Why Does Game of Thrones Feature So Much Sexual Violence?

To some extent, the HBO show is adapting the themes of the novels, but it’s also deliberately added instances of rape and torture on a number of occasions.

Helen Sloan / HBO

It’s a question that’s been asked of Game of Thrones as long as the HBO series has been on the air: Why so much sex and violence?

The question has been raised in different ways at different times. Early on, it principally focused on nudity and “sexposition”—the habit of featuring naked bodies (usually those of prostitutes) onscreen while a principal character enunciated some otherwise tedious plot details. (This was the era that spawned this famous SNL skit.)

More recently, and particularly over the course of the just-concluded fifth season (our Atlantic roundtable on the finale is here), the question has evolved into a more pointed one: Why does the show feature so much sexual violence—most, though not all, directed at women and even young girls?

Obviously part of the answer is that there’s a lot of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of George R. R. Martin novels on which Game of Thrones is based. Martin has said himself that that though his books are fantasy fiction, one of his intentions has been to convey an accurately medieval sense of how the powerful prey upon the powerless, including men preying on women.

It’s worth noting that in condensing Martin’s work for the screen, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have on occasion pared down or cut altogether instances of sexual abuse. Moreover, the books are much longer than the show and many of the horrors that take place in them—sexual and otherwise—are essential to the narrative. So when condensing their source material, Benioff and Weiss have had little choice but to increase the overall ratio of horror: Two gruesome events separated by hundreds of book pages detailing wedding feasts and noble sigils might, through the simple act of compression, find themselves onscreen in consecutive episodes—or even the same one. Finally, video is simply a “hotter,” more immediate medium than the printed word. Witnessing atrocities is inevitably a different experience from having them described on the page. (Former roundtabler Ross Douthat wrote about this a few weeks ago.)

All caveats aside, however, it’s also true that Benioff and Weiss have gone out of their way, time and time again, to ramp up the sexual violence well beyond their source material. New characters have been invented in order to become victims (or victimizers), and existing ones have had their sexual cruelty amplified. The following is a list of relevant examples—one that is in all likelihood not comprehensive. Readers are welcome to note other examples (and, of course, counterexamples) in comments.

Ros. A prostitute working for Littlefinger (who would later become his business partner), Ros was a character invented for the show and, for a while, a principal participant in the show’s sexpository moments. But in season three, after she crossed Littlefinger, he gave her to the sadistic boy-King Joffrey, who tied her up and shot her naked body full of crossbow bolts—including two in her groin and one between her breasts. (Whether that was the full extent of his defilements was left to the imagination.) Did this scene convey that Littlefinger was not a man to be crossed? Yes, it did. But it’s not difficult to imagine many less sexualized ways in which this might have been accomplished.

Joffrey. The Joffrey Baratheon of the books was, like that of the show, a petulant, murderous little monster. But on at least two occasions, the show went far out of its way to explicitly sexualize his malice. The first was a scene, not in the books, in season two, in which rather than sleep with the prostitutes Littlefinger had sent for his amusement, he had one (Ros) violently abuse the other with his royal scepter. Was the scene necessary to establish Joffrey’s sadism? Well, no, given that in the same episode we had already watched him have Sansa Stark stripped and beaten by his Kingsguard. The second example of the show going to extraordinary lengths to tell us something we already knew about Joffrey was, of course, the aforementioned torture-murder of Ros.

Talisa. In the books, noble, doomed Robb Stark betrayed his vow to marry a daughter of Walder Frey’s by sleeping with a tertiary character named Jeyne Westerling, a young noblewoman who’d tended his wounds. On the show, Jeyne was replaced by Talisa Maegyr, a vastly more prominent character. A smart, capable battlefield nurse and Volantene beauty, Talisa gradually won Robb’s heart, married him, and conceived his child. There are some interesting things that Benioff and Weiss might have done with this role (ahem, Lannister honeypot); instead they just turned her into more grisly fodder for the Red Wedding, the camera focusing very particularly on the repeated stabbing of her pregnant belly. To what end? Because otherwise the massacre of Robb, his mother, and his entire army would not have been an unhappy enough development? Like Ros, Talisa seems to have been created in large part to be brutally murdered in a manner particular to her anatomy.

Ramsay Snow/Bolton. Among the more substantial alterations between page and screen has been the ascendance of the Bastard of Bolton as a central figure on the show. Though he played an important narrative role in the second of Martin’s novels—it was he who tempted Theon Greyjoy to child-murder—he was left out of the second season of the show. In the third book, by contrast, he was a distant, off-screen character about whom awful things were heard, and from whom care packages containing pieces of Theon were occasionally received. It was at this point, however, that Benioff and Weiss decided Ramsay merited ample screen time, dramatizing at interminable length his torture and eventual castration of Theon. Especially notable was a scene in which two naked beauties (one of them Myranda—see below) arrived to sexually arouse Theon in preparation for his gelding. Since then, the show has taken every conceivable opportunity to remind viewers that Ramsay is a violent sexual sadist. To pick two examples of many, there was the murder (with Myranda) of former bedwarmer Tansy, who was hunted through the woods, shot with an arrow, and then eaten alive by Ramsay’s dogs in season four; and the rape of Sansa at Winterfell this last season. (More on the latter in a moment.)

Myranda. Seen only briefly in seasons three and four, Myranda became a regular, if minor, character in season five. She did not exist in the books (though she had some attributes in common with the “Bastard’s Boys” who occasionally participated in Ramsay’s abuses). Myranda’s role is essentially limited to a) having rough sex with Ramsay; b) assisting Ramsay in his violent depredations; c) being threatened by Ramsay when she suggested that she, like he, might marry; and d) making graphic promises of sexual torture and mutilation toward Sansa, the latter of which got her pushed off the Winterfell ramparts to her death. In short, her sole purpose was to make Ramsay even worse, principally as an eager accomplice but also as a potential future victim.

The mutineers at Craster’s Keep. Another example of Benioff and Weiss taking something implicit in the books and making it all-too-thoroughly explicit. The mutiny itself proceeded along similar lines to Martin’s source material (in which it was also clear that the mutineers went on to rape Craster’s wives). But the capture of Bran, Jojen, and Meera, and the commando raid by Jon Snow were storylines added by Benioff and Weiss. And, of course, they offered the opportunity to invent yet another sexual psychopath—Karl, based on a miniscule character in the book—and to dramatize onscreen the rape of one of Craster’s wives and the near-rape of Meera.

Cersei and Jaime in the Sept of Baelor. This example of Benioff and Weiss tweaking Martin’s material in order to make it more sexually violent differs from the others in that by all accounts it was essentially a mistake. In the book, Cersei kissed Jaime lightly, he returned the kiss lustily, she briefly pushed back at him out of fear they might be discovered, and then she quickly succumbed to lust herself, begging him to complete the act. It was a horrible scene—two twins having sex over the corpse of their dead son—but the sex itself was consensual. In their customary way, when adapting the scene for television (for last year’s “Breaker of Chains” episode), Benioff and Weiss seem to have decided to make the scene 20 percent more awful, with Cersei resisting more aggressively and never giving any meaningful form of consent. But that 20 percent changed everything: Suddenly, Jaime—by that point one of the most sympathetic characters on the show—was a rapist. Subsequent comments by the director and performers made pretty clear that this was not the intent of the scene. But one can easily make the case that this makes it even worse. If, as artists, you want to truck in images of sexual violence, you ought to be very aware of exactly what it is you’re doing. An “accidental” rape scene is arguably a worse indictment than a deliberate one.

Sansa. In the books, to secure the Bolton hold on the North, Ramsay married a minor character named Jeyne Poole, who was impersonating Arya Stark. To no one’s surprise, he abused her horribly (though, as with Theon, principally “offscreen”). To streamline the plot and increase the emotional stakes, Benioff and Weiss chose to replace Jeyne with Sansa—which was, overall, an excellent idea. But any viewer of the show was acutely aware of the danger to Sansa without needing to watch Ramsay’s wedding-night rape. Indeed, it didn’t need to happen at all: a creepy, earlier scene in which Ramsay forced Theon to apologize over dinner was more than successful in establishing the stakes. The rape and subsequent descriptions of abuse were not only unnecessary but redundant twice over. We were already well aware that Ramsay was a sexual sadist, and we’d already watched Sansa get abused by another one during her engagement to Joffrey.

Ser Meryn Trant. Ser Meryn was a bad guy. We knew this. He killed Arya’s fencing master, Syrio Forel, and beat Sansa on more than one occasion at Joffrey’s command. But Benioff and Weiss felt they had to make him a badder guy. And the inevitable way they accomplished this was to invent a wildly unnecessary storyline revealing him to also be a man who beats and rapes underage girls. The subsequent “Ramsay Lite” torture that Arya meted out upon him only compounded the ugliness.

(Note: The sacrifice of Shireen and Cersei’s walk of atonement may both have been horrible moments, but for a variety of reasons neither belongs on this particular list.)

Are Benioff and Weiss cynically ramping up the sexual violence because they think it’s good for ratings? Are they just blasé and careless when it comes to the subject? Or do they feel that by rendering Martin’s material even more extreme they are somehow increasing its moral heft? Regular readers will know that I tend to believe that it is some combination of the first two explanations. But whatever the case, it’s a pattern so ingrained that it seems unlikely to change. Given this history, viewers should brace themselves for the worst in season six.