If there was ever a primer for depicting first-time sex in speculative fiction in the era of #MeToo, it was broadcast on HBO on Sunday night in a show about dragons and the undead best known for its rape scenes.
In the second episode of season eight of “Game of Thrones,” we are reminded that young Arya Stark isn’t just a killer of all those who have harmed her family. She’s also a young woman with a crush — on her friend Gendry — who has a chance to act on it before what she assumes will be her death.
The show has been foreshadowing that relationship since an infamous scene in episode five of season two, when a then-underage Arya stole peeks at Gendry’s bare chest. While fans may feel like they have seen Maisie Williams (who plays Arya) grow up from a young girl of 14 when she first appeared on the show, the actor is now 22 (her character is believed to be 18.)
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It’s true that this scene veered heavily away from the standard depictions of teen sexuality: After all, media tropes about the first time young women have sex tend to feature the idea that they are consenting to the approach of a serious boyfriend, that they are being victimized by someone older. (That tracks with some of the available data: In surveys from 2006-10, 73 percent of adolescent women report that their first intercourse was with someone with whom they were romantically involved, and only 41 percent — a record high — reported that their first sexual experience was “wanted.”)
Another common media trope is that women are somehow set up to be punished for choosing to have sex. In horror movies, the girl that’s shown having sex is probably going to end up dead. And even in ostensibly feminist shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the lead’s first sexual experience is largely a reaction to trauma, and it turns her love back to evil.
In “Game of Thrones” and other media in the epic fantasy genre, first-time sex is more likely be depicted as a sexual assault, or the young women will have no agency in choosing her partner (as in a forced marriage). That isn’t totally fantasy, though: Some 18 percent of young women report being sexually assaulted before 18 by another juvenile.
So, for a show that has relied so heavily on sexual violence against women, the scene with Arya and Gendry is refreshing because Arya is assertive and communicative. She asks about his history and explains her reasons for wanting to have sex. Being able to choose when you have sex, with whom you have sex and having a conversation about previous partners isn’t something that is often modeled for young women. Was it the most romantic sex scene ever? Maybe — or maybe not. That’s a question of perspective, but it was arguably one of the healthiest depictions of consent on the show and off it.
Fan reactions have been mixed; some are absolutely on board because they’ve been waiting for this payoff for the last several years. Others have responded with disgust because they see Arya (and, by proxy, Maisie Williams) as eternal children and seeing a young (and young looking) woman having sex, let alone sex on her own terms and as a result of desire, feels jarring. They compare her to their own siblings or children without seeming to recognize that her experience in this moment is one that would be good for their loved ones, too.
But, the average age of the onset of sexual activity in America for young women is 17; Arya was arguably doing exactly what many of the same people complaining about the plot line were doing at the age of 18. And, it’s worth noting that media imagery of what teens “look like” — because they’re so often portrayed on television and in the movies by actors up to 10 or more years older than the characters — makes it easy to forget that teens who don’t look like 25-year-old adults not only exist but are sexually active. It’s far less jarring to viewers to see people in their 20s (or approaching their 30s) “having sex” even if their characters are ostensibly teens.
And, the wild popularity of “Game of Thrones” stems in part from the fact that the most ardent TV viewers are in the 18-to-34 age range — which means that many viewers are now Arya’s age or were when the show started nearly eight years ago. They have grown up with her, and they, too, are now in the position to make real world decisions about sex.
Given that nearly half of teens are engaging in sexual activity, it’s important that they see characters who look like them making these choices for themselves. For the young viewers who have grown up alongside Arya, seeing sexual agency modeled in a show where so few women have it is incredibly important.
It's good for teens to see that there's no shame in desire, in wanting to connect or in pursuing someone you are interested in as long as they welcome that pursuit. No matter how uncomfortable it might make some people to think about, the reality is that not only are teens having sex, they are learning how to approach it from the media. And if no one is willing to show them what to do in a healthy way, then they have to create their own approaches.
If teens don’t understand consent, then how can they practice it? We may not like seeing it taught on a TV show, but given the statistics on teen sexual violence and the number of men and women who still say their first sexual experiences were unwanted, we clearly aren’t doing enough to teach it anywhere else.