How Games Fail (and Succeed) at Depicting Female Sexuality

By Ed Smith on at

It's difficult to list the myriad ways that girls and young women have historically been discouraged from talking about, or even thinking about, sex in our culture. In many movies, magazines and TV shows, women were presented as static for-your-consideration sex objects, implicitly informing any curious young girl that her role in sex was to look good but not ask anything. For decades girls have been variously informed, through gendered toys and through media, that their highest aspiration is to be immaculate. Sex is dirty. And women aren't dirty.

But increasingly, pop culture in its various forms, from pop music to TV, is countering the idea that women don't talk about sex, or that female sexual desire is supposed to repressed and unvoiced. Orange Is The New Black is a TV show where women not only have sex but have sex – gasp – with one another. Girls charts the ups, downs and explorations of a group of young women living in New York City. Then you have movies like Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Nymphomaniac and – to a far lesser extent – Fifty Shades of Grey.

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It's not brand new for films to discuss female sexual desire; as far back as the 50s and 60s, films like Teorema by Paolo Pasolini were laced with sexually active women. But it's only recently that showing women on-screen who want sex, talk about sex and have sex doesn't feel taboo, or like a cynical, pointed attempt to be ground-breaking. Increasingly, women's sexual desire is shown for what it is – as natural and as regular as men's.

So how are games doing? Well, despite some valiant attempts to up the quantity (if not quality) of female characters, big games mostly still haven't got to grips with the idea that women can want sex without being degenerates, sluts or outright villains. Sexuality is either completely ignored or used as a negative character trait.

Think of Amanda De Santa from Grand Theft Auto V (and let's not even talk about Lacey Jonas). It's not justifiable for her to want to have sex with other men because her husband is a boorish, criminal scumbag who ignores her. She has to be a former stripper and prostitute. Her sexuality can't just be natural and human – it has to be a negative trait, something that's “wrong” with her, an emblem of a shameful past and a kind of tarnish on her character.

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But that's just the mainstream. There are plenty of other games where women and their sexual desires are explored with care, and by people who give a shit.

Talks With My Mom is a game where you play a young woman attempting to discuss sex and sexuality with her mother. Using your mouse, you click through several conversations and time periods, watching as your character both grows older and becomes more certain of her identity. Her coming out is stunted, however, by the eponymous mom, who, regardless of what the player does, refuses to accept that women should be anything except prettily dressed and heterosexual. It was created by independent developer Vaida Plankyte.

“All of the dialogue snippets come from real life, with no or very minor changes made to them,” Plankyte explains. “The game could be considered interactive fiction because of the huge lack of interactivity. However, I believe I was making a point by calling it a 'game'. Players usually expect some sense of control over the unfolding of events, but when they play Talks With My Mom, they are faced with a complete lack of choice, which makes them feel powerless. This mirrors the state of the gay girl in the game. Nothing she does ever changes her mother’s opinions.”

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Along similar lines is How Do You Do It?, another browser game, where you control a pre-pubescent girl who's playing with a couple of Ken and Barbie dolls. She has a haphazard understanding of sex, cribbed mainly from the car scene in Titanic, and by pressing buttons on the keyboard, you must revolve her dolls and roughly push them together in an attempt to recreate what “doing it” might look like. You can never get it quite right – this is supposed to be your first time learning about sex – but the goal is to mush the dolls into sort of sexual positions, as many times as you can before your mum comes home and catches you. It's a game where you have to “learn” as much as you can about sex without being caught - without being shamed.

“The game was based on my memory of banging these nude dolls together,” says co-creator Nina Freeman. “It was always awkward and janky because of their stiff, plastic limbs, but also because I really had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what movements were involved in sex. I thought it might involve hugging of some sort, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. The controls are deliberately awkward in order to help players embody the young girl's unsure movements as she tries to re-enact something that she doesn't fully understand.”

Both these games mirror how women – particularly at a young age - have been discouraged from discussing and learning about sex. In Talks With My Mom, the character and the player are both railroaded into not asking any questions, or having a debate, about sexuality. In How Do You Do It?, sex can only be learned in a clandestine, muddled kind of way – your knowledge of the controls, like the girl's knowledge of sex, has to be quickly cobbled together before mum returns home. Both games reflect not just social norms, but how those social norms inhibit female sexual expression.

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“Women are told from a young age that they should be ashamed of being too active,” says Plankyte. “If you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be asking too many questions about sex, since that might mean that you’re eager to experience it, which is 'bad'. Girls are discouraged from having sex both by their parents and by their girlfriends, who take great pride in their virginity, because it makes them impure. This continues into adulthood, as women internalise these teachings and tear other women down for being too open about their sexual endeavours.”

Big games haven’t caught up with film and television when it comes to embracing and depicting female sexuality. But things like Talks With My Mom and How Do You Do It? are picking up the mainstream's slack. They observe how women are often restricted from talking about their sexual desires, and how social conventions are primed to encourage women to remain demure. Building on those two games, you have titles like Luxuria Superbia, a female masturbation simulator, and Gone Home, which (to some extent at least) is about a woman and her burgeoning sexuality.

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The hope is that games like these will gradually erode the timidity, and (let’s be frank) stupidity, that games have in general towards female sexual desire.

“I've encountered slut-shaming and other silencing tactics from men, and some women, on the internet when I've tried to talk about my sex life,” concludes Freeman. “I see this happen to women all the time and it's a really big problem, because it reinforces these myths about sex like 'women don't like sex as much as men' or worse, that women are sexual objects rather than sexual beings.

“Sex is just as important to women as it is to anyone else,” concludes Freeman, “and women should be able to express their sexuality in their own ways. I know that with accessible platforms, like Twine and Unity, we'll see a shift in the kinds of sex narratives we see in games.”