The Future of Sex

By Jed Hartman

I've read at least three published pieces of fiction recently, by different authors, set in worlds that more or less match this broad description:

It's one or more centuries in the future, and the universe is largely populated by humans. It's a brave new world full of technological marvels. Society has been utterly transformed. Humans can live hundreds of years, and/or can be uploaded into computers. Extreme body modification is common. Scarcity itself is scarce or extinct. Humans spend a lot of time engaging in creative and/or hedonistic pursuits.

I like all three of the works in question, and their portrayals of such societies appeal to me a great deal. And yet, I can't help noticing that in all three of these works, every human character with an onscreen romantic and/or sexual relationship is interested only in "the opposite gender" (whatever that means in a world where sex changes are easy and cheap), and that there are no long-term romantic and/or sexual relationships involving more than two people (cheating on a monogamous relationship doesn't count here), and that at least one member of each couple gets extremely jealous if the other member even expresses interest in anyone else.

I see this limited view of relationships elsewhere in science fiction as well. There are plenty of other science fiction stories and novels set in human societies a century or more from now that have made great strides in various social and technological areas; and yet, in most such worlds, the only romantic and sexual relationships portrayed are monogamous heterosexual ones.

Whenever I read such a work, it makes me wonder why the fictional society of the far future is less sexually diverse than early-21st-century America. Where are the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersexed, polyamorous, or kinky people? (Warning: that last link contains sexually explicit material.) Have they all gone into hiding, or maybe gone off to colonize planets of their own? I'm not asking for explicit sex scenes, necessarily; I just want to see romantic relationships on-camera with a little more variety to them. (I've particularly noticed that straight male authors rarely include gay male characters in their science fiction; perhaps the fact that most high-tech far-future science fiction is written by presumably-straight men might have something to do with the paucity of gay characters, I'm not sure.)

The same kind of question applies to other spectra on which humans can be measured, of course; if everyone in a portrayed future is white and upper-middle-class and thinks and talks and behaves just like a modern suburban American coastal dweller, that tends to ring false as well. But right now I'm focusing on sexual interaction, 'cause I've been noticing it in published fiction lately.

I should note that there are authors who handle this sort of thing well. Le Guin, for example, portrays plenty of same-sex relationships and plenty of relationships involving more than two people. But the sort of high-tech starfaring-Terrans milieu that I'm talking about usually isn't in the foreground of her works; often she focuses on aliens (though they're distantly related to Terran humans) for whom such relationships are the norm.

I hear that Star Trek: Enterprise features a poly alien cast member; that's a good step. For that matter, past incarnations of Trek have dealt with a gender-neutral alien world (with mixed success) and the gender complexity of the Trill -- aliens in human (or other alien) host bodies. Last I heard, though, there were still no gay humans in any Trek series or movie.

There are plenty of other speculative fiction works (more often fantasy than science fiction) that go beyond the straight-and-monogamous model in some way. Some relevant authors (among many others) include Eleanor Arnason, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Samuel R. Delany, Diane Duane, Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Ian R. MacLeod, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., and John Varley, not to mention authors we've published such as Kate Bachus, Steve Berman, Beth Bernobich, M. C. A. Hogarth, Aynjel Kaye, and Joe Murphy, among others. But most of the time the unusual sexuality or gender issues are addressed using aliens, or elves, or shapeshifters -- people who aren't human, who are Other. That's a handy approach if the audience is likely to be heterosexual and monogamous; it lets the audience explore possibilities without having to identify too strongly with the characters. But I'd still like to see more human characters with more variety in sexuality and gender, especially in Terrans-in-space settings. And even some works that do provide such variety sometimes end up "validat[ing] heterosexual desire and traditional masculine and feminine behaviour," as Sherryl Vint noted in her article "Both/And: Science Fiction and the Question of Changing Gender."

(Also, in many such works the sexuality and/or gender issues are the entire point and focus of the story; although I think such works are important, I'd also love to see more works where such things are taken for granted as a part of the fabric of society.)

I'm certainly willing to believe that in the Glorious Post-Scarcity Future there will still be humans who are interested only (or primarily) in one gender, and who won't have any sort of sexual response to someone who currently has the "wrong" kind of body. (Though I'd expect that to lead to lines like "I like you an awful lot, but I'm just not attracted to you. Would you consider switching to being male for a while?") And I'm very much willing to believe that jealousy will be around for a long time; polyamory has never been a cure for jealousy. But it seems to me to be a failure of the imagination to not include any major characters, in such a future society, who are anything other than 100% straight and monogamous.

When you add in the extreme body-mod capabilities, the questions get even more slippery. For example, how come we so rarely see human characters in extreme-body-mod worlds who've cast off all physical signs of gender, who've turned off the hormones and gotten rid of the secondary sexual characteristics? There are modern humans who would do that if they could, and who already approximate it in various ways, so gender isn't hardwired in everyone; surely there would be more people who would experiment with being neuter in a world where you could easily, quickly, and cheaply sculpt your body as you see fit. And surely there would also be people who would choose to be hermaphrodites. In a world where bodies are fluid, might not gender become a little more fluid as well? I'd like to see sf do more stretching of the standard modern binary essentialist notions of gender. It's been almost thirty years since Andy in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", but there are still few characters in speculative fiction who even have hormone treatments, let alone making bigger changes to their bodies.

I'm sure some authors would say, "All that stuff exists in my world, but the story I want to tell happens to be one about a straight white monogamous guy in this far-future society." That's hard to argue with. But I would recommend to such an author that they think about other stories they might tell in that milieu after they're done telling this one. And I would also recommend, for practice if nothing else, that such authors include secondary characters who don't fit the standard mold.

Chris Claremont, legendary writer of the X-Men in the comic's heyday, used to ask, about new characters being developed, "Is there any reason this character can't be a woman?" I wouldn't go so far as to recommend that all authors ask questions like "Is there any reason this character can't be gay?" or "Is there any reason this character can't be Latina?" every time they create a new character; but maybe questions like those are worth asking every now and then.

Then again, maybe I'm just reading the wrong kinds of fiction; doubtless there are plenty of writers who are portraying more diverse futures. I'd just like to see more of that.

So if you have suggestions of titles and authors that seem relevant to what I'm looking for, please post a note in our forum. Note that I'm not asking for a comprehensive bibliography of speculative fiction involving queer characters -- such a list would be pretty long at this point. (See the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards page for some recent examples of relevant works.) I'm specifically interested in science fiction featuring Terrans and their descendants, in a high-tech future, who have a varied spectrum of kinds of sexual and romantic relationships.

 

Copyright © 2003 Jed Hartman

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Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor of Strange Horizons. His previous publications here can be found in our Archive.