OK So the Sexual Violence in Game of Thrones has Gone Too Far

 First published by The Debrief, 19th May 2015

I’m going to start this piece with a disclaimer: if you haven’t seen the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, then there are spoilers ahead. And I LOVE Game of Thrones. I wear my GoT t-shirt to bed, and I watch the show religiously every week.  I love the nuanced characters, figures that you can’t completely love or hate. I love the brave, expansive storylines. I love the opulent costumes and the show’s compulsive watchability.

I don’t love how the show presents sexual violence.

After Sansa Stark’s rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in last night’s episode, I’m even more convinced that Game of Thrones isn’t on the side of women than I was already, and that it will continue to use sexual violence as a plot device to generate cheap thrills for its audience. Sansa has already suffered a humiliating, abusive engagement and marriage to everyone’s favourite little king, Joffrey. Do we really need to see her degraded by Ramsay Bolton too?

The TV show has once again deviated from the books, in which Sansa did not marry Ramsay, instead remaining with Littlefinger to hone her powers and learn more about the manipulation necessary to survive the brutal world in which the show is set. Ramsay took a local girl pretending to be Arya Stark as his wife, and proceeded to torture and abuse her. Replacing this local girl with Sansa is not just a way to bunch together overly-complex storyline – it has created another harrowing scene of unnecessary sexual violence, and stripped Sansa of the new-found power she was able to build with Littlefinger during her time in the Vale.

As a survivor of sexual violence, I find Game of Thrones very difficult to watch, at times. This is not because sexual violence occurs in the programme, but has more to do with how rape and sexual assault are presented; I don’t think rape should never be shown on TV or film or in fiction, but I wish that rape was not trivialised by the writers in a bid to make their show more ‘shocking’ and boost ratings.

If we look back at previous episodes, it is clear that sexual violence is employed in Game of Thrones as no more cheap titillation, with the devastating consequences neatly glossed over in favour of another battle or a raunchy sex scene. The effect that rape has on survivors is never shown.

In Season 4, Cersei is raped purely for entertainment, by her lover and brother Jamie Lanister. Cersei and Jamie have sex in that particular scene in the book, but it’s consensual sex. The rape of Cersei was added by HBO for no other reason than to pack more ‘punch’ into the episode. The effect of the assault on Cersei is not explored, and why would it be? That’s not the interesting part, right?

When Prince Oberyn Martell and his mistress are choosing sex workers in a brothel, one of the selected women clearly isn’t excited about the prospect of a threesome. Oberyn pulls off her tunic anyway, baring a naked body, shaking with terror. The woman isn’t forced into sex, as Oberyn’s mistress remarks that ‘timid bores her’, but who was the full-frontal shot of the frightened woman for? We can only assume that it was for viewers, who are meant to enjoy the nudity and the scene, flavoured with the threat of sexual violence.

There’s the moment when Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane enter a tavern to see the proprieter’s daughter assaulted, and no one does anything to help her. She’s never seen again. Her pain and humiliation are just a quick way of showing the audience that the king’s soldiers are dangerous. Don’t forget Joffrey’s sexualized killing of Ros and the two prostitutes that he forces to torture one another, the rape of Craster’s daughters at the hands of mutinous Night Watchmen, or the rape of Danerys by her husband Khal Drogo.

The fact that many of these scenes of sexual violence (Cersei, Sansa, and Ros) were manufactured solely for the television show, really does suggest that they are being used cynically to make the programme more ‘gritty’ and ‘adult’. Unfortunately, this means that Game of Thrones is guilty of trivializing rape, in a world that already trivializes rape to a disgraceful extent. As uncomfortable as it might feel to address this, we live in a rape culture, where victims are routinely not believed, shamed by others, blamed for their own assault, subjected to ‘edgy’ jokes about rape, and told that some rapes are more valid or serious than others. There are thousands of women who have experienced sexual assault sitting and watching Game of Thrones, and it does them the disservice of reducing their nightmare into cheap television. The gratuitous nature of sexual violence on the show makes it commonplace, expected. It encourages people to debate at work in the morning whether one rape ‘really was rape’ or whether it was ‘as bad as’ another rape on the show.

In April last year, Danielle Henderson wrote in an article for The Guardian that she was giving up Game of Thrones because she was “exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device”. I feel her frustration. Sansa had already been through terrible trauma with Joffrey, the continuation of this trauma in Winterfell with Ramsay serves only to paint him as a more terrible character. Sansa’s violated body is just a vehicle for this.

Moreover, anyone crying ‘historical accuracy’ needs to take a long look at themselves and the show. Game of Thrones is in no way historically accurate. It’s fantasy. It has dragons, white walkers, children who can possess men and animals, magical green ‘wildfire’, and ghosts that kill people. If it was historically accurate, most of the characters would have already died from gout or dysentery.

Reek may have been forced to watch Sansa’s rape last night, but none of us tuning in for the latest episode were under pressure to do so. We watched because we wanted to, and it’s more than a little disturbing that the show’s writers seem to be offering up scenes that trivialize sexual violence because they think that’s what viewers want to see.

Things You Only Know If You Have Borderline Personality Disorder

First published by The Debrief, 11th April 2015

I’m lying in a hospital bed and I have little memory of how I got there. I sit up and suddenly realise that I have my second year university exams in a matter of weeks. The panic hits me. I have to revise. I have to do well. What am I doing here? I remember a blur of booze and pills and tears. I reach for the tube in my wrist and I start pulling it out. I’m pulling and pulling and there seems to be yards of tubing inside me. I finally get it all out and the hospital bed is soaked in blood. I get dressed, blood staining the arm of my coat. I run out of the hospital, get on the bus and go back to my flat to revise.

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental illness that manifests itself in a range of distressing symptoms and abnormal behaviours. It’s been recently recognised as a disorder of mood that affects how the sufferer is able to relate to other people – if you have BPD, you’ll experience extreme emotions and may go through periods where you totally lose touch with reality. Between 60% and 70% of BPD sufferers will attempt suicide at some point during their lives – which is a terrifying thought for me.

Your emotions get really crazy

When I’m explaining BPD to people for the first time, I usually describe it as having overwhelming emotions that are very difficult to deal with. My emotional state can change very quickly, pushing me from euphoric happiness to crushing despair within the space of a few hours. My feelings always seem completely valid to me, when they usually aren’t grounded in reality at all. After a perfectly nice evening with friends, I might still go home and burst into tears because I feel like I said all the wrong things and none of the people I was with really liked me. I have to trust my partner when he tells me that my assessment of the situation isn’t correct, and my feelings aren’t rational. My emotions can feel like huge waves breaking over me, knocking the wind out of my chest and pushing me underwater.

BPD often accompanies other mental health problems

Due to the overwhelming emotions that come as part of BPD, the illness often goes hand in hand with other mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. For me, it made slipping into the grip of a nine-year eating disorder very easy. I suffered from serious anorexia, dropping to five and a half stone, and this quickly segued into bulimia, making the mood disorder elements of BPD so much worse. It’s a lot harder to cope with life when you’re got that going on.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships

Mental illness isn’t particularly easy for other people to understand, particularly when it manifests itself in so many different ways. When I was completing my undergraduate degree and my BPD and eating disorder were at their worst, I lost most of my friends because  I was judged as attention-seeking, difficult, a drama queen, pathetic, and selfish for not ‘pulling myself together’. I now have a much smaller friendship group, and I am very careful who I tell when I’m having a bad ‘BPD day’. It’s still difficult to form strong friendships, as I’m crippled by the fear that people won’t like me and will reject me like my university friends did, if they find out that I’m unwell. I have a few close friends who know.

You take unnecessary risks 

One of the scariest parts of BPD is that I often have impulses to do certain things that I know are harmful to me, but I think they will make me feel better in the short term and make the pain of overwhelming emotions go away. I have to work very hard to keep myself in balance from day to day, so I don’t get into a place where I think that disappearing for days at a time, or walking around at four in the morning on my own, or self-harming (all things I used to do regularly to try to manage my emotions) are really good ideas. Impulsive behaviour, often fuelled by drugs or alcohol, seems like it will have no consequences at the time, but it always does and it’s very difficult for people who care about you to deal with.

Getting treatment is not easy, but there are ways you can cope

Many GPs aren’t trained to recognise the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, so it can be a struggle to get a diagnosis. Outwardly presenting symptoms like depression and related behaviours like self-harm are often focused on by doctors, leaving the underlying problem unchallenged.I got diagnosed with BPD when I was 19, during my treatment at an eating disorders outpatient clinic. The Compassion Focussed Therapy used to combat my mix of anorexia and bulimia was really helpful, as were books that taught me how to use Dialectical Behavioural Therapy to alter my thought patterns. I try to keep my environment as calm and stable as possible, because when I feel safe, I’m less likely to experience BPD symptoms. I have mood boards that remind me of all the good things in my life, things I have achieved, and reasons why I’m a worthwhile person. There are still bad days, but I have a very supportive partner and family, and two beautiful kittens, and just sitting down and  stroking them can chase away some of the worst overwhelming emotions.

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