Daenerys Targaryen was the primary victim of Westeros’s lopsided sexual politics in last week’s episode: She was nakedly appraised and traded off like an animal by her brother, Viserys, then raped by her brutish new husband, Khal Drogo. (“The Kingsroad” features another scene of Drogo callously raping Daenerys, which raises disturbing questions about just how much sexual violence she’s been subjected to since her wedding night.) It’s worth noting that all of the sex in Game of Thrones has consisted of a man taking a woman from behind while she's on her hands and knees. There's something animalistic about the ways in which the men treat women in Game of Thrones in general, and sex is the most obvious signifier.
It's important, however, to note the difference between depicting misogyny and endorsing misogyny. Game of Thrones is set in a world in which sex is the primary means by which women can assert their power. But it invites us to sympathize with women like Daenerys—not with her simpering, misogynistic brother or her stoic husband. It's by design that virtually all the women in the series can be divided into two categories: noblewomen and prostitutes. For women without money or a bloodline to protect them, sex is the greatest means of survival.
Lest I praise the honesty of the series’ sexual dynamics too much, it’s also worth noting that Game of Thrones sometimes toes the line between genuine plot advancement and Skinimax-style exploitation. Last night's bedroom scene between Daenerys and her handmaiden Doreah is a perfect example. Doreah's story, about the sexual prowess of Irogenia (quoted above) is absolutely essential to the development of Daenerys’s character. So is Doreah's ultimate advice: “Are you a slave, Khaleesi? Then don't make love like a slave.” Later that night, Daenerys insists that Drogo look at her face as they make love, and for the first time, both seem to enjoy it. It's the first sex scene in the series that could genuinely be described as romantic, and it depicts Daenerys’s increasing confidence and inner strength.
But Doreah gives Daenerys this advice as she straddles her in a softly-lit bedroom, while the camera pans lovingly over her well-toned abs. Is Doreah, as her parable might indicate, using her sexual power to win favor with Daenerys? Is she merely demonstrating what the inexperienced Daenerys needs to know to overcome Drogo's brutality? Or is this scene just unabashedly, unnecessarily titillating? In my opinion, it's shades of all three—all plot relevance aside, HBO is clearly hungry to replicate the success of erotic horror series True Blood—but in the end, it's up to each viewer to decide whether this much explicit content is necessary, or worth sticking around for.
Though Daenerys is the most violent and explicit example of Westeros’s queasy relationship between sex and power, she's not the only one. If you want to see the indirect, long-term consequence of sex in Game of Thrones, look no further than Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow. In “The Kingsroad,” we learn a little more about the circumstances that led the honorable Ned to stray from his wife, Lady Catelyn. Ned's abject refusal to joke about his affair—and his decision to raise Jon Snow, the son born of it—makes it clear that it was more than a meaningless tryst, and he clearly loves the son it bore him. As Snow rides off to join the Night's Watch, Ned assures him, “You are a Stark. You may not have my name, but you have my blood.”