Sunday, June 16, 2024

Meaningful Consent and the Meaning of Consent in Game of Thrones

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In light of the approaching season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones, I’d like to talk about something that I fear will become relevant at least once in its course: sexual consent in ‘olden times’ settings, including fantasy settings like the world of George R.R. Martin, or its strange version that we see on TV. I’ll be mainly using examples from that, but most of what I’ll say is applicable pretty much across the board of vaguely medieval-like worlds.

The first questions, of course, is always what criteria we should be using to evaluate the sexual consent we see in the media. Should we compare it to contemporary views? To views that existed at the time the book or film were made? To views that a vaguely medieval society would have?

To my mind, all three are relevant, though for different purposes. If we’re talking about a piece of media that is still being regularly sold or aired, as opposed to something we pulled from the depths of an archive, then it’s certainly legitimate to apply our current criteria because people are still consuming the media. We can’t blame the author for not being on the same page with us if we’re dealing with an old work, but we can still point out the problems and, in this way, sort of highlight them and so limit the effect the harmful messages contained there have on consumers. If there’s non-consensual sex that seems endorsed by the narrative, it’s certainly helpful to point it out, no matter how much no one would have thought it an issue at the time the piece of media was originally published. If the non-consensual sex is merely depicted, not endorsed, then…well, let’s face it, it’s a good idea to highlight how it’s not in accordance with today’s values anyway, because the chances are many consumers will just ignore the implied criticism in the text for the sake of keeping their personal favourite white boy pristinely clean. In this case, though, the commentary takes on a form that is a little different, chiefly pointing out the parts of the text that indicate that the narrative is not, in fact, endorsing anyone’s rape fantasy.

Comparing the story to the values of the author’s time is chiefly useful if we want to know what to think about the author, or to understand the influence the work had on its wider culture. Was it revolutionary, or stale, or even reactionary? For this purpose, it’s useful both to examine what the author endorses and what they depict and indirectly – or even directly – criticize. It has, however, little enough place in the discussion of the work in itself, or as it relates to today’s world.

But now we come to the third point of view, the one that is so very often pulled out in these arguments: we have to look at the actions of the characters in the context of their setting.

Well, I believe this view, too, has a point. For one, I think that among the many things fiction teaches us is empathy, the ability to understand and feel for someone else’s life story. I see examining a character’s moral choices within the framework of their setting as an extension for that, and as with empathy, it is sort of a training ground for “real life.” Just as I believe reading good fiction makes us better at empathy (and not just me, a bunch of scientists think so too), I also believe it can make it easier for us to understand a different cultural setting, a different set of values. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or accept those values, but learning to understand where another person comes from is, I think, the necessary basis for any kind of intercultural or interreligious dialogue.


For one, let me make it clear that here, I’m only talking about depiction, not about endorsement. If an author uses vaguely medieval setting to write a narrative that endorses rape, they’re an asshole (or, at the very least, they should educate themselves), and no amount of historical realism excuses them in the slightest. In fact, such a heavy topic should, I think, only be included if there’s some sort of meaningful commentary to be made on it, not just as background flavour either.

And for another, if we’re arguing from this perspective, the whole point is that we actually understand the cultural setting the character operates in, instead of just projecting our own ideas about what the setting should be like. We wouldn’t need any training on the second, people seem plenty capable of doing that on their own, and if reading fiction only strengthened this tendency instead of challenging it, then I could get on board with banning it, really.

No, not really. I would die without fiction, and I’m not even sure it’s an exaggeration.

Just as, to use a made-up example, if I hear about a religion that uses a big blue circle as a symbol, I shouldn’t just assume they worship a big blue circle and instead I should try to educate myself about what they actually teach and do, I equally shouldn’t just make assumptions about vaguely medieval fantasy settings – the worst kind of assumptions – because it was the dark ages, right, I’m sure this sort of thing was perfectly fine then. Doing so doesn’t help anything, doesn’t teach us critical thinking and frequently serves to justify behaviour considered abominable in almost any society. Often, once again, in the hopes of clearing our favourite character from any negative deeds.

There are two ways to go about this education, studying the actual Middle Ages and studying the piece of media we’re dealing with. Usually, both needs to be combined, simply because media creators hardly ever give us enough worldbuilding to really be able to wholly comprehend the mindframe, though it has to be said that Martin comes pretty close. As this probably makes obvious, deflecting criticism with ‘that’s how it was back then’ can’t be done casually, not unless you’re a trained historian on the side. That’s what makes it so ironic that casual describes the way this argument is most often used very well.

In this article, as I try to deal with the various situations where the ‘back then’ argument is pulled, I’ll be arguing based on both the European Middle-Ages and the world of George R.R. Martin, depending on whether there are available information from the books/show or not.

One argument that’s sometimes used is that some form of non-consensual sex wasn’t actually punished by law ‘back then’. Now the problem with this argument is that there are many cases of sex without full consent that are not punished by law and yet are still considered wrong, even nowadays. Sleeping with someone when they are very drunk, for example. Using your superior experience to manipulate someone technically legal into sex. And so on. We don’t need laws to realize these things are gross. We just have this general idea of what sexual consent should look like – rooted in the ideas about what sex should be like, and what the characteristics of a ‘perfect’ sexual encounter are, which, again, are rooted in out ideas about freedom and personhood and others – and we extrapolate the knowledge that these things are wrong from that. Fully informed and free consent is part of a proper sexual encounter, and so any lack in his respect ranges from problematic to rape.

That, of course, brings us to the different ‘sensibilities’ back then. In a medieval setting, the idea of an ideal sexual encounter – if such a thing even existed, there were quite a few people who believed that sex was way inferior to living the celibate life – was with your loving husband/wife with the hope of producing children. Westeros is not so far from that. The notion that celibacy is preferable to marriage seems less present (though Baelor the Blessed certainly held it), which is perhaps related to the fact that Father and Mother are two aspects of the Seven, so the idea of a perfect marriage is already present in their view of godhood, which then informs the societal views of what sex should look like. Father is strict, but just, and Mother is merciful and mild, so it certainly supports a degree of imbalance in the relationship, but I think it’s equally clear that there are no stories about Father raping Mother every night before they go to bed. In most of its forms, rape is as far from the Westerosi/medieval view of what sex should look like as it is from ours.

There are of course a number of people who don’t share this ideal in Westeros, but then, so there are people with different sensibilities in contemporary society. Sex can be seen as an act of conquering of the woman by the man (do you hear how rapey that sounds?), or as a thing that should be done is the absolute height of passion (an idea that can clash with affirmative consent, or lead to stupid phrases like ‘she was saying no, but her body was saying yes’). These are both views that exist today, in our culture, and I don’t think we would say that the rapists were not guilty of rape just because they clearly subscribed to them. Same goes for those Westerosi characters.

So with this in mind, let’s first look at what raises this discussion the most: marital rape.

game-thronesNow the general idea is that marital rape as a concept didn’t exist ‘back then.’ To a degree that is true, in the sense that the wife had no right to say no, and being at her husband’s disposal was her duty (unless she was seriously ill or in late stages of pregnancy/recovering from the birth, I guess). But…what if she, disregarding these cultural ideals, did in actual fact say no? From what I said before, it should be clear the response of the perfect husband was not to just go ahead and rape her, even though he would not be punished by law if he did. If she said no at the beginning of the marriage, not allowing for consummation, the ideal solution would be annulment for not doing her wifely duties. Obviously in case of a political marriage that would hardly happen, given that nobody’s going to have their grand plan to rule the world ruined by stupid little things like their wife not wanting to sleep with them, but the ideal still is not rape.

It’s a bit harder if the wife begins to consistently say no later on in the marriage. Societies that are against divorce and remarriage have few options left here, and usually the ideal would be to just talk to her and have a priest/septon/septa talk to her and hope she changes her mind. Given that in practice, there would probably be quite a number of threats thrown in, even if the husband resisted the urge to actually rape her, it’s very likely she would change her mind in time, too, though under these circumstances it’s of course hardly less of a rape even if she does verbally consent. At any rate, this whole issue had little enough to do with sex as such in medieval thought, and related more to the general idea of kindness men should be treating their wives with, even if they’re being ‘unreasonable.’ Not raping one’s wife after she refused consent would be regarded as sort of turning the other cheek: it’s the high moral ideal, and you won’t be punished if you don’t manage to follow it, just as you won’t be punished if you actually fight back.

Another question is what would actually count as saying no. The wife would have to be quite empathetic to register. Not only does merely not giving affirmative consent register in that setting, even crying during the wedding night is seen as mostly par for the course1, as demonstrated by Edmure Tully in the books. A clearly and repeatedly stated no, accompanied by physical demonstration of the wife’s unwillingness – I don’t necessarily mean wrestling with the husband, but covering herself, for example – would probably work, but it would also be very hard for her to do, given all the power husbands have over wives and also the cultural grooming against this (more on that bellow). Any wife who even dared to go this far was a goddamned hero, honestly.

But anyway, husbands were supposed to treat wives kindly precisely because it was recognized they were in a vulnerable position. Looking out for the weak was the whole point of chivalry. Among aristocracy, it was also a good idea for political reasons, generally speaking, because if you married the woman to gain an ally in her father, maybe don’t treat her like crap. This practical application of the ideal helped it stay more relevant. So in conclusion, a wife refusing her husband sex would be seen as in the wrong, but a husband who raped her in response would not be seen as behaving perfectly either. Marital rape in the sense of direct ignorance of the wife explicitly saying no was not supposed to normal in marriage, even if that was chiefly because the wife was not supposed to say no in the first place.

In the Middle Ages, it would be often seen as in context of devotion to God, and the wife’s wish to abstain could be read in a positive light in certain circumstances. In fact, it was enough of a thing that canon law had to make a special provision for these cases, stating that a wife cannot choose abstinence without her husband’s permission, and vice versa. In Westeros, as I’ve said, there are less signs of that, but it’s not completely absent. It’s also relevant to look at the wedding vows. In Westeros, both bride and groom say the same, “I am yours and you are mine” among other things. As much as the practice belies this, the ideal is there. Compared to the actual medieval tradition of including the vow to obey on the bride’s side, this is an improvement, and could also indicate a better position of the woman in this respect, even though Martin makes it worse in some others.

Of course, refusal to respect a direct and explicit ‘no’ isn’t the only kind of rape there is. There are all those cases of murky consent and simple absence of consent and consent given under pressure. This brings me to another point: isn’t all marital sex in Westeros always rape? Considering the woman’s agency in deciding whom to marry is very limited, especially among the nobility? We don’t really see enough smallfolk to know precisely what happens there.

Answering this question with a categorical yes would actually be taking agency from women, in my opinion. A Game of Thrones (the book) starts with a post-coital scene with Cat and Ned that makes it very clear the sex was consensual on her part. We also know about all those consensual encounters between Dany and Drogo later on in their relationship. But still, as the mention of Dany and Drogo should indicate, it’s complicated and problematic. Even in a hypothetical ideal situation when the husbands treat them kindly and in accordance with all that I have outlined above, married women in Westeros – and married men who are not head of their family too – are in a situation that resembles being one of last two people on Earth and it being up to you to repopulate it. You have zero choice whom to sleep with, and there is considerable pressure on you to sleep with that one particular person, regardless of what you think of them.2 Your reactions to that can range from ‘no way never’ through ‘do i have to?’ to ‘omg yes bring it on’, but neither of these reactions do away with the lack of choice inherently present in the situation.

And, of course, the reality is never the ideal, so the women, especially, normally face repercussions much greater that just the vague guilt of causing the human race to go extinct if they decide not to have sex with their husbands. So while I think saying that it’s always rape is too much, marital sex in most of Westeros is always a little problematic from out point of view. You can’t criticize the characters for it, obviously, because in-verse they act well as long as they try to approach the ideal I’ve outlined, but by our standards it isn’t without issue.

Why is it always Sansa?

Is extra-marital sex better, then? Well…in some ways. There’s more freedom to refuse for the woman, but there are also dangers to her. Apart from other social ill-effects having sex outside marriage can have for a woman in a patriarchal society, concentrating on consent, there’s this problem: once a woman agrees to meet with a man for sex, she’s as defenceless against his rape as in marriage, and in fact, would get even less sympathy. A woman – especially a young woman – refusing consent to sex in marriage can sometimes be seen as simply misguided if she is lucky, but a woman meeting with a man who isn’t her husband to have sex will be labelled a whore, and those, as everyone knows, have no right to refuse sex, because the whole point of that label is the assumption that they can be used by men without any regard for anything. The same problem happens with actual sex workers, too. Their complaints about rape would be even less heard.

So, what, is what I’m saying that poor guys in Westeros can’t have sex outside of Dorne without it being problematic? Yes, in fact, that’s pretty much what I’m saying. That’s what patriarchy means, power structure favouring men entrenched into society and culture and thought patterns so much that it permeates everything. We recognize nowadays that big power imbalance in relationship is problematic, and the point is, in Westeros, patriarchy is so bad that this big power imbalance exists in the vast majority of interactions between men and women. When the idea that women are subservient to men and should do what they say and be just mild and smiling is so widespread, how can women be expected to feel safe enough to say no? And if they don’t feel safe enough to say no, how can it be true consent?

However, I’m certainly not trying to say that all sexual encounters in Westeros are equally problematic. What Ramsay does is world apart from Ned and Cat having sex, and it is worth noting and analysing the differences, just like it’s worth it to analyse individual character’s approaches to women’s and men’s roles even though pretty much everyone in Westeros is sexist.

But I’ve deviated from the ‘judging by their standards’ approach, so let me return to it with another topic: that which would be called statutory rape today. Here, once again, it is true that it was different ‘back then’ in the sense that there were no laws along the ones in the US, with the frequent “18 but close in age exception” stipulation. But while the law set the limit pretty low – 12th century Catholic church says it’s 14 for men and 12 for women – the actual customs were in favour of marrying later, generally. The average would be around 17, for noble women, and even a bit later for common people. One of the goals of marriage, you see, was having children. And young brides were more risky in this respect, there was higher danger of miscarriages or death of the child, or the mother. That benefited no one, so why not wait? That’s also pretty much what Martin says in his response to a question precisely about this, and what can be understood from the text itself as well, without people having to actively look for the author’s opinion online. Tyrion is clearly shocked by Sansa’s age on their wedding night, and he fully realizes it’s creepy, even though she is ‘flowered.’

“How old are you, Sansa?” asked Tyrion, after a moment.
“Thirteen,” she said, “when the moon turns.”
“Gods have mercy.” The dwarf took another swallow of wine. “Well, talk won’t make you older.”
“You’re a child,” he said.
She covered her breasts with her hands. “I’ve flowered.”
“A child,” he repeated, “but I want you.”

If it was normal to marry at thirteen, Tyrion wouldn’t have reacted this way, don’t you think? In fact, only the very short time since Sansa’s first period separates this from being considered downright perverse, again by Martin’s words linked above.

Even age difference, when really big, was frowned upon. Ten years wouldn’t make anyone blink an eye, but twenty could already be seen as not really being that kind to your daughter, and above thirty and you are selling her to an old man for money or power. It happened, of course – not infrequently, though Lysa Arryn’s complaints make it clear that it was something to raise your eyebrows about – but it was not seen as ideal, or as what kind fathers do to their daughters.

All of this was not regarded as rape, certainly. There was no awareness of the inability to give consent to sex it itself, because wives didn’t really give consent as such, but there was awareness of the inability to give consent in general, to much of anything serious, because we’re talking about children. Since the 12th century, people could marry without their parents’ approval in the Catholic world, and there were age limits for that. It as also that marrying your daughter to a much older man was simply selfishness on your part – you’re meant to think of her comfort and happiness, and even in Middle-Ages, people realized that most girls are more comfortable with someone roughly their age than with someone thirty years older. Very young brides tie in to kindness as well: it was known young mothers die in childbirth more often. Under no circumstances is it kind to risk another person’s death for your personal gain.3

Another issue I want to touch upon is the cases of so called ‘dubious consent’, by which I mean, in this context, regular rape that is regarded as partly or wholly consensual. The Cersei/Jaime scene in the sept comes to mind.

OK, not always.

As I’ve said, date rapes would be met with very little understanding, as would a sex worker’s refusal to have sex or even that of a woman in a long-term relationship outside of marriage. The Madonna-Whore complex plays a part here. In this mindframe, as soon as you agree to sex outside marriage once, or even have a reputation of sometimes flirting, you become a whore, and…well, don’t make me explain it again, it’s too depressing for that. Just, most men would have trouble reading any subtler signs than a ‘no’ combined with a slap as a rejection from a non-Madonna. And if she does that…well, it’s a common cultural idea that a non-Madonna who does that is being a ‘bitch’ and therefore deserves what’s coming to her. That is pretty much exactly what happened with Jaime and Cersei there. However, ‘bitch had it coming,’ while a completely vile and disgusting sentiment, is not quite the same as denying the non-consensual nature of the encounter. I believe it would be fully within the mental capacities of medieval men, or Westerosi men, to realize that what was going on in the sept was not consensual sex. It’s a little disturbing that certain contemporary showrunners have trouble with it.

And last but not least, there is the issue of men being raped. Here we can say with some confidence, I believe, that the notion of woman raping a man did not exist in the Middle Ages, and so the characters might in some cases not realize that what they were doing was wrong – though not Margaery on the show, who clearly knew perfectly well she was manipulating her husband. But perhaps especially in cases of men being raped by women, the creators have to be extremely careful about depiction, always making it perfectly clear that this is not okay by our standards, even if ti was by theirs. The idea that this issue does not exist is so common even today, people are even more likely to not notice than in case of women.

The point of this article was not to explain consent as such. If you have trouble with that, I recommend the tea consent video. Instead, I was trying to show that discussion about rape can be had from all of the three perspectives: our current views, the views at the time of publication, and the views of the society depicted. They each serve a different purpose, and none of it is ‘justifying rape.’ When we encounter non-consensual sex in the media, we should asses whether it’s depicted or endorsed by the story, and part of that is the question of whether the characters face repercussions for it when it isn’t, actually, even in accordance with the values of their culture. Not the same repercussions they’d have faced today, of course, but some. It may be people being disgusted by them, it may be people unwilling to marry their daughters to them after they become widowers because of how they treated their first wife, it can be many things. The point is, creating the idea that ‘back then’ raping people left, right and centrer was fine doesn’t help anything, and it even makes some particularly twisted people feel nostalgic for the ‘good old times.’ Avoiding that is always a good idea, I think, and apart from that, the waters of consent can be hard to navigate for someone who hasn’t gone through proper sexual education – like, you know, watching the linked video – and so mostly relies on depiction in the media. In-verse punishments for rape in addition to the narrative making it clear that it was wrong can only be beneficial.


1) In ancient Greece, it’s said they used to have a group of people loudly singing in front of the bedroom door on the wedding night, to drown out the bride’s screams. They didn’t mean screams of pleasure either. The patriarchal cultures are often very aware of their monstrosity on some level.

2) Unless you think human extinction is fine, but for the sake of an argument, let’s assume it’s something you really don’t want to happen.

3) If you really want to know about age of consent in the Middle Ages, I recommend The Medieval Maiden, by Kim M. Phillips. It can be found online.

All images courtesy of HBO.

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