Okay, so there are two great series that have recently graced our screens: Humans and Westworld. Each has its own way of dealing with the question of human consciousness. I particularly love Humans; mainly because it skips out on the high-budget gloss that this kind of sci-fi usually embraces and basically resembles any other drama series on Channel 4. This makes the whole thing more relatable for the non-nerds, whereas the philosophical aspects of Westworld can be easily drowned out by the grandeur of the enterprise.
Of course using robots (my umbrella term in this article for synths, hosts, androids etc) as metaphor for the search of human consciousness is nothing new in sci-fi. As old as this trope gets, it’s still being recycled in original ways. However as both an proud occasional sex worker and geek (yes FYI, we can be defined by something other than our profession), I feel like it’s time to take apart one aspect of this trope that keeps on rearing its ugly head. You’ve all seen it — in summary, we find ourselves in a highly technological society, but one where gender and social inequalities are as prevalent as ever. The cis-hetero human male has discovered a whole new way of getting his dick wet without worrying about consent, and TV writers are able to slip in weak metaphors about female objectification. That’s right, I’m calling for the end of the fictional robot hookers. And right now we’ve got two on our screens: Niska in Humans and Maeve (plus an entire cast of extras and colleagues) from Westworld.
Watch out, spoilers ahead!
So Humans introduced Niska (Emily Berrington) back in Series 1 as enslaved in a brothel, hiding her true identity. She’s always been the most engaging of all of the Humans synth leads, partly as this experience has made her aware of her own potential to harm. And she’s cynical even of the humans who want to help her. The sexual abuse she received at the hands of her creator/father combined with the fact her (mostly) human brother is perfectly happy leaving her in said brothel when he wouldn’t have done so to any organic woman has made her vision of humanity less than rosy. Then she kills a paedophile client and even her close family is angry with her about it. Because inevitably, patriarchal society will always believe the word of an arsehole over that of a service provider.
Niska is a striking character, with her inherent distrust of others and refusal to justify her actions. However I couldn’t help feeling disappointed at the use of a typical ‘abuse survivor becomes a sex worker then saved by someone who sees her for her real beauty’ storyline. What was brilliantly done though was the inherent distrust the Hawkins family has of her, in part due to her past. Best was a subtle mother-daughter manipulation in which one character willingly accepts lies that Niska has been sneaking around. Of course, no real middle class suburban family would trust a sex worker in their house to not be guilty of a host of crimes. A sign that the stigma holds across organic/synthetic boundaries.
Titsandsass has written a great article about Maeve already, arguing that Westworld is in fact all about sex work. The neoliberal economy demands we provide our clients with an incredible orgasm every time. What I love about Maeve in particular is that she’s so unapologetic about herself. (But then someone else might say it’s just her programming.) However I find it jarring that she’s been forced into a Mother/Whore dichotomy. The fact that these two aspects take place over different storylines, and for a good part of season one the tensions comes from Maeve’s struggle to assimilate this information, highlights society’s inability to imagine woman in more than one of these roles. Westworld writers uses its sex worker hosts as an illusion to the supposed disposability of sex workers and the assumption that deep down everybody is a murdering rapist. And even though Thandie Newton’s acting is topnotch I can still here a producer somewhere in the background saying “Sassy darling, we need her to be more sassy”. Her streetwise interpretation is no more original than Emily Berrington’s tragic one.
So why is this a problematic trope even when the characters fulfilling it are awesome? Both Meave and Niska are caught up in the permanent sex worker conundrum of having to constantly prove our humanity to a deaf world, in part because this trope essentially capitalises on the objectification of women’s bodies as a plot device. Whilst also standing as a metaphor for female objectification in general. Although the trope has much advanced in recent years from the cringy vampbot device (think Austin Powers and other awfulness), we are now in the territory of the tragic sex worker.
I can imagine the writers behind these characters as being the sort of liberal democratic, “I don’t judge anyone who would do that, of course I wouldn’t but oh my gosh it’s so horrible why would anyone do that if they weren’t being forced” types who are quick to adopt the label feminist without actually looking into their own capacity for misogyny. All the while implying that any client is a rapist with a wallet (FYI #2: in my sex work experience, the lines of consent are very clearly defined in advance whereas my rapist would never have dreamt of sleeping with a hooker). Essentially, the writers and producers are denouncing the sex industry while continuing to make money from our society’s voyeuristic fascination with that same industry. And of course none of that money or fame will be redirected towards the muses, who continue to be as invisible offscreen as they are disposable on it.
Additionally, this trope is problematic because it depends on the disposability of certain characters: effectively ‘fallen’ women and non-humans. So why not combine the both? Dead hookers can be added to any film’s body count without having any real impact on the storyline other than showing how bad the bad guy really is. When the sex workers are themselves non-human, violence towards them is simply a manner of demonstrating someone else’s violence and virility. Incidentally for sexbots like Niska, the rejection of sex work is concurrent with the affirmation of her humanity, even though the struggle she has faced throughout her story arc is a beautifully written of a woman coming to terms with her power for both good and bad that would be well placed in a real-world drama series.
Finally and probably the least obviously to anyone not involved in the sex industry is the ease in which writers and producers reduce sex worker’s job to that of a talking fleshlight. I think that very few clients would be genuinely interested in shagging robots, except for a “one off just to see” or fetish scenario. By falling for the obvious ‘in the future escorts are robots trope’, writers are merely enforcing, rather than challenging, the popular belief that we are not fully human, and that all sex workers are essentially the same in terms of services provided and the conditions in which we work.
Ignoring the sheer force of mental strength and good ol’ hard work that we put into being so incredibly fabulous. Most creative industry folks would, at the very least, be insulted at the suggestion that their line of work could be so easily replaced by a computer (oh no wait, that’s already happened). Presumably even more so if the implication was that the use of artificial intelligence was a way of liberating them to go and get ‘normal’ jobs. Sex workers are perfectly aware of how they are viewed by both clients and society at large, and don’t need cheap metaphors to remind us of the experience of female objectification.
Epilogue: When I watched the new Star Wars film Solo with loverboy, both of us loved Lando’s co-pilot L3. If we’re going to have robots coming to terms with their emotions and consciousness can it please be more like that from now on?