Many larps I’ve attended have had at least one character who did some kind of sex work, whether it was their primary job or not, regardless of the setting or era. I’ve played these roles too, but before I started to do sex work I didn’t understand how important those characters — and their portrayals — actually were. The way we portray sex work can reproduce harmful biases in the world, and can also alienate and isolate your co-players — more of whom than you expect may have themselves done sex work. My experience with sex work showed me the harm these characterizations can cause. I also realized how often players aren’t aware of the way they’re portraying sex work or sex workers, and how tropes about sex work are reproduced without examination.
First, consider your language. In some games, especially in historical settings, we refer to people or professions using language that has negative connotations. Consider taking the word prostitution out of your vocabulary. It has negative connotations for most sex workers, and in particular is used as a rhetorical device to deny them agency in the world. Words like “hooker” and “whore” are no better. You might use those words ingame, but I suggest you not use them offgame to describe your character, and that you be clear about the difference in language.
It’s easy to create a caricature of sex workers if you have a limited understanding of real-life sex workers (in their voices, not those of people who claim to speak for them) or you if haven’t considered stigmas you may hold against them. Sadly, few public officials and journalists choose to resist that stigma, which sometimes rubs off on us — the players — when we decide how to portray sex workers. Sex work is complex, and while there are negative sides to it — often coming from interactions with social bias — if you fixate on one part of what it can be, you won’t be able to portray a whole character or a role with any emotional depth. If you don’t interrogate the messages you receive about the profession, ideally in contrast with what sex workers actually say about themselves, you’ll just reproduce biases.
Ask yourself why you want to play the role. Is it because you believe the role will include trauma or a sad past, or do you want to play a marginalized person trying to be independent in a time where it might have been challenging? It’s easy to tell the other co-players that you yourself would “never” do this kind of work in real life, but difficult to judge or know what you would do in a situation until you’re in it. Playing someone who is involved in sex work should hopefully assist you in understanding those who are, even if it’s not something you think you could do in your current life. It’s common to approach sex worker characters with the assumption that their work must involve trauma or human trafficking. While these are both perspectives and problems that exist in the world, they are not even close to the majority experience. It also should go without saying (but doesn’t) that playing a sex worker for in a manner that’s primarily about fetishization is just as reductive. Build characters who are human first, even if they’re glamorous or flirtatious, and don’t use it as an alibi to bring sex into a game without considering the rest of who they are.
The good news is that you have the power to insert nuance into your character in almost every game. What kind of sex work do they do? Are there some things they do and other things they don’t? Why do they do this work, and what do they think about it? Is it a thing they enjoy, or just a job that gives them agency in life they wouldn’t otherwise have? You can be as creative as you want with deciding what your character does when they do their job — like any other profession. If you were playing a door-to-door salesman, you’d think about what they sell and whether they see their profession as something they want to do for the rest of their life, or just over the summer — do the same with a sex worker.
Much of this comes down to doing your research. Watch shows or movies that showcase different types of sex work and have characters with agency who aren’t just sexual objects. I recommend Pose, The Deuce, Euphoria, and Harlots here. Confront your own biases, don’t just search for things that confirm them. Listen to sex workers and their experiences, no matter what type of sex work they do — be it porn, full-service sex work, domination, erotic dancing or webcamming. Sex work is an varied field, and I recommend you research which types of it your character may do or have encountered. If you’re playing in a fantasy or science fiction game, first understand the diversity of sex work in the real world, and then think about how that might translate to the fiction. Reading background material that looks at sex work from an economic and labor rights perspective can add depth to your understanding of their lives, like Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing The Whore (Grant, 2014).
The biggest real life danger to sex workers is the prejudice societies hold against profession. It’s the reason why few laws that try to regulate sex work protect workers from violent clients or give them the same worker rights as other professions. It’s also the reason why many people feel they need to “save” sex workers from their profession when they don’t want or need saving. This prejudice is the reason why I’m not using my last name here, as I don’t know how accepting future employers will be. Fiction, and especially larp, can be a powerful tool for understanding lives and breaking down biases. If we start portraying sex worker characters in a respectful and nuanced light and as whole people, it can help us get past our own preconceptions and inspire those around us to do the same.
Melissa Gira Grant (2014): Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Verso.
Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals (2018): Pose, FX.
George Pelecanos and David Simon (2017): The Deuce, HBO.
Sam Levinson (2019): Euphoria, HBO.
Alison Newman and Moira Buffini (2017): Harlots, ITV and Hulu.