A World Without Sex: Identity without the Intercourse

In this month’s column, we focus our thought experiment on the influence of sex on identity and imagine how a world without sexual reproduction might shape the way we negotiate social and personal labels.

Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual violence in the context of colonization and racial identity.

Speculative writers with an eye (and patience!) for detail tend to build lush worlds filled with fully-developed civilizations. They spend time crafting rich identities for their characters and the societies from which they come, but social identity for inhabitants of egalitarian or matriarchal worlds won’t necessarily replicate those of the patriarchal one we are used to. Writers must consider how identity might be informed in such worlds if they choose to write them. Imagining our own world without the male-preferenced aspect of sexual reproduction–an aspect that both influences and is influenced by identity–might help.

Sexual reproduction of course has a significant impact on our definitions of sexual preference and gendering identities. Our modern world is only now awakening to a wider understanding of gender identity and sexuality spectra, though universal acceptance is still far from our collective grasp. Some countries persecute non-cis/het citizens and relationships as a matter of law while others tolerate LGBTQ+ identities without embracing true and full equality. While such treatment is ostensibly tied to religious beliefs and the moral demands of such, those beliefs themselves have long been interpreted and enforced by heterosexual men to serve their desires.

Does sex shape other forms of identity, such as race, ethnicity, religion or class? Not in the way they are defined. Rather, perception of these identities shape the way women within those identity groups are approached when it comes to sex, often to their detriment. Black women, for example, have long been the most victimized group when it comes to sexual violence. Not only do they suffer attacks from within their own communities in the way all women do, but historically they have been subjected to assault from colonizers and slavers who claimed ownership of, and thus privilege to, their bodies. Today, black women, and especially black trans women, continue to experience higher degrees of sexual harassment and violence than other populations. They are less likely to report incidents—having no safe and effective way to do so—and are unlikely to receive justice or rightful compensation when they do.

Other identities outside of white or Western European ones are also often exoticized and harmfully fetishized when it comes to sex. Consider the recent uproar over Kim Kardashian’s “kimono” shapeware line. The online rebuke wasn’t simply culturally-protective finger-wagging. The disapproval stems from the historical sexual objectification of Japanese women (and Asian women in general) by non-Asian societies. The use of “kimono”—a sophisticated traditional gown designed for formal events—by a privileged American entrepreneur to sensualize her shapeware line ignores, and even capitalizes on, that harmful stereotype.

Native American women haven’t escaped white colonial objectification, either. As recently as last year, companies continued to sell sexy “Native American” princess costumes, despite the protests of actual Native American women who explained the dangers of sexualizing their already at-risk communities. (The company cited in the linked article seems to have removed all products categorized as “Native American,” from their 2019 catalog.)

The patriarchal legacy of sexual reproduction also creates stumbling blocks when it comes to class identity. In India, a nation plagued by an illegal yet persistent caste system, class identity can define a woman’s sexual status. Girls from lower castes are often forced into prostitution to support their families. The opportunity for education is rare, and marriage is a tentative escape at best.

Patriarchal attitudes surrounding sex have also influenced religious identity, much of which can be culled from the combination of my two previous posts on clothing and religion. Suffice to say, ideas on who can claim the title of a “true practitioner” of one’s faith are often tied to clothing choices (either too little or not enough when it comes to women), sexual status (piety and purity reign supreme) and—tying back to our opening topic—sexual preference. Those who don’t fall in line must leave the religion or claim it with caveats. (Membership with caveats is NOT full membership.)

Now, in the context of our thought experiment, let’s neuter the human race to remove sexual reproduction with its contrivances and complications. Shamefully, “othering” and the resulting persecution would likely not cease, as humanity with its need to conquer seems to excel at both. However, asexualizing humanity would remove a source of deep trauma for victims of identity-based sexual violence in that it removes a tool of oppression and terror. Identities of class, religion, race and ethnicity would remain in a sexless world, but presumed authority wouldn’t involve sexual degradation and humiliation, and women wouldn’t be pointedly targeted. Keep this in mind when describing the fears and realities of women in mixed-identity societies.

Without incentive to compete for sexual mating rites, masculinity and femininity as “biological indicators” become unimportant. They instead morph into fluid descriptors found on a wider gender spectrum. A baby might be identified at birth as having male, female or even intersex genitals (remember, we still utilize sperm, eggs, and the uterus in our thought experiment), but without any further implication of what that means for personality, interactions and preferences as the child grows. In other words, we wouldn’t simply tag a child born with sperm-producing genitalia with the “masculine” label and raise them as such.

Today, increasing numbers of progressive-minded families take this tact with their children. And many adults, once forced into ill-fitting gender and sexuality identities based solely on biology, are now recognizing and reclaiming their true selves. Inequality and even persecution remains, but possibility is there where it wasn’t before. The way they redefine their identities, ejecting restrictive binary pronouns and labels, provides positive inspiration for building characters in egalitarian or matriarchal worlds. Imagine mastering the skill to create a character who is compelling and relatable without being explicit—through pronouns, names or actions—about where they fall on the gender spectrum.

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