party. A woman who codes has no more intrinsic worth than a woman who sells sex or sexuality - hell, there are lots of people out there who do both.

Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, issued a swift mea culpa over the incident:

At Xbox-hosted events at GDC this past week, we represented Xbox and Microsoft in a way that was not consistent or aligned to our values. It was unequivocally wrong and will not be tolerated. I know we disappointed many people and I’m personally committed to holding ourselves to higher standards. We must ensure that diversity and inclusion are central to our everyday business and core values. We will do better in the future.

I felt uncomfortable as I read it, and I soon realised why. The tone was precisely that of polemics used to shame and police sex workers and their clients. “Unequivocally wrong”. “Will not be tolerated”. “Higher standards”. Yet it ends with a gesture towards diversity and inclusion, two terms increasingly on their way to ending up as meaningless buzzwords.

Tech feminism needs to step back and consider those its forgetting and actively harming in its rush to achieve its goals. Until the movement fights for us all, it’s failing us all.