Sex work in fantasy literature (Case study: A Song of Ice and Fire)

Here via Miss D, who said:

I’d really like to talk about the depiction of sex workers in fantasy literature. As a sex worker I often find it alienating and upsetting.

This article is a pretty good rant about the treatment of sex workers in sci-fi and fantasy. It’s worth a look to get a handle on some of the reasons why so many depictions of sex work in made-up worlds fill people with squick.

The only fantasy literature I’ve read recently which depicts sex work is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Let’s just put it out there that George R.R. Martin is, as far as is known, a cisgender straight White guy. While in and of itself nothing remarkable, when examining the dynamics of his works, the fact that he’s on the more privileged side of gender, race, and sexuality is worth mentioning.

That said, let’s look at how he portrays sex work in his series (feel free to cheat by watching Game of Thrones).

The two most prominent sex worker characters in ASOIAF thus far are Roz and Shae. I’m going to be honest and say that I find Martin’s prose to be . . . let’s say laborious, thus me skimming for the most part until I get to the parts and characters I like. So if there’s another character who’s a sex worker, feel free to fill in whatever gaps I leave.

As I recall, Roz and Shae are:

  • prostitutes
  • prostitutes
  • prostitutes

And just in case you didn’t hear, they’re prostitutes.

What’s wrong with this? Well, because that’s pretty much how they’re defined. They’re not interesting, well-rounded women who make a living at a particular trade. Their entire identities are centered around them exchanging sexual favors for money.

What do they like to do besides have sex with their clients? Don’t know. Why are they pursuing this trade despite the risks (namely pregnancy and STIs, since there are apparently no condoms or birth control pills in Westeros)? No idea. Who is important to them other than their clients? No idea. Everything about these women – their likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams, their important relationships, everything that makes a person a person – centers around them getting paid for sexual favors.

Sex work is ubiquitous in Westeros. Besides these two named sex workers (can’t call them characters since they have no inner lives beyond what their clients want of them), there are a lot more who are nameless sex workers differentiated only by hair color and skin tone. Y’know, like Barbie dolls!

I don’t think I need to explain why this is completely fucked up.

Yes, yes, grimdark fantasy, oldest profession, blah blah blah. But doesn’t it make you wonder why sex workers are presented as empty vessels for their clients’ desires? Doesn’t it make you wonder why you rarely see sex workers as three-dimensional human beings who just do a job? Doesn’t it make you wonder about the text’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality?

Does it make you wonder? If so, what does it make you wonder?

21 thoughts on “Sex work in fantasy literature (Case study: A Song of Ice and Fire)

    • I agree completely, and I wonder if perhaps there’s a distinct correlation between fans who really enjoy Carey’s work and fans who just can’t deal with Martin.

  1. I know this is about sex in fantasy, but there was a video game called Red Dead Redemption. The character John Morrison is married (very rare in games). So since this is suppose to be a GTA set in the west, so I expected along the lines of Hot Coffee, but the character showed respect for women. Like he refused to cheat on his wife with anyone. Also the women on the game was treated respectfully and not some eye candy for the male gamers, except for when the side characters are with them. (although I do prefer to play as woman in some create a character game)

    But in the sci fi/fantasy, usually women are objects of the male fantasy, like to make the male feel good that there is a “sexy” woman in the room. But with prostitutes in some fantasy fiction they are just there. Either they get killed in a gruesome way or they tag along as something for the male audience to see.

  2. I link-hopped to aaru tuesday’s discussion of sex work in Firefly and rather liked the critique. One thing that always struck me on that show was how Inara’s status as a high-class sex worker was supposedly a reversal of modern western notions of sex work as demeaning and invisible.

    Except that Mal, our hero, HATES her for being a Companion. He even gets in an old-fashioned (VERY old, by his time) slut-shaming every now and then.

    What are we supposed to make of that?

    • If I may hazard a guess, I suppose I’m to believe that

      • sex workers are “fallen” women
      • sex workers are lying to themselves if they say they get anything good out of sex work
      • despite what a woman says, a man still defines her worth as a human being
      • no matter how much she gets paid or how much power she wields in her profession, all sex workers are dirty whores

      Am I missing anything?

  3. I will say I enjoy Mr. Martin’s work (as problematic as it is, because lord it is problematic) but THIS THIS THIS. Not to mention how often sex workers are used as cannon fodder, and almost never get main character status, while remaining sex workers (I mean I can sort of see why, we’re not knights or adventurers or what not, which is the same reason bakers who remain bakers aren’t the main characters in fantasy literature) though when they do get main character status I find it disturbing that it’s nearly always because they’re “running from the horror of their work” rather than “called to duty, away from their perfectly valid life”

    • I find it disturbing that it’s nearly always because they’re “running from the horror of their work” rather than “called to duty, away from their perfectly valid life”

      That’s true about EVERY female character with the exception of maybe Ellen Ripley.

      • This is true… I’m really sick of the “Fantasy heroines are never femme” thing too… they all have to hate embroidery in order to like swords (I can’t see why someone can’t enjoy both, they both involve poking things with pointy metal objects, it’s the same basic principal)

        • If you’ve never seen it, “Swordman II” is a kung fu movie that stars Jet Li and Brigitte Lin. It has a character named Asia the Invincible, who starts as a man, but in order to gain a powerful martial arts ability written in the Sacred Scroll, he has to become a woman. The skill outlined in the scroll is honed through embroidery. As he becomes more feminine, his female lover stays with him but becomes alienated by his/her changes. As a woman, she and the Jet Li character develop a sort of attraction to each other, before they realize that they are opposite sides in the conflict. Asia is a villain, but not an unsympathetic one, imo.

  4. It’s a long time since I read those books, but this seems like a form of selection bias. Sure, the prostitute characters are just prostitutes – but none of them are primary characters. They’re comparable to, say, the mercenary characters – who are just mercenaries, about whom we also know nothing of their hopes, their dreams etc. Or one of those wizard guys (maesters?) who pop up throughout the books – they’re also defined by their profession and none of them are particularly interesting or well rounded, because the books aren’t about them.

    I guess you could criticise Martin for writing a book that doesn’t privilege sex-workers, mercenaries and wizards – but that amounts to a complaint that he should have written completely different books.

    • If memory serves, Terry Pratchett wrote Guards, Guards! to flesh out the lives of all the poor anonymous guards in fantasy literature, always rushing in all at once and getting slaughtered by the hero. And that’s how we meet Sam Vimes, who has a whole string of Discworld books to call his own.

      But aside from a few scenes in Night Watch, Pratchett has never done the same with Mrs. Palm and the Seamstresses’ Guild (“ladies of negotiable affection”).

    • But… they’re not treated the same way as mercenaries, who’s only characterization of importance is their mercenary-ness. Martin goes out of his way to reenforce the utter lack of personality in his prostitutes.

  5. I have to say that this criticism strikes me as somewhat inaccurate and therefore unfair. First of all, I don’t think Roz is even a character in the books–she was invented for the TV show to provide some more continuity in an otherwise complex mess of infinite plot strands. One of the minor prostitute characters who is the basis for Roz (the mill wife from Winterfell), does have more to her than her sex work–she is a mother and a peasant and a woman who enjoys sex, although ultimately she is betrayed by Theon. The TV show also, interestingly, DOES provide Shae with more of a backstory than the books do (in the books, she is characterized mainly as a greedy and shallow girl), whose own complicated history and motivations Tyrion is unable to grasp due to his own inability to see past her identity as a prostitute prostitute prostitute.

    This is consistent with my reading Martin’s numerous minor prostitute characters–that when they are presented without characteristics, it is not because prostitutes are without characteristics, but because the noblemen who are his primary characters are blind to them. (Unless your main objection is that the book focuses on nobility.) The ignorance and hypocrisy of the powerful is a major theme in ASOIAF, and I think Martin does a great job of illustrating the consequences of misogyny, among the other ideologies employed by the powerful to keep their place. (Honor culture is the major target, though of course it is admired even as its absurdities are picked apart.)

    Another quibble–STIs and birth control are in fact discussed in the book. Lysa Tully, for example, is forced to abort Littlefinger’s baby as a teenager, and I believe other women discuss having elective abortions for their own reasons. (The use some herb.)

    • I would say that there’s a difference because Martin really does go out of his way to dehumanize and sublimate his sex workers. As someone in that industry I think basically you have the privilege not to see the difference between the treatment of sex workers and mercenaries.

  6. I really hated this too, though I’ve only seen the TV show. I saw it in Deadwood as well, where it’s done a little differently but still really frustrating. I also really hate the venom with which sex workers are discussed (the particular tone on the word “whore” when it is used), while they’re simultaneously seen as really sexual and glamorized to the point of silliness.

Comments are closed.