One of the things that seemed to stick out to people in my article regarding sexism, racism and ableism in the future art of Dungeons & Dragons was my mention of the Book of Erotic Fantasy. This was one of my favorite books during the 3.5 boom, because it offered something that no one else was doing with their products: it was offering a sex-positive look at the role of sex and sexuality in role-playing games, specifically in Dungeons & Dragons. It was, admittedly, campy, over-the-top, and deeply, deeply silly, but it was the sort of rare thing that doesn’t happen often enough in our hobby. It was a revolutionary book because it was an activist book.
Now, I’m sure the people who wrote it didn’t write it with activism in mind, but the fact of the matter remains it was a book about sex in a genre of books that never want to talk about sex. And that, to me, is a brilliant example of activism at its best. And it kicked up a hell of a fuss when it came out, enough so that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast had to include a provision against books like it from coming out ever again, effectively banning sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. It was this ban that I was speaking to in my article, the fact that there are actually provisions in the GSL wording that preclude the inclusion of sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons books, but no such provision exists for hypersexualized depictions of women in those same books.
There are two solutions to this problem, and I think one of them is more workable than the other. The first solution is to insist that any inclusion of sexualized imagery for one gender must include equally sexualized imagery for all of the other genders. This is, sadly, impossible, on two fronts: there is no way you could make a sexualized image for every gender that exists, and there is no such thing as a hypersexualized male. Argue all you want that Conan the Barbarian is a sexy nearly-naked dude, but he’s not hypersexualized, he’s just a badass. Western culture doesn’t have hypersexualized images of men (with one possible exception, and it’s deeply debatable). They simply don’t exist, not in the same category that hypersexualized images of women do.
The other option is to strike down the rule and allow sex back into Dungeons & Dragons. Now, that may not seem like a solution at first glance, it certainly wouldn’t change the fact that depictions of women in role-playing games are disproportionately sexualized, but that change allows the designers, in-house, freelance and third party, to open the floor for discussion. It would allow designers to discuss the role sex and sexuality have in our games, and it would actually serve to point out some of these issues within the context of the game text itself.
With the rule as it currently stands, there is no way to address the subject of feminine objectification within the text of the game. That is left to people like Tracy Hurley and myself, who speak to a limited subsection of D&D players. My traffic on this blog maxes out at about 300 people a month. Even reaching the few thousand who read my Open Letter, even reaching the tens of thousands that Tracy reaches on a regular basis, barely scratches the surface of the D&D community, as there are literally millions of people who play this game. By being able to openly talk about sex from within the game itself, we have an opportunity to reach, y’know, all of them.
But then, that’s a part of the problem for the guys behind the desks at Hasbro. By talking about sex from the vantage of the game books themselves, we’re actually talking to a huge swath of players about a thing that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t really want to be associated with. Sex is one of the major American cultural taboos, and while that is certainly working to keep the patriarchal oppression of women’s bodies alive and well, it also means that challenging it comes with the potential for damage to your reputation. As the company that makes Monopoly, Hasbro can’t really have one of their imprints running off and talking about anal plugs and nipple clamps when there are kids reading. Moreover, the threat of speaking directly to the subject of sex in role-playing games is so great that Wizards of the Coast felt it necessary to keep other companies from doing it in association with their product. Which is how we got to where we are now.
The question, I guess, is why? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in D&D? Why is this a discussion we can’t have openly and publically? The short answer is that it might make some people uncomfortable. There are people who just don’t like talking about sex and sexuality, and it’s those people that Wizards of the Coast is catering to by implementing rules that restrict companies from publishing works that include those topics. There are even more people who don’t want to include sex or sexuality in their games, and I understand that and empathize with it. But that’s no reason to keep that product from being published. I’ve never actually used anything in the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I read it, and I think it’s incredibly valuable to the culture of the hobby, but my games don’t tend to have a lot of sex in them, and the games that DO have a lot of sex in them usually Fade to Black before anything graphic happens. But that’s a choice players should be making on their own, as a group and individually.
Someone asked me on Twitter today what ESRB rating I would give Dungeons & Dragons. My response was that the ESRB is deeply flawed for vilifying sex over violence. Which is a rubbish answer, so I also said “PG-13 with options up to NC-17,” which has nothing at all to do with the ESRB, so it’s still a rubbish answer, if slightly more useful to the topic at hand. Dungeons & Dragons is a game chock full of fantasy violence, but there is rarely any graphic content. You never get to see the fountains of blood pouring out of your enemies, or have to hear the sickening crunch of their bones under your weapons, so most of the violence has a distinctly clean PG-13 feel to it. And while the women are generally clad to appeal to men, and are posed ridiculously to ensure that they are showing off their secondary sex characteristics, they’re never naked, the sexism is generally pretty tame, and there is never any talk about sex or sexuality at all.
And that’s what they’re going for. That’s what they want, because it’s the age range in which their game will sell the best. 12-40 year old men are Wizards of the Coast’s key demographic, and they need to keep that younger group in mind when putting their books together.
Third-party game designers don’t. They’re able to take risks. They’re able to say things that the people at Wizards of the Coast can’t. And while I’m certain WotC got some nasty feedback regarding things like the Book of Erotic Fantasy, I can’t see anyone blaming the company for that product existing, and I can’t think that having books like it is at all a detriment to the game itself. Talking about sex is something we need to be doing as a community, because doing so opens the door to talking about gender role issues at the game table. And that, I think, is a pursuit worth risking some reputation over.