“Outlander,” the addictive Starz series now in its fourth season, centers on a romance for the ages: the time-traveling, soul-shaking love between 18th-century Scottish Highlander Jamie Fraser and 20th-century combat nurse Claire Randall.
The actors who play them — Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe — are widely celebrated for their beauty and their skill. Heughan, in particular, has such physical presence that even feminist writer Roxane Gay readily admits -- “I feel guilty about this but I do have eyes”-- that she cannot help but objectify him.
Which is why he may be the perfect man to model explicit consent, to explode the belief sex educators say they often encounter: that asking permission is "not hot."
Many sex-ed courses teach consent, and have the students role-play it. They talk about “no means no” and the need for an enthusiastic yes. But when students return to their usual media diet, they often re-enter what some have described as a “rapey” world of forced kisses and ever more borderline-pornographic violence on shows like “Game of Thrones.”
(Spoiler alert from here on.) “Outlander” has plenty of "rapey" scenes too, including some so excruciating that the end of the first season left me reeling and horrified for days. But the series, and the mega-selling novels it is based on, also portray romantic love at its most gloriously gratifying, and Jamie is — as the show’s writers call him — “king of men.”
He’s certainly the king of consent, as some critics have noted, and he demonstrates this in the scenes below. So could "Outlander" be useful in consent curricula? Yes, says Boston-based sex educator (and fellow "Outlander" fan) Deirdre O’Donnell, who has taught middle-school, high-school and college students in Providence, RI and Brockton, Mass.
"I would say many scenes from the 'Outlander' television series would be a good educational tool for consent," she says. "Claire and Jamie have chemistry on the screen that feels so authentic and relatable, it might be exactly the media experience we need to break the common misconception that consent isn't sexy."
Recap: Claire is furious with Jamie after he administers some corporal punishment for wifely disobedience — a belt spanking — that was normal in his era and would be arrest-worthy domestic abuse in ours.
She freezes him out of their bed; he puzzles it through, and finally pledges never to raise a hand to her again. As they reconcile, they kiss. The trance of desire descends visibly upon both of them, but Jamie is compelled to check that he is truly out of the doghouse.
“I want you, Claire,” he half-whispers. “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe. Will you have me?”
She kisses him again, and half-whispers back: “Yes, I’ll have you.”
Commentary: It’s a pity the succinct “Will you have me?” would sound odd to most American ears, but O’Donnell says this scene offers useful instruction on several counts.
Claire “is a perfect example of something I try to teach my young people whenever I do my sex-ed work," she says. " We need to do a really good job of making our boundaries clear and also teaching other people to respect them.”
But once that’s done, O’Donnell says, there’s also a place for forgiveness and understanding. Jamie was a product of his time; Claire understood that, “and her ability to forgive him, and his ability to recognize the wrong in his behavior, and commit to never hurting her again, was all a really incredible catalyst for the depth of their relationship, and a tribute to how anybody can change.”
“Having seen the error of his ways,” O’Donnell says, Jamie then “takes this simple step of asking for really, really explicit consent,” and that remains consistent throughout the series.
Recap: By Season 3, circumstances have kept the couple apart for years, and Jamie, on parole from prison and working as an indentured groom on an English estate, catches the eye of a daughter of the house, Lady Geneva. Soon to be wed to a much older man, she blackmails him into coming to her bedroom and introducing her to sex. Even though she’s coercing him, he seeks explicit consent.
“We should get on with this, then,” he says unenthusiastically. “May I touch you, milady?”
Seeing her hesitation, he offers: “We don’t have to do this; change your mind if you want.”
“No,” she replies, “I’m doing this for myself. I want my first time to be with someone like you.”
A bit later, as they grow more intimate, she repeats the question back to him: “May I touch you?”
Commentary: Here, we see Jamie applying what he learned from Claire, O’Donnell says, “in terms of consent and asking if things are OK along the way, and recognizing that consent is a continuous conversation. It’s not a transaction. It’s not something that you just get, and then it’s OK to do whatever you want.”
If she were using this scene — highly edited — in a class, O’Donnell says, she would discuss the power dynamic at work — nobility vs. servant, woman vs. man — and go beyond into the importance of exploring gray zones.
“One of the things I personally love so much about ‘Outlander’ is I think consent is actually a really complicated issue, and human beings are really complex,” a mix of good and bad, sometimes with good intentions but bad outcomes, she says. “And a lot of sex educators try to make consent a very black-and-white issue.”
In reality, O’Donnell says, “consent is communicated in a variety of ways that aren’t explicit. Body language is important. Facial expressions are important. Tone of voice is important. Checking in constantly and asking if each individual thing is OK. And knowing how to have those conversations in a way that doesn’t feel awkward — all of those things are important to teach people, so that they can engage in these conversations about consent in a real way.”
And those conversations, she says, "are always going to be limited until we start to recognize the gray area there,” and see that in many situations that end badly, no one was acting out of malice. “We, as a culture, are not having enough of a debrief about that.”
Recap: After 20 years apart, Jamie and Claire reunite well into Season 3, in a particularly powerful episode titled “A. Malcolm.” She has traveled back in time again to join him, and he is so shocked when he first sees her that he faints.
When he recovers, Jamie takes Claire’s hand, and sees that she’s still wearing his wedding ring.
“I never took it off,” she says.
He’s drawn inexorably toward her. “I want — I would very much like to kiss you,” he manages to stutter. “May I?”
There have surely been many loud protests from the peanut gallery at home: “You haven’t seen the love of your life in 20 years, you each thought the other was dead, you’re finally back together, you’re leaking tears of joy, just [bleeping] kiss her!”
But he waits for her reply, a simple “Yes.”
He pauses on his way in for the kiss, and remarks in wonder: “I have not done this in a very long time….”
Commentary: O’Donnell often hears from her students that asking for a kiss or more is “not hot.” This scene could be an effective response to those concerns, she says, “a perfect example to show, ‘Look, you can have these conversations about these questions in a way that actually might turn the other person on.’ ”
Similarly helpful, she says, is a shipboard scene in the “Eye of the Storm" episode, when Claire and Jamie have long had little time and space alone together. When they finally have a moment, he begins sharing his fantasies about her, “and he walks her through it piece by piece,” O'Donnell says. “Like, ‘I would put you on my lap, I would kiss you this way,’ ” all while reading her facial expressions, watching her reactions as she eggs him on to tell her more.
They’re effectively walking the viewer through the consent process, O’Donnell says, “and it was so fantastic to see a healthy dynamic like that onscreen.”
One more example, highly relevant to problematic on-campus encounters where alcohol is involved: In the “Uncharted” episode, Claire is feeling frisky while feverish and under the influence of the sherry in her turtle soup, and Jamie hesitates repeatedly out of concern for her. As Mashable writes:
While plenty of shows have romanticized, laughed off or outright ignored drunken hook-ups between its characters, having Jamie vocalize the fact that Claire's faculties may be a little compromised is a way for Outlander to subtly emphasize the importance of consent, especially while someone's under the influence of alcohol.
Postscript For 'Outlander' Fans
So there you have it, as Claire might say. Certain scenes from "Outlander" could be used to teach consent — "Outlander," the Starz series, that is. The books are a bit trickier.
As a Daily Beast writer notes, the real “temporal displacement” in "Outlander" is not Claire’s time travel, but rather, “the changing cultural conversation around consent in the decades between the books and the show.”
Among the books’ legions of close-reading fans, some scenes have raised consent-related push-back. Certainly the spanking scene. And in the book treatment of the scene with Lady Geneva, she suddenly changes her mind about having intercourse with Jamie at the very last minute, and tells him to stop. The books' author, Diana Gabaldon, writes: “Beyond control, he put a hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of.” Which was “No.”
There are more where those came from, including occasional roughness in bed, and what Claire describes at one point as “gentle insistence that I knew was a continuation of the lesson so brutally begun the night before. Gentle he would be, denied he would not.”
That sure doesn’t sound like 21st-century consent, and when I pointed them out to O’Donnell, they troubled her. “Times have changed a lot since the first few books were written,” she says; perhaps even Gabaldon would regret those scenes and wish they were different.
Perhaps. But Gabaldon often plays with moral ambiguity in her characters, and she once said in an interview that she tends to think “agendas are detrimental to art.”
Agenda or not, she created scene after scene that depicts consent so vividly they would serve a sex-ed class today. And she did it decades before the term entered the current cultural conversation. In her pre-#metoo work, for all its moral complexity, seeking consent looks simply like a good man's act of simple decency.