In this month’s column, we apply our thought experiment to armed conflict and aggression and consider how women might be affected by war and military service in a world sans sex.
Trigger Warning: This article discusses rape in the context of conflict and military service.
You’d be hard-pressed to find speculative fiction that doesn’t include conflict between warring factions or soldiers and assassins training for war. Authors who seek to create non-patriarchal systems for their fictional worlds should carefully consider how they portray two key aspects of conflict: those who participate in war and those who are victims of its atrocities. Imagining war in a world free from the decidedly male-prioritized trappings of sex might assist the writer in this endeavor.
Let’s first discuss the victims of war. While humankind as a whole has matured through history, and knives and spears have turned into machine guns and bombs, rape has endured as a personal, insidious, and horrific weapon used by nearly all civilizations at some point in their histories. It is still used today in some regions of the world.
Removing sexual intercourse from the human equation would not remove the atrocities of war and the myriad ways humans have to hurt, humiliate, and terrorize each other. After all, vaginal rape isn’t the only form of rape, and penises are not the only weapons used to perpetrate it, which means women are not the only victims of “battlefield rape,” though they tend to be the most frequent. The absence of sex might, however, remove the impetus of perpetrators to conduct such violent acts, which is primarily to dehumanize and humiliate victims. It could also remove the stigmatization of victims by communities that tend to shame and blame rape victims.
Women and girls are also often kidnapped, enslaved, and forcibly integrated into their enemies’ communities, which leads to an existence defined by domestic rape. For example, consider the experience of “comfort women” used in World War II-era Japan. If you remove the aspect of male sexual gratification, you potentially eliminate such horrific practices. I say ‘potentially’ because soldiers who seek empowerment as a way of dealing with wartime stress may find other violent ways to fulfill those needs, for which civilians (primarily women and children, in this case) would be the likely target.
This brings us to the other aspect likely to change in a world without sex: the overall gender makeup of armies and militias and how women are treated in these groups. With some exceptions—from the very real Amazon warriors to the female fighting force led by the Trung sisters against China in first century Vietnam—militaries and war have historically been the domain of men. One recent study provides some answers as to why that is: namely, aggressive male competitiveness and chance.
The twentieth century thankfully ushered in new ways of thinking about gender equality, and women were slowly integrated into militaries around the globe, if only initially in the most benign ways. My own military experience was characterized by a dichotomy of increasing opportunities with continued restrictions. And of course, members of the LGBTQ+ communities continue to experience issues with serving in the military, due in large part to a culture that prioritizes and rewards “traditional” masculinity.
In general, modern speculative fiction writers (though not all) do a decent job of including women in their fighting forces, though they often appear as elite assassins, magic-wielders, or leaders who are kept distant from the battlefield. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers comes to mind: women serve as pilots who deliver the “real warfighters” to the battle. A lack of sex, sexuality, and sexual-based bias (or, a non-patriarchal world) might provide more equitable roles for women in the services.
Opportunity is, of course, only half the problem women face in the military with the other half being sexual harassment and assault. More than one-hundred years since the first woman openly enlisted into the U.S. Navy, our modern-day armed forces provide no shortage of anecdotes of the sexual harassment and assault of women. From the enraging Tailhook scandal to the shocking abuse of female recruits at Lackland Air Force Base, the culture of sexual exploitation, denigration, and harassment remains an insidious part of the U.S. military.
I clipped a political cartoon from a newspaper years ago in which a male soldier berates a female soldier for all of the above-mentioned problems that have ensued since women were “allowed to join” the armed services. When asked how she suggests they deal with these problems, she replies: “Get men out of the military?” It’s a significant piece of political commentary, because of course, the problem isn’t a female one. A sex-free world would be a potential solution to these problems, or perhaps one in which war, military service, and national defense isn’t viewed as the sandbox of men in which women are allowed to play at the edges, so long as it doesn’t create “problems” for the institutions.
Finally, it might be tempting to say that a world without sexual-based divisions and distractions might mean a world without war altogether. After all, such a reality would have been likelier to engender greater female participation in all aspects of conflict throughout history, including the decision to go to war. As the late Robin William’s once said: “If women ran the world, we wouldn’t have wars, just intense negotiations every 28 days.” A bit sexist and condescending, yes, but the real joke is that while we might believe this to be true based on a sexist stereotype, it’s wrong to assume women wouldn’t have as much invested interest in conflict.
This is why writers who seek to create non-patriarchal-based worlds should pay attention to how they portray the motivations, participants, and victims of armed conflict. Take care not to translate war as a singularly male pursuit that is carried out in the primary interests of men while everyone else merely assists with, accepts, or endures its devastation.