As even your grandma knows, "Grand Theft Auto IV" is out and it's being hyped as an X-rated wonderland. You can enjoy booty-bouncing, crotch headstands and double lap dances at the local strip club, and pay a hooker to talk dirty and service you in your hooptie. It gets better: After you get your rocks off, you can run her over with your car or riddle her with bullets -- it all depends on how you roll, ya big stud.
Predictably, an IGN viral video advertising these homicidal sexploits has set feminist blogs aflame. (The video is here -- but be warned that it is NSFW, unless you, uh, work for Salon.) It shows a john running a hooker over with his car while shouting: "I'm a hired killer and I pay for sex. My mother would be ashamed." (Paging Dr. Freud!) Another prostitute is shown servicing a john; after the sex act, he (like a praying mantis with a machine gun) plows her down with a shower of bullets. He shouts at her bullet-riddled corpse to "stay down!"
Earlier this week, Feministing's Samhita argued that "many young men are going to have their first ... sexual experiences via GTA and then they are going to kill the women they are sleeping with." It's important to note that GTA players don't have to kill prostitutes, although they certainly can if it occurs to them. As our resident tech-expert at Machinist told me, killing prostitutes is not required by the game; in fact, it will help you lose, not win, the game. Not to mention, boys and girls have been having their first sexual experiences virtually for some time -- it isn't something GTA invented. Those experiences can be fun or traumatic, healthy or harmful. GTA may be far more publicly visible than hardcore pornography, but I'd wager that a far greater number of young boys will be exposed to extremely violent pornography -- involving real, live, breathing women -- than will pretend to kill a prostitute in GTA.
I have trouble with Samhita's argument that "GTA is merely reflective of the bigger misogyny embedded in capitalist patriarchy." It's an attractive way to package male fantasies of having sex with and then killing prostitutes, but I don't think it's all that simple; it's rarely as simple as blaming the patriarchy. (Although, there's plenty to the capitalism claim -- clearly the marketing is meant to drum up parental outrage to make the game more irresistible to kids.) This argument also triggered Susannah Breslin of Reverse Cowgirl:
"The fact of the matter is that you cannot police the sexual fantasies of men ... You can't distill one man's desires into some reductionist understanding of 21st century America that posits women as the victims of men once again. You can't continue to stick your head into the sand and refuse to believe that this isn't a part of how men really think and feel and fuck and want and love and hate and live."
She isn't saying that all men have these fantasies, but rather that some men -- perhaps, many men -- do. As Breslin wrote during an e-mail back-and-forth with me, whether you "agree" or "disagree" with virtual prostitute killing is irrelevant; the fact is that these intensely politically incorrect fantasies do exist and by ignoring that fact -- or blaming it on the patriarchy -- we work against understanding them. As she wrote in her post: "[I]f you think men pay women for sex because we live in a misogynist society, you should come down out of your ivory tower and live amongst the rest of us for a little while … What do you really think is going on behind closed doors, on street corners, in parked cars in America?" Breslin has a fairly good idea thanks to her recent projects "Letters From Johns" and "Letters From Working Girls," blogs that respectively compile firsthand accounts of either side of prostitution.
I'm not defending the game or the fact that this type of hooker-killing game play was virally marketed by IGN, but the revolting truth is that there is a real market for simulated (or real) sexual violence against women, and it wasn't created by "Grand Theft Auto." Now, of course, remains the question: How much does the game do to encourage that fantasy?