Last Sunday (May 17), "Game of Thrones" fans were subjected to an act of extreme sexual violence -- Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped on her wedding night by her vicious new husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The aftermath of the violent sexual encounter, which was the third for a main female character on the show, caused some viewers to declare that they were abandoning the show entirely, while others used it as a platform to discuss the way we view and talk about sexual assault in the media.
The fact that so many adult viewers are responding to Sansa's assault with varying degrees of shock, outrage, hurt, and empathy is undeniably a good thing, but what about the countless teenagers, whose voices aren't heard via lengthy opinion pieces and expert interviews? What happens to your everyday teen viewers when they watch not one, but multiple violent assaults on a show like "Game of Thrones," often with no retribution or even followup with the victims? According to licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior, the possibilities are endless -- and very scary.
"A lot of [the realities of rape] is lost on teenagers," she told MTV News over the phone. "They’re not necessarily putting things in this historical context; they’re not talking about the nuances... It runs the risk of normalizing that idea -- if it is so prevalent and you’re seeing it again and again on screen... does it make a teenage girl think 'well, this happens?' Three of these characters this has happened to, this is something that is common.' I think it’s a question of whether or not they’re actually able to process it and communicate in a way that puts it in context and says, 'this is terrible, this is horrible, this is something that completely is not acceptable,' versus, 'oh, well this is how things are, this is what men do, this is how men exert control.'"
According to Dr. Bonior, if teen girls repeatedly view sexual violence on screen without fully processing that information -- discussing it with parents, friends, or another trusted source -- it can run the risk of normalizing assault, or re-traumatizing an assault survivor.
"One of those directions is for [a teen] to almost expect it; for you to think that you don’t deserve better than that, for you to not be outraged by it," Dr. Bonior continued. "For you to think that all men are like that -- and if you think that all men are like that, you’re more likely to settle for somebody who’s not treating you well... If you think that rape is all over the place and so prevalent, then it trickles down for our standards in terms of what we think.
"Also, watching over and over again a woman being the victim of violence, it can be traumatizing to girls and women who actually have had this experience. And we know that there are many girls and women -- and men and boys for that matter -- but predominantly girls and women who have been sexually victimized, and so that can be really traumatizing for them to watch if they have been victimized. And again, if they haven’t then it can almost be desensitizing to the point where it’s almost normalized, which is disturbing. Ideally, people will be able to communicate about it, to have a real discussion about it."
Potentially even more disturbing, Dr. Bonior says, is the fact that teen boys who see characters like Sansa and Daenerys having violent sexual encounters might start viewing this sort of thing as normal.
"I think the idea of becoming desensitized to it is a possibility, if it’s seen over and over again and not treated as something horrible; it’s just treated as something that exists," she explained. "I think that it can erode empathy over time. Are they really sitting there and imagining how horrible it is for a woman to be in that experience, or are they just thinking 'wow, there it goes again?' Does it take them away from really empathizing with women, and does it make them just more used to it as well? And again, does it make them excuse certain behaviors?"
This is why, according to Dr. Bonior, the best thing "Game of Thrones" could do right now is follow up with Sansa's story, and show the aftermath of her assault from her point of view. Because if not, adolescent boys run the risk of desensitization to sexual violence -- before they've even had the chance to have a loving sexual encounter in their real lives.
"I think part of the concern with younger teenagers seeing this stuff is that, if they’ve never had any sort of sexual relationship, it has the risk of conflating sex and violence in a way that might almost be appealing to them," she said. "They can’t be as repulsed by it necessarily, because they haven’t really had loving sex... the younger the person is, the less likely they are to have had healthy sexual experiences to help them understand how wrong this is."
This is all undoubtedly terrifying, which is why Dr. Bonior says that "Game of Thrones" now has a real responsibility on its hands -- because as much as the show is already famous for its violence, "you can feel fairly certain that you’re going to walk down the street and be safe from a sword fight, and yet, in terms of sexual assault, the numbers are staggering."
"I think one step in the right direction would be to show things from the survivor or the victim’s perspective," Dr. Bonior concluded. "In other words, focus on that experience. Instead of dehumanizing the victim or moving on, show the emotional struggle, show the hardship, try to help people empathize with the survivor, with the victim, rather than just treating it as a plot device. Show the turmoil, try to have it be a three dimensional story. Make sure it really is shown that this is a terrible experience. Because I think really focusing on the empathy can put somebody in another person’s shoes, and [they] say, 'I wouldn’t do that to another person.' In the heat of a sexual moment, you want a teenage boy to be able to say, 'wait a second, she doesn’t seem to be feeling comfortable here and that matters, and I should care about that.'"
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org, y en español: rainn.org/es.