I wrote a blog post on my site last January that discusses the use of prostitutes in speculative fiction. You can read that post if you’d like the details, but the gist is that—as writers—we seem to have difficulty imagining fictional worlds that are free of patriarchal foundations. Even when we believe we’ve written something that equalizes gender and places female protagonists at the vanguard of worlds with true parity, aspects of our own male-dominated societies creep in there. It’s hard not to fall back on it when it’s all we’ve known.
So how can we escape such ingrained familiarity in order to build worlds that are neither patriarchal nor matriarchal? Or ones that are consciously crafted to be one or the other? How can we neutralize the influence of default male perspective from our works of fiction? One way might be to engage in a thought experiment based on one simple question: what if sex as we know it didn’t exist?
Wait, what? Why sex?
At its most basic, sex is functional—a means of procreation designed to ensure chromosomal diversity and propagation of sexually-reproductive species. Sounds clinical and boring, right? But among humans, sex has become much more. It is a tool for advertising and entertainment. It is a weapon in war, both on a symbolic gender level and a visceral violent way. It is a method of creating closeness and intimacy. It is a basis of exclusion for those who do not practice it in a way “sanctioned” by others. It is a way of experiencing simple physical pleasure. It can unite us on a personal level and divide us on an ideological one.
Yes, sex can be a glorious and beautiful act, but it also can be—and has been—harmful, predominantly for women. Any casual read-through of current daily news or light research into the history of human warfare provides evidence of that. Sex influences power, privilege, prestige, prejudice, pain, and pleasure, and these dynamics have almost always prioritized the male experience. Without sex as a historical motivation to subjugate, there might be more equal footing today between the masculine and feminine, but it’s an idea that can’t be practically examined within our current reality.
Hence, the thought experiment. Think of it as a springboard, a “what if” scenario in which we conceive a significant fictional event in human history that affects the mechanics of human procreation and ends sex as we know it, then consider the repercussions in context of our modern world and glean from it plausible narratives to shape our world-building.
I’ll leave the details of this reproductive change to your own boundless imagination, but whether evolutionary or instantaneous, earthbound or alien in origin, humans find their former means of procreation altered to a perfunctory yet necessary act with no allure. This event happens in our distant past—say, before the development of written language—so the concept of pleasurable or recreational sex becomes nothing more than an archaeological question or footnote rather than a titillating fact of our history that can be fetishized in the present.
In our experiential world, we’ll retain the current gender makeup—biological male and female with various degrees of gendered and non-gendered identities along the spectrum—as well as the basic function of mammalian procreation, i.e., fertilization of female-produced eggs via male-produced sperm. We can’t theorize what our current reality would look like in a sexless society if we neuter everyone to a single uniform gender (though this exercise might also hold value to writers who wish to craft mono-gendered worlds).
We’ll also retain the aspect of motherhood, in that the biological female experiences pregnancy and childbirth. The idea is to keep this imagined reality as close to the one we already know; to conceive how the lack of sex might affect the various social and personal relationships we form and the interactions we make, to include maternal and familial bonds.
Each month, I’ll present a different aspect of modern life and consider how that aspect might differ if it developed in a world free of the influences of human sexuality. Topics will include: advertising, business, conflict, education, entertainment, family, fashion, gender, motherhood, politics, recreation, religion, and sports. Some of these might necessitate only a few paragraphs while others could fill a tome worthy of Tolstoy. Either way, you can expect three things from this column:
- More questions. Each monthly topic will pose questions and suggest potential outcomes that will likely lead to more questions, and that’s because I expect to provide . . .
- No definitive answers. I won’t spend hours doing research to validate theories provided in this thought experiment (I haven’t the time or economic incentive), but also, remember that all theories in my column are coming from . . .
- A limited perspective. This thought experiment brings with it the identity bias of its writer: white, cis-gender wife and mother from a middle-class conservative southern Baptist background. I’ve landed far afield of my upbringing, but I still carry some of that associated baggage, especially when it comes to sex. (What recovering Baptist doesn’t feel an involuntary twinge of guilt when they drink, dance, or fornicate?)
I hope this column finds a diverse audience willing to bring their own experiences and perceptions to the conversation via the comment section. After all, my intent is to spark the imagination of speculative fiction writers who wish to build worlds that escape the confines of present-day reality, but our realities are shaped in part by our identities. As a woman, I can present scenarios to challenge the default male bias of our society, but other biases exist that bind our creativity and tint our writing, and those are challenges I’m not equipped to present.
And now, with all that out of the way, it’s time to play “What if sex wasn’t a thing?” We’ll start next month with our first topic—fashion. See you then!