Sex, Violence, and Game of Thrones: Why Do We Draw the Line at Rape?

Two Sundays ago, Game of Thrones aired an episode titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” In contrast to its title, however, it concluded with a scene that, even by HBO’s standards, pushed the limits of decency. The episode ended with the newly wed Sansa Stark being raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, while his tortured lackey Theon Greyjoy was forced to watch.

Unsurprisingly, the scene drew a firestorm of criticism from commenters across the political spectrums. Their reasoning varied: Some took issue with the fact that the rape diverges from the book’s plotline, but most seemed to think that it was simply gratuitous. As Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair wrote, “Edgy plots should always accomplish something above pure titillation or shock value, and what, exactly, was accomplished here?”

I’m inclined to agree. When it comes down to it, the scene did not feel like a carefully considered moment of character or plot development but rather the exploitation of a horrific act for the sake of views and ratings. It was less like a skillful treatment of rape and more like its pornification—the goal being an adrenaline rush of excitement about this ever-so-unpredictable show.

That said, I found it curious that the reaction to this particular scene was so strong, so pointed, and so angry, while many of the same Game of Thrones’ viewers are so passively accepting, even approving, of the other gratuitously sexual and violent parts of the show.

After all, what objection can be levied against the scene in question that cannot also be levied against any number of other moments in any number of other episodes? That rape is morally reprehensible? By that logic, the entire Game of Thrones series should have never been filmed. That the scene was unnecessary? But what of the countless other unwarranted sexually explicit moments in the show? Game of Thrones constantly uses sex and nudity to arouse and enthrall its viewers. Why are some incidents of sex and violence acceptable but this particular act of violent sex is not?



I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.