Why Do I Love Historical-Fiction Sex So Much?

Photo: Neil Davidson/Sony Pictures

Two episodes back, Starz’s Outlander finally gave its fans the steamy sex scene they’d been waiting for. You couldn’t even quite call it a sex scene — it was more like an erotic short film with some flashbacks to plot points. Vanity Fair hailed it as “Some of the Year’s Sexiest TV.” It was the kind of episode that demands you draw a bath, pour several glasses of a full-bodied Chablis, and admit you’ve been very, very aroused by television characters. I mean, just look at the many O-faces of sexy Scottish Jamie.

For all those who haven’t watched, Outlander is Starz’s faithful adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s cult time-travel/historical-fiction/fantasy series about a World War II–era woman, Claire, who is suddenly transported back to 18th-century Scotland and for various plot reasons finds herself betrothed to a strapping Scotsman named Jamie whom she beds over and over again. (Yes.) BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen hails it as the feminist answer to Game of Thrones — and with a strong-willed independent female lead who swashbuckles her way across the Highlands, that’s a pretty accurate summary. Yet sex is also a crucial part of its appeal. In the past five years, I’ve received three separate copies of Outlander, each with chapter 13 dog-eared, and each time the endorsement: “You have to read this for the sex.” There are fan forums where fans have been breathlessly waiting for years to see the famed erotic happenings of chapter 13 come to life. In fact, there are fan-fiction sites so filthy that Gabaldon won’t even read them.

Outlander is not a bodice-ripper; it’s a work of historical fiction with a lot of sex. And this is a crowded category, which in a certain sense is unsurprising — after all, people have been fornicating for centuries. The Tudors? Someone’s grandma recommended it to me because the “sex is insane.” Rome? Camelot? The Borgias? Sex. Sexy sex everywhere. Game of Thrones? Fantasy, sure, but it’s basically 15th-century England with dragons, and lots of sex. And I’m into it all in a way that almost makes no sense. Think about it: Nobody was bathing, nobody was flossing, beds were made of hay. Birth control wasn’t a thing. Neither was soap. Despite the lack of hygiene and comfortable mattresses, I’m obsessed with the dirty, hot, wanton sex that takes place in days of yore. Besides the obvious (lots of clothing to remove in a slow, delicious fashion; strong possibility of accents), what is it about this type of sex that gets me straight in the loins?

“A good sex scene is about an emotional exchange, not just an exchange of bodily fluids,” explains Gabaldon, Outlander author and black-belt sex-scene writer. “I think the historical aspect provides you with higher emotional sex. People weren’t going out just hooking up with random people in bars — why people do that, I don’t know — but back then casual sex wasn’t so out in the open. It was a weighty consideration.” It’s hard not to take sex a bit more seriously when one surprise sexual tryst could land you with your 18th child. Weighty emotional considerations were a crucial factor in the strength of that Outlander scene: Jamie is a virgin; Claire is falling for him despite the fact she has a doting husband waiting for her in the future-times. All that context heightened the 57 minutes of Claire and Jamie’s erotic adventure to multiple orgasm payoff.

Another thing that’s fun about historical-fiction sex is the wealth of available real-life figures known for their legendary romps in the hay (and royal beds). Take Anne Boleyn. “When she was on trial, Henry the VIII accused her of practicing ‘seductive arts.’ This probably indicates that she was on top, maybe she was French kissing, or showing arousal. It was her deploying her sexuality,” explains historical author Philippa Gregory. History doesn’t explicitly say, “Boleyn was a sex-positive woman who dug experimenting in the sack and wanted to get off,” but in a show like The Tudors or in a novel, there’s room to play with that implication in a way that lends itself to some pretty hot scenes.

And even when real people are involved, historical-fiction sex provides a sense of freedom and distance that can make it easier to explore fantasies that might otherwise feel taboo. Writers and directors seem willing to push boundaries: There’s group sex, sex between people of disturbingly disparate age brackets, sex with constantly rotating partners, sex using medieval weapons as sex toys. Gregory, author of steamy yet mainstream works of historical fiction like The Virgin’s Lover and The Other Boleyn Girl, also thinks that setting wild sex scenes in the past gives authors the ability to tackle issues about consent, desire, and repression in a way that can be quite erotic. “A woman’s refusal is quite sexy if it’s written in the right way,” says Gregory. “A woman’s refusal is not sexy in the real world.”

That’s where my enjoyment of the sexual situations in olden times becomes more complicated. On these shows, the sex isn’t always consensual, and often it’s downright barbaric. And for every sex scene where a consenting woman gets to have satisfying sex with a hot dude, there are three more moments of questionable coercion. For every Daenerys one-night stand on Game of Thrones or Claire as the sexual dominant, deflowering strong, manly Jamie, there’s a horrific Cersei and Jamie Lannister incestual rape. Even on this week’s episode of Outlander, that tryst at 27 minutes was followed up by two instances of attempted rape.

“As a modern woman who is interested in sex with consent, seeing a woman being violently treated doesn’t do it for you? That’s healthy. Congratulations,” says Gregory. “I think in a way what we have to do as viewers, readers, and writers is be sophisticated about the difference between fantasy and reality.” There’s always the argument that scenes of rape or coercion are historically accurate, however unpalatable, and Gregory and Gabaldon’s work is painstakingly researched — and they avoid depicting violence in erotic terms. But when she does write fantasies, Gregory says she subscribes to the Erica Jong theory of the “Zipless Fuck.” “Your eyes meet and your clothes dissolve and it’s completely without problems. You haven’t got to sort out where you’re going to go. Your clothes magically dissolve, so you don’t have to worry about coping with your tights. It’s not sexual reality; it’s sexual fantasy,” she explains.  

And in that fantasy no taboo is too taboo to DVR for repeated playback in your personal time.

Why Do I Love Historical-Fiction Sex So Much?