Sexual Coercion and Political Order in A Song of Ice and Fire
[Mild setting spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire follow]
I recently read Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent essay “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire,” which examines the portrayal of sexual violence in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series. Sexual violence and harassment in A Song of Ice and Fire is a topic I’ve written on before, and I agree with Rosenberg’s thesis that sexual violence is the series’ ultimate marker of social transgressors.
Expanding on Rosenberg’s argument, I see the series’ prominent depiction of celibate organizations as another aspect of its attempt to illustrate the linkage between authoritarian politics and sexual coercion. Celibate orders are common in Martin’s Westeros: the elite Kingsguard, scholarly Maesters, and military Night’s Watch are all organizations that formally require their members to be celibate. Of course, these vows are often broken, but nominal celibacy is a prominent feature of all these institutions’ character.
These celibacy requirements are often coercive. Most obviously, the vast majority of the Night’s Watch — whose members vow to “take no wife” and “father no children” — are forced into its ranks. While the Night’s Watch’s celibacy requirement is not explicitly a punitive feature of the Westerosi justice system that sends criminals to the Wall, it certainly has a major effect on the lives of individual Black Brothers. Similarly, while Westeros’ Maesters — an order of scholars, postmen, and scientists who, like the members of the Night’s Watch, are required to be celibate — are not openly coerced into the order, it is likely that many of the inheritance-less second sons who become Maesters would not choose to do so if they had other options. While not as explicitly as those of the Night’s Watch, Maesters’ celibacy vows are to some extent coercive. Finally, as in our world, many of Westeros’ religious officials are also required to remain celibate.
These organizations are all intended to remain apolitical, and require celibacy as a means of removing their members from Westeros’ political order. The Kingsguard is dedicated to protecting the king, a singular role that permits no other personal loyalties. Members of the Night’s Watch are tasked with defending the entire realm, and are famously required to take no side in Westeros’ political conflicts. Maesters serve as trusted advisors to feudal government figures, a role they could not credibly commit to unless they again have no personal stake in politics. Finally, Septons and Septas are intended to serve Westeros’ people, not any temporal political goals.
In a world where social status and political power is explicitly inherited, marriage and reproduction is inherently political. The only way to remove an individual actor from politics is to remove him or her from reproduction and inheritance, as well. This makes celibacy a fundamental requirement of any organization intended to be a neutral actor in Westeros political structure. Of course, these organizations have little power to actually enforce their formal celibacy requirements — A Song of Ice and Fire is full of Night’s Watch and Kingsguard members who break their vow to refrain from sex. But importantly, Westeros’ practical lack of birth control allows even often-broken celibacy requirements fulfill their political purpose (the series’ “Moon Tea” is a form of birth control, but it is implied to often be unavailable or unreliable, and nevertheless children born out of wedlock are extremely common). Societies without birth control are likely to draw a clear distinction between children born in wedlock — and who can thus inherit political power — and those who are not. This distinction is much less clear in societies with routine access to birth control, like our own. Whether or not Maesters and Night’s Watchmen father children or not, their vows of celibacy prevent these illegitimate offspring from inheriting, and thus keep them and their fathers safely excluded from Westeros’ political order.
While this often coerced celibacy is nowhere near as traumatic, or pervasive, as Westeros’ other forms of sexual violence, it is another aspect of the series’ thematic critique of sexual coercion. Just as Westeros’ endemic misogyny make rape common, its hereditary politics makes sexual coercion a fundamentally political, and thus routine, precondition of social order. Of course, the injustice of all forms of sexual coercion is simply another aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire’s condemnation of the illiberal political structure so many other fantasies celebrate.