It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Whores in Spaaaace


I am currently reading a big fat space opera which was published last year. It has received a number of positive reviews – George RR Martin himself even describes it as “kickass space opera” on the front-cover.

Part of the story is set in the Asteroid Belt. In the future of the novel, a number of asteroids have been settled – there are, in fact, some 150 million people living in the Belt – and the largest such settlement is the hollowed-out dwarf planet Ceres (approximately 480 km in diameter, six million population). The society in Ceres, and by implication in other colonised asteroids, is essentially US, capitalist, corporatist, with a few touches of foreign colour. This is neither especially convincing nor especially unusual in space opera – even one set in the relatively near-future as this one is. Ceres also has organised crime, gangsters, protection rackets, corruption, bent cops, poverty, drugs… And prostitution.

So, basically, the author is saying that he wants one half of the human race to exist for the gratification of the other half. He can’t claim “realism” because this is an invented world. He made it up. This is an artistic decision he made. He has put the women in his universe in that position. He includes a few named female characters – with and without agency – and thinks he’s covered his bases. His detective, for example, has a female captain – there, that must be good enough. But. Prostitution. Underage prostitution. Human trafficking. All three are mentioned. All three are taken as givens in this future universe.


Is that the best an intelligent person living in the twenty-first century can do? Create some sort of Randian frontier-town society and think the presence of spaceships and AIs and some big melodramatic space-hopping plot makes it alright? It doesn’t. If you have prostitutes in your sf story, you’d better think damn hard why they’re there. If you have a rape in your fantasy story, you’d better think even harder why it’s there. Neither are acceptable. They are not genre tropes. You have no excuse for creating universes in which women are treated in this way.

Science fiction was created by (mostly) inadequate teenagers who grew up to become (mostly) dirty old men. But the bulk of sf writers these days fit neither of those descriptions. And yet those pioneers set the tone of the genre. After eighty-five bloody years, isn’t it long past time we got rid of that? Isn’t it about time we started treating half of the human race like, well, like human beings in our science fictions? Isn’t it about time we started giving them respect on the page? (Respect in the real world is a given.) It’s not like it’s difficult, it’s not going to hurt, it’s not going to cost you money. You have no excuse for not doing it.

But you know what’s worse than that? The fact this is only one of many battles that need to be fought.

29 thoughts on “Whores in Spaaaace

  1. Prostitution’s been around longer than science so likely to continue. Continued female disempowerment OTOH much less justifiable

  2. I’m currently reading the same book, and admit that I’m less than impressed with the worldbuilding. Space just loses a lot of its… possibility here.

    And tho I’m the first to say slavery (sexual and otherwise) has a long history, so does female empowerment (you just hear about it less). Upstreaming a set of beliefs while writing science fiction is as bad as downstreaming your beliefs and applying them to historical characters when you’re analyzing history.

    I think there would be far more interesting ways people would have of selling themselves (or pieces of themselves) in a totally contained, resource-strapped environment, but that may just be me. There is also, of course, the possibility of eliminating a capitalist economy all together. But again, that would require worldbuilding.

    • There’s no way to justify the choices made in the book’s world-building as “realistic” – everything is the result of an artisitc decision made by the author(s). So why is it so difficult to create a world that doesn’t feel like a gang-controlled poverty-stricken inner-city area of a US surburb? The only thing that’s missing is ghettoes. It’s a complete failure of imagination. It’s also a failure of an author’s responsibility to their readers.

      There are huge chunks of this planet where, after a hard day’s work, people don’t go out and get drunk. So why imagine the entire Solar System would exhibit such behaviour? Not to mention that dangerous environments tend to reward such behaviour with a quick and ugly death.

      As for the depiction of space travel in the book… don’t get me started.

  3. I’m assuming from what you say that the prostitution is of the “celebrated” female-prostitutes-for-the-gratification-of-male-clients format?

    Would it be more believable/acceptable if the offerings on both side of the table were more evenly spread? Or – as Kameron says – more imaginatively imagined?


    This article talks about the everyday sexism that comes from sets of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles and because they are not in-your-face obvious or violent are dismissed and overlooked, suppressing equality.

    The point I take away from your blog post is that the author of the eponymous novel you are discussing has never thought meaningfully about the world in which he lives.

  5. And it’s trite. While I’m sure the near futur won’t sideline the oldest profession, I simply don’t want to be board. I know all about prostitutes. I want science fiction to tell me something I don’t know.

  6. Reminds me of Firefly…. I’m guessing you had a similar problem with that show? Although, they were trying to recreate a old west-esque future — which I don’t think solves the issue. Are you sure something similar isn’t happening here? An attempt to make a “new frontier” and thus many of similar issues as in westward expansion, colonization?

    What about if the novel is dystopic in tone? Like, Stand on Zanzibar where women are referred to in slang terms and generally don’t have names….

    • No, I was never a Firefly fan. I thought the world-building was horribly muddled, the Wild West flavour silly, and the whole concept ripped off from the RPG Traveller.

      The book is clearly not meant to be dystopic. It’s a fast-paced action space opera about an alien virus which turns people into sort of zombies.

  7. Given human history (and our everyday reality – women trafficking and such) it’s unlikely that prostitution will ever die out completely. In places where women are scarce (but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the book you’re discussing) its occurence might be a high probability; there would be no shortage of men willing to take advantage of it as pimps.
    But there’s certainly no need to revel in or celebrate it in a book.
    And you would think scarcity of women might lead to more respect for them. (If you respected then in the first place.)

  8. I was about to say what Neil put so succinctly: “I’m assuming from what you say that the prostitution is of the “celebrated” female-prostitutes-for-the-gratification-of-male-clients format?”

    I write in two universes. One is the Fusion, which is up-front equal across all sentient forms. The other is the Republic, which is chauvinistic, species-ist and quite obviously the villain. My question is (because I don’t know which book you’re talking about), is the world being used as an example of what NOT to do? Although I hadn’t even thought of prostitution, I dare say it would have a place in the loathsome Republic. But then all my readers know the Republic is loathsome. Is that the case with the world you’re reading about? Just curious.

    Oh yeah, not a Firefly fan either.

    • Yes, all the prostitutes mentioned are female (and all the gangsters are male). I don’t think the authors are presenting this society as some sort of commentary – it’s just the setting of the story. It’s as if they think a Solar-System-wide civilisation two hundred years from now will actually be like this.

  9. Hi Ian,

    For the record I am not defending prostitution. But like others, I have to ask why you think that prostitution would actually be absent in the future? Isn’t that more than a little utopian? In fact I would hazard it would potentially render a problem with the story of the same order that the Objectivist claptrap so clearly does (and we agree on this point). It depends on the story.

    I have to suppose that your problem is that the prostitution is somehow revelled in or that there are apparent “tart with a heart” issues. Without knowing more about the story I would be guessing.

    If my guess is correct then we agree. No one needs to read the socially awkward right wing fantasies of a deluded American(?). It’s one of the reason I don’t read space opera unless it comes extremely highly recommended.

    What we appear to have here is a failure of innovation.

    In fact these sentences tell me all I need to know.

    “The book is clearly not meant to be dystopic. It’s a fast-paced action space opera about an alien virus which turns people into sort of zombies.”

    If I come across a book which hints of this it would be avoided.

    • Ian, I think I’ve figured out which book you are reading. You have my sympathies. I already had a look at it and decided it “wasn’t for me”.

    • But why would it be there? To populate the Asteroid Belt would require the construction of fragile environments, ones that need to be very carefully controlled. Why would you import crime or people who did not contribute directly to the upkeep and/or continuing survival of the environment? It is not, as has been repeatedly said, the new Wild West frontier – because you can’t just walk into it and set up wherever you like. They don’t put casinos on oil rigs, and many of them are, in fact, dry. A space station would be like an oil rig with no onshore time.

      • I wrote a big long comment but a browser crash has lost it – bet you’re glad!

        I wonder if your oil rig analogy stands up to scrutiny any more than the Wild West one?

        I’m handicapped because I’ve not read the book. I have no idea what the general scope of the society is, gender make-up, how self sufficient they are or even how long their stay might be.

        But here goes: if there’s a couple of things we know about human nature it’s:

        Our fascination with our genitals.
        If there’s a demand someone will supply it.

        If you’re on an oil rig then you’re there for a set comparatively short period of time. I doubt asteroid miners get 1 on 1 off. If you need help then it’s close. If something is needed then it can be got. Asteroid miners won’t have this – not in the same way.

        I think a better analogy is an age-of-sail ship: Fragile life support, limited supplies, once you’re away no help from shore and so on. We know that sailors smuggled all sorts of contraband on board, operated all sorts of black markets and yes they even smuggled women aboard. No women? No problem sailors “made do”.

        In this sort of environment assuming that we’ve somehow bettered ourselves seems as utopian as the objectivist nonsense.

        Here’s the thing. I think you and I agree. We both want the future to be better in some sense. And we would both very much like to get into space. I think we both agree that the themes you have outlined represent the hoariest cliche and perhaps the author has done himself a disservice.

        I can tell from your description and the synopsis I read that me and this book would be very unlikely to get on.

        • Depending on the era, women were integral parts of some sailing ships’ crews. There were women on some of the British ships at Trafalgar – though admittedly not officially acknowledged as being so; no medals nor prize money for example. (It might have been the Victorians and their sentimentality that removed them so that their absence from warships became regarded as the norm.)

          • Yes I know. I read something on that a while ago. Though it’s not on mu bookshelves.

            I didn’t want to write (or rewrite) an entire essay on running a ship in that era or gender ethics in the early royal navy. Some women even rose in rank (and wasn’t there a captain suspected of being a woman – or have I just made that up?). The RN (though I can’t speak for other navies I suspect this to be true) was fast becoming a true meritocracy, especially compared with the army – they even accepted non Caucasian sailors on their merits.

            Though let’s be honest and admit that the reality was far more complex than I’ve just related.

            In the mood for anecdote? If not don’t bother with the next paragraphs.

            I have a friend who is a merchant seaman. During his watch, on a dry ship in the Caribbean, he went into crew quarters to get his men. He found them watching cock fighting and, bizarrely, also betting on karaoke. Later a knife fight broke out and someone was killed (I don’t know what happened to the murderer). This anecdote doesn’t feature the sex bit because I am keeping it pg.

            The point being that you don’t have to go far to remove our thin veneer of respectability and professionalism. This anecdote didn’t require drink or casinos or the wild west to be unpleasant.

            • You’re living in a tin can. Everything, even the air you breath, costs money – a lot of money. Outside the tin can is instant death. The tin can is where it is because those within it are needed to perform a task. It is also a vast distance away from any other tin cans – so far you need a special vessel and a lot of supplies to make the trip. Nowhere is really safe.

              An you think they’ll let murderers, croupiers, prostitutes and gangsters in there? Space is not the Earth. It’s not the Wild West, a Merchant Navy ship on the Earth, or a 17th Century sailing ship.

              And all the “scratch the surface” stuff is bollocks. Ninety percent of people live perfectly normal lives, without resorting to cock fighting, prostitutes or murder.

              • Never mind that history is not on your side or that people in extreme environments behave differently?

                It’s that 10% we’re talking about.

                So I see we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

                And I hope you’re right Ian, and that it’s me that’s wrong.

                • The future is not the past. In the past, we had human sacrifice. We don’t do that anymore. In the past, we had slavery. We don’t do that anymore. In the past, we had executed people. We don’t do that any more (us civilised countries, anyway). See?

                  Extreme environments? There a lot of prostitutes in Antarctica then? Or muggers in undersea habitats? Or how about gangsters on oil rigs?

                  As for the 10%, why would you let them onto your space station? It is exactly like an oil rig – an oil rig in the middle of a raging storm. And everyone has a job to do. And they stay there all the time. So the people there are technical people, with roles which contribute to the survival – not just the success – of the space station. There’s no room for people who don’t contribute directly, there’s no margin for that.

                  … And I think we’ve reached the nesting limit for comments. Oh well.

  10. I recently read a fantasy book, where the protagonist is a prostitute. She even runs a brothel, and even though I really enjoyed the book, I always felt uncomfortable with the prostitution part. It’s safe to say the role of a sex worker is romanticised with a kind of jolly western feel to it. The prostitutes (men and women) are having fun intimidating the nervous men coming to see them, or just enjoying all the great sex. I got the feeling the author is trying to challenge our inhibitions around sex, and how it can empower women. Sadly, I doubt it comes close to what most sex workers experience.

    Is it better inventing a world where the lot of the sex worker is an easier, or should it just be avoided?

    • It’s not the sex, or the treatment of it. It’s not about making it equal so there are male ad well as female prostitutes. It’s about the power relationship and the unthinking and unchallenged assumption that women will always be there for the use of men, that they exist because of the men.

  11. Ian,
    I understand the desire to have all humans empowered and not subjugated, regardless of gender. Whereas I am not familiar with the book that you are referring to, I would submit that without large changes in human nature, there will always be oppressors and oppressed. And I am NOT defending prostitution, either.

    Could the author have made a different artistic decision? Sure. But it’s his work. You may not want to publish it, but someone did. I suspect you’re not advocating the censoring of his work, but are criticizing it as poor art. But I see a problem in that you appear to criticize the existence of prostitution in any future society, as opposed to the implausibility of prostitution in his world-building.

    Prostitution has always been there in SF some guise or other. There’s Mudd’s Women in the Star Trek universe, and Lady Callahan’s House (Spider Robinson). Take a look at the Matador series by Steve Perry. Dirisha was the daughter of a prostitute who decided that she was not going to live that life, and walked the Musashi Flex to escape it. Then there’s the virtual prostitution of XV, explored by John Barnes in Mother of Storms. I really don’t think those authors were “(mostly) inadequate teenagers who grew up to become (mostly) dirty old men.”

    I get your point that the gratuitous use of sex and violence in a Asteroid Belt setting is unrealistic. However, the important thing to realize is that there are people who will willingly prostitute themselves in order to secure something they want. To settle a bet, I once created a ‘totally poor’ person profile, put it on a dating website that catered to rich men, and I got loads of email by women who were willing to hook up for rent money. Take a look at Craigslist sometime, if you want to read some really depressing ads by women who have nothing to offer but themselves.

    In a generations-old civilization, it is totally conceivable that there will be those people who don’t have any skills but the oldest ones. They’re in a dangerous environment, sure, but they were born into it, not transported there at great expense. (I really don’t see how else 150 million people get to the asteroids on rockets) With no other way to earn a living, even in a cashless society, they will either become drudges, or sex workers. It sucks, sure. But I don’t really see any way out of it. Prostitution has been around for thousands of years, with varying degrees of illegality and proscription, and it is still around. I don’t see any reason to believe the future will be any different.

    • Like I said earlier, we had slavery for generations. Not any more. We stopped doing it because it was wrong. Why should prostitution be immune to this? You can’t use history as an excuse, nor can you use so-called “human nature”. It’s about male power games, and any book set in the future which presupposes the continued existence of prostitution is simply perpetuating their male privilege.

  12. Ian,
    Actually, “male power games” is something like the second or third derivative of the phenomenon. At it’s most basic level, it’s women who decide that they can sell themselves for money. (see, above, Craigslist, and internet dating sites).

    I believe your comparison between slavery and prostitution is a false analogy. Nobody willingly becomes a slave. However, you can find any number of women that willingly become prostitutes/call girls/escorts. Yes, there is also the fraction that are involuntary sex workers. But you cannot say that all sex workers are sex slaves, either.

    I dunno, Ian. It sounds like your premise is that any author who writes of a future with prostitution is a misogynistic person who wants to oppress women. I have a hard time thinking that someone like Spider Robinson is such a person.

    Now, none of my futures have prostitution in it. In fact, one of my works has females who can control men telepathically, examining the questions that such gender role reversals introduce.

    The role of SF in warning of dystopian possibilities “if this goes on…” is quite clear. Yet, if your wishes were applied to the field, then such works like “Dollhouse” would never see the light of day. Nor could authors warn of the complete depersonalization that is the end stage of the sex worker industry.

    I agree that prostitution, in the commonly understood hierchy of underworld boss, pimp, prostitute, is an unmitigated evil. But prostitution can also be understood to mean someone like Inara, the Companion in the Firefly series. There is no pimp there. In fact, the Guild appears to be all female. Inara books her own clients, chooses her own path, and is immune from pressuer. I fail to see a male power game there. And what about an arrangement where a woman offers sex for money, without any male intermediary? Is that male privilege, or is it a private transaction between two consenting adults?

    But I still get where you’re coming from, Ian. We want the future to be better than the present. Eliminating something like prostitution is admirable. But you have thousands of years of history to buck, and the very real fact that even today, women voluntarily take money for sex. You can’t get there from here by decreeing the subject off limits, or impugning the authors who have something to say about the practice.

    I suspect we will disagree about this Ian. I thank you for letting my side be posted. This should be my last post on this topic.

    • I have no problem with dissenting views, providing they’re reasoned and polite. Which yours are. That’s what a discussion is 🙂

      The problem is, I don’t think any woman sells her body willingly, whether she appears to, or thinks she does. All are victims of male privilege. And yes, that goes for Inara in Firefly too 🙂

      And if slavery doesn’t work as an analogy, what about human sacrifice? Some victims willingly allowed themselves to be sacrificed. That didn’t make the practice right.

      I not only want the future to be better, I can actually see it happening. We are, as individuals, better off than our ancestors (current tory scumbag shenanigans notwithstanding). History has been a (mostly) progressive process. So for an imagined future to be regressive strikes me as a failure of the imagination. Prostitution was simply the most egregious symptom of that in the book.

  13. Pingback: When men were men and so was science fiction « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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