A Song of Sex and Power: Portrayals of Sex in Game of Thrones

By ALYSSA WOODEN | February 15, 2018

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COURTESY OF HBO

Despite what some may think, the gratuitous sex in GoT serves a purpose.

The Emmy-winning HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones (GoT) is famous for a lot of things, like its elaborate sets and costumes, its eagerness to kill off main characters, and of course its innumerable graphic sex scenes. Many have criticized the show for being overly pornographic or displaying excessive sexual violence. The reality, as any diehard fan knows, is that GoT is so much more than just incest and nudity. At its core it’s a show about courage, perseverance, family, love and loyalty — themes that are largely universal. The show is so popular partly because, although it takes place in a medieval fantasy world, viewers today can personally relate to many of the things the characters deal with on the show — one of which, obviously, is sex. 

Sex in GoT happens for an endless number of reasons and results in an endless number of consequences (massive spoiler warning ahead). When Bran sees Jaime and Cersei having sex, Jaime pushes Bran out of a window and paralyzes him, setting the plot of the first season in motion. The scene between Oberyn Martell, his lover Ellaria, and the male and female prostitutes in King’s Landing characterizes Oberyn as a free spirit, an outsider who doesn’t care about the conventions or customs of the rest of King’s Landing. 

Characters may try to use sex to gain power, as when Stannis sleeps with Melisandre, resulting in a ghost/shadow/demon creature that kills Renly, Stannis’ brother and rival. After Lancel has sex with Cersei, Tyrion blackmails him into spying on her for him. Osha has sex with Theon to distract him and allow Bran and Rickon to escape, and Margaery sleeps with Tommen to gain his trust and approval, driving a wedge between him and Cersei. 

And everyone knows what happens in the season six finale, when Loras is put on trial for sleeping with Olyvar. The show may have more sex scenes than most, but they aren’t just thrown in there for the sake of it. Sex scenes — like all scenes in GoT — serve a deliberate purpose.

Despite the prostitutes, incest and child marriages, the show as a whole does not portray sex in a violent or negative light. Many characters are empowered by their sexuality, particularly female characters who have to fight for themselves in a male-dominated world. 

Ygritte, the badass wildling warrior, sets her sights on what she wants — Jon Snow — and doesn’t stop until she gets it, convincing one of the most moral characters in the show to break his celibacy vows. But when Jon betrays her, she doesn’t hesitate to shoot him full of arrows and abandon him in the middle of a Northern wasteland. 

Daenerys is happier and more confident when she decides to have sex with Daario, but when he becomes too much of a distraction, she leaves him to pursue bigger and better things — specifically the Iron Throne. Even Cersei refuses to let anything come between her relationship with Jamie while simultaneously ruling the Seven Kingdoms. 

Of course, not all characters need to be sexually active to be empowered. Although Brienne is at first driven by her love for Renly, and occasionally appears romantically linked to certain characters, she never lets a man get in the way of her mission. Arya, Bran and Varys — some of the show’s most capable and valuable characters — are similarly uninterested in sex (yes, Varys is a eunuch, but in one scene he explains how he didn’t care for sex even before he was castrated). 

Despite its sex-positive outlook, however, GoT seems to have no boundaries when it comes to depictions of sexual violence and sexually abusive characters. Do these scenes — such as the one where Joffrey forces two prostitutes to abuse each other and then shoots one full of arrows, or Sansa’s rape scene with Ramsay — go too far? 

Like other sex scenes, both of these are clearly purposeful. Joffrey’s scene characterizes him as a cruel, sadistic monster, causing us to view him as a legitimate villain rather than a childish, fairy tale bad guy. The Ramsay/Sansa rape scene develops the show’s plot, giving Jon the motivation to engage in battle with Ramsay and take back the North, and prompts Sansa’s evolution into a cold, calculating leader.

GoT in no way promotes or glorifies sexual violence — it’s worth noting that both Joffrey and Ramsay, as well as virtually every other perpetrator of such crimes, ends up horrifically murdered — but could the show have functioned without these scenes? Certainly the writers could have found other ways to develop characters and advance the plot. But a major part of GoT’s massive impact on modern culture comes from its refusal to shy away from uncomfortable yet relevant themes, including but not limited to sexual violence. 

In real life people face these issues every day, and by confronting them head-on, GoT creates space for them to be discussed and dealt with rather than ignored and dismissed. Additionally, while undeniably a fantasy show, GoT attempts to be true to history in the context of its characters’ relationships, motivations and traditions. Ignoring things like prostitutes, child marriage and sexual violence would be like erasing a significant aspect of human history, as well as contemporary society.

There are countless opinions out there on Game of Thrones, but I feel confident in saying that in terms of scale, story and following, GoT is one of the most influential shows ever made. I also believe that without its infamous sex scenes, it wouldn’t be the same show that millions of people around the world know and love. It wouldn’t be as relatable, as realistic, as compelling, as politically and as culturally relevant. Its plot would seem less genuine, its characters less three-dimensional. Some of the show’s decisions have certainly been controversial, but Game of Thrones needs to take risks in order to get at the root of human nature and redefine an entire genre. And for the most part, those risks have paid off.

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