Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Incest

Since I began this primer on sex in science fiction, I keep going back to a conversation I had with a friend of mine. It happened unexpectedly when I was walking home from work late at night. The conversation lasted less than 5 minutes and it was among the most bizarre conversations I have had. Life always seems to happen when we are preoccupied, doesn't it? I find it a little irritating that so many important conversations take place outside, in the cold, underneath a street light. We talked about the taboo of incest, why we feel so immediately disturbed by it, if it is just a culturally built thing. You may have noticed in one of my other posts that, to me, the taboo of incest is just an evolutionary trait that keeps the gene pool sufficiently mixed and viable. Here was his premise:

Suppose a brother and sister, both adults, have a very close relationship. They decide they would like to have sex to deepen their relationship. They use contraceptives so that she will not become pregnant. No one else knows about it. No one is hurt by it. And there is no offspring. Is it wrong?

If you are like me, your mind screams that of course it is wrong. But why? I have stated my claim of evolution and yet I know it is wrong. Incest happens all the time, in many species. Definitions of incest vary from culture to culture, with some societies considering taboo what other societies accept as normative. Levi-Strauss suggested that the discouragement of incest was a social force. Marriage and offspring form strong bonds and social networks. Forming such alliances strengthens communities by linking up several members of families. A marriage is not just between two people but also their families, the in-laws they join.

Think of times when incest was common. European and Egyptian royalty come to my mind. Marriage between close relatives, even half-siblings was common. Such close marriages keep material wealth and power concentrated. A pharaoh and his half sister need not worry about an interloper or concubine staking her claim since the half sister is the first wife, through whom inheritance is determined. In a situation where one person has multiple spouses, the sibling-spouse may be merely a figure of power and not a source of reproduction.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, many sci-fi books set in the future involve the political intrigue of feudal lords and ruling classes. With such concern over power and wealth, marriage is often a dangerous game. It threatens the stability of the family as well as the government. In other cases, alien species may reproduce in a manner different from our which renders concepts such as siblings, family and incest null. While the narrator or a character may seek to justify this, do not be misled - the author includes this element to make you uncomfortable, to make you distrust and dislike certain characters, and to make you put a wall between yourself and the incestuous persons.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Dimorphism

Males are taller, more muscular and hairier. Women are smaller, have a higher percent body fat and less hairy. Peacocks are bright and flashy; peahens are dull and brown. Female angler fish are large with a funny lantern projecting for their heads; male angler fish are teeny tiny. These sex-based differences are call dimorphisms. The most common cause of dimorphism is sexual selection.

When mates are determined by members of the same sex (usually males) competing for a mate, ornamentation distinguishes the sexes. For example, larger antlers become more attractive. The antlers are not really for fighting, at least not fighting to the death. If species really had death-matches, there would be very few viable mates next season. Aside from drawing attention to oneself, ornaments, especially those that are detrimental to their bearer, are signs that the possible mate can survive with such handicaps. These ornaments also take extra energy to grow and support. The greater the ornament, the more fit its possessor must be to survive.

The Sexy Son Hypothesis (I'm not making this up!) is based on the idea that a female will seek in her mate the best genes for her own son. If her son is well endowed, he will be more likely to reproduce and pass along his genes. Essentially, sex appeal becomes its own reason to exist. This is essentially the much-abused "selfish gene."

There is some relationship between the amount of dimorphism and the number of sexual partners in species. However, while these are fun to consider and wonder about, there is not enough to say that one causes the other, or that they are even positively correlated. However, if you are an evolutionary biologist focuses in dimorphism, please get back to the lab and get me some answers!

When thinking about evolution, most people remember natural selection, but sexual selection is just as important, especially when an animal looks weird, like the hairless ape.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Sexual Mores

All societies have standards and expectations the govern sexual behaviours. These standards include consent, sex as it relates to marriage, fidelity, number of partners, identity and status of partners, diseases, incest, rape. Some of these we feel are innate laws that create better, healthier, stronger, fitter offspring. For example, incest is a taboo in society but it is also dangerous for a species as inbreeding increases the likelihood of passing on bad genes. However, sex as related to marriage, fidelity, number of partners, etc, are considerations for the society in which one lives.

It is safe to assume that any science fiction novel that mentions sex (and there are a lot of them!) will challenge their society's expectation of sexual mores. The heyday of pulp science fiction occurred at a time when pre-marital sex and promiscuity were becoming more widely practiced, if not socially acceptable. Oral contraceptives reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancy leading to unwanted prolonged attachments (ie shotgun weddings). Control over fertility offered women the opportunity to engage in sex without the risk of becoming pregnant which allowed women the same sexual freedom that men enjoyed. Cars provided young lovers a place to experiment outside of the public eye. The hippy generation brought its ideals of free lover and experimentation.

Sex is taboo. Sex is everywhere. Sex sells. Sex kills. It is appropriate that English lacks a neutral term for it. Sex, intercourse, coitus - these are all clinical terms. Making love is positive. Screwing is negative. There is just no word for it that would not cause someone else to blush or blanch. We joke about it. We use words for reproductive organs as insults. We can't get enough of it and we a terrified of the consequences. Anything that a society obsesses about is rich fodder for science fiction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Reproduction

Reproduction can be either sexual or asexual. Sexual reproduction produces offspring that are similar but not identical to their parents. Asexual reproduction creates either identical or very similar offspring. Slight variation and mutations are possible from both types of reproduction. There are two common methods of reproducing. One in which few offspring are created, usually nurtured for a time. The other method involves producing many offspring, most of whom die shortly after death.

Humans, generally, reproduce by the hot and sweaty method that leads to a live birth. Sterile procedures, like in vetro fertilization, take some of the hot and sweaty work out of the beginning but the giving birth to a tiny human being is always messy. Some people may question my use of "live birth" but I only want to distinguish this from laying an egg, which is birth to a live thing (sorta) but generally has less blood and cursing. Giving birth is a dangerous thing. For a really, really long time, we're talking thousands of years, most women died in child birth. And most children died, too. Not a pretty picture but it is the harsh reality. Our method takes a lot of energy and years of nurturing.

Some species give birth or lay a clutch of eggs and are basically done. The basic relationship is the more intelligent and the less instinct equals fewer babies and vice versa. Going small is a great way for certain species, but it is not for everyone. When we imagine aliens, we tend to imagine ourselves but hairless and slimy or with lots of arms or with an enormous sloping forehead, one eyed, and laying a small clutch of eggs (or is that just me?). Occasionally, you get what corporate think tanks like to call "thinking outside of the box", or womb in this case. District 9 features aliens which lay/create pods/eggs from which their young are born. Actually, the details are not mentioned but they do not give birth. However, they do have small numbers of children, perhaps due to the humans aborting the fetuses. But they do nurture their young for several years.

Ender's Game features a species of sentient insects who share a collective mind that is controlled by the queen. Like in bees, queens lay numerous eggs over her lifetime. Because the hive thinks as one, nurturing is unnecessary. However, the queens are said to nurture their successors and collaborate with them. In essence the hive is the extended body of the queen's mind which is nurtured by her mother.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Gender

Gender is culturally based, socially constructed in humans. Gender determines, to a large extent, the societal role of a person. In most societies, the gender is assigned according to the sex of a the person: Male->Men->Masculinity and Female->Woman->Femininity. Gender has made into social role binaries, in which one gender is defined by opposing the other. Gender is fluid, changing from culture to culture and over time.

But that is all pretend, or only barely true. Many works of science fiction challenge our modern understanding and acceptance of gender. Ursula Le Guinn, hero of gender and sex challenges, explores gender in The Dispossessed. On one planet, Anarres, sex still exists in that there are male and female, but gender is not stereotyped. The protagonist views females as equals and partners. He does not ignore their sex but he does not judge by it. When he travels to Urras, he finds it difficult to accept the limited power women accept and the way men look down upon the women. The people of Urras often challenge his assertions of equality as they cannot believe it is possible for women to be valued as equal to men.

In The Handmaid's Tale, the society is taken to the opposite extreme of Anarres. In response to supposed Muslim attacks on women, theocratic men take control of the government, creating a society based on literal understanding of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. Women are forbidden from owning money and property and from reading. Abortions are illegal. They are expected to be subservient housewives who defer to their husbands and bear them children. Due to ecological collapse and nuclear waste, many people have become sterile. However, absence of children are blamed on the women and never on men. Women are forced to be segregated in society. Sex/Gender can be identified by the color and design of clothing. Homosexuals are called "gender traitors." Sterile women (not wives) are either: sent to colonies to die a slow death; Aunts, who control and train handmaids; Marthas who do domestic work; Jezebels, sex workers; or Econowives, who are expected to fulfill all the roles of a woman. Women who are sterile, widows, divorcees, feminists, lesbians, etc are called "Unwomen."

The stakes are always high when it comes to gender. When gender is considered the same as sex, it is difficult for anyone to step outside of their assumed role. Science fiction explores gender either by presenting a society which is free from modern gender issues or by presenting a society which has pushed those issues to the breaking point of humanity.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Sex

In species which reproduce sexually, sex describes the characteristics that distinguishes reproductive roles. For example, humans have two sexes, male and female. Some species are all hermaphroditic, possessing gametes, which in other species have become two sexes.

Some species have three sexes. Take ants for example. There is a queen, a female capable of producing offspring. There are males, who live short lives; their sole duty is to inseminate non-related queens. And then there are all the other ants, worker ants and soldier ants, cemetery ants and nurse ants. These are almost female, would be females, but their reproductive organs do not mature. They remain preadolescences, tweens.

Or consider wrasses. There are many varieties and species of the wrasse and some of them are quite special. Imagine a fish harem, one male and many females, but all the offspring are females. What to do when the male dies? The most dominant of the female fishes changes sex and becomes the new harem leader. You may remember this as a plot element regarding the DNA of some frogs from Jurassic Park.

Finally, lets consider slugs. Slimy, slick, covered in mucus, terribly elegant slugs! Most, not all, are hermaphrodites, possessing both sex organs, able to sire and birth offspring.

These are just some of the possibilities. I am sure the sexual and asexual world have produced many lovely varieties. Ursula Le Guin, the first lady of ambiguity and duality, has imagined another possibility. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the Gethians spend most of their life sexually neutral except for two or three days a month called kemmer. During kemmer, a person goes into heat and must find another person who is entering kemmer, although some avoid others if they have mated for life after their partner dies. Any person can become either sex. Like the slugs, they are capable of both siring and birthing children. There are some who, like us, are trapped in a permanent state of kemmer, living their entire life as a single sex. They are called perverts but are an integral part of a religious rite of insight.

Being between two genders, trapped in a sex, being of one sex and the none-correlated gender, is often considered freakish when it is non-normative. However, these in-between people are often considered to have special religious insight because of the ambiguity of the identity.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Science Fiction and Sex: Sexual Behaviour

Since humans are intelligent, very social animals, they engage in sexual behaviours for social, non-productive reasons. Sex, for humans and other social species, can be divided into reproductive, recreational and relational.

In most western societies, sex play is repressed in children and adolescents. Knowledge of sex is considered improper for children. In the United States, most people lose their virginity (have their first act of coitus or intercourse) at the age of 16 or 17. The age varies somewhat by country since different countries and states have different age of consent and expectations. While some humans have sex with only one person throughout their lives, most engage in sexual activity with multiple partners. Ever since President Clinton asked for a definition of "the", what constitutes sex has been greatly debated. Let's be adults about this. Sex includes a variety of activities that stimulate and give physical pleasure to one or more persons.

In science fiction, the type and frequency of sexual behaviours often vary from out own society. In Brave New World and The Dispossessed children freely engage in sexual play, not necessarily intercourse, as part of their socializing education. Sex with multiple partners at one time (an orgy) is common in science fiction novels. In Brave New World and Strange From A Strange Land, orgies are part of religious communion and rites.

Homosexuality may be more common, maybe even normal (shock and awe, right?). The Dispossessed features homosexual and heterosexual persons engaging in both types of relationships. While a person may seek partners of their preferred sex(es), they may have partners of either sex, especially when younger. And, of course, one can just as easily be bisexual, I would assume/hope.

In some futuristic plots, sex is outlawed due to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and /or control of the population. In Demolition Man, sex is preformed through simulators. Since it has been removed from physical engagement and the possibility of pregnancy, sex is exchanged more freely and with less sentiment than it is presently. The society in Brave New World separates sex from reproduction as well since all women either take contraceptives or are sterile. Sex becomes recreational and each citizen is expected to have sex with many partners.

I am sure there is some sci-fi, maybe Catholic Sci-Fi, in which the recreational element has been removed and sex is purely for reproductive purposes, but I've yet to read any of that.
The Handmaid's Tale features sex which is for reproductive purposes only. The Handmaid is the surrogate for the wife and copulates with the husband only to conceive. Sex is considered unpleasant and distateful for women. I can think of a few reasons why I would agree if I lived in that society.

There is a description of such sex which some may find offensive. If you would like to read it, highlight the blank white space below.

"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for."

Science Fiction and Sex: Dismbiguation

Sex and science fiction are strange but frequent bedfellows. Science fiction has been compared to pornography, in that it is difficult to define both but you know it when you see it. Kurt Vonnegut once said that what pornography and science fiction had in common wasn't sex but fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world. Actually, he was referring to his surrogate Kilgore Trout, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. And he was wrong, about science fiction at least. Which I suppose means that I am wrong since I always remember the quote incorrectly.*

Sex is inescapable in science fiction . . . rather like reality, I suppose. It is complicated, consuming, distressing, satisfying; it can bring people together and tear them apart. Nothing new. But just about everything is up for debate and change. Before we begin exploring anything, I want to set up some terms. I will probably slip back into using regular connotations, but I will try my best to keep these terms true for this exploration.

Sci-Fi Sex Ed
Sexual Intercourse and Behaviours
I will try to use the proper terms for sexual acts, reproductive or otherwise.

In species which reproduce sexually, sex describes the characteristics that distinguishes reproductive roles.

Sex and gender are not the same and do not have a 1:1 correlation.

Reproduction is the process in which offspring is created.

Sexual Mores
All societies have standards and expectations the govern sexual behaviours. These standards include consent, sex as it relates to marraige, fidelity, number of partners, identity and status of partners, diseases, incest, rape.

Sexual dimorphism is the difference between sexes. It includes both physical (size, color, pattern, etc) and behavioural (aggression, investment in parenting).

*I sometimes wonder if this is true, even if I got the quote wrong. A universe that includes numerous sentient species, capable of reaching each other, communicating, etc, seems impossibly hospitable to me.