In the early days of HBO’s wildly popular series, Game of Thrones, fans gleefully despised the Lannister twins, Jaime and Cersei. They were rich, they were ruthless, and even more despicable—they were having sex. They even pushed a little boy out a window to cover up their secret. Villains!
Jaime has since adopted a more heroic posture on the show, but the siblings’ sexual relationship as the series has advanced consistently felt warped and destructive. On the other hand, GoT fans have come to love the handsome, brooding bastard Jon Snow and the gorgeous, driven Daenerys Targaryen. We couldn’t wait to see them team up, fight the Night King, and most importantly get it on.
But that was before the Season 7 finale, when viewers learned that Daenerys is, indeed, Jon’s aunt. What’s more, fans found at exactly the moment that the Dragon Queen and the King in the North—still blissfully ignorant of their shared bloodline—finally got naked.
Needless to say, our feelings about the couple fanfic writers have long dubbed “Jonerys” are a little more complicated.
While the incestuous relationship between Jaime and Cersei was always presented as problematic—and fans read each sex scene as such—some viewers weren’t particularly bothered by the incestuous implications of Jon Snow bedding Daenerys Targaryen. In response to New York Times critic Jeremy Egner’s musings on the subject, commenters ranged from blithe to jubilant about the aunt-son tryst. “I’m so happy about Jonerys! At last!” one commenter wrote. Another chimed in, “They are about the same age and were unknown to each other until recently. Theirs is a genuine, plausible, and well-motivated romance.”
Which is true! Jon and Dany don’t know they’re related. And as it turns out, attraction between long-separated relatives is exceedingly common. Over the past several decades, there’s been a growing push to better understand the phenomenon of Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA), in which people fall into obsessive, sometimes sexual relationships with their own long-lost, close blood relatives. It’s so common among adopted children being reunited with their family members—the University College London estimates it may happen in up to 50 percent of reunions—that some adoption agencies even warn families about the possibility. The phenomenon usually occurs between nuclear family members (parents, children, and siblings) and it’s far from agreed upon in psychological circles. But perhaps Jon and Dany are just doing what comes naturally. It’s less unsettling for those of us who might feel icky about our lack of icky feelings about Jonerys.
“There are some narrative elements attached to the relationship that make it less ew.“
The fact that they’re what family marriage laws would term an “avunculate” pairing—between an aunt and a nephew—instead of siblings might also be keeping the ick factor at bay. Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, reasons that while the Lannisters’ twincest makes them willing parties in the breaking of an incredibly powerful taboo, “Jon and Dany are further apart. They’re not siblings. They’re aunt and nephew. There are some narrative elements attached to the relationship that make it less ‘ew.’ They’re not culpable—or at least not as culpable.”
Further insulating us from the ickiness is the elastic definition of incest when it comes to more distant relatives. As the Game of Thrones Wiki site points out, “Intermarriage between first cousins is actually not considered ‘incest’ in Westerosi society.” (It’s also legal in about half of the 50 United States.)
While the added distance of a generational gap between Dany and Jon might be a tempting excuse to brush off their relationship, it’s important to note that aunts and nephews actually share, on average, a full quarter of the same genetics, while first cousins only share half that. Avunculate marriage, accordingly, is not legal anywhere in the U.S.
And Jonerys doesn’t just have to worry about the genetic overlap that their union might visit upon any kids they might have. (All those mentions of how Dany can’t bear children seem like kind of a setup, don’t they?) They’re both the results of generations of incest practiced by the Targaryen royal family to keep bloodlines pure—inbreeding that resulted in the Mad King’s titular insanity. If Jonerys bring forth another little Dragon, he or she is likely to bear the brunt of their ancestors’ and parents’ incestuous liaisons.
So then how do some of us justify our sort-of-OK-with-this-ness about Jonerys? Shouldn’t we be losing our collective minds over this?
“People are engaging in a little bit of cognitive dissonance, where they have built up this relationship with Jon and Daenerys over the years.”
Let’s not be too hasty, says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Acting Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program at Ball State University and author of The Psychology of Human Sexuality. “It’s important to remember that this is a fantasy television series, and that what people are comfortable with in a book or TV show might be very different from what they’re comfortable with in reality.”
It’s one thing to cheer on incest as a general concept, but quite another to target Jonerys for it, given our investment in their happiness. “People are engaging in a little bit of cognitive dissonance, where they have built up this relationship with Jon and Daenerys over the years, they’ve invested a lot in it, they have a positive attitude toward them,” says Dr. Lehmiller. “Now that they’re confronted with this incestuous relationship, rather than changing their attitudes toward the characters, they’re changing their attitude toward incest in this particular case.” But we’re making just this one exception, he believes—and on a television show that features zombies, dragons, and necromancy, no less. It’s all a fantasy.
Incest fantasies are an uncomfortable subject for most of us, who have been conditioned to think of them as reflexively wrong. But recent developments in the porn industry are questioning just how much discomfort we truly have with them.
The “fauxceset” genre of pornography—in which actors portray stepparents, stepchildren, and stepsiblings—is the most popular category of smut on the internet right now, and it’s been growing for years. Vice estimated last year that interest in the genre had exploded by over 1,000 percent in the previous five years, and Pornhub revealed this year that the top search term in the United States in 2016 was “step mom”—the second most searched-for term in the world over the same period, eclipsed only by the ever-popular “lesbian.”
Are we just getting to be more OK with fantasizing about incest?
The popularity of both fauxcest porn has risen alongside the success of Game of Thrones, and while it’s impossible to know whether Jaime and Cersei’s relationship has had any impact on our porn-viewing habits, the correlation is hard to ignore. And the contemporaneous popularity of both begs the question: Are we just getting to be more OK with fantasizing about incest?
“People have always been drawn to the taboo and aroused by things that are sexually forbidden,” says Dr. Lehmiller. “Incest is just one of many things that is forbidden, but that many people are aroused by at one time or another.” Searching for pornography that allows them to explore that fantasy is a natural next step, particularly given the availability of “step mom” material online. And while his own research on the issue has shown him that it’s “actually not uncommon for people to have had an incest fantasy,” Dr. Lehmiller maintains that, “The number of people that fantasize about incest frequently is a very, very small number.”
Dr. Tibbals agrees that for most of us—even die-hard Game of Thrones fans—incest fantasies are fleeting and non-damaging. “There’s a lot of this that’s really just impulse,” she says. “It’s not that my stepmother, per se, is hot. It’s the idea of that taboo relationship that’s hot. And that’s part of what’s so titillating about sex in media, be it sex in Game of Thrones or actual hardcore porn. It’s the idea of that taboo.”
Tina Horn, the host and producer of the kinky sex podcast Why Are People Into That?!, believes it’s important to let ourselves enjoy the fantasy element of both the HBO show and the porn. “There’s no harm in incest fantasies—and I emphasize fantasy here,” she tells me via e-mail. “Incest is a powerful fantasy because it allows you to have it both ways: You’re violating one of the strongest societal taboos while simultaneously indulging in the most intimate, familiar relationships you can have. Incest is basically transgressive intimacy, and that tension will always have a seductive draw.”
All of which is to say that, if you enjoyed the love scene between Jon and Daenerys as the payoff for seven seasons of hopes, dreams, longing, and frustration that it was, don’t feel too bad about it. You’re far from alone. And now—at least for the year we’ve got until they arrive at Winterfell—neither are Jon and Dany.
Lead image: HBO