Sex, Science, and SF, Part 2


In the last post I wrote about the idea that sexual and relationship behavior might be more strongly influenced, on the balance, by the tension between "companionship-seeking" and "arousal-seeking" drives, which stand together and in tension, rather clumsily, as the real cognitive answers to basic the evolutionary drive to reproduce.

Quick note: "Clumsily", here, should not be construed as a negative value judgement -- it just seems like our DNA's stakes in the game, and our own personal stakes, are at odds. I'd favor valuing your own higher-order desires for stimulation and relationships any day; there is no reason I can think of why your biological heritage should be held on a pedestal! Human nature, and indeed, even accurate summaries of the parts of it one might be able to plausibly infer from our evolutionary history, seems *so* much more complicated than just "have lotsa babies that have lotsa babies!"

Today I want to talk about identity.

Sexual orientation is one of the more obviously-political parts of our lives, in the sense that the personal is political. From criminalization and pathologizing of same-sex, non-monogamous, non-vanilla sexual behavior to general shaming and repressive social mores about sex, bodies and behavior, those of us who don't conform to the prestige template of society have been punished for it, and continue to be. People from cultures that have more explicit room for such variance often still deal with marginalized status or their own repressive role expectations, though this isn't universally applicable (note, however, that colonization has made even cultures with relatively egalitarian and tolerant ideas about sexuality and gender roles fairly likely to have been forced into a Judeo-Christian ethos around this, to varying degrees).

The marked state gets singled out for attention, whether good or bad. It's very rare that the unmarked state goes so deeply scrutinized, except insofar as people fail to conform to it without necessarily leaving it altogether. Thus, for most of the history of Western European society (specifically inclusive of its colonies), the attention has been on (say) same-sex sexuality. Attitudes may have improved on the balance, but what hasn't changed is that most of our society-wide dialogue about the issue is about whether some vast, nebulous "we" should reconfigure "our" norms to include "them."

Use of scare quotes very intentionally ironic, here.

I think this has a lot to do with the specifics of identity and politics surrounding the issue. Queer people are used to being persecuted, treated as abberant, justifying our existence, and fighting for acceptance *on top* of just being people living our lives. All of this means that queerness in SF/F, to the extent that genre writing is dominated by Western voices generally, is often written by people who conceive of our identities and experiences through the lens of being queer in our culture. Additionally, to the extent that authors and fans appropriate our images for their own consumption (especially thinking of fandom here), the depictions of queerness I typically see within genre writing revolve around either including the identity we're familiar with in the world, or positing a scenario where *having* that identity isn't stigmatized as much as it has been. Direct inclusion (regardless of whether it's truly good at being *inclusive* -- a much more salient issue from the social justice side of things), appropriation for the sake of non-queer consumption (not uncommon with slash writing), or sort of de-facto advocacy (but still basically framed in terms of the specific identities).

(Or invisibility and erasure, or demonization, obviously, but my focus is on attempts to do it right, whether or not they fail. Problematic though they often are, they represent that someone is *thinking* about us, beyond just to deny our legitimate existence in the realm of human diversity.)

What I don't seem to see much of is attempts, within worldbuilding, to conceive of alternate cultural schema, genuinely different ways of being, that include people *like* us who *aren't* just us, flipped into that milieu.

That's often to the best -- I'd much rather see fiction that's set in something fairly recognizably similar to our world including us in it to the extent that all of their characters resemble real groups of people, or if the author can't do that gracefully, just staying away from the issue altogether (though I probably have little interest in it in that case, and the question of whether one wants to deal with tokens or erasure is a divisive one). But quite a lot of the time, science fiction and fantasy stories are set in other times, and other places, with different cultural contexts. In other words, it isn't our world -- and if it's well-written, it won't *feel* like our world.

This is the space of writing possibilities that interests me the most, because it has the most room for exploring what's really fundamental about the human condition (and changes to it, or expansions of it). And that includes queer, subversive or just non-normative sexual practices and identities as our culture defines them.

There still exist today many culturally-specific identities around gender and sexuality that can't be strictly framed in the terms of Western queer experience. What interests me is the degree to which this has room for expressing what's truly common to all of them -- it certainly isn't in the fine details of the lifestyle, or the localized cultures and social networks we form. Those are contingent phenomena, sensitive to the initial conditions. I suspect if you took the marginalization by normative society away, some of these elements would converge...but equally well, many wouldn't, because the cultural landscapes they inhabit are different, and the...well, self-identity maps that people in those landscapes construct have more to do in some ways with their relationships within those landscapes, than they do to the ostensibly-similar map-making inhabitants of landscapes far away.

Basically I think that interesting sexuality and gender themes in genre fiction can be derived from trying to realistically recognize what our specific, local identities have in common with those of people far away in space and time. Their identities may well not match ours, yet there will be threads of experience in common. The questions to ask are, how will those common threads interact with the different pieces to generate experience, and identity?

I imagine some people will assert that the broad pictures will be necessarily similar; others will disagree. What I'm interested in is seeing those discussions in literature, regardless of where people fall on the matter.


Okay, so that's the first part of this post. In the second, I want to talk about really-minority sexual practices.

Kink, fetish and paraphilia are a whole different beast in some respects. There is little coherent agreement as to whether they constitute elements of sexual orientation at all; the same is true of nonmonogamy. Sometimes they're pathologized -- indeed, the term "paraphilia" takes for granted that the unusual interest is perforce dysfunctional, especially when arousal is difficult or impossible without it. Often that's perceived to be definitional to the idea at all!

In the case of kinks and fetishes, it's often treated as something *strictly* personal -- "that's just their thing." The idea that it might emerge from the same sort of shaping forces that influence one's preferences in partners (or preference for none -- let's not forget that asexual people exist) is much more controversial to the extent I've seen it discussed at all.

To some extent I can understand why that would be. Talking about how and why and whether one prefers partners on X and Y basis is relatively easy; "Option 1, Option 2, Both, Neither" are relatively simple options to fit into a folk-psychological model of the world -- and that's really what people are building, for the most part, when they attempt to suss out the complexities of orientation. It's almost as if the idea of orientation *itself* is a conceptual primitive; given the history of the development of the concept, that's not really surprising. We've gone from the prestige template being the only option, and variance from it not even really counting as sexual behavior, to even many bigots acknowledging that distinct preferences exist; these days, the arguments they make are about the morality of that preference, and public opinion polls in the US show that at least here, they're gradually losing even that battle.

That's a pretty significant frameshift!

But what, then, of non-"vanilla" and non-monogamous sexual practices and identities? In the case of the latter, I've observed that many polyamorists are reluctant or unwilling to discuss their relationship styles in terms of orientation at all -- most poly folks seem to treat their preference for multiple partnerships as distinct from their orientation. I'm less sure about kink/fetish/paraphilia culture; those are often quite scattered and divergent from one another, and even organizations and groups dedicated to the subject generally find themselves condoning some and eschewing others (quite apart from the case of people whose arousal might cause discomfort or ethical questions; I mean that it's rare to even see self-disclosing furries at say, the Wet Spot in Seattle). In many cases, there is no obvious unified subculture. Some of these conditions are still highly pathologized, and just admitting to having them can get someone into serious trouble.

Anyway, here I'm flying blind, but I strongly suspect that future framings of orientation are going to be affected by the existence of non-monagomous and non-vanilla social identities that cohere out of what is presently a somewhat jumbled, disunited set of groups. Not that queer communities are really all that monolithic either (just ask any queer person of color), but on some level they've established cultural token that they can use to define themselves in terms that make sense for their context, and that the outside world will recognize as such (regardless of opinions about it). We're seeing this to some degree with non-monogamy -- while "poly" is still used for a whole bunch of identities and practices that bear little direct resemblance to one another, they're all beginning to accrue mainstream media attention at an increasing rate, along with those dynamically-in-tension-but-still-nonmonogamous polygamist groups who've been visible at a high level of late. This has its ups and downs; I'm not going to spend my time here asking whether or not it's a good thing because the reality is it's a complicated thing, and any such transition to "recognizeable minority status" has ups, downs, ins and outs beyond my ability to express simply.

Last time I suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that Part 2 would be about the difference between acknowledging the fact that these things are parts of human nature, and advocating any author's particular view of their own fetish-fuel future. I admit that I don't have a lot to say there; it should be fairly simply put that I think what qualifies as squicky varies from person to person; what's marginalizing is marginalizing; that some things are just not going to be acceptable to most people no matter how they're justified, and that in this complex world full of varying forms of oppression, a lot of things that might seem "innocent of unethical bent despite their uncomfortable nature" can in practice be deployed in squicky ways. I find the basic precepts behind the "Gor" novels intensely uncomfortable; I can see why a lot of people are uncomfortable with SF/F characters who look like a child but are "mentally" an adult (or ancient, or downright nonhuman) getting into consensual relationships; it's very often annoying and sanctimonious when an author presents their particular preferences as the wave of the future (ahh, Heinlein...). That's leaving aside the more mundane, but still generally-squicky depictions of sexuality, relationships, assault and so on (too many books to name).

I'll end by saying that I'm curious to find authors who handle these subjects well, and it's one of my goals as a worldbuilder and writer to create believable, but not too-mundane answers to some of these questions in my own work.