The Psychology of Sex in ‘Game of Thrones’: A Millennial Fascination
Think of George R.R. Martin as you will — as an influential writer, or a misogynist, or the world’s greatest Fantastic Four fan, or a failure to launch sea captain — but know this: the man is a genius.
Not necessarily in the traditional sense, but in his ability to pair his product (i.e., “A Song of Fire and Ice”, Game of Thrones) with the two most primal advertising tools available: sex and violence. I may be using the word “genius” loosely here, and some of the credit should go to David Benieoff and D. B. Weiss, but you can’t ignore GOT’s extraordinary association with sex and violence in a manner that somehow avoids the stigma of being *overly offensive* (i.e., doesn’t markedly interfere with its perceived quality or viewership). According to a rigorous scientific study that I ran yesterday through my social media accounts (n=20), GOT was (by far) the most common TV show (out of any possible show!) paired with sexually- and violently-loaded words.
The following percent of participants first thought of GOT when given these prompts:
- Penis (55%)
- Gore (50%)
- Sex (55%)
- Weird Sex (75%)
- Breasts (55%)
- Rape (60%)
- Exciting (25%)
- Vagina (60%)
- Blood (10%)
- Offensive (5%)
Other common entries included True Blood, South Park, Elfen Lied, Orange is the New Black, Westworld, Blood, Spartacus, Hannibal, Outlander, Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks, Shameless, The Wire, Simpsons, Hung, Shameless, Nip Tuck, Justified, Tosh.0.
(As a note, one outlier was removed, where the participant answered “Full House” for each item except for “Weird Sex,” for which they wrote “Fuller House.”)
Personally, I have bidirectional associations, too. For example, I’ll hear “Game of Thrones” and immediately think “Penis.” This may be because of this:
But anecdotes aside, there’s something I find especially noteworthy: 61% of people associated GOT with the sexually-loaded terms (75% with “Weird Sex”), while only 5% associated it with the word “Offensive” (50% thought of South Park).
Here’s one way to interpret this: outside of current sociopolitical contexts, sexual depictions once thought to be repulsive are now tolerable (at least), including paraphilias (i.e., “Weird Sex”). Game of Thrones, both the book and the show, explicitly depict a variety of paraphilias, and although historically these have been considered “sexually deviant” and actively avoided, they are now perceived as fascinating, and are approached with curiosity.
This shift in thinking is common in millennials (ages 22-40), who are typically more driven by a pursuit of knowledge and understanding instead of visceral response and judgment. That being said, as it turns out, more than 85% of GOT viewers are millennials, who I believe may want to know more.
To begin, let’s consider what paraphilias are and how psychologists define them.
In Greek, the word para means “beside” or “outside of”, while philia means “love”. So, quite literally, paraphilia means “outside of love”.
It is often used synonymously with sexual deviance or perversion, which would be incorrect. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V) (i.e., which provides the diagnostic criterion), paraphilias are defined as “intense and persistent sexual interests outside of foreplay and genital stimulation with phenotypically normal, consenting adults.”
This definition is intentionally vague and avoids words like “disorder” or “dysfunction”, because the truth about human sexuality is that there’s a lot healthy diversity in the bedroom/sex-dungeon. It’s not as simple as “good or bad”, or “normal or deviant”. Instead, it should be viewed as a spectrum of sexual expression. For instance, one couple may prefer light spanking; while another might prefer biting and handcuffs; while yet another might prefer full-on (healthy and consensual) mask-and-whip sadomasochism. None of these are inherently a problem. However, paraphilias can become “paraphilic disorders” with both “the presence of a paraphilic urge and the existence of distress, dysfunction, and/or acting on the urges”.
For instance, Trey may have a shoe fetish, whereby his sexual arousal is heightened by the presence of “sexy” footwear during sex. He is not ashamed of it, and it doesn’t bother his boyfriend to occasionally wear cowboy boots to bed. While this may be a paraphilia, it’s not a paraphilic disorder. Craig, on the other hand, relies entirely on footwear to be aroused. He’s embarrassed, and his girlfriend is tired of wearing high heels during sex. She says it makes her feel unattractive — like she’s “not enough” — and things need to change or she’s leaving. Despite this, he depends on the footwear, and is distressed. Craigs fetish has become a paraphilic disorder.
There are many different types of paraphilias, but the most common include pedophilia (sexual focus on children), exhibitionism (exposure of genitals to strangers), voyeurism (observing private activities of unaware victims), frotteurism (touching, rubbing against a nonconsenting person), fetishism (use of inanimate objects), sexual masochism (being humiliated or forced to suffer), sexual sadism (inflicting humiliation or suffering) and transvestic disorder (sexually arousing cross-dressing). Because these are normal in GOT, I will not review their occurrences in the article.
However, there are four Other Specified Paraphilic Disorders within GOT that readers/viewers have found to be most shocking. They are (1) incest (kind of), (2) zoophilia, (3) biastophilia, and (4) erotophonophilia.
Top 4 Strangest Paraphilias in Game of Thrones
Incest (sexual relations with a biological family member)
- You knew we’d start here. Since the beginning of Martin’s story, Jamie and Cersei Lannister (siblings) have been repeatedly knocking boots (and kids out of windows). In the story, their twincest is considered taboo. It is well-known in Westeros, but formally kept in secret. It’s a wink-wink situation. There have been other cases of sibling incest incest within the GOT universe, too, such as those within the Targaryen house. These are also found to be taboo, and both have lead to some genetically disadvantaged kiddos (think Joffrey). However, sexual relations between cousins is common (e.g., Tywin and Joanna Lannister), and in some cases, even preferred (Targaryens, Valyrians)!
Here’s the reality:
In much of our western world, incest is almost exclusively thought of as a parent sexually abusing their child, which is the most common type in the US. This is primarily considered Pedaphilia (incest specific), largely occurs to females, and is outlawed in every country to some degree. It is globally considered deviant. Prevalence rates are hard to obtain, but suggest that .5-20% of people in the US experience some form of incest. There are other types, though, such as those found in GOT that may not qualify as paraphilic disorders.
Sibling incest remains taboo, but is practiced in some countries despite the biological cost to offspring. It may be considered acceptable, but frowned upon. Cousin incest, on the other hand, is considered to be normal in many countries (especially Muslim countries). For instance, it’s estimated that roughly 40% of marriages in Egypt are between cousins, which is not considered taboo — consanguineous marriages are commonplace!
Most of us are biologically programmed to avoid incest (e.g., sisters are especially disgusted by brothers’ pheromones within sweat), and find it odd. However, from a worldview, perceptions of incest range between deplorable to culturally normal. What say you, Tyrion?
“Whoa! Hold your horses!”, you may say, whereby you may hear, “with pleasure!” Zoophilia is the erotic fixation with animals (imaginary or acted upon), and acts of beastiality do appear in GOT. Beyond threats and heresay of horses being forced upon women by the Dothrakis/Targaryens, there is this horrifying little number between a victimized girl and the wicked, weasley man you love to hate:
A tear ran down her cheek. “Tell him, you tell him, I’ll do what he wants … or whatever he wants … with him … or…or with the dog or…please… he doesn’t need to cut my feet off,” Jeyne Pool to Ramsay Bolton.
Yikes. Note that in these moments, although the women are engaging in beastiality, they are not zoophiliacs. They are not sexually interested in the animals — they are non-consenting victims. However, the men taking pleasure from it may be.
Here’s the reality:
Although world prevalence rates are hard to determine, it’s estimated that roughly 5% of men and 2% of women report having had intimate relations with an animal at some point in their life. These rates certainly vary state-to-state, country-to-country, as do the laws that may or may not exist against it. It can be dangerous, unhygienic, usually involve dogs, and has been correlated with mental illness.
If you want to join the zoosexual community, you may find some leads here.
Biastophilia is a form of sexual deviance where one finds pleasure in the non-consensual aspect of forced sex. Not every rapist is a biastophiliac, and not every biastophiliac must rape to become aroused, but they do have a heightened sexual response from it. Biastophilia occurs frequently in game of thrones. Ramsay Bolton is a sadist — he finds sexual pleasure in harming and/or humiliating others — and finds additional pleasure from raping his victims (over a dozen!). Many of the Dothrokis, Sir Gregor Clegane, and Lannister soldiers have engaged in wartime rape — raping the woman of a successfully defeated village — in a way that both the show and book suggest to me meet criterion. Many other characters may also meet biastophilia criterion.
Here’s the reality:
Wartime rape continues to be a reality of war, and no soldier is immune to it. Instances such as those carried out by Americans in My Lai repeatedly remind us that even “good people” are capable of horrifying acts. Others, though, may enjoy it and rape habitually. This is why serial rapists, wartime or otherwise, often meet criterion for paraphilic rape. Prevalence rates for biastophilia are difficult to specify, but may be as high as 3% of men. Some identified causes include (not exhaustive) psychopathology, childhood traumatic brain injury, hormonal dysregulation during critical developmental periods, and environmental factors.
4) Erotophonophila (derive sexual pleasure from murder)
One of the most horrifying of all paraphilias is erotophonophilia, which refers to deriving sexual pleasure from murder (or the thought of murder). There are some examples of this in GOT. In the show, Joffrey Lannister (a sadist) makes a prostitute named Ros hit another prostitute, Daisy, with her hand, then a whip, then a club. This escalates to a point where he murders a naked Ros by shooting her multiple times with a crossbow, apparently finding sexual pleasure in it (though the writers do say this was not their intent). Ser Gregor Clegane (the mountain) is known to have raped and (whilst raping) murdered his victims, and Aerys II Targaryen would become so aroused after burning men alive that he’d immediately rape (violently) his wife, Queen Rhaella.
Here’s the reality:
Erotophonophilia, sometimes referred to as “lust murder”, is fairly uncommon, and almost exclusively occurs in men. Famous cases of erotophonophilia include Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacey, who all derived sexual excitement from the mortal torture of their victims. The development of erotophonophilia often begins with sexual sadism and gradually evolves, much like the example with Joffrey (i.e., spanking→ whip → club → murder). These killers derive some sexual pleasure from causing pain to the victim, but it’s not enough — they need to cause more pain, more damage — because the fact is their violent fantasies are insatiable.
They become increasingly violent to the point of murder, and in some cases, continue on into necrophilia (i.e., sex with a corpse) and cannibalism. Regarding their profile, research has found that these individuals are usually white males (75%), married (50%), and have a history of homosexual experiences (43%) and cross-dressing (20%). Some were also children of divorce and infidelity (50%), suffered physical or sexual abuse (23%, 20%), and abused drugs other than alcohol (50%). It’s also noted that their attacks are almost always planned (93%) and involve an unknown victim that meets their “ideal victim type” (83%).
George R.R. Martin’s story, in both book and movie form, is riddled with explicit sex and paraphilias. And so is the real world. Sometimes paraphilias exist as healthy (albeit odd) forms of sexual expression, while other times they may cause harm and dysfunction. It’s important to understand the nature and function of both. GOT viewers, it seems, have a healthy curiosity in this regard. I believe this should be encouraged — not for the sake of primal gawking, but to try and better comprehend the ONE thing that allows our species to persist. Sex.