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Is The Sex In “Game of Thrones” Gratuitous?


io9 raises the question of whether the “gratuitous sex” in HBO’s Game of Thrones is “worse” than the “gratuitous violence.” I’m not sure the violence is gratuitous. Westeros is a brutal place, the lands across the Narrow Sea arguably more so (or, perhaps, just differently so). It’s possible, though (a la Bart Simpson), that I’m merely desensitized to it. Sex on the show, on the other hand, has always stood out, even by subscription cable show standards.

Merriam-Webster defines gratuitous as “uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted.” So, is the sex in Game of Thrones gratuitous? Or, more to io9’s point has it become so? io9 states it as fact: “both the sex and the violence have both been more gratuitous lately.” I think so, too, though not for everyone.

*** SPOILERS FOLLOW ***

There are several elements in Season 2 of Game of Thrones I could quibble with. But, on the whole, most of the changes they’ve made are legitimate ones given they’re translating a dense book into a mere ten hours of television. To the extent all the sex furthers world building, it’s perfectly fine. But Season 1 had already gone past this point and Season 2 is indeed allowing it detract from the story. [It's obligatory, I suppose, that I state here that I don't mind sexual content (regardless of the genders of the participants) in my entertainment. What I is bad storytelling--especially where something as fantastic as A Song of Ice and Fire is concerned. To borrow a phrase from a most unlikely source, the issue is not that I don't want any flavor for my fare but, rather, that HBO seems to have decided to put us all on a straight pepper diet.]

Sometimes superficially “gratuitous” sex serves the story. As io9 notes, Theon’s real character is demonstrated quite aptly by how he treats his women. The seeds of what’s to come are planted even as he seems, with Robb especially, to be loyal, true, and noble. And Littlefinger’s speech while “training” his new prostitutes in “You Win or You Die” (repeated, in a nice turn, almost verbatim by Ros in “The North Remembers”) was terrific. It tells us far more about Petyr than an equal amount of direct exposition ever could. What useful information, by contrast, did we glean from watching him spy through a peephole on a man being fellated while watching yet another person (also, presuamably, in flagrante delecto) through yet another peephole? That Littlefinger is slimy? That this culture is decadent beyond belief? That one never knows who’s watching one? We already knew those things.

The sexual relationship between Renly and Loras in the show has been overblown (no pun intended) from the start. Season 1 made barely the slightest attempt to build up to it. Season 2 goes to an almost ludicrous extreme by having Margaery (worse, it’s pretty much her first major scene) offer to bring her brother in to help Renly get in the mood to make an heir. The relationship between Renly and Loras is handled subtly and intriguingly in the books. It’s there to be discovered and the reader gets to decide what it means. The show just bludgeons us with it. It’s not gratuitous because it’s gay male sex on TV but because there’s little, if anything, in it that actually adds to the story. Sure, it does eventually serve to illustrate Margaery’s pragmatism quite efficiently. But that, too, is done much more effectively in the books in a single conversation–with Sansa, not a man. So far, the show has made Margaery much less than she is in the books, in part due to the sheer bloodlessness of her sexuality.

Likewise, while there are hints in the books that there’s another… element to the relationship between Melisandre and Stannis, the subtle approach is thrown out in the show. Instead, all of 10 minutes after a character whose judgment and perspective we’re supposed to trust vouchsafes Stannis’ unimpeachable honour, Stannis allows that honour to be casually undone by the most cursory of seductions. Thus Stannis’ essential nature–his rigidity, pitiless fairness, and honour–is utterly destroyed, rendering him just one more grasping schemer. Westeros has plenty of those as it is. The only conceivable justification for the lengths Stannis goes to in his quest is that he’s right. Strip him of his honour and he’s worse than Cersei, who makes no pretensions to having any. Ser Davos Seaworth, meanwhile, is one of the few genuinely honest, steadfast characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. He serves to ground the story and provide a moral compass against which to judge all the wickedness around him. The show all but screams at us here that his judgment is severely flawed.

Joffrey’s birthday present scene has disturbed a lot of people, but that one, I think, works. The Joffrey depicted in the show is fully and completely the rash boy who takes Ned Stark’s head over his mother’s orders to let him take The Black. In the books, he’s sadistic and cruel but has somewhat less individual agency. He doesn’t sideline Cersei so completely as the TV character who threatens to kill her, for instance. As translations to a different medium go, that’s within reason. Sex and violence are inextricably linked in A Song of Ice and Fire and Joffrey is everything that’s wrong with Westeros distilled to its essence. So, yes, that scene could have been done with a lighter touch, but it makes sense that it’s as extreme as it is, too.

In stark (again, no pun intended) contrast with almost everyone else, Daenerys’ sexuality has been handled pretty close to perfectly throughout. Not coincidentally, the show runners haven’t strayed much from the source material there. I can’t imagine they’ll resist the mild lesbianism in the books forever, but I do hope they don’t ruin it when Daario Naharis makes his appearance.

Strangest of all, Tyrion–perhaps the most overtly sexual major character in the books–is the one they’ve chosen to approach with actual subtlety. It makes one wonder if HBO didn’t decide that showing a midget having constant sex wouldn’t be a shade too big (this pun intended) a step to take. So, with him we get a less-is-more, implied approach to sex. And until I specifically turned my thoughts to it while writing this, I hadn’t really noticed. Would that we could have had more of that with Renly and Loras. It would have made for a better show.

I’m still really enjoying the show, though not quite as much as the first season. I just hope they dial it back down at some point or the they’ll end up with no ways left to top themselves (as they seem to think they must) that doesn’t involve direwolves or The Others.

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About Dodd
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He can kill a mime using only his thumb. He joined the staff at OTB in May 2007. Follow Dodd on Twitter.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Is it gratuitous? Sure. Sometimes that is the best kind…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Their bigger problem is that George RR Martin completely f*cked up the most recent two books and drove the series entirely off the rails and beyond redemption. HBO and Dan Weiss must be terrified. That’s on top of the fact that Martin left them with only Tyrion as a remotely attachable character you can invest in. Martin was the American Tolkien, but that only lasted for three books.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Jen says:

    Why must the Renly-Loras relationship serves a point or “add anything to the story”? Gay people exist from time immemorial, surely you can have gay characters without there having to be some great point to be made? The only reason to have gay people in show is to make some sort of point, otherwise it’s pointless?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  4. Jen says:

    Plus, whatever is shown between Renly-Loras is a lot more subtle than all the hetero sex, but it seems to some people a lot more. Curious, this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  5. Jen says:

    “It seems to bother some people a lot more”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Jen says:

    @michael reynolds: He seems attached to the idea of killing almost everyone the readers could possibly be attached to. Of course some people call that “brave”, but it smacks more of knee-jerk contrarianism to me. Martin is like the Slate of fantasy fiction.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    BING-flarking-O. Martin seems interested in driving his character arcs off cliffs or into long, boring plateaus. A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons could have easily been distilled into one book once an editor gently reminded Martin that while Brienne and Reek and the Martells and Greyjoys are interesting characters, they are not essential to the main story.

    Not even Martin is immune to fantasy author bloat. It’s happened time and time again with many new fantasy series that taste a modicum of success. The first book, and maybe the second and third, are truly good books, but then the author gets a swollen head and the editor becomes afraid of actually doing his job. New characters you’ve never heard of before and don’t care about are introduced. The author goes on wild tangents that add little to the story arc.

    As a fantasy/sci-fan fan, it frustrates me to no end. Maybe it’s part of the publishing game. Once they realize they have a successful series, they probably just tell the author to go nuts and pad the series as much as possible. I’d certainly believe it with Martin’s last two books.

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  8. Rob in CT says:

    I think it is, at least somewhat. But that’s right from the books. I laugh at HBO sometimes for basically constructing shows around copious amounts of nudity & sex, but in this instance, they found source material that didn’t require that they make stuff up.

    And I agree with MR on books 3 and 4. Look, it can be daring to kill off a key, likeable character. It can also be cool to take a heroic character and show then in an unheroic light, and vise-versa. Really. But damn, man. I’m down to three characters I care about/root for (and one of them may have been killed, but the way it was written suggests he’s probably only mostly dead). The plot bogged down horribly. It reminds me of when I gave up on Robert Jordan’s big series (Wheel of Time). A few books in, the thing just turned into an unreadable morass.

    Also, it’s hard for me to avoid believing that Martin has a sadistic streak. Yes, you can say the torture, rape and other terrible stuff is just part of his gritty medieval world. Sure. But he wallows in it.

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  9. Dodd says:

    @Jen:

    Gay people exist from time immemorial, surely you can have gay characters without there having to be some great point to be made? The only reason to have gay people in show is to make some sort of point, otherwise it’s pointless?

    I explicitly said the opposite. I went out of my way, in fact, to anticipate your reaction and address it in the post. It’s not that they’re gay men having a relationship or even that they’re having sex in the show. The books support that–they also do so more interestingly. My issue is with the storytelling itself and what’s being done to the story.

    There are whole characters and series of events that are slashed out of the source material, in part make room for Renly and Loras getting busy despite it being, at best, a minor detail in the books. Worse, Renly and Loras as characters are far more than just a couple of gay guys. But one would have trouble realizing that from the show since a huge chunk of their screen time so far has been devoted to that one aspect of their lives. There have indeed been gay people since time immemorial. Would they want to be portrayed in a way that reduces them to little more than their sexuality? Even the prostitute Ros, a minor character created for the show (I expect she’s there to be a consistent outside observer and an amalgamated replacement for Chataya and Alayaya in the Tyrion-Shae-Cersei arc), has gotten more character development than Renly ever got and he’s, you know, kind of important to the story. She’s also had a lot of sex along the way, so it’s clearly possible to do both.

    Loras still has a chance, but Renly ended up as little more than a smirking caricature who happened to have sex with another man a few times. That doesn’t serve the story, it harms it.

    @Jen:

    Plus, whatever is shown between Renly-Loras is a lot more subtle than all the hetero sex, but it seems to some people a lot more. Curious, this.

    Well, since I spent the bulk of the post talking about overdone hetero sex, this complaint doesn’t apply. Further, a big chunk of the paragraph I devoted to Renly and Loras is actually about how, once again, Margaery is diminished by the show runners’ obsession with the sex rather than the actual characters.

    But, where Renly and Loras annoy me, you might have noticed that the (hetero) sex between Stannis and Melisandre earned my actual, unvarnished scorn. HBO has gutted a major character’s story arc before we’ve even had a chance to get to know him. They can’t ever bring him back from that and portray him as the man he really is because they took that shortcut.

    Renly and Loras’ sex scenes are just an example of the problem: that characters in the show aren’t allowed to be their complete, complex selves because HBO would rather concentrate on sex. That’s the very essence of “gratuitousness.”

    @Lit3Bolt:

    A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons could have easily been distilled into one book once an editor gently reminded Martin that while Brienne and Reek and the Martells and Greyjoys are interesting characters, they are not essential to the main story.

    The Martells, at least, very much are. But, as is their wont, it’s mostly from the shadows. They were mostly off over the horizon in the beginning, so I don’t mind that we finally got to see more of them. Theon/Reek has been a crucial character from the very start, so keeping him as such is hardly a bad choice. On Brienne, well, there we agree.

    I certainly can’t disagree that the last two books have been bloated. But I still enjoyed them overall. They ended up they way they did because GRRM couldn’t figure out how to get Dany out of Mereen. He has several characters flat-out tell her how, but he just couldn’t take the out and move on. Instead, we get a long, convoluted set of subplots that lead to a rather unsatisfying place. Perhaps there will prove to have been a reason why it had to be so hard down the road, but the path there it isn’t clear as things stand.

    I recently finished rereading the fourth and am rereading the fifth now. In the fourth, (a) Cersei’s POV chapters show her to be a complete moron (laughably, sometimes unbelievably so), (b) Jon Snow’s arc is just missing something, and, yes (c) Brienne has too many chapters, most of which don’t really seem to go anywhere. But on the whole it still more or less works. I didn’t really care about Arya’s story in the first couple of books but it’s one of my favourites come the fourth book. The fifth is plodding along as tendentiously as it did the first time around, though. The story is fine, there’s just too much time spent on ancillary details (even in chapters that are vital to the overall plot, we get pages and pages of extraneous internal dialogue and description that don’t move the story along–backstory and context that could be done in a paragraph instead takes a page and a half, often as not). GRRM has always delved into the details in this series (it’s one of the things that makes them so compelling, really), but the last two books are just unfocused So, while I don’t agree with MR that he’s driven the story irredeemably off the rails, I do have to agree that 4 and 5 could indeed have been managed as one book–as GRRM originally planned.

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  10. michael reynolds says:

    Writing series is a different job than writing stand-alones. Editing them is as well. I have one more book to write in the GONE series and so far, as of #5, fans are still saying each one is better than the last. But the funny thing is, I was writing with the benefit of GRRM’s experience — I specifically set out to avoid bloat, and I remembered what should be Rule #1: kill all you want, but don’t kill the star.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. al-Ameda says:

    As far as I’m concerned they should get rid of the rest of the “content” and add bikinis.

    I don’t understand the popularity of it at all. It makes me miss The Sopranos and The Wire a lot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  12. Rob in CT says:

    Cersei’s POV chapters show her to be a complete moron (laughably, sometimes unbelievably so)

    Oh yes. Oh so very much yes. In many ways, she’s just an older (and nastier) version of the elder Stark daughter (name escapes me).

    (b) Jon Snow’s arc is just missing something

    The part where he wins. Something.

    I see him as sort of the male version of Dany. He keeps trying to do good things. He’s not an idjit, but he is at least a little naive. He’s young, after all. As with Dany and her noble attempts at helping slaves, Martin slaps Jon Snow down hard right as he’s doing real good (being the one guy in the 7 kingdoms to recognize the real threat and try to fight it). Because reality bites and all that.

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  13. I am tired of watching sex scenes in movies all together. It seems to me the writers and others involved need something to fill the screen and use sex as a diversion. If I want to watch sex I will buy porno, while on the subject of bothersome things in movies, why must they drown out the dialogue with very loud music? Could it be even that is not worth listening to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  14. Dodd says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Oh yes. Oh so very much yes. In many ways, she’s just an older (and nastier) version of the elder Stark daughter (name escapes me).

    Sansa is (well, was) just naive. She was the First Cause of the entire conflagration in Westeros, after all, when she told Cersei about Ned’s plans (thinking she was doing the right thing and/or selfishly trying to avoid having to go back to Winterfell and miss out on tourneys). Joffrey would never have had the chance to take Ned’s head if she hadn’t trusted Cersei.

    But she’s definitely not naive any more. Her mother managed to grasp the realities of politics and still be a basically good person. She seems like she’ll manage it, too. But, oh, the price.

    (b) Jon Snow’s arc is just missing something

    The part where he wins. Something

    I don’t really expect him to “win.” At least not yet. What’s missing from Jon’s story of late is that nothing is really happening. He’s been mostly reactive. He gets berated by Stannis. He inspects food. He seems to think he’s the only “southerner” who understands the Wildings. Stannis berates him some more. He whines to himself. He gets Caesared. He does send Slynt to his well-deserved end but, again, it just happens and he continues to plod along. His plan to reopen the shuttered forts is reasonable but hasn’t have much effect (you could take all of that out and the only thing that would change would be the plot device that sets up the showdown with Slynt).

    A fantasy doesn’t need people to be moving from place to place (as the standard template has them) in order for the characters to have interesting stories. Plenty of AGOT characters have terrific stories staying put for extended periods of time. Jon seems to need to be in motion to get that though I can’t quite put my finger on why (he’s passionate character with a deep-seated insecurity about his origins, but there isn’t not much left around him to key off of those things and create character-based drama for him, I guess).

    My friend is sorely tempted by the theory that Jon is Azor Azzai (I still think Dany is, if that prophecy means anything at all). I pretty much assume he’s not actually dead (though the head fake gimmick is wearing thinner than the penchant for killing off major characters). If so, all of this, too, may yet be going somewhere. But, as with Dany, it’s a lot of tedious setup with no clear path to the point as yet.

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  15. Brett says:

    @Dodd

    Likewise, while there are hints in the books that there’s another… element to the relationship between Melisandre and Stannis, the subtle approach is thrown out in the show.

    It’s a lot more difficult to imply certain things in a television show, than in a book. Part of the reason why GRRM could get away with keeping the nature of Stannis and Melisandre’s . . .relationship as furtive is because we’re inside Davos’s head as he figures it out.

    @Dodd

    In the books, he’s sadistic and cruel but has somewhat less individual agency. He doesn’t sideline Cersei so completely as the TV character who threatens to kill her, for instance. As translations to a different medium go, that’s within reason.

    That’s because he’s older in the TV show. In the books, he was only 13 years old, so Cersei was basically doing all the decisions. That doesn’t quite work when he’s about 16-17 years old, and practically a King in his own right.

    @Dodd

    Strangest of all, Tyrion–perhaps the most overtly sexual major character in the books–is the one they’ve chosen to approach with actual subtlety.

    I don’t think it’s “subtlety” so much as it is lack of air time. The need to show all the character arcs (particularly Tyrion-in-action) means that they haven’t spent much time lately with the Tyrion-Shae relationship.

    That’s unfortunate, because the relationship isn’t healthy, and it reveals a lot about Tyrion in the books. He hires on Shae to be his fantasy girlfriend, but gradually comes to believe in the lie despite himself because of his emotional baggage.

    Side-note, but Tyrion is one of those characters that becomes much less “nice” upon re-read – and particularly when you realize that we’re mostly seeing him from his own POV. “Everybody is the hero of their own story” and all that.

    @Rob in CT

    I see him as sort of the male version of Dany. He keeps trying to do good things. He’s not an idjit, but he is at least a little naive. He’s young, after all. As with Dany and her noble attempts at helping slaves, Martin slaps Jon Snow down hard right as he’s doing real good (being the one guy in the 7 kingdoms to recognize the real threat and try to fight it). Because reality bites and all that.

    He’s the exact opposite of Daenerys. Whereas Daenerys spends most of the 5th book treading water and avoiding the difficult decisions, Jon Snow makes all the difficult decisions – the problem is that he forgets to consider the impact of those on his fellow Night’s Watch brothers.

    @Dodd

    I recently finished rereading the fourth and am rereading the fifth now. In the fourth, (a) Cersei’s POV chapters show her to be a complete moron (laughably, sometimes unbelievably so),

    She’s not really a moron, so much as she is impatient, paranoid, and untrained. The latter in particular shouldn’t be surprising after what happened to Joffrey (and it helps to remember that she’s right about the Tyrells’ scheming, and the threat they posed to Joffrey).

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  16. Rob in CT says:

    He’s the exact opposite of Daenerys. Whereas Daenerys spends most of the 5th book treading water and avoiding the difficult decisions, Jon Snow makes all the difficult decisions

    I take the point about the 5th book, but “exact opposite?” Dany makes decisions. They go badly. Martin is hammering the same basic point home: noble intentions/being right aren’t enough. Dany wants to help the slaves, and tries to do so, but fails. Jon sees the real threat, recognizes the fundamental humanity of the Wildings, and takes action but fails (at least when we last see him). As you say, because he couldn’t keep the Night’s Watch loyal (that he appears to be exactly right about things, and they are wrong does not help him).

    I should have said “Martin treats the two similarly” instead of saying the two are similar.

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  17. Rob in CT says:

    I don’t really expect him to “win.” At least not yet. What’s missing from Jon’s story of late is that nothing is really happening.

    Hmm. That’s not the reaction I had at all. I found myself always wanting to get back to Snow because at least stuff was happening up there on The Wall.

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  18. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Dodd: @Dodd:

    The Martells somewhat, but Arys Oakheart? What was that about? And Damphair, AND Asha, AND Victarion? They all needed their own chapter?

    It’s just that events don’t seem to move, especially when the same event has to been seen by each POV character in their own way to get their inner monologue about it. All the plot in Brienne’s chapter could have been distilled down to one chapter, and the Martells and Greyjoys and Samwell as well. I think it’s more his narrative device of doing short POV vignettes that is really hampering him concerning plot, timelines, etc. There’s a reason authors prefer 3rd person omniscient narrative.

    Anyway, back to topic, the sex is just for HBO to be HBO. Anything to be “art” and “softcore porn” simultaneously. The SNL skit nailed it.

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  19. WR says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m with you. I tried to be patient with A Feast for Crows, but Dance With Dragons is easily the second-worst book I’ve ever finished. (First place winner: Hannibal.) It’s amazing that after the breakneck pacing of the first three books, he just turned out a thousand pages of filler in which nothing actually moves the story forward.

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  20. michael reynolds says:

    GRRM is voguing, having his characters declaim and strut and wander aimlessly hoping they’ll bump into a plot. More than a thousand pages of that. I think he had a three or four book story arc in mind and padded it with at least two superfluous books.

    Look at the Amazon page for a Dance With Dragons. Even the fan boys are seeing it now.

    He needs to wrap this thing up in the next book.The problem is he’s burned almost all the characters anyone cared about and now he has too few arrows left in his quiver. Plus he’s trained us all not to invest in characters because he’ll either kill them off or drive them down a dead end.

    (I wouldn’t be indulging in so much schadenfreude except that GRRM takes himself so seriously. Never start buying your own hype.)

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  21. Ha Nguyen says:

    I was at a panel where Jordan’s Wheel of Time was discussed and someone who knew RJ said that RJ talked about how he had written himself into a bind in the series because he had moved Rand too far, too fast. That’s why he had to slow things down in the books a lot, he had to move all the other players (e.g., Egwene especially) to match up to Rand.

    Maybe that’s why GRRM is trying to do, move all the players to get into position for the final denouement.

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  22. Brett says:

    @WR

    It’s amazing that after the breakneck pacing of the first three books, he just turned out a thousand pages of filler in which nothing actually moves the story forward.

    I have some similar complaints, but it’s important to remember that ADWD is mostly concurrent with AFFC. There are only a few sections where it’s ahead in the timeline.

    Besides, there are some good arcs in there. Theon’s storyline alone almost makes up for all of the stuff that doesn’t turn out so well.

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  23. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    All hail GRRM, the next Robert Jordon.

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  24. Daniel says:

    I’ve always thought that the sex scenes in Game of Thrones were a little gratuitous but the other night I was watching the First episode of the second season and I couldn’t believe my ears. You can hear very clearly woman moaning in pleasure whist Daenerys’ horse dies from exhaustion in the desert. It’s a little ridiculous that there’s sneaking sex into scene without it.

    Watch this video:
    http://youtu.be/u-3PF1ISZrs

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