The Romance of Male Virginity in Outlander

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Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is not your average hero. He is one part terrier, one part action hero, with a smidgeon of baby angel thrown in. He’s also a huge virgin.

None of these things are mutually exclusive.

The action hero part of him sees Jamie riding a horse with a bullet in his shoulder, taking corporal punishment for a girl accused of ‘loose morals’, and fighting endless troops of invading English Redcoats, all in the first two episodes. I can practically hear the swooning sighs of 21st century men whispering ‘badass’ in awe.

His terrier side is visible in his loyalty to his family and later, to time-travelling nurse Claire, telling her barely a day after meeting her that she needn’t be frightened of anyone while he is around – and this is even before he falls in love (which of course, he does wholeheartedly. Hence the smidgeon of baby angel.)

If you are not yet acquainted with Outlander, let me quickly run through the plot for you. Claire Beauchamp Randall, an ex-Army nurse who served in World War II, is on her second honeymoon with her husband, Frank, in Inverness, when she is mysteriously transported back to the 18th century. Still in Scotland, she encounters her husband’s sadistic English ancestor, Black Jack Randall (who shares the same face but certainly not the same kindly countenance) but she is thankfully rescued by a group of passing clansmen, of whom Jamie Fraser is one.

But take Jamie out of his 18th century context for a second. He’s a twenty-two year old boy, surrounded by male friends who are often, at best, vulgar about women. I have little doubt that these men would have eagerly consumed content like LadBible, probably with a guffaw and a lewd gesture. Women are sex objects to Jamie’s contemporaries, first and foremost.

This is not particular to 1743. We know what this culture does to young men today and, as a result, to young women. We seen it all around us: whether it’s at universities where rape jokes are exchanged on sports fields, or in its more violent form, taking root in boys like Elliot Rodger, who last year killed six people and blamed his virginity, saying, “No one respects a man who cannot get a woman.”

You don’t need me to tell you that virginity in men is laughed at where it’s prized in women. Not only is this rigorously-imposed masculinity dangerous, it also perpetuates the idea that men must have sex with women to be initiated into the cultural order, which, frankly, is absolutely insane.

And that is why Jamie Fraser’s virginity is so important. Because twenty-two-year-old boys with muscles and swords can be virgins too and it simply does not matter.

Jamie is already a fully-fleshed out character by the time he reveals his virginity in episode seven. We’ve had several episodes seeing him with his family, with Claire, pledging allegiance to his Laird, and playing the most erotically-charged game of hockey television audiences have ever seen. Of course, it makes the final reveal so delicious but it also goes to show that not only is male virginity not remotely embarrassing, it’s also completely invisible.

While male virginity often symbolises holiness and righteousness in classics of the Romance genre like Morte D’Arthur, virginity has no moral standing in Outlander. Jamie Fraser is no Sir Galahad, marked out as pure and sacred, devoted only to God. He is not a man of the Night’s Watch, sworn to spend his life as a virgin for the good of the realm. And he’s certainly no polo-shirted Steve Carell. Virginity does not define Jamie at all; he just hasn’t had sex. That’s quite literally it.

When casting Jamie, the Outlander producers made it very clear that they were looking for someone who could play both the virgin and the soldier believably. I resent this: the idea that male virginity isn’t believable in a strapping young lad is beyond me. I heard someone recently call the dragons in Game of Thrones “convincing.” But no, male virginity, that’s the last straw; Outlander has jumped the shark.

The show also has an answer for those who say Jamie is too good-looking to be a virgin. His handsomeness has no bearing on the number of lovers he has or has not been with. We know he is desirable. First of all, we have eyes. Second of all, he’s desirable to other characters, from the flamboyant Duke of Sandringham to a young Highlander girl, Laoghaire. By Jamie’s own estimation, he’s a “virgin, not a monk.”

That is not to say he knows what he’s doing in bed. If Outlander’s portrayal of male virginity is refreshing, its sex scenes are nothing short of revolutionary. Whilst Game of Thrones is often described as “sex, blood and boob fondling” (with its women largely the victims of all three), Outlander could be described as “sex, mutual respect and orgasms for everyone”. The show acknowledges the female gaze as much as it acknowledges its male counterpart, one oral sex scene at a time.

Indeed, one of Claire’s first scenes involves her husband going down on her in the middle of some old castle ruins. It happens again in a later episode, this time with Jamie between her thighs. Jamie, whilst inexperienced compared to Claire, is nonetheless a willing student.

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This willingness is central to Outlander’s “sex, mutual respect and orgasms” ethos. “One of us ought to know what we’re doing,” Jamie says with a gleeful smirk when he reveals his virginity to Claire and it’s a sentiment he keeps to. He asks Claire if he’s hurting her, he listens to Claire when she complains he is crushing her under his weight, he lets her direct him through strategic arse grabs. Whilst Jamie’s first time is short and slightly crude (as can only be expected), his second time is far more pleasurable for both him and Claire. He remarks afterwards that he did not know that women could enjoy it.

“Murtagh told me that women do not generally care for [sex],” he says, marvelling at Claire after she has proven him wrong. Both Claire and the Outlander makers want Jamie to know that his friends are idiots. Women have sexual agency too. They are not merely for male consumption.

Actually, if anything, Jamie takes on the role of pliant, submissive damsel, as Claire goes to town on him, in a refreshing display of control and consent, contrary to what the like of Fifty Shades of Grey have taught us. If Jamie’s sexual narrative has been about becoming a man – which is what a lesser show would have focussed on – Claire’s agency would have necessarily been sidelined. And Claire has agency in spades, whether she’s negotiating political deals with the Duke of Sandringham, or telling Jamie to take off his shirt. Be assured she returns the favour. “Fair’s fair,” our Highlander reasons.

This relationship between Claire and Jamie is equal, regardless of sexual experience, which matters little to either. In a non-sexual scene later in the series, we see Jamie punish Claire for putting the clan in danger, as is expected by his friends and his superiors, and as has been tradition for all of Jamie’s life. Such a culture is hard to unlearn, as even the most determined of male feminists will tell you. But far from using tradition to excuse himself, Jamie considers why Claire is angry at him and essentially tells her, “maybe it doesn’t have to be that way with us”. He renounces a dominant, damaging culture in favour of supporting another human being. Not only is that remarkable for an 18th century Highlander, it’s remarkable for any person even today. He is exactly the hero modern TV audiences need to see.

Outlander is a great show. It’s romance, intrigue, history and fantasy all rolled into one, but what makes it really stand out from the crowd is its commitment to not only the female gaze in sex scenes (thus debunking the myth that sex scenes are only ever for the pleasure of men), but also its commitment to its hero, who is strong, witty, stoic and virginal all at once.

Jamie Fraser is no Venn diagram. Jamie Fraser is a circle.

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