The cultures in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which have been depicted in the Game of Thrones TV series, have a variety of patterns by which they conceptualize gender and sexuality. "Sexuality" is a social construct, variable across time and space. Patterns of sexuality are not universal and objective constants, but have changed over time, and varied from one location and culture to another.
Medieval people did not conceptualize the world the same way that contemporary people do. They did not have an abstract concept of "the nation-state" or of a divide between "Public" and "Private" cultural spheres. This does not mean that modern society is some sort of culmination that previous social models were evolving towards. Modern social values and behavior patterns are not more "advanced", but simply different. Fundamentally, it is wrong to assume that medieval concepts of gender and sexuality were exactly the same as contemporary models.
Thus while there were certainly "men who had sex with men" in the Middle Ages, it would be inaccurate to even call them "homosexual", because "homosexuality" is a specific and subjective social concept. For that matter, "men who had sex with women" in the Middle Ages cannot accurately be called "heterosexual". The homosexual/heterosexual categorization scheme of contemporary cultures did not exist in their culture. They did have categorization schemes, but they had a different basis. Men who had sex with other men in the Middle Ages did not conceptualize what they were doing the same way that contemporary men who have sex with other men do.
- "...'Homosexuality' [as a concept] is not a thing that one can find in all cultures...to label anyone in the past who had sex with someone of the same sex as 'a homosexual' would be to impose a modern category. The same argument also applies to other categories of sexual behavior: heterosexuality, bisexuality, prostitution, or any other; the acts may be the same, but each society will determine what the meaning of those acts is and whether they create identities."
Gender and Sexuality in the real-life Middle-Ages
Patterns of sexuality in Medieval Europe
Two major factors affected patterns of sexuality and gender behavior in Medieval Europe:
- 1 - Religion was a very important social force and institution, and the Catholic Church in Western Europe had a celibate clergy, of male monks and female nuns.
- 2 - The medieval Catholic Church was dominated by an all-male priesthood.
These resulted in four major aspects of society in Western Europe in the Middle Ages:
1 - Sex as a dichotomy between procreative versus non-procreative sex
Sexual behavior and identity was not seen as divided between heterosexuality and homosexuality, but between celibacy and non-celibacy. In turn, because society was dominated by a celibate clergy, their writings praised celibacy as the ideal human condition, and proliferated the view that the only time people were supposed to have sex was specifically to produce children within marriage, as a necessary evil. Therefore, for the non-celibate in Medieval Europe, sex was not defined as a dichotomy between "heterosexual" and "homosexual", but as a dichotomy between "procreative" and "non-procreative" sex. A wife performing oral sex on her husband, or a man performing oral sex on another man, were both seen as more or less equally bad, because to the celibate clergy, neither act would result in children, which was the only permissible form of sex. Indeed, even woman on top sex positions were also described as "sodomy" and condemned as abnormal, because it was believed that (due to gravity) this was less conducive to procreation.
2 - Sex as a dichotomy between penetrator versus penetrated
Due to being dominated by an all-male priesthood, all social writing and circulated knowledge about sexuality was written from a male perspective (as it had largely been extending back into Greco-Roman times). As a result, "sex" was strictly conceptualized as "something a man does to someone else by penetrating them with a penis". Men and women were not thought of as performing the same act when they had sex with each other. Men "screwed", women "got screwed", but to say "a woman screwed a man" would seem a contradiction in terms to them. Sex wasn't something two people do together but something one person does to another. In this medieval conceptualization, if a man penetrated a woman vaginally, they were having sex. If a man penetrated another man anally, they were having sex. If a man performed cunnilingus on a woman, however, because no penis was directly involved they were not conceptualized as having "sex".
In turn, because sex was conceptualized of as "a man penetrating someone else with a penis", they actually had little conception of homosexual relationships between women. It was not condoned but it was not stigmatized either - celibate male priests who did all of the writing about sexual morals couldn't really understand how two women could physically have sex with each other without a penis.
3 - Sexual orientation defined not by object choice but by role in the sex act
Medieval people did not define their sexual "orientation" based on object choice the way modern Western society does, i.e. with a man being a "heterosexual" if he is attracted to women. Medieval sexual "orientation" (for lack of a better word), was based on the role you play in the sex act. Instead of a man thinking "I prefer having sex with women", he thought "I prefer being the penetrator in the sex act", and did not make much of a distinction between whether he was penetrating a woman or another man. Men who preferred to be the penetrator were seen as "normal", women who enjoyed being penetrated were "normal". The practical difference is that if a man penetrated another man anally, it wasn't seen as that much more out of the ordinary than if he chose to penetrate a woman anally - what mattered was that he was the one doing the penetrating. In contrast, a man who enjoyed and preferred to play the passive role in sex, and to be anally penetrated by another man's penis, was seen as abnormal.
4 - Women and the European Marriage Pattern
While having an all-male priesthood like Islam or Judaism, medieval Christianity was unlike these neighboring religions in that it had a celibate clergy of male monks and female nuns (even if women couldn't be members of the priesthood). Judaism and Islam had no equivalent to nuns. The existence of a celibate female clergy encouraged families to wait for better prospective suitors for one of their daughters, because if they ended up waiting too long and she became too old to bear children, they could send their daughter to a convent to become a nun. In contrast, the neighboring Islamic world did not have celibate clergy, and thus once a woman became too old to bear children, and was unable to marry, there were no viable social options for her. Therefore, families in the Islamic world had greater motivation to marry off their daughters as soon as they were first capable of reproducing. Men didn't tend to marry in their teenage years but when they were older and more financially established, so this model usually resulted in a wide age gap between an older husband and younger wife, resulting in a hierarchical relationship.
Because medieval Christian women could join the celibate clergy and become nuns (though not priests) if they waited too long to marry, women tended to marry at relatively late ages in Medieval Europe (usually between 20 and 30 years of age). Moreover, because they were older they also tended to be around the same age as established men considered to be of marriageable age - it wasn't even unusual for a 25 year old woman to marry a man who was a year or two younger than she was. This phenomenon is known as the "European Marriage Pattern", and was found in no other contemporary cultures. The result of this pattern is that when women spend many years being unmarried, they have a stronger sense of personhood distinct from their husbands, and when they marry husbands around the same age as they are their relationships are less hierarchical and more mutualistic. Christian women in medieval Europe therefore had a much higher social status and level of independence compared to most other world cultures.
Gender binary and patterns of gender behavior
In the context of academic Gender Studies, the term "Sexuality" encompasses "Sexual Identity" but is an even broader term, referring to the entire realm of human erotic experience and behaviors. This can be further subdivided into three aspects: Sex, Gender, and Orientation:
- Sex - means physical/biological sex at birth, male or female.
- Gender - refers to patterns of behavior or identity, such as "masculine" or "feminine" (not necessarily involved with the sex act at all, but day-to-day personality and identity).
- Orientation - refers to what type of people a person is attracted to sexually: male bodies, female bodies, both, etc.
In contemporary usage, biological sex and gender are considered distinct and separate things. In contrast, people in the Middle Ages thought all three were not variable but inherently linked: a person of biologically male sex was believed to automatically express active masculine gender behavior - not just in the sex act but in all aspects of their everyday life - and to have an innate desire to be the penetrator in the sex act. A person of biologically female sex was believed to automatically express passive female gender behavior in everyday life, and to have an innate desire to be penetrated by a man.
As a result, they had no concept of a "cis-gendered homosexual male", a homosexual male who behaved very masculinely. This is not to say that they would be "offended" by such a man, but rather that they would find it conceptually difficult to understand. If a knight was highly skilled at masculine behavior such as warfare and martial prowess (i.e. Loras Tyrell), many would dismiss the suggestion that he privately enjoyed having sex with men – following the familiar stereotype that "he is too butch to be interested in other men", etc. Indeed, research by medieval historians has generally agreed that King Richard the Lionheart of England (1157-1199) was quite probably a homosexual - or rather, that he had sex with both men and women at different points in his life. Richard I was one of the greatest military leaders and warriors of his age, however, commanding forces in the Third Crusade, and in many ways was seen as a paragon of "active" masculine behavior - so few in his lifetime seem to have suspected that he would enjoy "passive" sexual behavior with other men in private. Similarly, in Westeros few people actually suspect that Loras Tyrell is homosexual because he is one of the most skilled tournament knights of his generation (i.e. Sansa Stark doesn't suspect it). The TV series slightly changed this so that several characters who lived in King's Landing with Renly are aware of his relationship with Loras: the explanation that Jaime gave in Season 3 was simply that it was "the worst kept secret at court", and anyone who spent long enough time with Renly and Loras would begin to notice it.
Not every real-life society has a conceptual model of only two genders: some have more than two, and particularly in the developed world in the early 21st century, many now espouse that gender behavior is a fluid spectrum, not rigid categories. Some societies recognize a third gender of biological males whose gender behavior is commonly associated with females. Some societies have not only a third but also a fourth gender, recognizing biological females whose behavior is commonly associated with males (not every society that recognizes a third gender also recognizes a fourth gender). These societies "recognize" more than two genders, in that they consider them to be co-legitimate with the more common "masculine biological male" and "feminine biological female" (though what constitutes "masculine" or "feminine" behavior is culture-specific). Contemporary examples would be the Hijra third gender in the Indian sub-continent, or the "Two-Spirit" individuals in Native North American culture.
In contrast, Medieval Europe did not recognize more than two genders: a biological male who behaved femininely was not seen as a legitimate, separate category of gender - he was simply seen as a defective kind of "male". Similarly, a female who behaved in traditionally "masculine" ways (i.e. Brienne of Tarth) such as participating in warfare (even if she was not sexually interested in other women and exclusively had sex with men) was not seen as a distinct fourth gender - rather she would be seen as a defective kind of "female", a bizarre aberration from the traditional passive gender behavior expected of women.
The strong belief in the Middle Ages about a direct link between physical sexual characteristics and gender behavior is exemplified by attitudes about eunuchs. According to widespread belief, if a male had his penis removed and was turned into a eunuch (or even if just his testicles were removed), he would therefore automatically exhibit effeminate gender behavior as a result. It was impossible to be "masculine", in their view, without a (functional) penis. Thus there was a widespread stereotype across Medieval Europe of effeminate eunuchs (which also extended to the neighboring Islamic world).
Similar stereotypes seem to exist in the world of Westeros and Essos: there is a widespread assumption that eunuchs behave effeminately. Varys self-consciously plays into this stereotype to lull others into thinking he is non-threatening: an effeminate, foppish eunuch used to the soft pleasures of court life. Yet this is all just an act Varys puts on to play on other people's stereotypes. In the narrative (and the TV adaptation to a somewhat more frequent extent), several characters frequently mock eunuchs for their lack of male genitals - but like the Middle Ages, the society Martin chose to depict is itself very phallo-centric, so these remarks are not unusual.
People from Westeros, with these biases about eunuchs and a phallo-centric definition of gender behavior, would have difficulty comprehending how the Unsullied such as Grey Worm can be elite warriors. "Warrior-eunuch" itself would seem a contradiction in terms to them.
Another curious aspect of medieval sexuality is that while there are hundreds of religious or court records describing "sodomy", there are hardly any at all which mention fellatio, perhaps only a dozen or so (none mention cunnilingus). Oral sex was rarely if at all mentioned in medieval texts, even to be condemned. The ancient Romans seem to have considered the man whose penis was inserted into a mouth as the active partner, given that he was "penetrating". In the Middle Ages, however, in some circles at least, there seems to have been some debate in the other direction: in this view, the person performing the fellatio with their mouth is the "active" partner because "they're doing all the work", while the man's penis passively receives the fellatio. In effect, if a wife was performing fellatio on her husband, the entire active/passive roleset was suddenly reversed. This was not, however, a stable definition: the few records that discuss fellatio in the Middle Ages seem deeply confused about who was the active partner and who was the passive one - which was normally central to their conception of the act, as something one person does to another - perhaps explaining why they rarely wrote about it at all.
For example, in Season 1 of the Game of Thrones TV series, when Loras performs fellatio on Renly, who can be said to be the "active" partner, and which of them the "passive" partner? Loras because his mouth is being penetrated by Renly, or Loras because this is something he is actively performing and that Renly is passively allowing? ("A question for the philosophers" - Olenna Tyrell).
"Homosexuality" in the Middle Ages
There is a widespread misconception that homosexuals were harshly persecuted in the Middle Ages, but major academic research from the 1980s onwards (by figures such as John Boswell) has found that this was far from the truth. Gender studies about the actual status of homosexuality in Medieval Europe have significantly advanced since Martin first planned out the world of Westeros when he was writing the first novel in the early 1990s. Three main points that have emerged about homosexuality in the Middle Ages in the past twenty years of academic discourse:
First, "homosexuals" were not conceived of as a distinct kind of person in the Middle Ages: rather, homosexual behavior was seen as a kind of act that people could commit, like adultery. Therefore, clerical writings that denounce sins of the flesh actually assume that all men might be tempted to engage in homosexual sex, just as much as they might be tempted to engage in adultery with a woman outside of marriage. While medieval people did conceptualize of sex by the role played instead of object choice, they really did not conceptualize that there was a specific subset of males that preferred having sex with other men, either to penetrate them or to be penetrated by them. There were men who at times enjoyed having sex with other men, but they did not conceptualize of "homosexuals" as a distinct category of persons. Homosexuality was not an identity, but a sex act.
- "To the extent that sodomy was an act, or a set of acts, which a man could commit, rather than an orientation, it was not seem as limited to a minority group but was a more generalized threat. Manuals for confessors for confessors envisioned it as a sin that anyone could commit."
On the other hand, unlike in the Greco-Roman era, while medieval people did not really conceive of "homosexuals" as a distinct category of person that enjoyed having same-sex relationships exclusively...they were starting to develop some vague sense of this. Major church writings and other official documents never treated "sodomites" as a specific kind of person, just as an action that people could commit - yet in medical writings and even the "popular culture" of courtly love poetry, some people at times speculate that certain people exclusively preferred same-sex activity.
Second, homosexual behavior was not punished particularly severely - there weren't outright "laws" against it, as in secular laws - but at the same time, it was not something casually accepted either. It was a venal sin of the flesh, loosely on par with adultery, fathering bastard children, etc. (and a man having anal sex with a woman was equally chastised). Just like adultery, being caught performing a homosexual sex act was not punishable by death, prison sentence, or even fines. It was seen as socially disgraceful, like adultery, and people did still try to hide it (a loose comparison would to how in the modern era a major actor might avoid being outed as homosexual: no "laws" would be broken but he might fear that it would disgrace and effectively end his career). Still, there were not mass persecutions of homosexuals - just like witch-burnings, such persecutions only really began in the era of religious hysteria following the outbreak of the Black Death in the Late Middle Ages (starting in 1348), and only became wide-scale during the greater religious hysteria surrounding the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.
A third point is also that homosexual relationship patterns tend to mirror the patterns of heterosexual relationships in their society. In the southern areas of Medieval Europe, older and economically established men tended to marry young women, leading to uneven, hierarchical relationships. In the northern areas of Medieval Europe, the "European Marriage Pattern" predominated of women marrying in their mid-20's to men of roughly the same age, resulting in less hierarchical and more mutualistic relationships (it would be more accurately called a "Northwest European marriage pattern").
This north/south difference is known observational, and is theorized to have been due to agricultural patterns that affected kin-group structure. Similarly, court records about homosexuals in the Middle Ages reveal that in southern Europe, homosexual relationships mirrored what they saw around them in heterosexual relationships: older and economically established men had relationships with young men. Their relationships were similarly hierarchical, with the older man being the active/masculine/penetration partner and the male youth being the passive/effeminate/penetrated partner. At the same time, in northern Europe, mirroring the patterns of non-hierarchical heterosexual relationships they saw around them, homosexuals tended to be the same ages as their partners, and in more mutualistic relationships (without a clearly defined active/passive, top/bottom divide). Indeed, this top/bottom or butch/femme self-organization in homosexual sub-cultures continued through the early 20th century, and only began to fade when the extreme dominance hierarchy in heterosexual relationships began to change after the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.
Gender and Sexuality in A Song of Ice and Fire
As with the real-life Middle Ages, social constructs of gender and sexuality vary extensively across Westeros, Essos, and the rest of the known world in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels written by George R.R. Martin. They may have also changed over the centuries within the narrative. It is extremely difficult to examine such values beyond Westeros itself, because so much of the narrative is focused on Westeros. So what follows is an examination of the evidence in the novels about gender and sexuality in Westeros, and a few notes about what has been briefly described in the rest of the world.
Overview of Westeros
The Faith of the Seven is the dominant religion in most of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, having been introduced to the continent 6,000 years ago during the Andal Invasion. Only the North managed to halt the advance of the Andals, and thus continued to worship the Old Gods of the Forest. A few Andals also invaded the Iron Islands, but the Faith found little purchase there, and instead the invaders converted to the local Drowned God religion. The Rhoynar migrated to Westeros about 1,000 years ago and settled in Dorne. They did convert to the Faith of the Seven - but ignored many of its prohibitions on sexual behaviors, making the culture of the modern Dornishmen quite distinct.
The core regions of Westeros, the populous and wealthy kingdoms south of the Neck, follow the Faith of the Seven and broadly fall into the same cultural sphere. The Iron Islands and Dorne are actually stated to have the smallest populations of any of the Seven Kingdoms, while the North is not one of the more populous ones, and due to its vast size, it has a very low population density. Thus by far the majority of Westeros's population and land area falls into the cultural sphere of the Faith of the Seven. Of the five settlements large enough to be called "cities" in Westeros, four of them are located in this central region (King's Landing, Oldtown, Lannisport, and Gulltown). The fifth and smallest city is White Harbor, located on the southeastern coast of the North - but it is ruled by House Manderly, a family from the Reach that fled to the North and continues to follow the Faith of the Seven, actually making it a small enclave of southern culture in the North (indeed, it was the Manderlys who built up White Harbor into a southern-style city; it wasn't a pre-established large Northern city that happened to accept the Manderlys).
Gender and Sexuality under the Faith of the Seven, in most of Westeros
The key factors that shaped conceptualizations of sexuality in real-life Medieval Europe are that it had celibate clergy of both genders (monks and nuns), but an all-male priesthood. This led to a dichotomy not between homosexual and heterosexual, but between celibate and non-celibate, and in turn, a dichotomy between procreative and non-procreative sex. Officially, non-clergy were only supposed to have sex for the explicit purpose of producing children. Meanwhile, because there were no female priests writing about sexual morality, sex was strictly defined as penetrating someone else with a penis. While there were instances of female clergy writing about sexuality - such as the famed abbess and polymath Hildegard von Bingen - this was much more of an exception than a rule. The result was a pattern of conception about sexuality based on role in the sex act instead of object choice.
In contrast, the Faith of the Seven does have a gender-blind priesthood, accepting both men and women without distinction. Men become septons and women become septas, but these ranks are apparently the same (it's just a gendered word, like how a man is an "alumnus" from a university but a woman is an "alumna"). Women can also join the all-female monastic order of the Silent Sisters. Women are even explicitly described as becoming members of the Most Devout - the ruling council of the Faith of the Seven, which is basically analogous to the College of Cardinals in Catholic Christianity.
Septa Unella - who leads Cersei's naked walk of atonement - is a member of the Most Devout, and thus essentially a cardinal. While Martin has never explicitly mentioned it, there may well have been a "High Septa" in the past, a female High Septon (their analogue of the papacy).
Therefore, unlike in the real-life Middle Ages, in Westeros:
- 1 - Because there are female priests in the Faith of the Seven, they probably don't strictly define sex as "penetrating someone with a penis", but a wider range of behaviors.
- 2 - Correspondingly, sexual relationships in general are less hierarchical, because sex isn't thought of as a thing a man does to a woman but a mutualistic experience they do together. Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell are presented as seemingly having a fairly mutualistic relationship, instead of a hierarchical relationship such as the senpai and kōhai (or seme and uke) homosexual relationships among medieval Japanese samurai (Loras served as Renly's squire and as the king's brother Renly technically outranked him, but Loras was considered the more active and martial of the two, one of the best knights in Westeros, while Renly was more of a statesman).
- 3 - Sexual relationships between homosexual women were barely understood in the real-life Middle Ages, even to criticize them. In contrast, homosexuality between women is probably criticized in Westeros as much as homosexuality between men - because the female priests understand that women can give sexual pleasure to each other without a penis.
- Indeed, the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014) mentions that septons have tried to admonish the Dornishmen because they feel it is "no cause for concern" if a man lays with a man, or a woman with a woman - real-life medieval people would probably not even have mentioned women laying with women, finding it conceptually impossible. It isn't clear if the authors intended this when they wrote this detail, but by coincidence it matches up with the social effects logically resulting from having female priests.
On the other hand, the Faith of the Seven still has a celibate clergy overall, so they would still have a basic dichotomy between celibate and non-celibate, and thus procreative and non-procreative sex (at one point in the novels a member of the Most Devout tells Cersei that the gods made men and women's private parts purely for the begetting of children).
- 1 - Men who have sex with other men probably are not thought of as a distinct category of person, because all non-procreative sex is considered bad.
- 2 - Homosexual sex is probably not viewed as particularly worse than other venal sins such as adultery - i.e. Loras Tyrell isn't seen as particularly worse than King Robert Baratheon's frequent whoremongering. At the same time, also like a major lord committing adultery, Loras doesn't just casually acknowledge in public that he engages in homosexual behaviors.
This is the pattern that would be expected of having both a gender-blind priesthood of both men and women and a celibate clergy overall. The question is if the novels match it:
The A Song of Ice and Fire novels do have characters in them who have same-sex intimate encounters - but realistically, they have never gone into a lengthy speech clearly defining their mental framework about sexual behavior. The novels never say that men who have sex with men are thought of as a distinct category of person: this might be a simple omission and Martin assumed that they actually think of it as a category, however, same-sex relationships have been mentioned in such vague terms that they could easily match the expected model, that they don't think of it as a distinct category.
On a more general level, it does appear that same-sex relationships in the novels are not seen as any sort of heavily vilified taboo, but as expected, a venal sin roughly on par with adultery. No actual "laws" against homosexuality have ever been mentioned in the novels. It is simply seen as socially disgraceful.
Therefore, in general, views on sexuality and gender in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels (in the core regions of Westeros that follow the Faith of the Seven) are somewhat closer to modern patterns than to the medieval model - but, the presence of female priests in Westeros is a drastic change from how real medieval society operated. The differences observed compared to the real-life Middle Ages - sex is not hierarchical but mutualistic, not strictly defined as something a man does to someone else using a penis, greater insight into female sexuality, etc. - are all things that would logically result from having female priests.
Whether Martin consciously intended these differences is unknown, i.e. as an invented fictional world not connected to real life he was free to make this change, and perhaps preferred writing about people whose mental frameworks are closer to modern ones, both for himself as an author and to readers.
The fringes of Westeros, with unique religions and cultures
Westeros contains more than one major religion, and for the most part they all co-exist relatively well. In Medieval Europe, the major religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism did not co-exist to such a great extent as the religions in Westeros. On the other hand, all three were Abrahamic religions with similar roots, and generally speaking, their views on sexuality were not radically different from each other. In contrast, the Old Gods of the Forest and the Drowned God are completely unrelated to the Faith of the Seven and have (or can have) very different value sets.
The fact that three major religions co-exist more or less peacefully in Westeros is a marked difference from Medieval Europe, in which the sense of community, of "us" versus "the Other", was often defined as "Christendom" versus those of other religions. Even with this mindset, in European border regions - such as Spain, Sicily, and the Levant - there was actually quite a high degree of co-existence on an everyday level; Muslims officially tolerated Christians and Jews specifically because they followed similar Abrahamic religions. Yet all three had less tolerance for "pagan" beliefs which were unrelated to Abrahamic religions.
In both Christianity and Islam, slavery was actually allowed - the only stipulation was that it was immoral to enslave persons belonging to the same religion as you. Thus Christians had no problem with enslaving pagans in northern Europe and Muslims in southern Europe - and slave women were often concubines to their masters. In contrast, the Faith of the Seven in Westeros explicitly forbids slavery as a heinous crime - as do the religions of the Old Gods and Drowned God. This is simply a narrative conceit which makes Westeros different from the real-life Middle Ages.
In-universe, this level of tacit toleration for other religions, religions that aren't even related to each other the way the Abrahamic religions are, might be due to the fact that their historical record is over twice as long: the Faith of the Seven was introduced to Westeros six thousand years ago, and there actually was quite a lot of religious strife in the early centuries when it pushed the other religions out to the fringes of the continent. After so many millennia, however, the fighting has long since stalemated, so that all three religions settled into a grudging co-existence.
Northmen and wildlings: followers of the Old Gods
The views of the worshipers of the Old Gods of the Forest towards sexuality are not very clear. In-universe, it is said that the religion of the Old Gods is less formal than the Faith of the Seven, and doesn't have as many "rules" as such. It doesn't even have a priesthood of any kind, male or female, but is based on quiet contemplation before Weirwood heart trees in Godswoods. The Old Gods do seem to have several basic social rules, including the sacred bond of Guest right, prohibitions against Incest, Bastardy, Kinslaying, etc. Otherwise, there has never been any mention that the religion of the Old Gods has a specific view against homosexual behaviors - though their exact views are simply unclear.
The only prominent clue has been that Greatjon Umber's uncle Hother "Whoresbane" Umber is apparently a homosexual: he is called "Whoresbane" because in his youth he was sent to Oldtown to train as a maester, but a whore he was with tried to rob him, so he disemboweled the whore (then left Oldtown in disgrace). It is described that the story is only told in whispers, because no one wants to publicly say that it was actually a male whore that Hother was with. Therefore, it would seem that homosexuality is also seen as a social embarrassment in the North.
The Northmen who live north of the Neck but south of the Wall were never conquered by the Andals but in many ways acculturated to the behaviors of their neighbors, such as switching to speak the Common Tongue of the Andals instead of the Old Tongue of the First Men, and adopting a societal model more based on a system of Lordship than clans, etc. This is similar to the North's real-life analogue, Scotland, which in the Middle Ages quickly built itself up into a strong kingdom generally capable of resisting invasion from England to the south by adopting many English cultural and social models.
In contrast, it is said that the wildlings (or "Free Folk" as they call themselves) have very few "rules" beyond what they can keep with their own strength (though they also value guest right, and have prohibitions against incest and kinslaying). Unlike the Northmen and the rest of Westeros, the wildlings also don't recognize a class of hereditary nobility in their society. Given that a core value of the wildlings is that they don't like other people telling them how to live, it is quite possible that they actually place no social stigma on homosexuality. During the mission beyond the wall to capture a wight, Tormund Giantsbane quipped to Gendry that if no women were available, a wildling man would "make do" with what was at hand. While he could have simply been making a joke, Tormund's quip does imply that homosexuality carries no shame among the Free Folk.
Similarly, the wildlings apparently don't have a strict gender binary of social roles, in that they have Warrior women in their culture, that they call Spearwives (though a spearwife can marry and have children while still being a warrior). For most of the Northmen, meanwhile, it is seen as unusual for a female to want to adopt the traditionally masculine role of a warrior (such as Arya Stark). At the same time, in some of the fringes of the North, there are some female warriors: Bear Island is under constant threat by sea from both ironborn raiders to the south and wildling raiders passing around the Wall by ship from the north. Because the men are out all day in their fishing boats they can't respond to quick raids against their homes, so the women of Bear Island - particularly their rulers, House Mormont - have had to develop a strong tradition of having warrior women as a practical necessity.
Therefore, what apparently seems to have happened, is that the original First Men might not have had many social gender restrictions on warrior women or on homosexuality, but over the centuries the Northmen gradually adopted many of the social customs and mores of the neighboring powerful Andal kingdoms to the south. The wildlings that live beyond the Wall, however, apparently have far fewer of such social restrictions. Little more can be postulated due to lack of evidence.
The ironborn, followers of the Drowned God
In the Iron Islands, the distinctive ironborn culture values raiding, and follows the local Drowned God religion. It is praise-worthy for men to take as many concubines, called "salt wives", as he can, though the children of salt wives are not considered bastards. They do also have rules against bastardy and incest, etc., and marriage is a rite of the Drowned God performed by a priest. For that matter, the Drowned God religion does have an all-male priesthood, the Drowned Men.
Not much is known about the views of the Drowned God religion on gender and sexuality. In general, ironborn culture seems to be very misogynistic. It is considered very controversial that Balon Greyjoy raised his daughter Asha (renamed "Yara Greyjoy" in the TV show) as a surrogate son, and many reject her leadership out of hand just for being a woman. Asha/Yara is very abnormal under the ironborn social model of expected female gender behavior. Then again, there is mention in the fifth novel that some of Victarion's men raped a maester they took prisoner from the Shield Islands. So it is quite possible that the Drowned God religion is actually closest to what happened in Medieval Europe: not a dichotomy between male and female so much as between penetrator and penetrated (active and passive). So long as you were the one penetrating someone else specifically with a penis, it wasn't considered a great concern in Medieval Europe, and men didn't really conceive of women as "enjoying" sex or performing the same action that they did (they didn't care). This is due to the effect that having an all-male priesthood had on Medieval Europe's views on sexuality, and the Drowned God is the only religion in Westeros with an exclusively male priesthood. The Drowned Men are apparently celibate, though this is unclear. For that matter, unlike Medieval Europe, the ironborn don't have a celibate clergy of nuns that women can join - in which case they would probably marry off their daughters as soon as they were old enough to have children; as a result, ironborn girls probably would not have as much of a sense of personhood and social independence, which does seem to match how little power ironborn women seem to wield compared to the rest of Westeros.
Asha is sexually active and no one blames her for it, however this is possibly due to her overall tomboyish attitudes - she is very abnormal under the ironborn social model of expected female gender behavior, and not remotely representative of what is considered "standard" female behavior in their society.
The TV series depicted Yara Greyjoy as sexually interested in women in Season 6, and then in Season 7 she clarified that she has sex with both men and women (what in modern terms might be called "pansexual", which is the term her actress uses to describe her). The ironborn are actually fairly close to the social model of the real life medieval Vikings they are inspired by, with an all-male priesthood, socially male-dominated in general, and no clerical celibacy. The medieval Vikings thus had a Top/Down dichotomy of sexuality, and didn't recognize female homosexuality either to condemn it or condone it - with no penis involved, it simply wasn't seen as a category choice. Thus it is actually quite fitting for Yara to not be strictly interested in only women, but to make no category distinction (as a woman) for having sex with men or women. See "Yara Greyjoy - Asha/Yara's sexuality, books vs TV series".
Dornishmen, descendants of the Rhoynar
- Olyvar: "Everyone has a preference."
- Oberyn: "Then everyone is missing half the world's pleasure. The Gods made that, and it delights me. The Gods made this... and it delights me. When it comes to war I fight for Dorne, when it comes to love... I don't choose sides."
- — Oberyn Martell, playfully slapping the buttocks of the male prostitute Olyvar.[src]
The Rhoynar ancestors of the modern Dornishmen came from city-states along the Rhoyne River, in the center of the modern Free Cities. They migrated to Dorne about a thousand years ago led by their warrior-queen Nymeria, fleeing conquest by the Valyrian Freehold.
There they intermarried with the local population - a mix of First Men and Andals like the rest of Westeros - to form their own unique hybrid culture. The Dornishmen converted to the Faith of the Seven when they migrated to Westeros, but in many ways they just ignored the rules they didn't like, which clashed with their previous culture living in urbane mercantile city-states. As a result they have very different attitudes about sexuality compared to the rest of Westeros - despite the fact that they nominally follow the same religion of the Seven.
A major distinction about Dorne in the novels is that unlike the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, which practice male-preference primogeniture, Dorne practices gender-blind primogeniture. The reason for this is that Dorne managed to resist conquest by the Targaryens and their dragons through resorting to guerrilla warfare, and remained independent from the Iron Throne for the next two centuries. Dorne and House Martell only united with the rest of the Seven Kingdoms about one century before the novels begin, not through conquest but through peaceful marriage-alliance with the Targaryens. As a result they were allowed to keep many of their distinct local laws and customs, such as the head of House Martell being styled a "Prince" or "Princess" instead of a "Lord Paramount", and continuing to practice gender-blind inheritance law.
While daughters do sometimes inherit land and title in the rest of Westeros, it is less frequent, because they only inherit if they have no living brothers. For example, Sansa Stark ranks behind her brothers Bran and Rickon in the line of succession. In Dorne in the novels, in contrast, Doran Martell's heir-designate is his eldest child, who happens to be a daughter, Arianne Martell (who has apparently been omitted from the TV series). The previous ruler of Dorne before Prince Doran was his mother, who inherited rule from her parents in her own right. Dornishmen consider women to be the equals of men, they are treated equally under the law and in inheritance, and they wield political power just as often as men do. The Dornish thus have very different attitudes about the status and role of women than in the rest of Westeros.
In the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, the Dornishmen have a reputation for being hot-blooded and sexually licentious. Indeed, Dornishmen have more "relaxed" views towards sexuality and love than the rest of Westeros. They are quite tolerant about sex outside of marriage, and even have a system of formal mistresses or concubines called "Paramours" - a holdover from the ancient courts of the Rhoynar city-states. Paramours can be held in quite high esteem in Dorne, publicly and openly acknowledged, and in some cases is treated as a lord's wife in all but name. For that matter, it is not considered unusual for noblewomen to openly have their own paramours.
Similarly, bastards do not carry the stigma of shame in Dorne that they do in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms for being born out of wedlock. In the TV series, Prince Oberyn mentions at Joffrey's wedding that his people doesn't despise bastards because they are born out of passion. In fact, bastards are often raised along their trueborn siblings and cousins, and out of proportion to the other Seven Kingdoms, bastards in Dorne much more frequently rise to important positions such as castellans and stewards. One slight disadvantage that bastards have in Dorne is that they are still considered poor matches for marriage, since they are much less likely to receive inheritance from their parents. The Dornish also have no particular stigma against homosexual behavior, considering it no great concern "if a man lies with a man, or a woman lies with a woman".
Oberyn Martell and his paramour Ellaria Sand (whom he treated as a wife in all but name and mother of several of his children) are sexually adventurous, sharing other sexual partners, and not really making a distinction whether they are male or female.
The Dornish don't really have a conceptual divide between "heterosexual" and "homosexual" behavior, and in modern terms many might be called functionally "pansexual" (though this is not a term in the storyverse - "bisexual" would probably be an inaccurate term as well because the Dornish don't even recognize a categorical divide between the two). In the novels, it is mentioned in passing that Nymeria Sand was "abed with the Fowler twins" when she received word that her father was dead, and later it is casually revealed that the Fowler twins are girls - though it isn't clear if "abed" means she is in a sexual relationship with them, as it is a common practice throughout Westeros for noblewomen to have bedwarmers, literally sharing their beds to keep warm on cold nights.
Thus a Dornish noblewoman can inherit rule in her own right ahead of her young brothers, and while technically married to a man to produce children, also openly keep a female paramour in a deep, loving partner-relationship. The Dornish, however, do not see this as a matter of the object choice dichotomy: they just have a very fluid and non-binary attitude towards sex.
The Dornishmen inherited their relaxed attitudes about sexuality from their Rhoynar ancestors, but little information has been provided about the cultural factors that made the ancient Rhoynar like this. What is known is that the Rhoynar lived an urbanized lifestyle in mercantile city-states along the Rhoyne River, in contrast with the agrarian culture of the First Men and Andals which was much more focused on direct inheritance of land. It is possible that this more "cosmopolitan" city-culture led the Rhoynar to be more tolerant of sexuality and treat the genders equally. The Rhoynar religion was based on worship of "Mother Rhoyne", the personified goddess of the life-giving Rhoyne River.
Mother Rhoyne's had many children who were lesser gods in their pantheon, such as Crab King and the giant turtle known as the Old Man of the River. The fact that their main deity was a mother figure may have also given the Rhoynar a more positive attitude about the social status of women. Even the ancient Rhoynar treated women as the equals of men, and they had many female warriors. Nymeria herself came to rule Ny Sar in her own right, one of the six main Rhoynar city-states.
The attitudes of the Dornishmen towards gender and sexuality don't seem to be based on any direct counterpart from the real-life Middle Ages. Dorne itself is loosely inspired by Medieval Spain, which was ethnically and culturally different from the rest of Medieval Europe due to the Muslim conquests. While the Rhoynar did migrate to Dorne from across the Narrow Sea, they converted to the local religion of the Faith of the Seven centuries ago, peacefully, which is different from the drawn-out Reconquista period in Spain (though in some respects it might still be similar to Spain a few centuries later, after the entire peninsula was reconquered by Christian kingdoms, but the Muslim presence still left behind many unique cultural aspects).
A stereotype that Christian Western Europe had about the Muslim world was that they were more licentious, due to not practicing clerical celibacy and thus not possessing such a religiously-based negative view of sexuality, and stereotypes about Dornishmen in the narrative loosely echo this to an extent (though real-life Muslim writers also accused Christians of being licentious; it was just a standard insult). On the other hand, unlike Dorne, real-life Muslim Spain didn't treat women as equal under the law to men, and did not practice gender-blind inheritance law (so women didn't really wield political power very often). Women in Dorne can inherit land and political power, and rather openly engage in sex outside of marriage with other men - not only did nothing like this happen in real-life Muslim Spain, medieval Christians didn't even have a stereotype about them that resembled this. As evidenced from medieval literature and popular epics, medieval Christians never seem to have believed that Muslims practiced equal inheritance law or that Muslim women had a drastically higher degree of sexual freedom.
The popular troubadour poetry contains stories of brave Christian knights seducing the daughters of Muslim princes - not seducing Muslim princesses who ruled in their own right. In that respect, these aspects of the Dornishmen seem to be a pure fantasy construct without basis in reality - though George R.R. Martin has openly said that Dorne is not meant to have a one to one correspondence to any real-life culture: it is loosely like Medieval Spain, with some aspects of Medieval Wales (a semi-independent territory on the fringe of the kingdom), but other aspects of Dorne were simply drawn from Martin's imagination and creative license.
Arguably, the one region of Medieval Europe that had the attitudes about gender and sexuality that the Dornishmen have in the fictional narrative was actually Ireland (prior to the English invasions beginning in the late twelfth century) - where the Game of Thrones TV series itself is based and primarily films. Even after converting to Christianity, reliable records such as the Brehon laws evidence that women were treated as the equals or near-equals of men in Celtic Ireland - which the Romans and their successors in Continental Europe found to be quite unusual. Moreover, although less well evidenced, some ancient historians described that the Celts in Ireland openly had same-sex relationships (though the true extent of this is unclear and still debated academically). As English domination in Ireland grew, however, English cultural patterns and inheritance laws subsumed the earlier local Irish laws and customs.
The Valyrians, the Targaryens, and definitions of incest
- See main article "Incest"
The Valyrians practiced heavy incest between brother and sister, to "keep the bloodlines pure". House Targaryen was a Valyrian noble family that survived the Doom of Valyria four centuries ago, and settled on the islands off the east coast of Westeros. As the last survivors of the Valyrian Freehold that possessed live dragons, a century later the Targaryens conquered and united the Seven Kingdoms. As a political expedient they converted to the Faith of the Seven, but they continued to practice incestuous marriages. This led to conflict with the Faith of the Seven which was only decided through civil war. Apparently this aspect of Valyrian/Targaryen culture was loosely inspired by the incestuous brother-sister marriages among many of the real-life pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.
The Targaryen dynasty's brother-sister marriages may have affected how incest was defined in Westeros. In the real-life Middle Ages, the Catholic Church defined incest as any marriage between relatives who were third cousins or closer, i.e. marrying a fourth cousin or a third cousin once removed was not incest. In Westeros, however, it is apparently not uncommon for members of major noble Houses to marry their own first cousins. Tywin Lannister himself married his own first cousin, Joanna Lannister - her surname was already "Lannister" before they were married, as she was the daughter of a younger brother of Tywin's own father, Tytos Lannister. Nor is this a peculiarity of House Lannister, as members of House Tyrell have also married their first cousins: Mace Tyrell's younger sister Mina married her own first cousin Paxter Redwyne.
Mace and Mina's mother Olenna Tyrell, born Olenna Redwyne, is the sister of Paxter's father and thus his paternal aunt. Even House Stark has been known to practice first cousin marriage, in the not too distant past: the parents of Eddard Stark himself were first cousins once removed, Rickard Stark and Lyarra Stark. Lyarra's surname was "Stark" even before she was married. Rickard's grandfather was Willam Stark, and Willam's younger brother Rickard was Lyarra's father.
- To clarify for those who remain confused: you don't have "cousins" then "first cousins", then "second cousins", etc. "First cousins" are the closest kind of cousin: the child of one of your parent's siblings. Your "first cousin once removed" is the child of your first cousin. The child of your parent's first cousin is your second cousin.
When Eddard Stark confronts Cersei Lannister about her incestuous relationship with her own twin brother Jaime, (in both the book and TV versions) she counters that the Targaryen dynasty wed brother to sister for three hundred years, so she and Jaime didn't see what they were doing as comparatively that unusual. The incestuous brother-to-sister marriages of the Targaryens were still seen as very unusual by Westerosi society in general, however, and they primarily got away with it due to their royal status and power, which they felt set them above the rules of normal men. Even after three centuries, brother-sister relationships were still condemned and not considered "normal" in any of the other noble Houses in Westeros.
Polygamous marriages were practiced in the old Valyrian Freehold - it was not universal and frequent, but it was not uncommon either. Aegon the Conqueror was married to both of his sisters, Visenya and Rhaenys. Visenya was the eldest of the siblings and Aegon may have married her for political reasons, while marrying his younger sister Rhaenys for love. After the trio conquered and unified the Seven Kingdoms, however, it seems that Aegon himself realized that practicing polygamy in subsequent generations would push the Faith of the Seven too far, so he discouraged his successors from continuing it.
The Faith had not openly criticized the polygamous or even incestuous aspects of Aegon's marriages, and in return he tread lightly around them, making both of his sons marry one woman each from outside of their immediate family. After his death, however, his second son Maegor the Cruel, an infamously vicious tyrant, took multiple wives and forcibly married his own niece, leading to a war with the Faith Militant that lasted throughout his six year reign. After he was deposed, his successor and nephew Jaehaerys I negotiated a peace with the Faith, and the Targaryens never had a polygamous marriage again. They did continue to practice brother-to-sister incest marriages (as Jaehaerys I was married to his own sister, Alysanne), but apparently their rationale was that they already had an incestuous bloodline even if they stopped wedding brother to sister - though they could actively choose not to take multiple wives.
The Targaryens didn't always wed brother to sister in every generation, and over two centuries later King Aegon V (younger brother of Maester Aemon) became convinced that incestuous bloodlines were what caused many Targaryens to go insane, so he tried to put an and to the practice altogether, though he did not succeed.
A point raised by linguist David J. Peterson is that he is hesitant to develop certain "everyday life" vocabulary in High Valyrian because it is unknown exactly what everyday life was like in the ancient Valyrian Freehold, i.e. he didn't develop a word for "breakfast", as for all anyone knows they just had what we would call "brunch" and didn't even have a distinct word for "breakfast". The heavily incestuous and even polygamous marriages of the Valyrian dragonlords probably led to very complicated familial relationships: Daenerys and Viserys's parents were themselves brother and sister, making Viserys simultaneously Daenerys's "brother" and "first cousin" - it is unknown if High Valyrian would have a distinct term for such a relationship, distinguishing it from a sibling whose parents were not brother and sister. The ironborn practice a limited form of polygamy (though they don't consider it full polygamy), in which they have only one "rock wife" who ranks ahead of all of their "salt wives". In comparison, in a case where a Valyrian dragonlord was in a polygamous marriage to multiple close relatives, it isn't clear if there was a distinct word for one "primary" wife, etc. Also consider that several real-life languages have more specific terms for family members than English does, i.e. Japanese has distinct words for "older sister" (onee-san) and "younger sister" (imouto). The novels don't really give many details on the ancient Valyrians' family structural dynamics, so Peterson avoided trying to describe it for lack of information.
The definition of what marriages were considered incestuous in real life actually changed over time. During the early Middle Ages it fluctuated considerably, with instances of first degree cousins marrying, but other instances in which seventh degree cousins were forbidden to marry.
The Catholic Church only officially set the definition of incest as marriage within third degree cousins or closer at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Study of the definition of what constituted "incest" in the Middle Ages is considered significant in scholarship because it is further evidence that there was never a single "traditional" definition of marriage, but rather, that the definition of marriage changed considerably over the centuries.
Patterns of "masculine" and "feminine" behavior in Westeros
- Cersei Lannister: "Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock and I was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired."
- Sansa Stark: "You were Robert's queen."
- Cersei Lannister: "And you will be Joffrey's. Enjoy."
- — Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark[src]
In the Middle Ages, women who transcended the weakness of their femininity to exhibit positive masculine traits were called "manful"- this was not meant as an insult, nor did it mean they were suddenly conceptualized as "non-women" (given the contemporary conception of a strong gender binary). Rather, it was simply understood that women were capable of rising to such modes of behavior. The difference between a woman exhibiting positive masculine traits and her outright "acting like a man" was very subtle, and ongoing academic scrutiny about the nuances of everyday gender behavior is intense. Basically, a woman could give orders with firm and quiet determination, but she couldn't shout out orders assertively the way a man could - in short, if a woman's behavior became "bossy", she was no longer behaving in a proper ladylike fashion. One of the more interesting examples of this phenomenon was Matilda, who fought against her cousin Stephen for control of the English throne, a period known as the Anarchy (1135-1154).
Matilda was daughter of the previous monarch, King Henry I, but following the latter's death, the throne was usurped by her cousin, Stephen. Contemporary accounts say that because Matilda expected to be her father's successor for many years (and indeed, Henry had taken official steps to help secure her succession), she grew arrogant, and in many ways was perceived to act like a man, because she openly yelled commands at followers and wasn't demure about it.In Game of Thrones, Catelyn Tully and Olenna Tyrell display the proper behavior expected of noblewomen, quiet but firm determination, when they take steps to protect their families through political action and even war planning. In contrast, Cersei Lannister frequently gives blunt orders which seem unladylike (unfeminine) - even though her father Tywin behaves the same way, and is not similarly criticized for it. The clear analogue of Matilda in the history of Westeros is Rhaenyra Targaryen, who lived about 170 years before the War of the Five Kings. Rhaenyra was the only woman who ever came close to becoming a Ruling Queen in her own right, inheriting the Iron Throne directly from her father, instead of simply being a Queen Consort married to the current king. Rhaenyra was the heir apparent for many years, and it gave her a sense of confidence that, to her enemies, bordered on arrogance. After her father died the throne was usurped by her younger half-brother, Aegon II. The stated reason many had for siding against Rhaenyra and declaring for her brother was that, on a personal level, they felt she was too domineering - even though Aegon II was an even more domineering hot-head prone to petty outbursts of anger. Rhaenyra had hit the medieval "glass ceiling", as many lords were offended at the idea of being commanded by a woman, even a Ruling Queen, and had no intention of letting Rhaenyra become the first one to sit the Iron Throne. The gender politics of their conflict play out in the recent series of prequel novellas that Martin wrote about the Dance of the Dragons (which may eventually be adapted into a live-action TV project in the distant future).
Education for aristocratic boys and girls in Westeros generally matches real-life patterns from the Middle Ages. Maesters serve as tutors to children of the lord they serve, boys and girls, in core topics such as literacy or arithmetic. When boys are old enough they also train with their castle's Master-at-Arms in the martial arts. Using a sword is a developed skill, like Olympic-level fencing - you can't just pick up a sword and hack at your opponent like children with wooden sticks. This is displayed in Season 1 when Jon Snow easily overpowers all of the other Night's Watch recruits during fighting practice, and Tyrion explicitly points out that Jon has received formal training from the Stark master-at-arms Rodrik Cassel, while the poor commoners he was facing had not. In the TV series, Maester Luwin is seen in Season 1 quizzing Bran on the geographic location and identifies of the Great Houses of Westeros, including their heraldry and mottoes.
Girls, meanwhile, are taught in the "womanly arts" such as sewing, by septas who serve their family as governesses (assuming that Septa Mordane's service to the Stark-Tully family is apparently typical). In Arya's first chapter in A Game of Thrones, she mentions that the education she and Sansa are receiving includes learning to sew, dance, sing, pray, write poetry, how to dress (fashion), and to play musical instruments (specifically, Sansa can play the harp and bells).
This is not to say, however, that girls' educations shape them to remain trapped in a castle all day, sewing, praying, and breeding as necessary. Arya also specifically mentions that while she is bad at all of these other traditional "womanly" skills compared to Sansa, she is better than her with numbers - she outright says that girls receive instruction in arithmetic, because they are expected to co-manage their lord-husband's household - a position of relative social power.
The Lady of a noble House rules over the domestic sphere; the Lord's Steward is expected to work with her, but this varies on a personal level: if a Lady is good at math she may want to oversee the management personally, but Arya notes that Sansa isn't very good with numbers and will probably have to rely on her husband having a good steward. Girls are also taught basic horseriding, because it is the primary means of transport (Arya, at nine years old, says she knows how to ride a horse better than the eleven year old Sansa - women are expected to be able to ride for long distances).
Maesters also give boys and girls lessons in foreign languages: High Valyrian is the analogue of Latin in Westeros, a dead language of a fallen empire used by scholars and intellectuals. The novels mention that Arya Stark received lessons in High Valyrian from Maester Luwin, as did presumably all of the other Stark children - but due to her young age she apparently didn't know it well enough to speak yet (when Arya arrives in Braavos she has to spend time learning Braavosi Valyrian).
It also depends on how intellectually inclined the student is - Robert Baratheon was probably more interested in martial training than higher education. Tyrion Lannister learned near-fluent High Valyrian from his maester and was a voracious reader on all topics. The bookish Samwell Tarly humbly says that he isn't very skilled at High Valyrian, though he actually knows it reasonably well, but not as well as Tyrion.
Both boys and girls receiving religious training, reading the The Seven-Pointed Star, the holy text of the Faith of the Seven. Boys' education tends to provide more focus on politics, history, and rulership. A point not made clear in the TV series is that it is actually very unusual that Princess Shireen Baratheon has been instructed to read major historical texts about the Targaryen Conquest and Dance of the Dragons.
After her father Stannis Baratheon realized that his wife would probably never provide him with a living son, and that Shireen was going to be his only heir, he instructed her teachers to shift to giving her the type of education normally reserved for boys - because he wanted her to be a capable Ruling Queen some day. This is in contrast with Cersei, who didn't care at all about her son Joffrey's education, resulting in him being a barely-educated buffoon who when presented with the Lives of Four Kings, a classic book on the art of good rulership, promptly hacks it apart with a sword. Shireen is actually better read in texts about the art of rulership than Catelyn Stark or Margaery Tyrell.
Many young girls in Westeros, such as Sansa, look forward to a life of sewing circles, sitting around drinking tea, gossiping, and eating lemon cakes. Others such as Cersei Lannister, Arya Stark, and Brienne of Tarth are not satisfied with this. Cersei notes that she and Jaime were twins and even looked so similar when they were small children that the servants couldn't tell them apart. In the novels, she says a game she used to play was dressing in Jaime's clothes and walking around their castle, fascinated with how differently people treated her when they thought she was her brother.
As she bitterly recounts in her drunken rant in Season 2's "Blackwater", when they grew older, Jaime was taken away to be trained in fighting with sword and lance, while she was just taught social manners, how to smile, curtsy, sing, and pray - ultimately to be shipped off in a marriage-alliance. Brienne of Tarth also didn't want to spend her life trying to be "ladylike" and learning how to dress and act (she was naturally very tall and muscular, making her the subject of ridicule), but she managed to convince her father to provide her with formal combat training. In contrast, the women of House Tyrell such as Olenna and Margaery try to use their skills within the framework of traditional femininity to manipulate political power - which is quite important in a political system which is heavily reliant upon marriage-alliances between different noble-families.
Some local cultures in Westeros have a tradition of Warrior women, different from the mainstream standard of femininity. The wildlings beyond the Wall, the hill tribes of the Vale, and Dorne all commonly have female warriors. The ancient Valyrians apparently had a long tradition of women being warriors and dragonriders just as often as men. Even specific Houses and sub-regions sometimes have a tradition of warrior-women, particularly areas under constant threat of attack, such as the women-warriors from House Mormont on Bear Island, staunch allies of the Starks.
If Meera Reed is any indication, both male and female Crannogmen are fighters - their tactics focus on ambush using poisoned arrows before melting back into the swamps of the Neck, where their enemies cannot follow. When House Targaryen conquered and united the Seven Kingdoms three centuries before the War of the Five Kings, they were led by Aegon I Targaryen riding the dragon Balerion - but also Aegon's sisters Visenya and Rhaenys, who rode the dragons Vhagar and Meraxes into battle. Other Targaryen women were dragonriders in the following 130 years before the dragons died out.
Marriage, bastardy, and inheritance
In real life the exact definition of marriage changed every two or three centuries, and it changed significantly throughout the medieval period. The TV series released a behind-the-scenes video featurette about marriage in Westeros (click this link to view), in which George R.R. Martin stressed that as in the real-life Middle Ages, it is by far the norm for the nobility in Westeros to enter into arranged marriages, not for love but to secure political alliances, saying: "Marriage was a way to bind two families together, it was a form of political alliance, and royal marriages are one of the ultimate examples of this."
Children growing up in the Middle Ages actually had a much better level of sex education than children in twentieth century industrial nations. Children growing up in modern cities and suburbs aren't as exposed to the physical mechanics of sex - which correspondingly makes sexualized mass media much more "forbidden" and exciting. In contrast, most people in the Middle Ages either grew up on farms and dealt with livestock, or in towns dealing with the products produced from farms in the countryside.
Therefore, from a young age, most children could observe the breeding of animals as part of daily farm life. Especially in peasant households, where space was often a premimum and heating was poor or non-existant, it was common for the entire family to sleep in a single bed, or at least in the same room (often with the animals). In such close quarters, sexual activity was much harder to conceal. The result is that medieval people probably grew up with greater knowledge about sex, and therefore had a more matter-of-fact attitude about it (instead of treating it by Victorian standards, that it was something forbidden and exciting).
In part because of these factors, the association between a marriage ceremony and sex on the wedding night was also quite openly and frankly acknowledged. Because the main point of marriage was to have procreative sex to produce confirmed heirs (to unite the families of the bride and groom through their future children), "weddings typically included the couple being placed in bed together, naked, in front of witnesses" (who then left before they actually engaged in the sex act).
Therefore, the "Bedding" ceremony seen in Game of Thrones is actually based on real-life customs from the Middle Ages (though maybe not exactly like this - a "bedding" in Westeros is exciting and filled with ribald joking, while allegedly the records say that this real-life bedding ceremony was supposed to be more solemn - at least in theory).
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Sansa Stark recalls that she has been to weddings back in the North and secretly thought it was exciting when the bride and groom were carried away in the bedding ceremony - Sansa left the North when she was eleven years old in the novels, so by that age if not earlier she apparently understood what sex is (and also the link between "Flowering" (menstruating) and a female's ability to get pregnant). On the other hand the seven year old Bran Stark in the first novel might not know exactly what sex is yet - when he stumbles upon Jaime and Cersei having sex, his inner thought monologue describes it as seeing them "wrestling".
Most members of the Great Houses of Westeros during the timeframe of the narrative entered into arranged marriages: Catelyn Tully and Eddard Stark, Lysa Tully and Jon Arryn, Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Selyse Florent, and during the narrative Margaery Tyrell and her successive husbands (Renly Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, and Tommen Baratheon).
Sometimes with great work and effort over many years, arranged marriages turn into strong relationships - Catelyn herself championed this aspect of her marriage to Ned when trying to urge her son Robb to enter into an arranged marriage. While they may not grow to love each other, couples in arranged marriages are often able to maintain at least a functional public partnership. Many dread being trapped in miserable arranged marriages, such as Robert and Cersei, or Lysa's loveless marriage to Jon, a good man but old enough to be her father. Only two major political leaders in Westeros in the current generation married for love: Tywin Lannister and Doran Martell. Tywin married his own first cousin Joanna Lannister out of love, even though she brought him no new lands or allies. He actually loved Joanna dearly and it was said she brought out the best in him, and her death giving birth to Tyrion left him heartbroken and embittered. Later in life, Tywin hypocritically tried to force all three of his children into loveless arranged marriages (succeeding with Cersei and Tyrion). Doran Martell is an example of lord who married for love, but as happens in real life, he and his wife eventually fell out of love. In the novels, he wed the noblewoman Mellario of Norvos, but after several years she found the customs of Dorne to be so foreign that she became estranged from Doran and moved back to Norvos (divorce does not exist in Westeros), leaving Doran with a heavy heart. Brynden Tully, Catelyn's uncle, infamously refused to enter into an arranged marriage his brother set up for him with Bethany Redwyne - despite the fact that all agreed it was a great match, as she was beautiful, wealthy, and it would gain strong allies for the Tullys.
Brynden quarreled often with his brother about this over the years and became known as "the Blackfish" as a result (exactly why Brynden never married is unclear in the novels - fan speculation ranges from that he is secretly a homosexual to that he secretly loved his brother's future wife, but once they wed each other Brynden swore he would never love again). It is not unusual for lords who are privately homosexual to still marry women, such as Renly Baratheon, purely to secure a political alliance and produce heirs ("love" is not generally a major reason for marriage among the nobility in Westeros).
"Divorce" does not exist in Westeros, though annulment does. An annulment can be requested from the hierarchy of the Faith of the Seven due to several factors, such as if the marriage was never consummated (the couple never had sex), if it is later discovered that one of the two was already married (bigamous marriage is forbidden), or if it is argued that the marriage was made under duress, because officially no one can be forced to take a holy vow against their will.
In practice the daughters of noble Houses are often pressured by their families to marry against their will, but forcibly marrying a woman held hostage against her family's wishes is generally seen as grounds for annulment. For example, Sansa Stark was obviously a prisoner of the Lannisters when she was forced to marry Tyrion, against both her will and that of her entire family, and the marriage was never consummated, so Sansa can request an annulment from the Faith in the future (though she has not yet).
Bastardy - when children are born outside of marriage - is considered so shameful in Westeros that the acknowledged bastard children of the nobility have to use special bastard surnames, one surname for each of the Seven Kingdoms. Bastards from the North use the surname "Snow", such as Jon Snow and Ramsay Snow. Bastards from the desert kingdom Dorne use the surname "Sand", such as Ellaria Sand, as well as Oberyn Martell's daughters (nicknamed "the Sand Snakes" as a result). Dorne has different views on sexuality than the rest of Westeros, and unlike the other kingdoms the Dornish don't consider bastardy to be particularly shameful.
Only bastards of the nobility can use these surnames. Bastards are excluded from the line of succession, though on rare occasion a king might grant them Legitimization. The TV series released a behind-the-scenes video featurette on "Bastards of Westeros" including comments by Martin himself (click this link to view).
There are three major systems of inheritance law practiced in the Seven Kingdoms, all variations on the winner-take-all rule of primogeniture. In real life, primogeniture was actually not universally practiced in Medieval Europe, and inheritance laws varied considerably from one sub-region to the next. Most of the Seven Kingdoms follow male-preference primogeniture: sons rank ahead of daughters in the line of succession (i.e. Bran Stark is ahead of his older sister Sansa Stark in the line of succession, and Tyrion was ahead of his older sister Cersei).
Dorne is an exception: due to resisting conquest by the Targaryens and only joining the realm one century ago through marriage-alliance the Dornish were allowed to keep many of their local laws, including gender-blind primogeniture. As a result, in the novels Prince Doran's heir apparent is his daughter Arianne, not her younger brothers (Arianne seems to have been cut from the TV series). In both of these systems, a lord's younger brother only inherits after even the lord's last daughter is dead.
Royal inheritance law was heavily modified after the Dance of the Dragons to place female heirs to the throne behind all possible male ones (in the hope that this would prevent another civil war). Season 1 of the TV series outright states that if Sansa only has daughters with Joffrey, the Iron Throne would pass to Joffrey's younger brother Tommen, and also that even Robert's second brother Renly is ahead of Myrcella in the line of succession. This is true under royal inheritance law but not for the normal inheritance law, which is followed by Winterfell. Indeed, by Season 5 when all of the legitimate Stark sons are believed dead, Sansa is repeatedly referred to as the legitimate heir to Winterfell. Because the Targaryen exiles considered the Baratheons to be pretenders to the throne, Daenerys was officially the heir of her brother Viserys for many years, simply because all other male Targaryens had in fact died by that point - making Daenerys, upon Viserys's death, the first Targaryen woman to lawfully claim the throne under the modified royal inheritance laws.
Charts of the three inheritance systems:
Prostitution, contraception, and abortion
- See main article "Prostitution"
Prostitution, of course, existed in the real-life Middle Ages and throughout history. In Westeros, as in Medieval Europe, a general "boys will be boys" attitude of male privilege predominates, and men are not particularly criticized for having sex with prostitutes (i.e. King Robert Baratheon is a notorious whore-monger). In contrast, women who have sex outside of marriage are stigmatized and severely punished.Due to the high infant mortality rates in the Middle Ages, the nobility as well as commoners actually wanted to produce as many babies as possible, since it was never certain if all children would survive until adulthood: for common laborers, each new child was a potential new worker that could assist them on their farm or in their trade; for nobles, more children meant a firmer guarantee that their lineage would survive. Therefore, prostitutes were the only women in the Middle Ages who regularly practiced contraception: any scholarly research into the history of contraception - women's reproductive rights and control over their own bodies - which extends back to look at the origins of these practices in the medieval era, has to examine records about prostitutes.
Prostitution is practiced throughout the continents of Westeros and Essos. It is tacitly legal in the Seven Kingdoms, as kings and lords usually find it more profitable to simply tax brothels than to ban prostitution outright. Every now and again a particularly pious ruler (such as King Baelor Targaryen) will attempt to shut down the brothels within his lands, but with varying degrees of success. In the novels, Littlefinger's full quote to Eddard Stark about prostitution is: "Brothels are a much sounder investment than ships, I've found. Whores seldom sink, and when they are boarded by pirates, why, they pay good coin like everyone else". The TV series has frequently made use of prostitutes in what have been referred to as "Sexposition" scenes.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the views of all of the major religions about contraception and abortion have actually not been prominently mentioned - but abortion is quite commonly practiced across Westeros. To induce early-term abortion, women in Westeros can drink a medicinal concoction known as "moon tea", which is a combination of several different kinds of herbs (the main active ingredient is a flower called "tansy", but it also includes wormwood, mint, honey, and a drop of pennyroyal). Most if not all maesters know how to make moon tea upon request, as do many woods witches or local apothecaries, etc. Yara Greyjoy (called Asha in the novels) is an independent warrior-woman and unashamedly sexually active, and at some point she learned how to make moon tea on her own from a woods witch. What isn't clear is whether making moon tea is openly legal, or, if there are technically religious and/or secular laws against making moon tea, but they are just very frequently ignored on an everyday level. In the novels, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish actually impregnated the young Lysa Tully while he was living at Riverrun, but this infuriated her father Hoster Tully, who threw Baelish out of the castle, and then forced Lysa to drink moon tea and abort Baelish's child. The Game of Thrones TV series hasn't mentioned moon tea at all - specifically because the detail about Lysa's abortion was condensed out for time.
- See main article on "Rape"
Outside of Westeros, little can be said with certainty about sexuality and gender roles, and what is known is often far from conclusive: The eastern continent of Essos contains many diverse cultures, some of whom even the learned maesters only know scare details about; and the continent of Sothyros in the Summer Sea has never been explored in any great detail. Only a vague sketch can be made of the different social models and attitudes in regions beyond Westeros itself.
The Free Cities are the surviving colonies of the Valyrian Freehold, which fell four centuries ago in the Doom of Valyria. The Valyrian ruling classes practiced heavily incestuous marriages (brother-to-sister was a preferred format) to keep their bloodlines pure, and frequently engaged in polygamous marriages - though how much this was practiced in their colonies is unknown. Apparently such practices were abandoned after the fall of Valyria by the ruling classes in each of the Free Cities, and the Valyrian religion itself is mostly extinct (save for a handful of the old aristocratic families in Volantis, but not all of them).
In contrast to Westeros, there are a large number of religions found on the eastern continent of Essos. However, few of these religions are widespread across large geographic areas. For example, each of the Free Cities may contain worshipers of numerous local religions that are not found anywhere else in the world. As a result, cultural values about gender and sexuality can vary considerably, perhaps even within a single city. Braavos in particular is noted for having a very diverse, cosmopolitan religious makeup, welcoming all faiths.
The one major exception is the faith of R'hllor, the Lord of Light, which is very widespread across Essos. It is the most popular faith in the southern Free Cities - Volantis, Lys, Tyrosh, and Myr - and is said to outnumber all other faiths in Volantis, where the Temple of R'hllor is three times the size of the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing. It also seems to be fairly popular in Pentos, and apparently has some numbers in the other four Free Cities (though the only one specifically mentioned to have a notable Temple is Braavos, and it is far from the most popular religion in the city).
Like the Faith of the Seven in Westeros, the Lord of Light religion has a gender-blind clergy, so Red Priests can be either male or female, such as Thoros of Myr or Melisandre of Asshai. Unlike the Faith of the Seven, Red Priests and Red Priestesses do not practice clerical celibacy - which seems to fit with how the faith appears to a bit more tolerant of sexuality.
In the religion's dualist view, the Lord of Light made humankind male and female, and he is locked in an eternal struggle, pitting the power of life against the power of death, the latter symbolized by the Great Other. Therefore, when male and female are joined together it is a life-affirming, powerful act. This might indicate that the faith doesn’t view non-procreative sex as negative, but it is unclear. Either way, there are so many other religions practiced in the Free Cities, even within a single city, that at least some of them don't seem to persecute homosexuals on religious grounds; a few characters from the Free Cities in the novels are openly homosexual.
- "No act done in service to the Lord of Light can ever be considered a sin."
- ―Melisandre to Stannis Baratheon.
The Lord of Light religion apparently does practice sacred prostitution: it is mentioned that the religion purchases unwanted slave children to raise in its service, who can be trained to be (as adults) priests, servants, or temple guards - though also as cult prostitutes who operate in the temples. This also seems to indicate that the religion is more tolerant of sexuality in general than the Faith of the Seven.
Differences between the Free Cities
The four southern Free Cities – Volantis, Lys, Tyrosh, and Myr – have more in common with each other than with the cities to the north, and all four are quite similar in terms of history, culture, and practices: All are coastal cities with large harbors, since they were founded primarily as merchant ventures. The slave trade forms a significant part of each city’s economy, and all have large slave populations that outnumber freeborn citizens (by five to one in Volantis and three to one in the others). The Lord of Light religion is also quite popular in all four cities; the Red Temple in Volantis is said to be largest of its kind in the world.
Volantis, the oldest of the Free Cities and second in population only to Braavos, has long dominated the quarreling "three sisters" to its west (Lys, Tyrosh, and Myr). While most of the cities are ruled by a council of magisters (wealthy merchants) or by a single elected official, Volantis is ruled by three triarchs, who are elected for one year terms. Eligible candidates for triarch must be from the old aristocratic families that can trace their bloodlines back to Old Valyria, but all freeborn landholders, male or female, have the right to vote (though keep in mind that only one out of every six persons in Volantis is freeborn, and not all of them are aristocratic landholders). Both men and women can be elected as triarchs, though in practice there has not been a female triarch in three hundred years. The last one was Trianna, a very important figure in Volantis history who was elected to the position four times. There are two major political parties in Volantis: The "Tiger" party, which advocates for power through war and conquest, and the "Elephant" party, which favors trade and economic expansion. After the city’s devastating losses during the Century of Blood, caused by the Tiger party's fruitless attempts to reconquer the other Free Cities, Trianna led the Elephant party to sweep them out of power in new elections, cut the city's losses, and refocus on rebuilding Volantis's power through trade. Ever since then, the Tigers have only ever held one triarch positon at a time, and sometimes none at all. Brothels are common in Volantis, and at least some of the prostitutes in the city are slaves: All Volantis slaves are marked with a tattoo that identifies their function, and prostitutes are distinguished by a single tear beneath their right eye.
Lys is the most openly sexual of the Free Cities; its pleasure houses are famous for producing the finest bed slaves and prostitutes in the world, and it is generally regarded as a city of vice. The flipside of this, however, is a clear sense of openness and – it could be argued – gender equality. Both men and women are trained in the pleasure houses, indicating that the Lysene place no particular stigma on sexual preferences. In addition to the worship of the Lord of Light, local religions include the Weeping Woman and an unnamed love goddess. The fact that two of their primary deities are female could indicate that the Lysene hold women in high regard.
Virtually nothing has been reveled about sexuality and gender roles in Tyrosh and Myr. Both cities are involved in the slave trade – with Tryoshi slavers even capturing wildlings for the slave markets – so it can be assumed that some of those slaves are destined for local pleasures houses. Daario Naharis, the only prominent Tyroshi character, said that his mother was a whore, but it is not specifically mentioned how widely prostitution is practiced in the city.
Pentos is situated roughly halfway between the southern and northern Free Cities, and doesn’t fit neatly into either group in terms of culture. Like the southern cities, it was founded as a merchant venture, and the Lord of Light religion is apparently fairly popular there. Unlike most of the other cities, however, there are unconfirmed legends that Pentos was not founded from scratch by the Valyrians, but was a pre-existing settlement that they conquered. The original inhabitants were allegedly akin to the Andals, who lived just north of Pentos at the time, and in modern times Andal bloodlines still run strong among the city’s inhabitants. As such, Pentoshi tend to be quite similar to the Westerosi in terms of appearance. This indigenous background may also explain certain unique practices in Pentos: the Prince of Pentos (elected by the city's magisters and largely their puppet) is required to welcome in each new year at a celebration in which he must deflower two virgins, called the Maid of the Field and the Maid of the Sea, which is believed to bring the city good fortune in the coming year. This probably indicates that Pentos has somewhat more relaxed sexual attitudes than Westeros, or at least, that the religious authorities don't stop this practice from continuing - either because they aren't powerful enough or because they actively tolerate it.
The northern Free Cities are very different from their southern counterparts in terms of history, culture, and overall character. Three of them – Qohor, Norvos, and Lorath – were founded by religious dissidents from Valyria: The Freehold had a strict policy of religious toleration, and everyone from dragonlords to slaves were allowed to pray to whatever gods they chose. Some within the Freehold, however, objected to this toleration, and re-located as far away from the capital as possible, so that their cults could thrive unchallenged. Trade is an important economic component of the northern cities, and Qohor and Norvos even participate in the slave trade, but not nearly on the scale of Volantis or other the southern cites.
Not much is known about the culture of Qohor in terms of sexuality and gender roles. The local deity is known as the Black Goat, and the religion demands daily blood sacrifices - usually animals, but also condemned criminals on holy days, and even the children of nobles when the city is threatened. While located far inland from the sea and away from maritime commerce, Qohor sits at a key point along major continental trade routes. This strategic location means that the city frequently receives traders and goods from all across Essos, as well as exposure to many different cultures. This “cosmopolitan” nature may very well influence the city’s attitudes towards sexuality.
Norvos is a theocracy ruled by the Bearded Priests, an all-male clergy (it is implied but not confirmed that they practice celibacy). In general, their religion is very conservative, with the city's famous bells calling the populace to frequent daily prayers. The religion is also stated to only tolerate sex for the purpose of procreation, and even the specified time for this act is signaled by the city's bells (reportedly far less often than the calls to prayer). Unlike the other Free Cities – and indeed most of Essos and Westeros – there is no indication that brothels or pleasure houses operate in Norvos, which can be found in most other locations despite local religious disapproval.
Overall, the Norvoshi religion's attitudes bear some similarities to medieval Christianity - though the Norvoshi don't seem to have a separate clerical order for women, giving them little opportunity for life outside of the normal family unit. Strict rules about personal appearance are part of the religion as well: Priests are the only Norvoshi allowed to wear full beards, as a sign of their status, while the ordinary free men of the city wear long moustaches. Slaves of both sexes and even free women shave their heads completely bald – though Norvoshi noblewomen are aware that this is considered strange by the gender standards of many neighboring lands, and often wear wigs in the company of foreigners. Doran Martell's estranged wife Mellario was herself a Norvoshi noblewoman, but it is not clear if she continued her native practices upon marrying him
Although its location has been occupied by many different peoples over the centuries, Lorath in its present form was founded by the followers of Boash, the Blind God. This religion practiced extreme self-abnegation, to the point where followers even forsook personal names (the speech patterns of “Jaqen H’ghar” – who is supposed to be from Lorath – is a reference to this tradition). Followers of Boash believed that all humans were equal - in the sense that they were all equally worthless before their god. Therefore, the cult held that there was no difference between men and women, or between slaves and freemen, so Lorath became a haven for runaway slaves from the rest of the Valyrian Freehold. Priests of Boash were known as Blind Men for the eye-covering hoods they always wore, and were also castrated upon entering the priesthood. About a thousand years ago, however, the cult of Boash began to dwindle and eventually died out, so authority fell to the city’s various magisters and merchant-princes who had grown powerful (mostly through fishing ventures). As a result it isn't known if present-day Lorathi still treat women as equal to men, as a surviving local custom, or if that practice faded along with the original religion. It is known that modern Lorath is a Freehold, just like Valyria before it, and the continued absence of slavery is further suggestion of continuing egalitarianism.
Braavos is unique among the Free Cities in that it was not founded by the Valyrian Freehold, but by escaped slaves fleeing Valyria in search of refuge. From its very inception, Braavos has been vehemently opposed to slavery, and because its founders came from many different backgrounds, it developed a very egalitarian and tolerant culture. Many different religions are followed Braavos, much more so than any of the other cities, and merchants from all over the known world can be seen buying and selling their goods.
Of the twenty-three founders of the Iron Bank of Braavos, seven were women - though it hasn't been mentioned if any current high-ranking officers of the bank are women. Prostitution is widely practiced in the city and operates on a detailed ranking system. In addition to street walkers and brothel workers, Braavos contains many notable courtesans, who are held in high esteem by the citizens. Braavos courtesans are somewhat similar to real-life Japanese geisha; while they do have sex with their clients, they are also highly trained in poetry, music, literature, and other art forms. Considered the pinnacle of cultural refinement, many courtesans are wealthy in their own right; they own barges in which they tour the canals, and are attended by multitudes of hired servants. The wealthy and powerful from across the Free Cities and even Westeros vie for their affections, and the city’s famous swordsmen (bravos) have been known to duel to the death for their favors. Overall, Braavos seems to have quite tolerant attitudes towards sexuality and the status of women.
Attitudes about gender and sexuality in Slaver's Bay are less clear than in Westeros or the Free Cities, and the information that does exist is often open to interpretation. The great cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, were founded as colonies by the ancient Ghiscari Empire, but were eventually conquered by the Valyrian Freehold almost five thousand years ago. The city of New Ghis was founded after the Doom of Valyria (approximately four hundred years ago), when the native Ghiscari were finally able to shake off the chains of their Valyrian overlords. As the name of the region indicates, all four cities have vast slave populations, and this likely influences their attitudes about sex.
As in other locations throughout Essos, male slave-owners have sexual access to their slaves, and female slaves are used to breed new slaves. Each city also specializes in specific types of slaves: In Astapor, slave boys are castrated by the hundreds to train as Unsullied. There are both male and female pleasure slaves, taken and trained starting in childhood: Yunkai specializes in training bed slaves in "the way of the seven sighs" (though these slaves are not quite as highly esteemed as those from Lys). Meereen is especially famed for its fighting pits, and many of the slaves in that city are likely trained in gladiatorial combat; a successful fighter can bring in vast amounts of wealth to their masters, and even take sexual partners of their own.
Meanwhile, it is unknown what degree of sexual freedom is considered typical for women from the slave-owning classes (either with other men from the slave-owning classes, or with slaves that they own). While some of these women do engage in homosexual activity, and train male or female slaves for a variety of sexual services, it is unknown how typical or widespread such behavior is considered. [[File:Great_Masters_403B.jpg|thumb] The Ghiscari religion practiced in Slaver's Bay centers around a Temple of the Graces in each city. Run by an all-female clergy known as the Graces, these women wear color-coded robes to signify their role in the temple hierarchy. Blue Graces are healers, Red Graces are temple prostitutes, and the high priestess of each temple is known as the Green Grace. Given that their religion includes sacred prostitution, the Ghiscari inhabitants of Slaver’s Bay probably have more relaxed views on sexuality than in Westeros; indeed, when Doran Martell’s son Quentyn travels to Meereen on a diplomatic mission, he comments that the septas of the Faith of the Seven should copy the lifestyle of the Red Graces (and he was from Dorne, the most openly sexual and accepting of the Seven Kingdoms). In addition, the religion is apparently dominated led an all-female clergy, which might affect its followers views on the status of women. The Green Grace of a city can wield significant political power, and Galazza Galare, who fills the role in Meereen, becomes one of Daenerys’ close advisors.
It is unknown if Graces can marry, but it does not appear that they do. If so, this might mean that aristocratic families in Slaver's Bay, as in real-life Western Europe, might marry off their daughters at relatively late ages, because if they wait too long and she is no longer suitable for marriage, she can always join the Graces and still occupy a significant social position. The late marriage age caused by having celibate female clergy would give Ghiscari women a relatively high degree of social independence, similar to women living under the Faith of the Seven in Westeros.
It is not known how commonly women exercise political power in Slaver's Bay, and no description has been given about the region’s inheritance laws. Some slaver families such as the House of Pahl are run by women after Daenerys kills all of their men in her conquest of Meereen, so women can inherit in at least some circumstances. What isn't clear is if their inheritance system is gender-blind, or a male-preference system like in Westeros. In the case of the House of Pahl, women may only have inherited because all males who were ahead of them in the line of succession were dead. It also isn't clear if the slaver families practice primogeniture, or have a more complex system for distributing inherited wealth and lands. [[File:Drogo 1x01b.jpg|thumb|Drogo, a powerful Khal of the Dothraki. His long uncut braid of hair displays that he has never been defeated in battle.]] A few women warriors have been seen in the fighting pits of Slaver's Bay, and even as military commanders - but it isn't clear if these examples are considered “atypical” for women in Ghiscari society (i.e. they might be the Slaver's Bay equivalents of Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, or Daenerys Targaryen - they occur but they are uncommon).
Dothraki society is shown in more detail than most other cultures of Essos, due to the time Daenerys spends living with the horse lords. Even so, the information on sexuality and gender roles is often tantalizingly brief, and there is a great deal of ambiguity that must be sifted through. The religion of the Great Stallion actually has quite a complex belief system, and it can be difficult to separate purely religious norms from general cultural ones.
The Dothraki are nomads who roam the vast central plains of Essos, known as the Dothraki Sea, in large war-bands called khalasars. These bands, led by chieftains known as khals, can be enormous, with Khal Drogo’s khalasar of forty thousand being unusually large. The Dothraki appear to be a male-dominated warrior society: Women cannot lead khalasars and there is no mention of women participating in combat.
The Dothraki way of life is characterized by raiding and pillaging surrounding lands, and men frequently take captured women as concubines. They also practice slavery – even against other Dothraki – and sex with slave women apparently isn't a moral concern. Polygamy is a common practice, at least among khals, and the novels mention several who have multiple wives; Khal Drogo just happened to have never married other wives before he married Daenerys.
The actual status of a khal's wife – a khaleesi – is variable: Some khals may only take one wife who they are infatuated with, and she could wield great informal power within the khalasar. In other cases a khal may have multiple wives who he simply treats as concubines (it is said that a khal might even share his wife with his bloodriders, though he will never share his horse with them). It is unknown if there is any ranking system among a khal’s wives – such as how the ironborn have one primary "rock wife" but multiple "salt wives”, essentially formal concubines (though the latter is considered a marriage and their children are legitimate). When khals die, their widows cannot lead the khalasar – either in their own right or in the name of an infant son, like a regent in Westeros – but must live out her days in Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki's only city. In many ways therefore, it does not seem that women are held in high regard by the Dothraki.
Yet there are other indications that Dothraki attitudes towards women are more complex than appearances suggest. While women cannot lead khalasars, the horse lords don't have a "male-preference inheritance system" for determining successive leadership, because they actually have no formal inheritance system: When a khal dies, there is no guarantee that his khalasar will follow his son – like the Free Folk in Westeros, the Dothraki follow strength above all else. If a khal has an adult son who is well-respected, he will be considered his father’s heir and given the title khalakka. If his son is only an infant, or if he has no sons, the khalasar will break up into new smaller ones commanded by his former lieutenants. Therefore, while political rule among the Dothraki excludes women, it can't really be considered "patrilineal" either.
Both men and women are expected to ride everywhere on horses – even pregnant women, who are apparently not considered weak due to their condition. Only slaves walk on foot – indeed, being forced to walk on foot is considered a great shame among the Dothraki and often used a punishment. The only people in a khalasar who are carried in horse-drawn carts are the feeble, the injured, the very old and very young, and pregnant women are in the middle of childbirth (the whole khalasar doesn't stop moving just because one woman went into labor).
Khals can also have a great deal of respect for their mothers: Khal Mengo, who was the first leader to unite all of the Dothraki and led their first great outburst of conquest during the Century of Blood, was said to have been counseled by his mother, the purported witch-queen Doshi.
Interestingly, the only Dothraki "priesthood" of any sort is all-female; the Dosh khaleen who reside in Vaes Dothrak. Made up of the widows of dead khals, the dosh khaleen (whose name literally means "council of crones") serve as seers and wise-women. The Dothraki believe in all manner of omens and portents, and these women are responsible for interpreting such signs to determine when it is favorable to go to war. Even the most powerful khal would be hesitant to defy the word the dosh khaleen. Thus women can achieve powerful positions in Dothraki society, specifically dominating their clergy, which can dictate sexual mores. While these widows are apparently celibate, the Dothraki do not actually have a celibate clerical order; it is not a "lifestyle choice" that any woman can make, but applies only to the few women who ever marry khals. The dosh khaleen don't "choose" celibacy; by definition they have all had sex before – they are all widows – and are attended by eunuchs who protect them, so apparently they are no longer sexually active. [[File:Dosh khaleen leader.jpg|thumb|The lead dosh khaleen In real-life medieval Christianity, the celibate clergy held up its own lifestyle as a morally superior choice which the non-clergy didn't make, but the dosh khaleen couldn't realistically expect most Dothraki women (who never marry khals) to be able to choose a life of celibacy on their own. As such, there isn't a strong reason for the dosh khaleen to denounce sex among ordinary Dothraki men and women, whether procreative or not.
The Dothraki language developed by David J. Peterson offers no specific clues to sexuality or gender roles; Dothraki pronouns make no gender distinctions, and while regular nouns do have gender, they are not divided between male and female categories. Rather, they distinguish between animate and inanimate "gender" categories (like the Basque language and many real-life Native American languages). [[File:Dosh khaleen leader.jpg|thumb|The lead dosh khaleen priestess at Daenerys's stallion heart eating ceremony.]] Dothraki doesn't even have one overall word for an animal species, (both male and female) such as "cat", "dog", or "goat". Dothraki does distinguish between male and female goats, but it uses entirely separate words; "dorvi" (male goat) and "jin" (female goat) - just as in English "stallion" (male horse) and "mare" (female horse) are separate words for different genders of the same kind of animal. Little can be firmly read into these points, however, about the broader Dothraki conceptualizations regarding human gender behaviors.
The combination of all these factors paints an ambiguous picture Dothraki society: An influential female priesthood, but generally a male-dominant warrior society; men can have polygamous marriages, but leaders’ widows are held in high regard; women cannot exercise political power, but men do not automatically inherit leadership roles, either. The novels have never mentioned what the Dothraki attitudes towards homosexual behavior and gender patterns are. For all we know, they might have a concept of more than two genders, like the Native American "Two Spirit" model (the Dothraki are loosely inspired by a mix of real-life Turkic and Native American peoples). Just because a Dothraki warrior behaves in ways the men of Westeros find to be "masculine" doesn't mean he doesn't also have sex with men. Like in Medieval Europe, the Dothraki conception of gender may be based more on a dichotomy of penetrator vs. penetrated. Alternatively, the Dothraki could have the same views about homosexuality and gender binary as men in Westeros: the narrative simply has not given any information on the subject (i.e. there’s never been any mention of Dothraki insulting men from other cultures by claiming that they are homosexuals, which would indicate that they have no cultural bias against it).
- "The Dothraki think outsiders are ridiculous taking shame in the naked body. They make love under the stars for the whole khalasar to see."
- ―Daenerys Targaryen
The Dothraki have very different attitudes towards shame of the body than people in Westeros or the Free Cities; everything in a khalasar is done in the open, so public nudity or publicly having sex in front of a crowd isn't considered shameful. Dothraki even openly hold wild orgies in front of crowds gathered at wedding ceremonies. On their wedding night, the husband and wife ride out into the fields to have sex for the first time in the open air, not in a tent, as they believe that anything important in life should be witnessed by the sky, not hidden. This does seem to be congruent with the fact that the Dothraki do not have a celibate clerical order. Societies in real life with non-celibate clergies are generally more tolerant of non-procreative sex among the non-clergy.
Both the novels and TV series also note that the Dothraki prefer rear entry/"doggystyle" sex positions between men and women, i.e. in the novels Daenerys's narration at her wedding notes that the Dothraki men are having sex with the women from behind in Dothraki fashion.
The Lhazareen are a culture of peaceful shepherds and farmers who live in Lhazar, a hilly land south of the Dothraki Sea and northeast of Slaver's Bay. Very little has been described about the Lhazareen and their culture, but certain points have been mentioned: They worship a single deity known as the Great Shepherd, reflecting their animal-herding lifestyle. One tenant of the religion is that all humans are considered to be of the same “flock”, suggesting openness towards outside ideas. Mirri Maz Duur served as a "Godswife" at her local temple, a role that combines priestess and healer. Thus the religion at least has female clergy – which would affect their views on gender and sexuality – but it isn't clear if the Lhazareen have an exclusively female clergy, or if both men and women can be members. It is also unknown if they practice clerical celibacy. In addition to local healing practices, Mirri Maz Duur was trained in the healing arts of the Westerosi maesters, the herb lore of the Dothraki, and the blood magic of Asshai, again suggesting that the Lhazareen are open to outside ideas. Nothing else is known about Lhazareen society, except that they are largely a non-martial people, and thus an easy target for raids.
The Summer Sea washes the southern coasts of Westeros and Essos, and contains a number of islands and landmasses inhabited by distinctive cultures. The people of this region are typically dark-skinned and have their own unique views about gender and sexuality, which are often quite different from anything found elsewhere.
The Summer Islands
The Summer Islands are located due south of the Narrow Sea. Rich in natural resources – including spices, gemstones, rare hardwoods, and exotic animals – the islands are home to an ancient and advanced civilization renowned for their shipbuilding skills; fleets of Summer Islander merchant ships can be seen in ports all over the known world. The culture of the Summer Islands is very much what might be called "sex-positive" in real life, and this is often connected to local religious practices: While few details about the Summer Islander religion have been revealed, they believe sex to be a gift from the gods for humanity to enjoy (even when non-procreative). It is regarded as joyous, life-affirming, and even an outright "holy" act, and therefore nothing to be ashamed about. While it has not been specifically mentioned, they apparently don't have any stigma against homosexual behavior either. The religion honors many deities, but special reverence is shown to the god and goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. The physical union of male and female is sacred to these deities, and thus joining together in sex is considered a form of worship by the islanders that honors the gods who made them (again, it hasn't been mentioned what their attitudes about homosexuality are, given that their two primary gods symbolize and rejoice in the union of male and female, but as they don't vilify non-procreative sex for pleasure, it is likely that they are tolerant of homosexual behavior).
Prostitution is considered a very respectable profession in the Summer Islands and is even practiced by highborn islanders- who may not financially need to do it, but practice it as a form of sacred prostitution. In fact, all Summer Islanders - male or female, highborn or lowborn, rich or poor - are expected to spend one year in the temples of love honoring the gods with their bodies. Those deemed the most beautiful and most skilled earn the right to stay and become revered priests or priestesses (therefore clerical celibacy is not practiced). These clergy are quite esteemed at their skills, as they consider lovemaking to be an art form, as worthy of respect as music, sculpture, or dance. Even funerals in the Summer Islands are not somber occasions mourning the deceased, but celebrations of the lives they led, complete with wine and lovemaking.The Summer Islanders consider women to be the equals of men, both socially and politically. Apart from becoming revered priestesses, it is stated that Summer Islander women are warriors just much as the men are. The goldenheart trees native to the islands are used to make bows of outstanding quality, and both men and women are considered the finest archers in the world. Most significantly, women are frequently mentioned as rulers in their own right: Each of the islands is ruled by a prince or princess, and the three largest islands are divided between several rival princedoms. They were united for the first time over 5,000 years ago by Xanda Qo, Princess of Sweet Lotus Vale and an accomplished warrior. She was succeeded by her daughter Chatana Qo, but the political unity of the islands did not survive her reign (though they remain largely peaceful).
East of the Summer Islands lies the island of Naath, homeland of Missandei. Very little is known about the culture of the Naathi, except that they worship a single deity known as the Lord of Harmony, who created the universe and everything in it. The religion commands respect for all life, so the Naathi will not even fight to defend their homes and persons, and are strict vegetarians. It is not known if their religion has male and/or female priests, or if there is a clergy at all. The one clue to sexuality and gender roles is that the Lord of Harmony often depicted as naked and surrounded by women with butterfly wings. This could mean that the Naathi have no shame about the naked body, and that women have some kind of role in religious practices, but this remains pure speculation.
The mysterious continent of Sothoryos – the third of the known world after Westeros and Essos – lies east of Naath and south of Slaver’s Bay. Little is known about this largely unexplored continent, whose northern regions are filled with dense and dangerous jungles. The coasts are constantly scoured by slavers from further north, and the only permanent settlements are pirate dens used as bases of operation for future slave raids. Although various manmade structures litter what is known of the continent – hinting at past human habitation – little is known about them, and even less of their builders.
Little is known about the cultural norms of Qarth, or what religions are practiced in the city. This makes deciphering Qartheen attitudes towards gender roles and sexuality difficult, but certain clues hint that they are a sexually open society. In the novels, the great walls that protect Qarth incorporate three layers of defense, and each layer is elaborately decorated with carvings (Lomas Longstrider, the famous Westerosi explorer, mentions the walls of Qarth in his book Wonders Made by Man): The outermost wall is 30 feet high, made of red sandstone, and decorated with images of animals; the middle wall is 40 feet high, made of gray granite, and decorated with images of soldiers and warfare; the innermost wall is 50 feet high, made of black marble, and decorated with vivid images of lovemaking (which make Daenerys blush). Apparently the Qartheen have no qualms about publicly displaying erotic artwork.
Qarth has a highly refined and cosmopolitan culture: Located at a strategic crossroad of trade, and controlling the only easy passage between the Summer Sea to the west and the Jade Sea to the east, traders and merchants from many different lands can be found mingling in Qarth. In the past, Qarth was ruled by a monarchy, but the last King of Qarth was overthrown long before the timeline of the story. In the present day, the city's rulers are merchant-princes aligned with various trade guilds, and who value wealth more than old bloodlines (similar to many of the Free Cities). However, old aristocratic families known as the Pureborn – who descend from the time of monarchical rule – are engaged in the defense of the city and control much of its trade. Qarth is also extensively engaged in the slave trade, and presumably this means slave-owners have sexual access to their slaves, including trained pleasure slaves.
The Qartheen consider exaggerated displays of emotion to be a sign of refinement and civilized behavior - in contrast to some lords of Westeros such as Tywin Lannister, who pride themselves on restraint and stoic conduct in public. Thus if Qartheen men are reporting bad news, they will make an over-exaggerated display of weeping, and apparently don't consider this to be shameful or effeminate behavior.
Qartheen marriage customs are briefly discussed, and they hint strongly at gender equality: After they are married, a husband and wife each retain legal ownership over their personal properties and possessions - a wife's wealth is not transferred to the ownership of her husband, or vice-versa, with one exception; on their wedding day, a wife may ask her husband for one item of his property, and he must grant it (even if it is highly valuable). The husband may also ask the same of his wife.
The traditional dress for Qartheen women leaves one breast exposed, and Daenerys adopts this style of dress while residing in the city, as she does not want the citizens to view her as a savage for wearing Dothraki leathers (there is a disproportionate amount of fanart depicting this dress, and it has also appeared as official cover art for the second novel). The TV series chose to omit this entirely, feeling that in prolonged scenes it would detract from the integrity of the drama.
Xaro Xhoan Daxos is a powerful and immensely wealthy merchant-prince, but it is strongly implied that he is homosexual- his mansion contains numerous young, attractive male slaves, and Daenerys' POV narration mentions that despite his verbal protestations of passion for her, his eyes never particularly linger on her body (made more unusual by the fact that she is wearing the breast-exposing Qartheen dress). Xaro's offer of marriage to her is purely for political and economic purposes. Nonetheless, if Xaro is indeed homosexual, he takes no significant steps to hide it, i.e. openly surrounding himself with attractive male slaves and remaining unmarried. The TV version of Xaro dropped this aspect of his character.
The Further East
East of Qarth and Vaes Dothrak lies the largest mountain range in the world: The massive Bone Mountains stretch from the northern to southern coasts of Essos and form a major block against further east-west land travel across the continent. On the southern coast, the Straits of Qarth form a narrow chokepoint, restricting easy sea travel between the Summer Sea to the west and the exotic lands around the Jade Sea to the east. In Westeros, knowledge about the world beyond their own shores drastically diminishes east of the Bones; partly due to these geographic barriers, partly due to the sheer distance that makes travel to them a massive undertaking. Therefore, these distant lands are half-legendary to men such as the maesters, and most of what they do know is based on sketchy accounts and unreliable rumors. Little was revealed about these lands in the main novels: the first significant descriptions were given in the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014), and according to that book’s co-authors, they had no input on these sections, it was all purely from Martin's own imagination.
Yi TiYi Ti is a massive empire that encircles the north shore of the Jade Sea, and is the oldest continuous civilization in the known world. The emperors of Yi Ti often have multiple wives and keep an array of concubines. However, it is unclear how widespread such practices are among the general population; i.e. if they are limited as a special right of the emperors, or if the nobility and/or commoners do this. Court eunuchs are also common in Yi Ti: These are men who voluntarily undergo castration so they can hold prominent government positions without posing a threat to the authority of the emperor (similar to the influential eunuchs found throughout Chinese history- Yi Ti is loosely inspired by imperial China).
Yi Ti has had eleven ruling dynasties in its 8,000 year recorded history, one of which was known as the "Pearl-white Emperors" (each dynasty was named after a color). These were a series of nine eunuchs whose combined rule lasted 130 years, and whose dynasty is considered to have been a golden age of peace and prosperity. Before they ascended to the throne they lived as normal men, taking wives and siring heirs, but upon becoming emperor each of them was voluntarily emasculated (removing not only the testicles but the penis shaft too), so that they would not be distracted from matters of state. The Nine Eunuchs reigned many centuries ago, however, and later dynasties discontinued this practice.
While imperial women have been known to advise the emperor and exercise unofficial authority (such as Bathi Ma Lo, the wife of the 34th Scarlet Emperor), there has never been a confirmed reigning empress in Yi Ti’s history. It is also unknown if there have been any female leaders among the local nobility. There are legends that describe a time before the historical foundation of the empire, and mention a woman known as the Amethyst Empress who was usurped by her brother. However, such stories – like tales of the Long Night – are difficult to confirm with any accuracy.
Little is known about the religious beliefs of Yi Ti or their organizational structure. While multiple belief systems may be present within the empire, the dominant religion worships two major deities: the Maiden-Made-of-Light who preserves the good in the world, and the Lion of Night (depicted as a man with a lion's head) who punishes the wicked, similar to the concept of Yin and Yang. The people also venerate their emperors as minor deities ("god-emperors"). Otherwise, nothing else is known about religious or cultural values that would give more insight into their views on sexuality.
South of Yi Ti is a large island called Leng, which shares many cultural similarities with the mainland empire. Leng was conquered by Yi Ti during the rule of the “Jade-green Emperors”, but rebelled against the mainland and gained their independence about four centuries ago. The remaining Yi Tish settlers made common cause with the indigenous Lengii people (who are predominantly concentrated the southern third of the island), and the two groups still coexist in the present day. Unlike the dynasties of god-emperors in Yi Ti, Leng came to be ruled by a matrilineal line of god-empresses following its independence (the Lengii still revere Yi Ti’s god-emperors, but only their own god-empresses are actually venerated as minor deities). To appease all of her subjects, it was decided that each empress of Leng would take two husbands- one Yi Tish and one Lengii. Traditionally, her first husband commands the island’s land armies, while her second husband commands its fleets. The fact that Leng is ruled by an empress – who leads in her own right and can have multiple consorts – may indicate openness towards sexuality and genders roles, but this is unclear.
Although the Bone Mountains form a major barrier to east-west travel across Essos, there are three major passes through the range, each of them guarded by a city-state: Kayakayanaya in the north, Shamyriana the middle of the range, and Bayasabhad in the south. These cities were founded by a now-extinct empire known as the Patrimony of Hyrkoon, which flourished on the eastern side of the Bones in centuries past. Built as garrisons to guard the mountain passes, these cities are the only remnants of the Patrimony, and they have many unique practices regarding gender and sexuality: Each city ruled by a small caste of men known as "Great Fathers", but are dominated by fierce warrior women. Infamous for fighting bare-breasted, these women wear iron rings pierced through their nipples and rubies in their cheeks. Only women become warriors, as the Hyrkoonians believe that only those who create life have the right to take it away. They are among the fiercest fighters in the world, capable of shutting down access to the mountain passes to all outsiders. It is also the custom of Hyrkoon to castrate nearly all of their males when they reach the age of adulthood. These eunuchs serve as worker-drones and perform all non-military social roles- including scholars, priests, craftsmen, and farmers. Only the males deemed the largest, strongest, and most attractive are not castrated, are allowed to mature and become Great Fathers- literally named so, because they are the only ones who breed with the women of their cities to produce the next generation.
The Jogos Nhai are a nomadic people who inhabit a vast area of wind-swept flatlands, known simply as the Plains of the Jogos Nhai. Bordered by Yi Ti to the south, the Shivering Sea to the north, and the Bone Mountains to the west, the Plains are largely arid, with few resources. As a result, the Jogos Nhai constantly raid Yi Ti and the Hyrkoonian city-states, to such an extent that they are essentially in a state of perpetual war with their neighbors.
While the Jogos Nhai bear some similarities to the Dothraki horselords, there are important differences between them: While Dothraki khalasars can contain thousands of riders, the Jogos Nhai are divided into smaller, close-knit groups related by kinship- partly because the Plains are less fertile than the Dothraki Sea and can’t support large bands. Also, Dothraki khalasars frequently war against each other, but the Jogos Nhai are expressly forbidden from fighting their own people. Finally, the Dothraki are more like “conquerors”, while the Jogos Nhai are strictly raiders; when their enemies' armies launch a counter-attack, they flee back into the Plains instead of facing them head-on like the Dothraki would. The result is that the Jogos Nhai seldom raid neighboring lands in vast conquests, but rather chip away at them through many small but devastating raids which are difficult to counter.
It is a cultural rite of passage that young men steal livestock from neighboring clans, while young women customarily "kidnap" husbands from other clans. Head-binding is practiced on infants of both sexes to elongate their skulls into a cone-like shape. Men shave all of their hair except for a short mohawk, while women shave their heads completely bald. Each band of Jogos Nhai is co-ruled by a jhat (war chief), who is always a man, and a Moonsinger, who is always a woman: the jhat rules over all things military (i.e. external politics) while the moonsinger is a combination priestess, healer, and judge, who rules over all internal affairs.
This division of labor is very strict - though the Jogos Nhai have some quite unique views on gender (see the "Transgender" section below).
Asshai – the homeland of Melisandre – is a large city located on the far eastern side of the Jade Sea, at the tip of a peninsula comprising the infamous “Shadow Lands” (where Daenerys’s dragon eggs came from). While very little is known for certain about Asshai, many consider the place to be ill-omened, and it is feared as a city of sorcerers, warlocks, shadow-binders, and worse. Nothing grows in Asshai- the Ash River, which empties into the Jade Sea at the tip of the peninsula, exudes poisonous fumes that kill any animals or plants brought into the city. Even drinking water has to be imported. The fumes also seem to render the city’s population sterile if they live there long enough. As a result, the Asshai'i do not reproduce with each other, but purchase slave children from the international slave-trade, then raise them as the next generation of Asshai'i. Melisandre herself was born a slave, but as a child was taken to be raised at the temple of the Lord of Light in Asshai. The attitudes of the Asshai'i towards gender and sexuality seem to be as enigmatic everything else about the city - though given that they can't physically procreate anymore, and given Melisandre's open attitudes about sexuality, it doesn't seem that they would have a need to shame non-procreative sex.
East of Asshai, at the edge of the known world, is Carcosa, a strange city ruled by a figure known as the yellow king - but it is so shrouded in myth that it would be difficult to even begin to describe it.
Following the northern coast of Essos past the Bone Mountains, one will eventually reach the Thousand Islands, a large archipelago of rocky, windswept islands (though in reality, there are only about three hundred isles). This is the furthest east that men from Westeros have ever explored, specifically by Corlys Velaryon during one of his great voyages. The isles are not physically hospitable, and are inhabited by a strange and primitive people who are extremely hostile to foreigners (though they fear the ocean itself). The islanders are said to be hairless, with green-tinged skin, and they file the teeth of their women into sharp points. Most notable is fact that their males are circumcised, a practice that does not appear in any other major religion or cultural group in either Westeros or Essos. The in-universe maester who was describing this practice in The World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014) apparently didn't even have a word for it. Instead of just calling it "circumcision", he literally describes that they "slice the foreskins from the members of their males".
This point about circumcision actually came up in Season 5 of the TV series: During Cersei's walk of atonement, a male extra flashes her. In the March 20, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly, reporters on set noted that a debate was occurring among the production team about whether they should keep the actor they had selected, because he was circumcised- indicating that at least some of them were aware that circumcision isn’t practiced in Westeros, and apparently doesn't exist in the known regions of Essos either. Eventually, however, they decided that the shot was so brief that no one would readily notice, so they kept the actor.
Transgender people in the A Song of Ice and Fire mythos
No Transgender characters have been mentioned by name in the main A Song of Ice and Fire novels, that is, persons born as one gender but who live as another. Transsexuals apparently do not exist in the modern sense - that is, no culture seems to have the surgical means to carry out gender reassignment surgery, nor can this be done through magical means, etc.
There probably are transgendered people in Westeros, but like real-life Medieval Europe the culture of the Seven Kingdoms only recognizes a gender binary between male and female. There are records of transgendered people in Medieval Europe (that is, those who openly lived this way and did not hide their feelings) but they were found shunned on the fringes of society i.e. a few court records note prostitutes that were actually male-to-female transsexuals who were engaging in survival sex work. Something similar probably happens in Westeros, i.e. Littlefinger says that his brothels cater to any taste, but mainstream society across Westeros really doesn't recognize transsexuals as a legitimate lifestyle.
A better question would be if there are other cultures in the broader A Song of Ice and Fire mythos in which what a modern audience might call a concept of "transgender" people is openly accepted - and in fact there is one major example. The Jogos Nhai in the Further East have very interesting attitudes towards gender: each nomadic band's jhat (war chief) is a man, while their moonsinger (a combination priestess/healer/judge) is always a woman.
However, a physically born male can become a moonsinger - but to do so he must dress and live as a woman, to the point that the moonsinger's biological sex is not immediately obvious to outsiders. Similarly, a biological female can become a jhat, but she must live as a man. The Jogos Nhai do not have a social system that recognizes four genders, however, and they actually have a strict gender binary when it comes to social roles: they simply don't see biological sex to be inherently linked with gender, which is something someone can choose. Among the Jogos Nhai, the jhat rules over all external affairs of war and raid (external politics) and leads the war band in battle, while the moonsinger rules over all internal affairs, being a combination priestess, healer, and judge (presumably this means that any Jogos Nhai merchants have to either be women or transexual men living as women). Many centuries ago, when Yi Ti sent a huge 300,000 man army north to exterminate the Jogos Nhai once and for all, they were united in resistance by a jhattar (jhat of jhats) known as Zhea the Cruel. Zhea was a great warrior and cunning military strategist who, during a massive war that lasted two years, outmanuevered and completely destroyed the Yi Tish expeditionary force, killing the last of the Scarlet Emperors of Yi Ti. Zhea was actually biologically female, but because Zhea wanted to be a warrior and military commander (jhat), he dressed and lived as a man. Given that Yi Ti is loosely the China analogue of Essos, this essentially means that Essos's equivalent of a Genghis Khan-like figure, famous centuries later and across the continent as the bane of Yi Ti, was in modern terms what would be described as female-to-male transgender. While the Jogos Nhai have been mentioned in passing in the main A Song of Ice and Fire novels, these more extensive details about their culture were not revealed until the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014).
What is interesting is that while the Jogos Nhai live so far east of even the Dothraki Sea that they are barely mentioned in the novels, this does not mean that they would never be encountered in the lands to the west. Specifically, the Free City of Braavos was founded by former slaves from Valyria who overpowered their guards and fled on the ships transporting them. As a result the founders of Braavos had a very diverse ethnic and religious makeup: Rhoynar, Ghiscari, Summer Islanders, Andals, Valyrian criminals, and even Yi Tish and Jogos Nhai who had been sold into slavery. The moonsingers among the Jogos Nhai fraction of these escaping slaves rose to prominence, and following visions they guided the fleet north until they found the perfectly sheltered and hidden harbor where they built Braavos. The new city they created honored all faiths, and there is no one religion with a majority or even a plurality - religions from the far corners of the world are followed in Braavos, from the Faith of the Seven to the Lord of Light, from the Pale Child Bakkalon to the Many-Faced God of Death. However, they always gave special veneration to the moonsingers for their role in founding the city, and it appears to be one of the more popular religions in Braavos, with a large temple. Logically, while this has never been outright stated, it is possible that followers of the moonsinger religion in Braavos continue to follow the religion's beliefs about gender roles, i.e. there might be Braavosi sellswords who, following the moonsinger religion of their ancestors, are women who live as men - and conversely, there might be moonsinger men who live as women and work as merchants or even bankers in Braavos. Little of this has been touched upon in the narrative - but unlike the distant plains of the Jogos Nhai north of Yi Ti, Braavos is a quite frequently visited location in the story.
One named Intersex character does appear in the main novels, in Tyrion Lannister's storyline when he reaches Slaver's Bay. After Tyrion is captured by slavers he is sold to the master Yezzan zo Qaggaz, in part because he is a dwarf and Yezzan enjoys collecting slaves with some deformity or another to add to his private grotesqueness - sort of like a private "freak show", though he treats these slaves reasonably well. One of Yezzan's favorites is an intersex slave named Sweets (called a "hermaphrodite" in their context), who has apparently been trained to be a bit of a courtier, speaking four languages including High Valyrian. Sweets uses female pronouns: she is willowy with violet eyes, long purple hair (apparently dyed), and is well dressed in fine Myrish lace and jewels. When asked if she is a man or a woman she says "I'm both". The morbidly obese Yezzan often has Sweets serve as his bedmate. In return Sweets is grateful for how comparatively well Yezzan treats her and his other slaves (i.e. dwarfs and other deformed slaves probably wouldn't last very long in the normal slave markets if Yezzan hadn't collected them for his menagerie). Sweets is presented as a positive character who is friendly and candid with Tyrion and warns him to steer clear of Yezzan's cruel slave overseer, Nurse. She is also witty and astute, having no illusions about what will happen to all of Yezzan's slaves if he dies and the other more cruel masters take them. After Tyrion flees her fate is left unknown. Tyrion's storyline in Slaver's Bay from the novels was drastically condensed in the TV series, so that well over a dozen characters were cut for time and Yezzan himself only has a brief appearance, so as a result Sweets doesn't appear in the TV series.
Non-human races barely appear during the present-day events of the A Song of Ice and Fire series - to the point that they are commonly thought to be entirely mythical, and the few who actually believe they once existed are also convinced that they all went extinct centuries ago. This is in contrast with a large number of other works in Fantasy literature in which multiple non-human races interact with the human characters. Non-human races actually do exist in the unexplored fringes of the world of Westeros, but they remain mysterious and enigmatic. Three non-human races still exist within the world, all of them currently found Beyond the Wall in Westeros: the White Walkers, the giants, and the Children of the Forest. Of these, the giants are the only ones that any humans were in contact with - the human wildlings have had some interactions with them, though they still don't understand them very well. The Children of the Forest have avoided human contact since the Andal Invasion 6,000 years ago, and the White Walkers disappeared after being driven back at the end of the Long Night 8,000 years ago. Little can be said about basic social structure and behavior in these non-human races, much less their patterns and concepts of gender.
Female White Walkers actually do exist, if the legends about the Night's Queen have any truth to them. Few White Walkers have ever appeared at all in the narrative - only twice in the current novels - and both groups apparently happened to be male. As alleged "demons of ice, cold, and death" the White Walkers are a magical race, and it is unclear if they even need to sexually reproduce: the novels imply but the TV show confirmed (in Season 4's "Oathkeeper") that the White Walkers can turn human babies into new White Walkers. Whether female White Walkers can be warriors or not in their society, or anything else about them, is entirely unknown.
Slightly more is known about the Children of the Forest, handed down from legends when they used to interact with humans thousands of years ago. It was stated in the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook that both male and female Children acted as hunters and warriors. Leaf, a female Child of the Forest, does act as the lead contact of her people who talks with Bran Stark and his companions the most, though this might just be because she knows the Common Tongue and they don't.
The giants have had the most interactions with humans in recent times but even their basic social structure is unclear. The wildlings call Mag the Mighty the "King" of the giants because he seems to be a prominent champion or ringleader that the others follow, but they don't really know how leadership works among them. The giants in the novels much more closely resemble descriptions of the Sasquatch or Bigfoot: 14 feet tall and ape-like, capable of basic speech but with the intelligence of a human child. The only thing mentioned about female giants is that they look similar to the male ones - possibly similar enough that Jon Snow can't easily tell them apart, in which case the female giants might also take part in battle. Some characters joke that very tall men such as Hodor have some giant's blood in them, but it has never seriously been confirmed that cross-breeding has ever occurred between the two races.
Non-human races used to live in other parts of Essos as well many thousands of years in the past, cousins of the giants and the Children of the Forest, but they died out long ago.
Gender and Sexuality as adapted and depicted in the Game of Thrones TV series
In cases where the novels were vague about the specific attitudes towards sex and gender of a specific culture in the story, the TV series has followed what was written but remained similarly vague - instead of inventing new details that weren't in the novels. For example the views of the worshipers of the Old Gods (the Northmen and wildlings) or of the Dothraki about homosexual relationships between men are unclear from the novels, so the TV series did not go out of its way to definitively establish their views one way or the other.
Depictions of homosexuality in the TV series
The cultural region focused on in the most detail in both the novels and the TV series are the followers of the Faith of the Seven, by far the predominant religion in Westeros. Even so, the novels never outright stated if the Faith of the Seven possesses a concept of "homosexuals" as a category of person, or as a type of act someone can commit, like adultery (given that the latter is how it was actually conceived of in the real-life Middle Ages). Correspondingly, the TV series has largely avoided making definitive statements about how homosexual behavior is conceptualized in Westeros: there are people in homosexual relationships, but the TV series has overall avoided making bold statements about the overall, "official" societal definition of it, i.e. the TV series never invented a long quotation from the holy text of the Faith of the Seven stating that they view "homosexuals" as a unique category of person.
The TV series actually shows homosexual relationships more prominently than in the novels. Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell's relationship was implied in the novels but neither of them are Point of View characters so all of this happened "off screen" in the books. In contrast, the TV series invented scenes in private between Renly and Loras clearly indicating that they were in a long term romantic and sexual relationship. When the TV series depicted this in Season 1, George R.R. Martin openly said that this is what he intended in the novels (for those readers who didn't pick up on the clues). For example, the scenes at Renly's camp in book/Season 2 are told from Catelyn Stark's POV narration, and logically, she was never inside Renly's bedchambers, and thus the novels simply don't provide a narration of any intimate Renly/Loras scenes - this was simply due to narrative mechanics. Similarly, it is only mentioned in the novels that Oberyn Martell has sex with men as well as women: the TV series invented scenes showing him at brothels actually picking out both men and women to have sex with, and clearly explaining that he doesn't really draw a distinction in his attractions (i.e. that he is pansexual, as is Ellaria, though "pansexual" isn't a word in their culture).
As of the end of Season 5, however, the TV series has curiously not portrayed homosexual sex scenes - not to the extent that it has shown naked female prostitutes in invented "Sexposition" scenes. The TV show of course can't show explicit sex acts between men and women either (as in, actually showing an unsimulated image of a penis penetrating into a vagina or a woman's mouth) - but it has at multiple times shown naked male and female actors performing simulated sex scenes, actively gyrating into each other to represent characters in the middle of sex acts (in flagrante delicto). In Season 1, Khal Drogo and Daenerys are explicitly shown naked as he pumps into her from behind for rear-entry sex. In the first episode, Cersei and Jaime are also directly shown in the middle of the sex act (albeit they kept most of their clothes on). In Season 1's "The Wolf and the Lion", Theon and Ros have an explicit sex scene (also in rear-entry position) showing Theon actively pumping into Ros, and also showing explicit full-frontal nudity from both Theon and Ros. Numerous scenes in Littlefinger's brothel show full frontal nudity between men and women in mid sex act.
In contrast, Renly and Loras kept their pants on in all of their intimate scenes - albeit Loras began to perform fellatio on Renly off-frame from the camera in "The Wolf and the Lion". In Season 2, while the TV series did invent "intimate" scenes of Renly and Loras kissing in his tent which were not in the novels at all, they weren't shown actively in the middle of having sex. Starting in Season 3 the TV show did invent the male homosexual prostitute character Olyvar, who does show full frontal nudity, but only post-coitus. Similarly at the beginning of Season 5, Loras and Olyvar are shown fully nude in bed together and kissing (Loras's genitals artfully hidden by camera angle and shadow, as often happens with most major male characters), but they are not shown actively in the middle of the sex act. Oberyn Martell doesn't actually take his pants off in any scene, though he does kiss Olyvar and slap his buttocks (even with heterosexual characters, actors in major roles do full frontal nudity much less frequently, they'd have to be paid more, etc.).
In Season 4 Ellaria Sand was shown having cunnilingus performed on her by the prostitute Marei, though under her skirt so nothing was seen (though with oral sex in general, heterosexual or homosexual, it is more difficult to show "active" oral sex than a rear-entry sex position, without being explicitly graphic and showing unsimulated genital contact). Still, while the TV series has repeatedly shown heterosexual simulated sex scenes in rear-entry positions, of a male actor grinding his hips into a female actor and miming that he is penetrating her, as of the end of Season 5, the TV series has never shown an equivalent scene of two male actors, simulating that one is penetrating into the other in a rear-entry position. This is not a pattern exclusive to Game of Thrones, however, as there is a broader reluctance in mass media to depict scenes of homosexual intimacy to the same extent as heterosexual intimacy (a phenomenon that TVTropes.com refers to as "But Not Too Gay"). Then again, during the early seasons of Game of Thrones it ran concurrently on HBO alongside the TV series True Blood, which frequently depicted active homosexual sex scenes just often as active heterosexual sex scenes.
There was also the first infamous "Sexposition" scene in Season 1, during which the prostitutes Ros and Armeca were fully nude and having sexual contact with each other - but arguably this wasn't really a homosexual sex scene, given that they were really just putting on a performance for their brothel's owner Littlefinger, who was critiquing their in-universe acting (as a metaphor for how he seduced Eddard Stark into trusting him). In-universe instances of female prostitutes having sexual contact with each other for the gratification of a male client probably don't count as a full depiction of an intimate and romantic LGBT relationship's sex scenes (less so than Renly and Loras kissing while fully clothed).
Director Neil Marshall joined the TV series starting with Season 2's "Blackwater", and in a subsequent podcast interview with Empire magazine, he was asked about the large amount of "Sexposition" scenes in the TV series, which frequently involved the female prostitutes from Littlefinger's brothel. He recalled that one of the executive producers (whom he declined to name, but there are only three) repeatedly urged him to add more full-frontal nudity during filming. Ultimately, the finished version of "Blackwater" has the female prostitute Armeca walking around fully nude as the soldiers drink and sing just before the siege begins. According to Marshall, this executive producer told him that "everyone else in the series [represents the] drama side. I represent the perv[ert] side of the audience, and I'm saying I want full frontal nudity in the scenes". Marshall described the meeting as "pretty surreal". Apparently this targeted "pervert side of the audience" does not include heterosexual women or gay men interested in male frontal nudity, which has rarely appeared in the TV series even in heterosexual situations - to the point that following Season 3, College Humor produced a satirical fake PSA video in which female viewers complained that "not enough dongs" were being shown on-screen in Game of Thrones.
Several homosexual characters were cut from the TV series, though only in the general sense that dozens upon dozens of tertiary characters out of the sprawling cast in the novels were condensed out of the TV series due to simple economy of characters. Renly, Loras, Oberyn, and Ellaria were the most prominent in the novels and they were retained in the TV series.
In the novels, Jon Snow's new personal steward after he is elected Lord Commander is Satin, a young male prostitute who serviced other men at the brothel in Mole's Town in the Gift, who joins the Watch after the wildling assault. It wasn't clear if Satin was himself a homosexual or if he just resorted to such sex work to survive. Whatever the case, the TV series cut Satin and instead invented the character Olly, a young farm boy from the Gift. Unlike Olly, Satin remains completely loyal to Jon and never doubts his decisions. Jon's choice to make Satin his steward angers some of the older officers, but Jon chose him because he felt he was capable and quick to learn.
Cersei and Daenerys both had sex with other women in the novels but this was cut from the TV series - they were presented more as sexual experimentation than full romantic relationships or a deep-seated pattern of sexual attraction. In the third novel, when Daenerys Targaryen is in Astapor before she takes the Unsullied she is feeling lonely from the loss of Drogo, and still confused after realizing that the much older Jorah Mormont is in love with her (a love she does not reciprocate).
She is also left deeply rattled after inspecting the Unsullied and learning of the horrific training they have to go through. Relieving her stress and loneliness, in the middle of the night Daenerys starts absent-mindedly masturbating, which wakes up Irri (who as her handmaiden sleeps next to her as a bedwarmer). Without saying anything, Irri uses her mouth and hands to stimulate Daenerys while she lays there, until she climaxes. They don't seem to speak of it again and it is more of a fling - but then in the fifth novel, when Daenerys is ruling over Meereen and feeling sexually frustrated about Daario Naharis, she summons Irri to her bed again - but she doesn't find Irri's caresses satisfying and gently pushes her away after a while, noting that what she really wants is Daario. Irri was killed in the TV series at Qarth (though she remains alive as of the fifth novel), so this was simply absent from the TV series. Given that Daenerys "has sex with one of her handmaidens" at some point, there was some critical speculation that Daenerys might have sex with Missandei in Meereen at some point - given that Missandei is only a 10 year old in the novels, and she may have been aged-up not only for acting ability but to have sex scenes. As it turned out, however, Missandei started having a romantic attraction to the Unsullied Grey Worm, and this may actually have been one of the TV producers' intentions when she was aged-up.
Cersei Lannister also has sex with her companion/bedwarmer Taena of Myr, Lord Orton Merryweather's wife. In the fourth novel, after Tywin is murdered and Cersei is left in control of both House Lannister and the Iron Throne, the stress is too much for her and she becomes overwhelmed by day-to-day political wrangling, and the massive debt crisis that even her father would have had difficulty dealing with. As a result she starts drinking even more heavily than usual, and soon she is stumbling around from one POV chapter to the next in a drunken fog. One night very drunk, Cersei starts wondering what Robert saw in having sex with so many whores, and what it feels like to kiss another woman: "She wondered what it would feel like to suckle on those breasts, to lay the Myrish woman on her back and push her legs apart and use her as a man would use her." Taena doesn't resist as Cersei pinches her nipples and slides fingers into her until she climaxes - but Cersei takes no real satisfaction from the experience at all, and is disappointed.
This wasn't so much an example of Cersei being "attracted" to a woman as an example of Cersei's bitter resentment at being a woman. Some women in Westeros embrace their strong gender binary but try to work within it (such as the Tyrells), while others try to rise above it and show that women can be powerful too (such as Brienne of Tarth). Cersei, however, accepts this gender binary - she just wishes she were born a man. Throughout her POV chapters it becomes clear that Cersei thinks other women are idiots, constantly criticizing what she perceives as their weaknesses compared to men. So in many ways this sex scene was her play-acting/experimenting with what it would be like to take the aggressive role of a man in sex (she even phrases it as "take her as a man would take her").
Much of Cersei's subplot in the fourth novel struggling to rule at King's Landing mirrors Daenerys's subplot struggling to rule Meereen in the fifth novel (which take place simultaneously and were originally meant to intercut within one big novel, but which were split into two novels for length reasons). While their storylines mirror each other they distinctly contrast, with Daenerys actively trying to rise to the occasion and play the political game, while Cersei mishandles every challenge and spirals into self-destruction. So Cersei sexually experimenting with her handmaiden was apparently meant to mirror and contrast with Daenerys experimenting a little with Irri. While Daenerys let Irri be the active partner pleasuring her, however, Cersei is the active partner to Taena - indeed it practically plays off as a near-sexual assault, in that Taena dares not resist the queen (though Taena is infamously a seductress - her intentions were ambiguous), and Cersei thinks of herself with violent imagery, like a boar digging its tusks into Taena. Overall Cersei's fling with Taena is part of a larger ironic narrative echo in the fourth novel: Cersei is basically turning into her hated late husband King Robert. While Cersei hated the drunken whore-mongering husband Robert, who was an ineffective king, Cersei herself has degenerated into being constantly drunk from the stress of politics, arguably a less effective ruler than Robert ever was, and is even drunkenly having sex with bedwarmers like he did. This entire subplot with Taena was cut from Season 5, which drastically condensed both the fourth and fifth novels together and omitted large amounts of material overall.
Margaery Tyrell also made a passing comment in Season 3 of the TV series to Sansa Stark which vaguely implied that she may have sexually experimented with women at some point, but it was ambiguous. Nothing indicated this in the novels - though Margaery was given a much larger speaking role in the TV series than she had in the novels (this exact scene between Sansa and Margaery simply doesn't exist in the books).
Joffrey in the novels never threatened to declare homosexuality a "perversion punishable by death" (which he said to impress Margaery in Season 3's "Dark Wings, Dark Words"). There has (apparently) never been widespread persecution of homosexuals in Westeros, so in context this is sort of like Joffrey saying "adultery will be punishable by death".
It is in keeping with his trend from the novels of making outrageous and psychopathic violent proclamations with little or no provocation (i.e. when starving war refugees come to the castle gates begging their king for food, he stands on the battlements and shoots several dead with his crossbow, insulted that they think him "a baker").
The TV writers have actually stated to the actors that the status of homosexuality in Westeros is basically what it was like in the real Middle Ages: it isn't heavily persecuted but it isn't greatly tolerated either. In an interview with Vulture during Season 5 Finn Jones, who plays Loras, said that when he began to play the role back in Season 1, both he and Gethin Anthony (who played Renly) asked staff writer Bryan Cogman what the societal views about homosexuals were supposed to be like in the Seven Kingdoms (specifically, in the main regions that Loras and Renly are from, including the capital city King's Landing itself, not considering fringe regions such as Dorne which have quite different views). Jones recalled that Cogman instructed him and Anthony that: "It's not illegal, but it's always been taboo. It's not spoken about that much or celebrated that much." This is indeed basically what is shown in the novels, which also basically matches patterns from the real-life Middle Ages: the TV series did not fall into common stereotypes that medieval societies severely persecuted homosexuals; at the same time they understood that it is nonetheless considered shameful in Westeros, so Renly and Loras still keep their relationship hidden from the public.
In Season 5, the Sparrows and the Faith Militant are presented as persecuting homosexuals. They arrest Loras and imprison him, and a gang of some of them even kill homosexuals they encounter in Littlefinger's brothel. Loras being arrested by the Faith Militant is an invention of the TV series due to heavily condensing other storylines - though it is certainly quite plausible relative to the activities of the Sparrows in the novels. The episodes might not have made this explicitly clear, but as in the novels, the Sparrows/Faith Militant are fanatical extremists, and their actions don't reflect the normal standards or activities of the Faith of the Seven.
The Faith of the Seven believes that homosexuality is a sin, but not a very severe one, on par with adultery or having sex with prostitutes. Olenna Tyrell somewhat highlights this in the TV episode itself just before Loras's inquest, when she is talking with Margaery and in disbelief that this is anything more than a stunt by Cersei to shame them - because it is highly unusual to outright put Loras on trial for something as comparatively trivial as homosexuality. Olenna reacts to it somewhat like if Robert Baratheon were suddenly put on trial by the Faith for being a whore-monger - not something the regular church hierarchy of the Faith of the Seven would normally do. For that matter, the Faith also doesn't normally have the right to hold its own ecclesiastical courts - that was one of the powers it lost when the Targaryens disbanded the Faith Militant over two centuries ago. When Cersei had the Faith Militant recreated, she also granted the High Sparrow the power to hold ecclesiastical trials for things such as adultery and homosexuality.
In Season 3's "The Climb", Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell have a conversation regarding her grandson Loras that was invented for the TV series, which may have caused some confusion. Tywin wants to arrange a marriage between his daughter Cersei and Olenna's granddaughter Margaery to further secure the political alliance between the Lannisters and Tyrells (which already includes a betrothal between Margaery and Cersei's son Joffrey). In the novels, Tywin actually wanted to make Cersei marry Loras's older brother Willas Tyrell - but he was apparently omitted out of the TV adaptation, so this point was shifted to Loras (in both versions the betrothal is simply dropped after Tywin dies). In the TV scene, Tywin and Olenna are talking in private in his chamber at the Tower of the Hand, and he makes an off-hand remark about Loras's alleged "nocturnal activities". Olenna casually waves it off with this exchange:
- Olenna: "But it's a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other beneath the sheets."
- Tywin: "Perhaps Highgarden has a high tolerance for unnatural behavior."
- Olenna: "I wouldn't say that. True, we don't tie ourselves in knots over a discreet bit of buggery, but...brothers and sisters - where I come from, that stain would be very difficult to wash out."
Olenna changed the topic to quite bluntly bring up the shocking accusations that Tywin's own son and daughter, Jaime and Cersei, were in a long-term incestuous sexual relationship, and all three of Cersei's children were not really Robert's but actually Jaime's bastards. Tywin says he won't breathe further life into a malicious lie by repeating it, but Olenna chides him that many people do believe it - enough that they put swords in their hands and fight in rebellion to oppose the rule of Cersei's children. Tywin counters that he will name Loras to the Kingsguard if she doesn't acquiesce, and Olenna is surprised that he would have his grandson guarded by a man who disgusts him, to which Tywin says that "I would have my grandson protected by a skilled warrior who takes his vows seriously" - indicating that while he thinks Loras's homosexuality is unusual, and was using it as an excuse to chide Olenna about something, on a practical level he isn't particularly horrified about it and even respects Loras as one of the best knights in Westeros (generally this matches attitudes in the novels: homosexuality is seen as unusual or even shameful, like adultery, but not so horrifying that it would ruin political relations).
However, the dialogue in this TV-only scene could be misleading for TV-first viewers, as if Olenna was indicating that homosexuality is tolerated in the Reach as much as in Dorne. The Reach is not openly more tolerant of homosexuality than other regions of the Seven Kingdoms, even in the TV series. The Reach became the cultural heartland of the Andals after they migrated to Westeros 6,000 years ago, and for thousands of years the headquarters of the Faith of the Seven was in Oldtown - King's Landing was only built 300 years ago, and the headquarters of the Faith only moved to the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing less than 150 years ago. If anything, the Reach might be assumed to be one of the most religiously conservative of the Seven Kingdoms. As the cultural heartland of the Andals, the Reach is also the kingdom that takes rules about knighthood and social conduct most seriously. On the other hand, the Reach also has the most sophisticated noble courts of the Seven Kingdoms (the Reach is somewhat analogous to medieval France), and a system of courtly manners and staunch social rules often produces a subculture of illicit romance alongside it (after all, the forbidden fruit is often the most alluring). Just like Westeros, the real-life Middle Ages were a time when the Catholic Church promoted strict rules against sex outside of marriage - while in the same era, the genre of courtly love poetry flourished, which focused on forbidden romances between single landless knights and married noblewomen. So it is entirely possible that the Reach in the novels puts up a front of taking religious rules very seriously and conservatively...but only as lip-service, while in private adulterous love-affairs between noble lords and ladies are common, or they don't really mind if men have homosexual relationship in private. But this TV scene did not, fundamentally, make any claims about the Reach that weren't in the novels: Olenna says in the scene that "discrete" homosexuality doesn't really bother people in the Reach - i.e. in private, not publicly accepted homosexual relationships like in Dorne at all. The narrative focus of the camera is also misleading: this is a private discussion between Tywin and Olenna, and they are presented as bluntly saying things they wouldn't in public: in the very next line, Olenna responds to Tywin's remark about Loras by bringing up that it is widely rumored that Tywin's own son and daughter are in an incestuous relationship, and that all of Tywin's grandchildren are illegitimate bastards born of incest.
It is somewhat implied that Olenna casually admits that Loras is a homosexual to Tywin as false bravado, similar to how Tywin himself tries to casually wave aside the remark about incest between Cersei and Jaime - rather than get angry and defensive about it, which would be a sign of vulnerability. Olenna also asks if Tywin ever engaged in homosexual behaviors with cousins or stableboys - she is being casually flippant and not reacting defensively to his comments about Loras as a verbal sparring tactic. Either way, neither the novels nor the TV series have ever really claimed that the Reach is more openly tolerant of homosexual behavior than the rest of the Seven Kingdoms - though the attitudes of each of the kingdoms about homosexual behavior in private haven't been mentioned in much detail. After all, on a personal level, Loras's entire family seems to know that he is secretly a homosexual but none of them seem to care - as opposed to being staunch religious conservatives who would disown him for it, even if he kept it private (i.e., for all we know, unlike in the Reach, noble families from the Vale of Arryn might be inclined to disown a homosexual son even if they merely found out about it in private, and it wasn't even public knowledge). The Reach as presented in the TV show seems to have a "winking tolerance" for homosexual behavior. Nonetheless, in Westeros only Dorne is highlighted as being quite openly tolerant of homosexual behaviors, in contrast to all of the other kingdoms.
A point also comes up regarding terminology: the words "homosexual" and "gay" did not exist in the Middle Ages ("gay" in particular is a very recent term), and they don't exist in the novels either, nor in the TV series. The A Song of Ice and Fire novels typically just avoided the issue of terminology, i.e. saying "Oberyn has sex with both men and women", or "Renly doesn't seem interested in the company of women", but not really applying overall terms to this. A commonly used term in the Middle Ages was "sodomy", but the novels have avoided using this term, probably because it stems very specifically from the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah - the Book of Genesis does not exist in the world of Westeros, so that's not a term they would use either. The TV series was therefore put in a somewhat difficult position: the producers wanted to more prominently portray homosexual characters from the novels such as Renly and Loras, but they didn't really have any in-universe terms to describe homosexuals in these invented TV-only scenes. Accurately realizing that they couldn't use terms such as "gay", "homosexual", or even "sodomites" in the context of Westeros, the TV series has at times had to struggle with how to refer to homosexuals:
- When Renly and Loras's relationship was discussed by Cersei, Joffrey, and Margaery in Season 3's "Dark Wings, Dark Words", Cersei just called him a "degenerate" (which Joffrey copied), or "perversion". Margaery delicately explained to Joffrey that Renly was a homosexual by using the more convoluted description that "I don't believe he was interested in the company of women".
- Similarly in Season 4's "Breaker of Chains", Margaery remarks to Olenna that Renly "preferred the company of men."
- Also in "Dark Wings, Dark Words", Jaime explains to Brienne that she wasn't Renly's "type", but Loras was. Brienne calls it just an ugly rumor, but Jaime reminds her that both he and Renly lived in the Red Keep for years, and "His proclivities were the worst kept secret at court."
- Later in Season 3's "The Climb", Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell discuss rival marriage-alliance plans (in a scene invented for the TV series). Tywin just refers to Loras's homosexuality as "unnatural behavior". Olenna calls it "buggery", though the script also introduces the description "sword swallower" (which is not from the novels).
- In the Season 4 premiere "Two Swords", Cersei referred to Loras as a "pillow-biter" - which is not a term from the novels, and not from the real Middle Ages. Apparently, "pillow-biter" is actually a very modern term originating in the 1970s (and only in British slang, it is not a common term in American slang). Olenna herself also later refers to homosexuals as "pillow-biters" in Season 5's "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken".
- At Loras's ecclesiastical inquest in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken", the High Sparrow lists the charges against him as "Fornication. Buggery. Blasphemy." He then simply asks Loras if he ever "lay with" Renly Baratheon, or any other man. When Olyvar is then presented as a surprise witness, the High Sparrow asks him if "You lay with him?" and Olyvar acknowledges it, saying "We engaged in intimate relations".
- In Season 5's "The Gift", Olenna Tyrell and the High Sparrow remark that The Seven-Pointed Star, holy text of the Faith of the Seven, has parts which condemn perjury and "buggery".
- In Season 5's "The Dance of Dragons", Meryn Trant scoffs that the Tyrells are traitors, as "they were going to make that boy-fucker Renly king".
"Incest" between Cersei and Lancel
The TV producers apparently didn't notice that in the novels first cousin relationships are not considered "Incest" in Westeros (and not particularly unusual), because on two occasions the TV show has referred to the sexual liason between Cersei and her first cousin Lancel Lannister as "unnatural".
The first instance was in Season 2's "The Ghost of Harrenhal", when Tyrion mocks Lancel that he wonders if Jaime will kill him for having sex with his lover Cersei, or given that Jaime has similar "unnatural" lusts, he might sympathize with him instead ("Perhaps his own unnatural urges will give him sympathy for yours.") When Lancel later reappeared in the Season 5 premiere ("The Wars to Come"), he has become a religious penitent, and apologizes to Cersei that "I tempted you into our...unnatural relations.".
Another possibility is that the writers did know this, but thought the modern-day audience would consider this "incest", and that it would take too much time to explain that it isn't considered incestuous in Westeros. To the Targaryens, brother-sister marriages were "natural" because they practiced it - the rest of Westeros practices first cousin marriages so they wouldn't call it "unnatural" either. It is possible to just interpret the characters' words on the subject as that they consider Lancel having sex with Cersei to be negative because it was adultery - but this would be a minor retcon, as the actual intent of the scriptwriters is fairly clear.
Yet their intent with these lines is incongruent with other aspects of the storyverse which they have already established within the TV continuity: Tywin Lannister married his own first cousin, Joanna Lannister, and she has been referred to multiple times in the TV series itself. This cannot be easily reconciled with the statements also made about Lancel and Cersei. In the novels, there are several other examples of first cousin marriage within the nobility of Westeros: Olenna Tyrell was born Olenna Redwyne, and her daughter Mina (Mace's sister) married Paxter Redwyne - Olenna's own nephew and Mina's own first cousin. Even House Stark has practied first cousin marriage, in the not too distant past: Eddard Stark's own parents Rickard and Lyarra were first cousins once removed.
Even in real life, in later centuries first cousin marriage was often practiced among the European nobility. Treating Lancel having sex with Cersei as strange because she is also his first cousin is applying contemporary cultural standards which do not exist in Westeros.
Portrayal of the status of women in the TV series
- See main article: "Differences in the status of women between books and TV series"
The TV series has not shown women holding and wielding political power in the Seven Kingdoms as frequently as it occurs in the novels, which makes them appear to have less agency.
- While the novels have about 16 women who currently head major vassal Houses, the TV series has only presented one with speaking lines, Anya Waynwood, who only appeared in one episode. Three or four other female leaders were only blink-or-you'll miss cameos (either non-speaking or only mentioned). Maege Mormont, a major secondary character in the novels who was one of Robb Stark's major commanders in the Northern army, was reduced to a non-speaking background cameo in Season 1, who disappeared entirely by Season 2.
- On four separate occasions (five if you count removing Arianne Martell), the TV series has actually replaced female heads of major Houses with men. They were not simply omitted due to time constraints, but replaced with male characters - particularly in the case of Larra Blackmont, whose male counterpart in the TV series has speaking lines.
- The TV series has never established on-air one of the defining features of Dorne: that women are equal to men under Dornish law, and that the Dornish practice gender-blind inheritance. Only one of the bonus videos mentioned this, but it might have been due to miscommunication among the writers, given that it wasn't mentioned on-air when the Dornish appear in Season 4 or Season 5.
- The TV series has outright omitted Arianne Martell, Doran's daughter and eldest child, and thus raised as his heir apparent under Dornish law - again giving no hint that women inherit political power as often as men do in Dorne.
- Catelyn Stark's role as the practical co-leader of the Stark faction was largely removed to focus on her motherhood aspect, transferring most of her political agency to her son Robb.
- Yara Greyjoy was presented as a capable military leader in Season 2, only to then practically disappear for three seasons (and not appear in Season 5 at all). Even then she is considered in-universe to be unusual in ironborn culture.
- The two women from Great Houses that actually do hold political power in the TV series, Lysa Arryn and Cersei Lannister, only possess it through men as widow-regents - and both are presented as mentally unstable and generally unfit to rule. When Cersei does inherit rule of House Lannister upon her father's death, she nearly destroys her faction through incompetence (though this happened in the novels, other positive female leaders were removed).
- Daenerys Targaryen is shown to be a capable and powerful political leader, but she is not presented as part of any one social system, but an unusual aberration - as if a powerful female leader is as rare and miraculous as the return of dragons (or indeed, required dragons to come about).
- The House Tyrell women, Olenna and Margaery, have much greater on-screen presence in the TV series than the novels. However, they do not officially "hold" political power at all, not even as widow-regents - only through how they are able to manipulate the men around them.
- Only one wildling leader was presented as a woman, Karsi - but the character was written as a man, and changed to a woman at the last minute to play to the stereotype that women are inherently more "nurturing" to children than men.
- "If you read comics, if you read DC comics, there's Earth 1, there’s Earth 2, and the way I reconcile it, as a fan of the books — as one of the biggest fans of the books — there's Westeros 1 and Westeros 2, and they’re alternate universes; some things are the same, some things are different."
According to this principle, the alternate "Westeros 2" that is described in the TV continuity is simply, and officially, a world in which women have a significantly lower social status than in the novels, and in which women hold political power much more rarely.
- Main article on "Differences in the status of women between books and TV series"
- Main article on "Marriage"
- Main article on "Rape"
- Main article on "Warrior women"
- Main article on "Sexposition"
- Human sexuality on Wikipedia
- ↑ Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (Routledge, 2005, 2d ed. 2012), 7.
- ↑ Karras 134-135
- ↑ Karras 158
- ↑ Karras 79
- ↑ Karras 109
- ↑ Karras 6-7
- ↑ Karras 6-7
- ↑ Karras 43. See also 
- ↑ Karras 39, 130
- ↑ Karras 84
- ↑ Karras 140
- ↑ Karras 137
- ↑ Karras 136-137
- ↑ Karras 24, 141-145
- ↑ "When it comes to matters of love, that a man might lie with another man, or a woman with another woman, is likewise not cause for concern — and while the septons have often wished to shepherd the Dornishmen to the righteous path, they have had little effect." - The World of Ice & Fire, "Dorne"
- ↑ Karras 127
- ↑ "The Lion and the Rose"
- ↑ "Bastards of Westeros" video featurette
- ↑ Karras 62
- ↑ Kimberly A. LoPrete, "Gendering Viragos: Medieval Perceptions of Powerful Women," in Christine Meek and Catherine Lawless, eds., Victims or Viragos? Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women, 4 (Portland: Four Courts Press, 2005), 17-38).
- ↑ "Politics of Marriage" video featurette
- ↑ Karras 81
- ↑ Karras 154
- ↑ Karras 74
- ↑ Karras 73-74
- ↑ Empire podcast - discussion of "sexposition" begins at the 6 minute 45 seconds mark.
- ↑ 
- ↑ 
- ↑ Finn Jones Season 5 interview with Vulture.com
- ↑