My Outlander habit started because it looked like something my husband and I would be able to watch together. I like historical fiction, he’s got a thing for kilts and bagpipes (and can trace his own ancestry to the Cameron clan); so when a coworker described it to me about three episodes after the premiere, I paid little attention to her telling me how “hot” it was and more to the 18th-century Scotland bit.
Then, of course, 11 minutes in, Claire was initiating sex with Frank in Mrs. Baird’s creaky bed and breakfast. Later on a countryside tour, she enticed Frank to get down on his knees and please her as she sat on the table in a room we would later learn would be Claire’s surgery as a healer.
At the time I hadn’t read any of the books—I’ve since listened only to audio books one and two; Davina Porter is a fantastic narrator—so I had no idea what steaminess was coming next. And I don’t mean the full-on naked sexiness that has become synonymous with the show, I mean the wonderful, obvious, repeated references to consensual sex and female pleasure.
First there was Claire and Frank, where she felt free to kick things off whenever and wherever in prudish post-war 1945. The examples continued to pile up in season one: Before the wedding, Jamie doesn’t slut-shame Claire for being more experienced in bed; he seems happy about it. “You don’t mind that I’m not a virgin?” she says, after MacDougal has arranged the marriage. “Not so long as you don’t mind that I am,” he replies. “I reckon one of us should know what we’re doing.” It’s like sexting in 1743.
Soon after, in the biggest fight of their young union, Jamie follows Scottish tradition and punishes Claire for not obeying him. Claire stands up to the domestic violence, and when they get around to the make-up sex Jamie won’t proceed until he gets Claire’s go ahead. “I want you Claire. I want you so much I can scarcely breathe. Will you have me?” he asks. She doesn’t just grab him or pull him to her, she gasps, “Yes.” Clear, audible sexy-as-hell consent.
While it’s fun to watch, portraying sex this way matters. “It’s incredibly important to show sexy, consensual sex on mainstream and popular shows,” says Jean Kilbourne, creator of the Killing Us Softly film series, media critic, and feminist activist who has studied how women are portrayed in advertising and media. “In this #MeToo era, it seems that some men are confused about what consensual sex is. Really guys?” It’s also important to show female pleasure and desire. Seen together it’s a magic cocktail, she says, “it helps people understand that consent can be sexy, and can be part of the whole experience—rather than an interruption of it. Consent can and should be enthusiastic!”
Rewatch the sex highlights (admit it, you’ve done it) and there are plenty of reminders. In episode 110, Jamie may have a chance to clear his name. He’s waited years for this information, and his very life may depend on it. But when Murtagh is banging on the door to tell him all the details, Jamie will not give up going down on Claire. He ignores the thundering racket until she climaxes. Oral and an orgasm? When was the last time you saw that, even on cable?
That wasn’t a one-off. The night before Claire returns to her time through the stones, Jamie pleasures her so he can watch; her pleasure is more satisfying and important than his own. “They are two equals. Neither is on a pedestal,” Sam Heughan told Glamour about the consensual sex. “He always puts her first, but he listens to what she has to say. … he’s always seen her as his equal. I think that is probably what makes their relationship work.”
Season two—as everyone bemoaned—was largely a dry spell, even as Jamie frequented a brothel with the bonnie prince. (Though Jamie’s initial reaction to the Parisian approach to grooming is worth noting: “Claire, what have you done to yourself? Your honey pot is bare,” he says. As Claire points out she waxed her legs too, he continues: “That’s bad enough, but to rid yourself of such a lovely forest!”)
Season three followed largely the same sexless trajectory with the two cross-century love birds trying to find their way back to each other.
But with season four, the Easter eggs are back. (Spoilers ahead if you aren’t up to date.) In 1970, when Brianna rebuffs Roger’s proposal, she points out his hypocrisy that he’s slept with other women without marrying them, but she can’t do the same. In the New World, as Mr. Myers explains the ways of the Cherokee as he guides Jamie, Claire, and Ian to their plot of land, he says “Cherokee women choose who they marry. And before that who they bed with,” as if consent were an act of honor as old as time. (Ian’s treacly, “I love this land!” almost kills the moment, but wouldn’t we all love to live in a world where consent is a given?)
And then, when a bear-like creature haunts both the Frasers and the Cherokee, we learn that it’s actually a former member of the tribe. “One year ago, he lay with [his woman] against her wishes, and that is not our way. So he was banished to live alone in the woods,” a Cherokee explains. “He did not accept this. He returned to us again and again. But we would not see him.” The man was once a great warrior and leader in the tribe, but there was no “hey Louis C.K., you’re welcome back any time” here. (It’s worth noting that this is different than in the book, where Jamie defeats a real bear; hat tip to the writers and producers for making this bit a little more relevant to modern day.)
The series is best when Jamie and Claire are in Scotland, but season four may bring back some of that ruggedness in a new world on the cusp of revolution. (There are signs of strain, though, particularly over major issues like slavery and the theft of Native American lands. Claire and Jamie were willing to try to rewrite history—to murder Dougal even—to save the Highlanders. But they aren’t willing to do anything to try to save the lives of millions slaves or Native Americans?)
But as all good streaming relationships go, my husband and I are now watching episodes at our own pace. He petered out before Jamie and Claire even set sail to the west. But for now, I’m sticking with this season for the sex—the consensual, feminist sex. How revolutionary.