Recent debates about TV sexuality have addressed everything from the nudity gap between men and women, the prevalence of rape as a plot device, to the difficulty of choreographing sex scenes that don’t appear either miserable or risible. But missing from this discussion is the sudden appearance in prestige television of a much more interesting and nuanced archetype: the adult male virgin.
On last night’s Game of Thrones, after getting seduced by wildling warrior Ygritte (Rose Leslie), Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) confessed that “There’s been no one else.” Ygritte knew that as a man of the Night’s Watch, the celibate brotherhood who guards the Wall which marks the border of Westeros, Jon was forbidden from having sex after he swore the vows she asked him to break. But she assumed that he’d had sex before he joined up, and was surprised to learn she’d been mistaken. “A maid! You’re a maid,” she teased him.
An hour later on Sunday night's television line-up, Mad Men copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), whose father sprung a blind date with a pretty schoolteacher on him, confessed during a bout of logorrhea at the diner where he took her that “I’ve never had sex, not even once.” His confession was inexplicable, even to him. “What am I doing?” Ginsberg moaned. “I ordered soup. I just said that.” And Jon and Michael are in good company. Much of the third season of Downton Abbey, which aired on PBS earlier this season, concerned the sexual awakening of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) after he marries Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), ending years of sexual yearning and passing into the realm where, in the words of his bride “all things are permitted.”
It’s striking to see this concentration of virginal leading men in a medium that often acts as if everyone is having sex constantly. And it’s even more impressive to see them presented as objects of sympathy navigating a new and momentous experience rather than pathetic nerds in need of sexual cures to align their experiences with their ages. Ginsberg’s date gets cut short more by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. than by his inability to stop talking, and the exploration of his sex life gets lost in other characters’ storylines. But both Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey didn’t just divest their male leads of their virginity. They explored an even rarer subject: male sexual insecurity.
After Jon confesses his inexperience, he asks Ygritte whether she’s had sex before. Her answer is part compliment to him—that her first lover wasn’t strong, like Jon—and partially unsettling—her second was “built like a mountain.” “I think I’ve heard enough,” Jon told her anxiously. His lack of experience and reliance on his instincts instead hasn’t turned Ygritte off. “That thing you did. With your mouth. Is that what Lords do to their ladies in the South?” Ygritte asked him after he gave her what appeared to be her first experience with oral sex. But Jon’s anxieties drown out the compliment she gives him, at least until she lets him know that she wants him again. It’s an honest reminder that losing your virginity isn’t the end point in your sexual maturation. It’s the beginning of acquiring sexual knowledge, and sexual self-confidence.
Similarly, Matthew Crawley has to learn that, his wife’s previous sexual experience, which involved a Turkish ambassador dying on top of her, doesn’t render him boring to her, and that his experience in the war hasn’t rendered him permanently sexually dysfunctional. When Matthew and Lady Mary have trouble conceiving, he assumes that the problem is his. And when Lady Mary secretly has a minor operation, her temporary resistance to sex, which she doesn’t explain to Matthew, leaves him afraid that his limited knowledge has bored her. “I thought you’d gone off me,” he explains.
Matthew’s dead in a car wreck, ending Downton Abbey’s exploration of young marital sexuality. And Game of Thrones and Mad Men may be too crowded for long meditations on Jon and Michael’s sex lives. But these storylines have been a nice reminder that tenderness can be as compelling as brutality, and that sex on television can be a remarkable discovery, whether it’s the first time for a given couple, or the first time, period.