How Sci-Fi Makes Us More Open to Strange Forms of Sex and Sexuality

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 30, 2011 5:00 pm

Science fiction knows how to play around with sex and gender. The free-lovin’ of A Stranger in A Strange Land, Commander Shepard’s bisexual proclivities, and William T. Riker’s seemingly universal interspecies compatibility are constant sources of entertainment.

And the fun doesn’t stop with organic entities. Androids, cyborgs, and robots make gender all the stranger. Why is Data fully functional? Isn’t it curious that, of all the characters in Ghost in the Shell the two most heavily cyberized characters, Motoko and Batou, are hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine respectively? And, my favorite: as a robot Bender has no gender, so if Bender bends his gender, what gender does Bender bend?

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

Science fiction allows for universes in which we can more easily accept alien forms of gender expression and sexual desire. For example, Ruby Rhod from The Fifth Element is perfectly and outrageously androgynous. In a normal action flick, I suspect Rhod would be a controversial and possibly distracting figure. In science fiction, however, Rhod is just another character caught up in the chaos. Sci-fi lets us explore sexuality free of the cultural and social baggage it carries in the here and now.

A big part of removing this baggage is breaking assumptions by destabilizing what we presume are the foundations of gender and sexuality. For example,  recently the merry old internet produced hipster Mass Effect. One image caught my eye: “I only play as FemShep.” I myself am an avowed Mass Effect fanboy and a vocal defender of playing as a female version of Commander Shepard. Jennifer Hale is just a better voice actor. But I didn’t know that when I started Mass Effect for the first time. I simply thought a female Shepard would be more interesting. Why?

FemShep is a more interesting character because she plays like a he. In his analysis of “FemShep’s Popularity in Mass Effect” James Bishop makes the case clear:

People play as the female version precisely because Commander Shepard is male in all other ways. The lines, the character animations and various other tidbits are male-oriented in a way that makes FemShep more than your stereotypical RPG female protagonist. For one, she wears practical armor. Well, mostly, but it is science fiction after all; we can accept floating visors and the like.

There it is again: sci-fi lets us accept floating visors, so it lets us accept a “male-oriented” female protagonist. The fictional universe provides a buffer for ideas about sex and gender that would normally make us uncomfortable. In fact, FemShep is so engaging because expectations and assumptions of sex and gender are constantly confronted by the character’s actual actions and abilities.

A key measure of social progress is how accepting we are of different permutations of sexuality. Sexuality can get extremely complex. For those who think it’s only male or female, gay or straight, think again. Consider the following possible variables:

Male or Female (biological sex)

Homo or Hetero (sexual preference)

Cis or Trans (gender presentation)

Asexual or Hypersexual (libido level)

Mono or Poly (relationship structure)

Each of these variables is not an either/or situation, but sits on a spectrum. So, if asked to self-identify, the question is not “are you asexual or hypersexual” but, “on a scale of one to ten, one being no sex drive, ten being perpetual, overwhelming sex drive, how would you rate your libido?” And a number in one variable might have no bearing on another. A binary is just not enough – there is a reason the rainbow is representative of the queer community.

Furthermore, some of the categories don’t necessarily refer to one thing. For example, the “homo” or “hetero” category uses the terms in their original root-form: are you attracted to a person similar or different than you? In human context, similar or  different could refer to biological sex, gender presentation, race, religion, age, ability, education, or any number of things. Get into sci-fi, and similar and different may refer to species, organic/inorganic, body shape or any number of infinite variables. We may be attracted to some aspects of a person that are the same as us (e.g. biological sex, education and religion) and prefer some aspects be different (e.g. race and gender presentation). In short, we all have some homosexual and some heterosexual tendencies.

The point is that sci-fi lets us see those variables of attraction and sexuality in action. Even better, sci-fi video games let us experience those variables for ourselves. In the case of my FemShep (pictured, right), I ended up romantic with Liara in ME1 and with Thane in ME2. To say I was attracted to a reptilian male alien assassin is bizarre, I admit. But that’s what makes sci-fi so wonderful. By playing Mass Effect as FemShep, I was able to understand and empathize with a form of sexual attraction I would never personally have.

And that understanding is what science fiction is telling us about the future of sexuality. All of the variables and spectrums and complexities and similarities and differences can be distilled down to one simple equation: consenting persons love one another for different reasons and in different ways. It also puts our own concepts of “different” into perspective. If you’re ok with a human loving a robot, why wouldn’t you be ok with a human loving another human? Sci-fi teaches us that the type of persons involved is irrelevant, so long as they are capable of consent and willingly enter into the relationship.

So the next time you find yourself laughing at Fry’s perpetual struggles to woo Leela or feel confused by whatever your romantic inclinations will be in Mass Effect 3, just remember: that’s science fiction expanding your sexual horizons.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Image of hipster femshep via fuckyeahhipstereffect

Comments (23)

  1. Are you feeling clean and wholesome? Science has the cure.” Earth Girls are Easy, 1988. If you wish to adopt an outraged moralist stance, “thermodynamics proposes, kinetics disposes.”

  2. Alan

    It’s a very optimistic view of humanity’s future. All these relationships are presented as non-issues. Very different from most (all?) Fantasy, in any case, where any character in a non-traditional gender role or relationship is considered strange or offensive in their own society. Then again, Fantasy tends to take place in the “past.”

    Greta Christina has an article on this subject (specifically about Caprica’s treatment of alt sexuality):

    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2011/04/sex-caprica-and-a-changing-world.html

  3. I’m not familiar with most of the specific examples cited in this article, but science fiction (unlike fantasy) is most often set in the future, when we expect society to be more accepting, or at least to be grappling with different controversies than it does today.

    Along these lines, I’d recommend the novels of William Barton, especially Alpha Centauri and Acts of Conscience, which will certainly shake up any reader’s pre-conceived notions of sexuality.

  4. Also David

    Of course there’s no reason why fantasy should be any more restrictive than sci-fi, except perhaps if it’s aiming for historical accuracy. Bioware is pretty aggressive about offering multiple sexualities for its characters in either genre. For instance check out this great article/review by Yahtzee of his experience in DA2:

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/8768-Extra-Punctuation-Roleplaying-Homosexual-in-Dragon-Age-2

    And it’s not like the population in general has a clear opinion about the issue:
    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8
    http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/FireDavidGaider/

  5. Matt B.

    Leela: Why do robots even have sex?
    Bender: Purely for the perversion.

    Leela was created the way she is because Matt Groening wanted to see if a “deformed” woman could still be sexy.

    David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is interesting for its female military leader, who is damn-near an action hero, but has suffered self esteem issues, attempted rape and ostracism for sexual behavior, which no male hero ever has to deal with.

  6. @Alan–you’ve been reading the wrong fantasies. In the Kushiel series, a lot of Mercedes Lackey’s books, Catherynne Valente’s work, Kim Harrison’s and more, there are many pansexual, gay, kinky and poly characters. Fantasy is not “the past”, it’s an alternate world with (often but not always) a low level of tech. Different.

  7. Alan

    @bifemmefatale – I was hoping someone would prove me wrong! Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll certainly have to check those out.

  8. Brian Too

    I’m not so sure that we are moving towards some sort of enlightened sexual future. With or without sci-fi.

    You only have to look back in history at various periods known for (by modern standards) open and active sexual practices. The Greeks, the Romans, Berlin prior to the National Socialists, Shanghai prior to the Communists. What tends to happen is that either times get tough or a reactionary social/political movement springs up. Frequently it’s both.

    When the social order changes the previous ways of life are portrayed as decadent and dissolute. So of course it had to change. The rot of corruption and similar messages.

    It seems like societies move back and forth, between periods when sexual experimentation is at least tolerated, and periods of conformity with strict gender roles, limited identity models, and severe limits on open displays of sexual signalling.

  9. Thank you for including asexuality in this article, although asexuality is a sexual orientation not a lack of libido. There are many asexuals who have a sex drive but no sexual attraction. It is also still underrepresented in sci fi, except for the implied asexuality on Doctor Who.

    I’d love to see an asexual on the otherwise wondefully liberating Torchwood. I’d especially like to see how Captain Jack handles that one.

  10. Keith Bowden

    And then there’s the 3rd sex in Alien Nation (the series), required for procreation but otherwise largely ignored by the Tenctonese males and females. They never got to explore it, but it seemed that sex with a binaum without procreation was, if not taboo at least extremely kinky and odd from the norm.

  11. Some of the most fascinating real science permutations were the experiments were those done with gender expression genes in fruitflies that essentially allowed a single genetic switch to be flipped to make an otherwise male fruitfly behave as a female. The implication is that some and perhaps all gendered creatures have the full instruction book for behavior in both sexes hard wired into them and merely suppress one set or the other.

  12. @ Shula Star Trek was known for having asexual characters. As I remember in Generation. There was one race of people that were upset that 2 people were showing signs of gender and love.

    With my guy Captain Jack he would say. “There’s never been an alien I couldn’t change” as his hot ego is so great!

    Great article for us geeks of Scifi and Fantasy….

  13. Matthew Saunders

    The hef of Playboy should be given a Nobel Peace Prize for giving such an ennobling (and fun) gift to humanity :)

    I’m glad that humanity is polymorphously perverse and, contrary to the various monothesisms that try to control it or stamp it out, it always thrives and gets more and more interesting :)

    Like just imagine how some people’s minds are going to be blown (as they already are) when people can download themselves into the bodies of children…or animals…or when poly marriage (its like owning a house) becomes not a criminal offense…the future is unpredictable and just like Robert Anton Wilson said, the difference between liberal and conservative is 20 years, everything is always changing…

  14. Kate Maloy

    This is all very intriguing, but where, oh where, is Ursual Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”? Have a look: http://www.amazon.com/Left-Hand-Darkness-Ursula-Guin/dp/0441007317/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304627613&sr=1-1

  15. Mark Plus

    @Matthew Saunders:

    >just like Robert Anton Wilson said, the difference between liberal and conservative is 20 years, everything is always changing…

    Back in 1978, RAW also said that we could throw away the actuarial tables by now:

    Next Stop: Immortality

    http://www.futurehi.net/docs/RAW_Immortality.html

    How has that “immortality” worked out for RAW lately?

  16. Mark Plus

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, straight men have a problem: Women find the overwhelming majority of us sexually unappealing. In fact male sexual behavior follows a Pareto distribution, where 20 percent of the men get 80 percent of the sex, while 80 percent of the men have to fight for the scraps and leavings in the remaining 20 percent of the sex. We even find this reality written in our genomes; apparently we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. Evolutionary psychologist Roy Baumeister argues from the data that of all the humans who reached sexual maturity, about 80 percent of the women reproduced, but only 40 percent of the men.

    And people wonder where the middle aged male virgins come from.

    Reference:

    Is There Anything Good About Men?
    http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm

  17. Matthew Saunders

    # 14: That is an excellent article, m’man :)

    I’m glad there are more and more straight men able to think beyond the ‘put into slot A’ and are able to think of sex as it REALLY, the whole body, indeed, the environment, is an erogenous zone.

    It involves giving up some really pernicious game rules and learning a bit from what women already know…

  18. Eden

    This article is okay but it’s upsetting me that you’re providing false information about asexuality. It’s not a lack of a sex drive, it’s a lack of sexual attraction which makes it an orientation much like heterosexual and homosexual. There are plenty of “functioning” asexuals out there with a sex drive but no sexual attraction to anyone. Please do a little research before placing false information in your articles…

    I also dislike the severe lack of Jack Harkness from Doctor Who/Torchwood. He’s a far better example than some of the characters mentioned in this article.

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Eden, thank you for the point of clarification. However, asexuality doesn’t yet have a strong classification and both drive and attraction are considered. That is, a person could have a sex drive of zero, but be attracted to some people. Alternately, a person could have an average sex drive, but be attracted to no one. The net effect is the same – asexual. It’s the sexual equivalent of multiplying by zero.

  19. Persephone

    I agree that Captain Jack From Dr. Who & Torchwood is a better example of a bisexual character in popular science fiction .

    The list of sexual spectrums, followed by the statement that as long as sex is consensual it should be considered ok, let me wondering if Consensual vs. Non-consensual is also a spectrum? In reality, how often does one partner give in to the other, either because of personal or social pressure? On the other hand, people who in engage in BDSM may consensually enact a a rape scene. So maybe consent is also a spectrum, rather than a black & white distinction?

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Persephone, the question about a spectrum of consent is an interesting point, but we should be careful. BDSM aficionados and those in the kink community are probably more aware of the importance of consent than most others. Consent should given before hand in a clear, logical way so that, in the heat of the moment, a denial can be given (e.g. “no” or “please stop”) that doesn’t break the role-play, while a safe word is set up to protect against any real violations. Consent is a yes or no situation, but when or how that consent is given varies from context to context.

  20. shaed

    No, Kyle, there is an actual word for low/no sex drive – hyposexual.

    And while a person with no sex drive may be essentially asexual, your article equates the two, erasing the experience of most asexual people, confusing people who have just come across the word, and altogether making things harder for an already misunderstood minority.

  21. FLanker

    I found these that could help at least get an Idea of Cyborg sex.. Hah!!

    http://www.fleshlight.com/freaks/cyborg/

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