Outlander 401, Jamie and Claire woods

What Outlander gets right about female sexuality and sexual assault

Contributed by
Feb 19, 2019

People can scream about how much they love the historical elements until the cows come home, but let’s be real: the true appeal of Outlander is in the romance. The sex. The beautiful people pledging undying, time-bending fidelity to one another. Outlander is many things, but it is a romantic fantasy first and foremost.

What is it about Outlander that makes the show so damn sexy? Part of that is definitely due to the remarkable chemistry of its central stars, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, but it’s more than that. It is safe to say that the sex on Outlander is different from the sex on most television shows. The female gaze is catered to in a way that shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it is. It’s not just that Jamie is a mega babe; he’s a mega babe that doesn’t want to make Claire less than herself to please his whims.

Outlander 405, Jamie and Ian
Since the show’s beginning, Claire has been an active participant in her sexuality. Within the first few minutes of the pilot episode, our girl was getting eaten out in castle ruins by her then-husband. She has never been a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination. Here is a woman who has a healthy libido, someone who embraces her desire in a way that many women on television are not allowed to do. Claire is not presented as an object to be leered at; she is looking to be pleased and to please her partner in return. Is the sex in Outlander idealized? Well, obviously. Jamie is a whiz at oral pretty much right out of the gate, and while it isn’t unheard of, a man who is more concerned with his partner’s orgasm than his own increasingly feels like unicorn behavior. It is a romance, after all. But isn’t that kind of sexually equal footing something aspirational?

An unfortunate reality in the modern American television landscape is that a female character who enjoys sex is usually portrayed as damaged or unruly, despite this being a natural part of being human. Sexual chemistry has always been a part of Claire and Jamie’s relationship, and that ultimately plays into their unique partnership. These are two people who are not only ready to face the world together, they’re also ready to share their bed. Claire isn’t a less competent woman because she enjoys sex, and Jamie isn’t presented as “whipped” because he enjoys satisfying his wife. It may be a show set in the past, but that kind of outdated sexual dynamic has no place on Outlander.

Similarly, Brianna (Sophie Skelton) had to reckon with what she wants out of a relationship with Roger (Richard Rankin) in Season 4. While Roger is adamant that he doesn’t want to have sex with Brianna unless she is willing to marry him, Brianna’s choice to say “Whoa. My dude. Not cool.” is presented as a valid opinion. She made it clear that while she wanted to be with him, she wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. Instead of the Woman Desperate For A Husband trope, Outlander turned it on its head to present Roger as the one who longs for a traditional family. Brianna was allowed to decide that she wanted Roger in her own time (even though his behavior left me wondering why), and wasn’t cast as “the slut” for not being ready for marriage quite yet. Roger may have cast his judgment — cementing himself as the worst — but the show itself clearly did not share his view.

Outlander 407, Brianna
While I’m not wild about how Outlander has downplayed that sexual desire between Claire and Jamie this season — I get it, they’re getting “older,” but they’re still the hottest grandparents of all time so please stop cutting to black — I have faith that the ideals presented by these characters will remain unchanged. Plus, the addition of the romance between Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) and Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has the opportunity to represent older women enjoying their sexuality as well. Any excuse to see Murtagh in sexy wizard mode, please and thank you.

However, on the flip side of the sexual coin is unfortunately assault. The rape and mistreatment of women is a mainstay in popular culture and often used as an emotional motivation for the men around them. Think Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton to give Theon the impetus that he needs to rebel on Game of Thrones. On a show like Outlander, the historical setting makes the assault of women “accurate” (although one could argue that this is an ugly part of any phase in history). However, Outlander manages to handle this issue with thoughtfulness and care in a way that immediately signals that there are multiple women in this writers’ room.

After Jamie’s brutal assault by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) at the end of Season 1, many fans were curious to see how they handled the aftermath. For a male romantic hero to be assaulted is relatively unheard of, so the show was heading into uncharted territory. However, as horrific as it was to watch, to see Jamie come to terms with what happened was a surprisingly carefully done character arc. As he wrestled with his own traditional notions of what it meant to “be a man” and the shame that comes from being raped, the show gave a clear message to survivors of assault: your assault does not define you and you are not damaged goods.

Outlander 404, Jamie and Claire
This message continued over into Season 4 as well, after Brianna is raped by Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speelers). As frustrated as I was to see sexual assault as a plot point again, the way that the scene was shot left me floored. The attack happens offscreen, instead focusing on the people who can hear what’s going on as they continue their drinking despite Brianna’s cries. The men carry on as if nothing untoward is happening. This is the way of the world, you see. A man sees something that he wants and takes it, and his fellow men see nothing wrong. If one young woman pays the price for such a man’s appetites, there’s no skin off their backs. However, the looks on the barmaids' faces tell a much different story. The creeping horror as they realize what is going on is only matched by the resignation that this is the way the world is for women and they are powerless to stop it. In the current #MeToo era, this feminine sorrow is all too familiar.

When Jamie hears of his daughter’s assault, he handles it in a stereotypically masculine way — violence and anger. This is decidedly not great. However, how he convinces Brianna that it is not her fault and that there is nothing that she could have done to stop it is spot on. By briefly tricking her with a cartoonishly unkind (and unmeant) response, he helped her see that it wasn’t that she “didn’t fight hard enough, so she must have wanted it,” but that Bonnet could simply physically overpower her in any situation. While it may be a hopeless feeling to know that there’s nothing she could have done to ensure that their interaction had a different outcome, this shifting of blame from the abused to the abuser is an important message.

While it is not a perfect show, Outlander is proof that female sexuality on television doesn’t have to be exploitive. Whether it is protecting the sexual agency of its characters to opening up nuanced and sensitive conversations about assault, Outlander continues to be the gold standard in this regard.

Make Your Inbox Important

Get our newsletter and you’ll be delivered the most interesting stories, videos and interviews weekly.

Sign-up breaker
Sign out: