A few nights ago, a friend and I were talking about Star Trek. I brought up Cmdr. William Riker, who happens to be my favorite TNG cast member and the character I feel is the perfect embodiment of the space captain trope. (I know he’s the first officer, not the captain. Keep reading. It will make sense at the end.)
My friend characterized Riker as “a slut” and implied that because he enjoyed casual sex, he had no moral boundaries. Later, he went on to describe Riker as a jerk, presumably because Riker has multiple sex partners over the course of the series, is not interested in long-term relationships with most of them, and even when he is interested in a long-term relationship with Deanna Troi, he doesn’t press the issue and continues getting involved in casual relationships with women he meets throughout the galaxy.
I agree that Riker likes casual sex. That’s pretty obvious, but I don’t think it makes him a jerk. I definitely don’t think Riker has “flexible” or shady morals. Within the broader culture and ethos of the United Federation of Planets and his role as a Starfleet Officer, Riker’s morals are clearly defined and obvious. It’s just that, when it comes to sex, Star Trek’s moral system doesn’t revolve around medieval notions of female purity or the patriarchial idea that a man should be responsible for his female partner’s sexual choices.
Star Trek has a ways to go when it comes to breaking down stereotypes and barriers related to sex. So far, all of the relationships portrayed on Star Trek have been heterosexual and imply that the only acceptable romantic or sexual unit should consist of two people. A series that sells itself as progressive and interested in challenging problematic real-world cultural assumptions should be depicting relationships on a broader spectrum of documented human behavior. There are lots of sexist attitudes present in Star Trek, especially in TOS and TNG, because those are the earliest iterations of the franchise. Star Trek is not perfect. The one thing that it consistently gets right is the idea that women can make their own (informed) choices about who they sleep with. If they want to have sex with a guy they know isn’t going to stick around, that’s okay.
The idea that the only “morally appropriate” sex is committed, monogamous (heterosexual) intercourse is entirely constructed out of a medieval, church-enforced paradigm in which the purpose of sex is procreation. Monarchies and the church had a vested interest in keeping track of who was sleeping with whom and making sure lots of children were produced. Bloodlines were important, polyamory was in disfavor, and since women and children were property with no direct means of supporting themselves, it was a man’s role to be responsible for everything from his family’s welfare to his wife’s vagina.
In 21st century, we’re doing away with the notion of women as property, but we’ve replaced that dynamic with the idea that sex must always be “special” and happen between “committed” individuals in order for it to be morally acceptable. So, gray romantics like me or anyone else who might want to have a sexual partner without romance or long-term commitment is stigmatized. We hear derogatory terms like “slut,” “fuck buddy” etc, and the implication is that our morals are questionable because our biology or personal preference doesn’t line up with heteronormative ideals of committed, monogamous sex.
Star Trek’s sexual morality is different, and I’m glad. We can’t hold the future accountable to feudal, misogynistic sex stereotypes. In Star Trek, sexual morality is all about mutual respect, enjoyment, taking no for an answer, and being honest about intentions. Honesty in regard to intentions is key. There’s no textual evidence that Riker (or Kirk for that matter) deceived anybody or offered commitment when it wasn’t possible. There’s no reason to assume that the women Riker slept with thought he was going to marry them. Since he arrived on a starship and was duty-bound to leave with it, it’s reasonable to assume that these women knew what they were getting into. It’s also reasonable to assume that everyone used protection or that if they didn’t, the women were aware that they might never be able to find Riker again. To say he’s a jerk because he had sex without commitment is another way of saying “men should take care of women and always provide for them if men want to have sex.” Sex isn’t a business transaction. The women Riker slept with knew who he was and what he wanted. They chose to have sex with him because they wanted to, just as much as he did. That’s okay, because women are not property and don’t have to keep our vaginas safe until the “right” man comes along to unlock them. There’s absolutely no reason to hold Riker accountable for his partners’ choices or their enjoyment of casual sex. There’s also no reason to assume that Riker would ignore or fail to provide for a child if he became aware that one existed.
There is some problematic subtext in the idea that “Of course every woman wants Riker,” but he’s never shown pushing himself on people who aren’t interested. He’s never shown hitting on somebody who’s in a romantic subplot with another character or who’s totally uninvolved that way. He and Troi had pre-show history, but they never had sex while they worked together, even when it was implied that they wanted to. They decided it was best to remain professional and/or friends while serving together, and they stuck to that decision, because they’re both moral people.
They’re a fan favorite couple and their potential romance came up all the time.They didn’t get married until the movies, and there was never much done on screen. If they’d actually been together or even slept together and decided it was a mistake while serving on the Enterprise, it would’ve been shown or referenced in the series.
As the show went on, they explicitly moved beyond romantic tension. Troi had a significant, long-term relationship with Worf, and Riker was fine with it (until Imzadi II retconned him into a stereotypical jealous lover.) Troi had other love interests, even early in the series when the writers were still playing up the Riker/Troi romance. If Riker had been immoral, he could have been an ass to every person she got involved with. He didn’t cross that line because that kind of behavior is OUTSIDE the moral paradigm of the Federation’s culture.
Riker was the Enterprise D’s first officer, not its captain, but his character and role are drawn from Star Trek’s interpretation of the space captain trope. From a storytelling standpoint, the Star Trek captain represents morality based on honesty and respect for differences rather than religiously enforced codes and ethnocentrism. Commodores and admirals represent rules and ethnocentrism. Captains are the opposite–the heroes. That’s a given when it comes to Star Trek. It’s how the franchise WORKS, and to describe Riker or any other iteration of that trope as less than moral is essentially to reject Star Trek’s ideals of honesty, personal responsibility, respect for differences, and freedom of choice.