May 11, 2011

Prostitution in Game of Thrones – Who’s Fucking Who?

by Aubrey Sitterson

While it’s true that prostitution is seen as a vice in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a legal and even acceptable one, with brothels spread throughout the kingdom of Westeros — from Mole’s Town near the Wall in the north, all the way down south to King’s Landing. What’s most interesting about the sex trade in Game of Thrones, however, is who it ultimately exploits and weakens.

Though there will certainly be more, we have seen one additional Game of Thrones character indulge in the services of a prostitute: the rightful king of Westeros, Viserys Targaryen. The “Last Dragon” is more openly cruel than any of the other men mentioned above — in fact, he’s one of the most despicable characters in the series — but he has one important thing in common with the rest: He is weak and powerless.

A dwarf, a drunken lush, a hostage and an exiled king. These are the men in Game of Thrones that visit the brothels of the Seven Kingdoms. In a very real way, their dependency upon prostitutes is both a weakness in-and-of-itself as well as a way of coping with some other more central failure. Tyrion is seen as a deformed freak, Robert is an addictive cuckold, Theon is a captive and Viserys is a refugee, but all four of them take solace in the purchased caresses of Westeros’ working women.

By way of contrast, Jon Snow, in conversation with Samwell Tarly, explains why he remains a virgin, even though he was once about to enjoy the services of the same Roz frequented by Theon Greyjoy. Snow is a bastard, born out of wedlock to Ned Stark and a mother he has never known. As a result, there has been no place for him in Winterfell, where he suffered under the constant scorn of Ned’s wife Catelyn, who saw his mere existence as both a threat and an insult.

Snow knows that if he were to impregnate a prostitute, the resulting child would be a bastard, just like him, and even worse, a second-generation bastard, even further removed from a legitimate noble birth. He refuses to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes because of the failing his father once had, and the pain and suffering that came about as a result. While Tyrion, Robert, Theon and Viserys are shown to be weak, even craven characters, Snow’s defining characteristic is his honor, the thing that compels him to stay celibate as well as respect his commitment and promise to the Night’s Watch.

What first looks like a negative, even disdainful portrayal of women in Game of Thrones is more an examination of the weaknesses and failures of men. Importantly, the series always casts these downfalls as the men’s fault: There’s no Eve giving Adam the apple here, and nowhere have we seen blame for fornication or adultery placed at anyone’s feet but the man walking into a brothel.

In Game of Thrones sex outside the proper societal boundaries is often seen as a sin for the man indulging in it, which might lead some to see the work as essentially sex-negative. However, doing so grafts 21st century situational morality upon a very different world. Without effective, reliable birth control, prostitutes run a constant, very real risk of having an illegitimate child. Such an occurrence would render the prostitute unable to work while costing her money in the process, and perhaps most devastatingly, it would result in the birth of a child that would have no choice but to become a perpetual outsider.

While not the most sex-positive piece of fiction, Game of Thrones does a tremendous job of engaging both the ramifications and implications of sex outside of marriage in its fictional world. What is most bracing, however, is the impressively progressive ground the work stakes out by holding the men of the series accountable for their sex acts as opposed to casting the female characters as seductresses.

Do you have something from the show that you’d like to see discussed? Then let us know in the comments below. Then, make sure to check back in the coming weeks as we continue to look at sex and gender in Game of Thrones, airing Sunday nights at 9pm on HBO.