This is an attempt to monologue about history, morality, and fiction while heavily discussing plots of the A Song of Ice and Fire books and Game of Thrones. Adult themes and spoilers follow.
In light of last night’s … unpleasantness, I was reading more about the sexual morality of this fictional world. I think this article from last year did a great job of talking about some of the issues I explore in this, so if you want another take on things, click there, read it, grok its fullness.
Sex is physical interaction between two or more people with sexual organs involved, with the purpose of such interaction sexual pleasure for at least one person involved in this interaction.
Consent is verbal or non-verbal conscious encouragement of sex to be initiated and/or to continue. Consent may be revoked prior to, or at any time during, sex: if consent is revoked, then non-consensual sex, IOW rape, occurs.
ASOIAF consent is … not the same thing as the above definition of consent. And that’s why the books and their television adaptation are difficult territory to talk about, because they, on purpose and not on purpose, activate our triggers.
Some of the people capable of reading this article live in a country, right now, wherein it is not a criminal activity to have non-consensual sex with one’s spouse. At least as of 2010, this is how the world’s countries fared in terms of recognizing spousal rape:
Wikipedia user Carwil created this image
In those countries coloured black in that map, marriage is viewed as granting of permanent consent, and people who find themselves sexually violated by their spouses are unable to find criminal justice for this violation. This legal situation is, to overgeneralize a bit, standard for the history of human civilization: the countries wherein it is a criminal action to rape one’s spouse made it into a criminal action within the past century or half-century. In the United States, there are states wherein it was legal for a spouse to rape another spouse less than thirty years ago. We, despite how pessimistic we might feel about human rights, very honestly live in a more fair world than we did even a half century ago.
This is a 2010 map of the age of heterosexual sexual consent in countries (and also states, in some countries) around the world:
Wikipedia user Berndlauert created this image
In the history of human civilization, none of those ages has been “standard”. For one thing, not all societies have shown the same amount of interest in counting birthdays, or even using the same method of counting birthdays. But it’s more than likely that the “standard” of human history was that boys and girls were legally capable of getting married and having sex some-to-several years younger than they are by many countries in the world today.
The entirety of the laws of Westeros and Essos have not been typed up and made apparent, but it very much seems that spousal rape is not a criminal activity. Cersei’s marriage to Robert: non-consensual sex happened. Daenerys’s marriage to Drogo: non-consensual sex happened. But we, as an audience, are supposed to be “understanding” of Robert and Drogo. We’re not supposed to view them as monsters, even though by our modern morality, they committed crimes against their spouses. In the rules and laws of their land, they did not commit crimes, and they probably did not feel bad about their actions.
This is a bridge of “understanding” that not all audiences want to cross, and that’s a completely valid thing to have complex and very strong opinions about. From the first novel of the book series and the first episode of the show onwards, non-consensual sex between married partners is shown as common place and “not bad”: if you’re not comfortable with that, then ASOIAF/GOT is not for you.
In addition, GOT has never said much about what the legal age of consent is in Westeros. From what I can tell, the youngest boy to get married on GOT is Tommen, who got married this season and is 14 (???), and the youngest girl to get married was Sansa, who married in Season 3 at the age of 15. Both of these were completely legal marriages in Westeros, which suggests that 14 and 15 year olds are able to legally marry, which is younger than the age of consent in many countries in our modern world.
Much as in the parts of our real world that haven’t criminalized marital rape, there are situations in which rape is a criminal action in the world of ASOIAF. If someone has non-consensual sex with someone they are not married to, that is viewed as criminal rape. Craster’s sexual relationships with his “wives” are viewed as criminal rape because no legal authority married them: even the former criminals of the Night’s Watch feel like Craster is an awful person because he is criminally raping his daughter-wives, and I don’t know of anyone in the audience of ASOIAF or GOT who has any sympathy for Craster (If you do please don’t let me know. Ew.) (edit: this paragraph edited for accuracy from its initial published form)
That’s why wedding nights in ASOIAF/GOT are such an area of focus for audiences who are trying to figure out whether ASOIAF/GOT are, or are not, “realistic” fictional portrayals of pre-modern gender and sex expression. Since Westerosi marriage gives permanent consent to all sexual activity between those two people, the couple’s first legal sexual activity is a moment for the relationship to show its positive or negative sides.
Catelyn Tully and Eddard Stark were wed to one another somewhat hastily and after Catelyn’s previous marriage arrangement to Brandon Stark got cancelled because Brandon had a bad case of being murdered to death by King Aerys II. Not much is said about their wedding night besides that it resulted in the conception of Robb, but from their interactions in Book/Season 1 the audience is supposed to believe that it was a positive relationship. Theirs is an arranged marriage between almost-complete-strangers which, to the audience, appears to be positive.
This contrasts with how Daenerys and Drogo are portrayed in the show and book, particularly because each gives a slightly different portrayal. There is a very major power imbalance between those two people because of their age differences (Drogo is ~32, ASOIAF Daenerys is 13 and GOT Daenerys is 16) and their circumstances in life (Drogo is a Khal of nomadic warriors, Daenerys has no real status). In ASOIAF their wedding night is one of slow negotiation, for lack of a better word, between two people who don’t share a common language, and Daenerys consents. In the real world, consent in such a situation would not hold up in many courts: if this situation happened in the real world, Daenerys is unable to legally consent and Drogo criminally raped her on their wedding night. In GOT, any form of consent does not exist, Drogo rapes Daenerys on their wedding night. In both media, Drogo commits spousal rape of Daenerys: in the books after that wedding night, and in the show during, if not also after. And yet … this is an arranged marriage between actual strangers which is also “supposed” to feel positive. This only occurs because this awful relationship between Daenerys and Drogo improves over time, and because a lot of Daenerys’s personal philosophy in following seasons (slavery, bad. rape, bad. justice, good) stems from her cruel treatment by her brother and her husband. But neither GOT nor ASOIAF do anything to show that Drogo “redeems” himself in any way: he never realizes he raped his spouse, he never repents, he never does anything to undo or rectify the damage he did. This relationship is terrible and awful and built on rape, and yet both GOT and ASOIAF never directly say any of those things. (edit: this paragraph edited for accuracy from its initial published form, and majorly added to to add some points and make some points more clear)
So in GOT Sansa is, incredibly awkwardly, now married to Ramsay. Their wedding night is criminal marital rape in many countries of our real modern world. But within the constraints of the laws and morals of Westeros, it’s not a criminal action, because spousal rape is not a criminal activity. (edit: this paragraph edited for accuracy from its initial published form)
OR IT IS. GOT has never stated that divorce occurs in Westeros, so it seems like Sansa is still married to Tyrion. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t consummate their marriage. It doesn’t matter if Tyrion is wanted for regicide and patricide. As long as he’s alive, their marriage, in the eyes of the Church of the Seven, is still legally valid.
This is one of these things that happens when a very dense book series is being adapted into film or television; the small legalistic details are often lost in translation, because there’s no time for a brief tangent about Westerosi marriage law.
So in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, besides the obvious shock value that the show was going for, I can’t tell what it’s trying to say. Would the people of Westeros think that Sansa was raped by someone illegally marrying her and then having his way with her? We in the audience are supposed to be aghast and horribly upset at Ramsay for this action… except … that four seasons ago Daenerys was raped on her wedding night and the audience was supposed to, eventually, feel some form of “understanding” for Drogo, her rapist.
That’s where the grey and grey morality of ASOIAF/GOT leads us: it leads to non-consensual sex being something that both “good” and “bad” people engage in. And I think this makes all of us feel uncomfortable, as it should, because it’s a reflection of the complex real world we live in, in which “good” and “bad” people do good and bad things, and our only real job in life is to survive in this world of potential monsters.
I still think that the Sansa-Ramsay marriage plot is awkward because GOT doesn’t always know how to balance its own creative impulses and its want to adapt ASOIAF. And if the point of the wedding night was to show that the Boltons really hate the Starks, well, that’s kind of unnecessary. If the point of the wedding night was to shock bookreaders, well, mission accomplished on that front. But the wedding night puts large pressure on the next four episodes of this season to have some form of positive response to this brutal action, or else it just seems like brutality for the sake of brutality.
Top image recycled from an io9 article from two years ago. My apologies for some errors in the first edition of this. While writing I temporarily stopped writing in my POV, which views all rape as criminal, and was writing in the POV in Westeros, which does not, and some of my wording came out poorly. Thank you to the commenters who held me to task for these errors.