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Views expressed by guest or resident columnists are entirely their own.

Gregory Benford is a Nebula winner and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor. He is the author of more than thirty novels, six books of non-fiction, and has edited ten anthologies.

A SCIENTIST'S NOTEBOOK:
SEX, GENDER AND FANTASY

by

Gregory Benford

I dwell in the universe of the university, where the humanists these days have a special set of definitions. Sometimes, even about the seemingly obvious.

Biology dictates that there are two sexes. Culture acting on biology, so the story goes, makes gender. Thus gender differences are "socially constructed", as the jargot--a combination of jargon and argot--has it.

I teach in the humanities core course for freshmen honors students each year, where such distinctions are crucial. Once I innocently asked how many genders there were, and the puzzled response was, well, two, of course. What about homosexuals? I asked. Don't they represent different persuasions, different cultural flavors? After culture operates on biology, why should there be a one-to-one mapping?

There followed an uncomfortable silence, in which it became clear that gender was just a code word for the latest academic cultural spin put on sex.

Homosexuality was, well, not an issue. Was it biologically determined? Well, no. It was socially constructed, as were attitudes toward it. Then why was it persistent in human societies? No answer.

Much in the humanities has no answer, for the language is innocent of data. They lack the rub of the real.

Yet issues of sexuality, of that old question--what is natural? --remain. We're a highly charged, sexy species, and such matters mean much to us.

Will technology take us beyond these issues? This is a science fictional question. Can we ever achieve a total detachment of gender from sex?--that is, switch roles utterly? A total polymorphousness?

These are curiously analytical questions to ask of a subject so steeped in legend and shadowy emotions. Permit me, then, a digression into--as the humanists would say--rhetoric.

* * *

To the American male the vagina has always been a dark realm, moist and mysterious, controlled by rhythms he could not sense or slake. Beyond that often-obliging passage lay the vast, dusky domain of the uterus, where the magical act of bringing forth life occurred, buried deep. He had mere abstract knowledge of that strange cavern territory, a geography forever beyond touch. He could only hear it, with an ear pressed against a wife's belly, listening to the random thumps of babies on the way, swimming in night.

So as the American turned from the dying frontier of the west, having reached the Pacific and found its oceanic turmoil a salty vastness, he set out to find a new land. The sac that surrounds the embryo has the same saline content as the ocean -- as does the blood that knocks in our veins -- echoing the Pacific's patient emptiness. So we began our twencen frontier there: the inner ocean, dark and engulfing, enclosing each of us at our most vulnerable beginnings.

The new frontier was opened in the name of sanitation, the same impulse that brought forth indoor plumbing in the 1890s; a Pasteur-driven passion to cleanse the world and make it fresh and new again. So woman was cleaned up, like a problem in municipal maintenance.

Douches, baths, tubes you insert to suck up the dismaying flood, sprays, anti-itch powders, diaphragm, foams, pills -- they all ran together as the decades raced through, one stopgap (quite literally) blending into the next as the distinction between hygiene and birth control blurred, and the old dark land yielded to invasions, thrusts deep into its territory, things that dried and sealed off and, after a first rough chill, became an accepted piece of that dimly lit landscape, a mild discomfort at best, an ... appliance.

An old tobacconist's saying about drawing a customer in goes, Start with a pinch, end with a pound. So it was with the saline frontier. The urge was not merely one more land rape, but the desire to mechanize, to make rich cropland from the untamed, moist forest.

(Could the rigid rectangularity of the checkerboard Midwest have a great deal to do with their sex lives? The furrow lines in fields draw you forward to the infinity where parallels meet over the horizon. In the grip of such geometry, such mathematical order, the impatient, snaky pant and slither of sex doesn't fit. The American instinct, pinned to the Euclidean landscape, has been to mechanize their own reproduction, just as they did to wheat.)

Agriculture isn't a hand-dominated industry anymore. Why do all that work? the ads say. Sure, they're talking about household chores, cleaners, toothpaste -- but what's the most basic home-making job a woman has? No mess, no fuss ... So medicine makes sex safe and dry, far from the moist dark territory of the primordial mind.

But how?

The first step is basic: disconnect the groin from the id.

Ever since Freud, we've thrown up temporary barriers to the unconscious -- the newly-elected seat of all our dark, base drives. But anyone who has been through traditional analysis -- or Jungian, or anything more trendy -- knows how badly that works. (A recent study of psychotherapy techniques showed that patients had just as good a chance of improving if they skipped their Freudian-based therapy sessions entirely, and went for a walk.) So if you can't wrestle the id to the ground, and handcuff it securely, what next?

Disconnect! Assume that sex organs are accidents of birth. Assume that sexuality is carried in the genitalia like incidental freight, neatly packaged. Sure, there are nasty hormones in the blood. (Including that worst offender, testosterone, one of the aggressors; and we know what the United Nations thinks of them.) But those hormones are easily fixed -- just tinker with the glands. Most of them are lodged in those dictatorial organs, the genitals. Outlying areas can be mopped up later.

So some feminists tell us that men and women are basically alike, except -- in a coolly analytical phrase I lifted from a tract -- except for the plumbing. (Recall the 1890s. Here lies the final victory of the flush toilet.)

It is tempting to see sex as a set of detachable appliances, fitted to the basic human body frame at birth. Then we can all believe that, way down deep, we're really the same unisex model.

E pluribus unum. Chevy products are all the same car, you know -- even though the add-ons and extras are deceptive, the real car has the identical engine, gears, axle. As with products, why not with people?

Social behavior can be endlessly altered, trimmed, sanitized, so this argument goes -- if we'll just overlook the, uh, plumbing. The eternal edgy peace between men and women can then be smoothed over, and final treaties signed, if we apply a bit of operant conditioning -- that ugly but useful phrase that comes from Skinner's Neo-Pavlovian work.

* * *

Seem too simple minded? Orwellian? Something out of Brave New World?

Look at heavy metal's recurrent images: women coupling with things that are half-machine; androgyny rampant; high tech meets low lust. Nowhere is the American ambivalence about sexuality reflected better than in these images, saturated with the strange eroticism of the man-machine interface.

Or look to science fiction. The most interesting version of future sexuality to emerge in the 1970s was John Varley's quick-change utopia, in which people switch sexes whenever taste dictates. From The Ophiuchi Hotline through Steel Beach, he envisioned a society restless with change--indeed, alive with metamorphosis.

This ferment produces a remarkably laissez-faire society in which family roles dissolve. All is optional. Varley assumes that there will be no more racism or sexism in such a world because everyone will have the ability to be anything. When you can be the Other, there soon is none.

The next subtle yet crucial assumption is that when you switch you take no baggage with you. The details of the process are high tech indeed -- you speed-grow a clone of yourself, have your brain transplanted -- or just "map" the brain -- and zap you're reborn.

Is this plausible? More to the point, do Varley's assumptions set the stage for a fiction that can tell us something about the nature of sexuality and society? Does the brain flip-flop from male to female, on orders from the hormones?

We now know by direct experiment that men use one local part on one side of their brains to process sound. Women, on the other hand, use both sides in a more diffuse manner. This may explain why girls have greater early verbal fluency while men's abilities grown steadily greater from a slow start.

Why did our evolution select this substantial difference? Seldom is a trait taken on for a single cause, especially in the complex warrens of our neural labyrinths where abilities cross-link. We will probably never know why our specializations arose. But the plain differences between men and women stand out; we are moderately shaped for specialized tasks.

Men are better at high-power work, using motor muscles. Their sense of spatial arrangement is better and appears earlier. Women can sit longer, do delicate hand-eye work more adeptly, have better color perception. (Partial color blindness, such as I have, is carried by the female, though; one of evolution's little jokes.)

We differ. Nature wanted it that way. On average, with a considerable spread in individual abilities within each sex. Plenty of women in my neighborhood can outrun their mates.

So consider an opposite tide of thought about sex, one moored in the molecular architecture. Edward Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) sounded the trumpet for an enduring genetic program, seated far back in the brain, not lodged in the organs. Hardwired sexuality that could not be pried out.

Wilson's On Human Nature (1978) enraged people across the entire political/social spectrum. Anyone who believed in the high merit and ultimate perfectibility of humans was offended -- from the gentle philosophical humanists to the flinty-eyed, up-against-the-wall Stalinist-Marxists.

Wilson's point of view is simple and comes from an essentially conservative notion: that much social behavior springs from genetic programming. Society itself -- insect or human -- is often a manifestation of genetic needs.

So are sexual roles. An example: Humans (and other primates) produce few children and nurture them intensively. A female's reproductive potential is then limited by her ability to provide nurture. A male, though, can sire many more young than a single female can bear and raise. The more females he mates with, the greater his reproductive success -- i.e., how many of the next generation carry his genes. Males then compete to fertilize females, investing little in each offspring.

On the other hand, the female's preferred strategy is to choose a male who will lend a hand in bringing up the kids. A well-respected study of western women by anthropologist Heather Fowler found that women associate two basic symbols with sexually attractive men: money and status. Such men can provide a good nurturing background, steadiness, security -- they're success-symbols. Similarly, men notoriously go for women with unwrinkled skin (therefore younger, able to reproduce better), large breasts (better nurture?) and a "certain sexual receptivity" (promising a ready "conquest").

Do men and women think this through? No! They're wired for it, through pleasure. In most societies, sex is widely regarded as something men seek and women dispense. This attitude is so common across cultures that it cannot be an accident.

Still, it's a wise man who knows his own son -- so cuckoldry is a rage-producing taboo. A man who dutifully rears children who do not, in fact, carry his genetic code never gets represented in the next generation. In our operas, he is the butt of jokes.

It's not surprising that evolution has selected for males who have strong views on such matters. The prime reason for murders of women by men, in both America and Africa, is suspected or actual female infidelity. It's even an important cause of murder among male gays. Its passions run deep.

Gays, in fact, represent one of the unexpected insights that a good scientific theory gives. The maladjustments many male gays have with their own sexual impulses represent something very deep -- an abiding sense of frustration over the conflict between genetically driven patterns and what society wants us to do. The family, after all, is a rickety cage, restraining male promiscuity, husbanding (literally) resources, providing continuity to all. Society shores up family life in many ways to build big, stable institutions based on the small, private virtues learned at home. This disguises some of our innate drives.

To see the naked patterns of sexual behavior, then, look to homosexual behavior. There, society's bonds are gone. Every study shows that gay males tend strongly toward one-night stands. Lesbians are much more apt to pair-bond, forming long-term relationships. The two divergent strategies laid bare.

Ironically, then, we can see our genetic heritage most clearly in the patterns of the homosexual outgroup. Doubly ironic, since this is the one group that passes on less of its genetic material than do the couples of suburbia.

Why, then, any homosexuality at all? The fashionable attitudes of our time hold that homosexuality is perfectly all right because it is a right, like free speech. The political language revolves around "sexual preference," trivializing a profound inner sense into a fashion choice. Who ever looked over the sexual opportunities, like shopping?

A more persuasive argument rests on biology itself. Homosexuality persists in all societies, and indeed, among the higher primates generally, because it has an evolutionary role.

Explaining why brought into play the idea of "kinship selection". The term itself came from studying why groups in the wild can manifest seemingly odd behaviors, ones not immediately useful in survival.

This means that a gay man or woman can work for the betterment of his relations, laboring in the tribe as specialized labor, free of the burden of child rearing. Gay males might have been leaders, or explorers, or craftsmen. They might have stayed close to the mothers, to protect while the other men were away. Lesbians could have done general service in child rearing, or helped hunt (women often have a better sense of smell). These are available, specialized labors, just as men's and women's bodies adapted to special tasks.

These ideas resemble "Just So"-style stories explaining why given traits emerged. The crucial point is that they did emerge, in the crucible of rapid human evolution.

The genes which can occasionally confer homosexuality (in about one percent of the human population) are shared by kinfolk. Usually the slight genetic influence does not manifest itself as homosexuality, and so gets transmitted through ordinary heterosexual bonds.

But because the gay brother or sister labors on, the tribe as a whole has a better chance of surviving. Homosexuality need not be accepted because it is a right, but rather because it is indeed natural. It is preferred as a minority strategy by evolution of the hunter-gatherer hominids we once were...and still are.

The ancient past speaks to us, but we seldom hear. I live in a town with about 30% gay population. The mayor is gay, and a friend of mine. He has been selected for, far back in Africa.

I suppose whatever he does in the bedroom does not fit the antiseptic American ideal. He does far more outside it, for our community, than I, standard issue heterosexual male, will ever do.

He belongs here. He is natural. So are the two lesbians on the city council.

I held, back in that humanities class, that we could productively consider both homosexual modes as alternate social/biological strategies which demonstrably propagate themselves. They have their own cultures, intermingling with the subcultures of men-alone and women-alone.

Perhaps, to make a distinction between the simple biological sexes and the cultural genders, we should speak of four genders. Four strategies.

* * *

So the evidence is in: there are deep currents in the human psyche, ingrained in the DNA, that drive human sexuality. We do not learn to be men and women solely from society. (Indeed, how could anybody who has passed through the hormonal roller coaster of adolescence possibly believe otherwise?)

Fast-changing society doesn't always like those deep drives. It does what it can, through conditioning, to shape them to its benefit.

The American impulse to mechanize its own sexuality has to be looked at this way. It seeks not just the victory of the vaginal deodorant tycoons; the Cause extends down to the soft-spoken socialists who dream of Perfectible Mankind, and to the feminists who long for the Good Male. Once we were devils, but we can become angels. Fine ideals, perhaps, but founded on the sand of bad science.

All such believers in social perfection are manipulators. They want to forget the press of the past, to dismiss evolution as a fever dream that will pass, if we merely Think Right.

A symptom of this has been the drift toward androgyny. The outright manifestation is the growing number of sex change operations. These are anatomically crude -- a long way from add-water-and-stir clones -- and psychologically high-risk.

Yet they spring from an underlying philosophy that is widespread: that you can fix up the hormones, tinker with the genitals, and make yourself over. Cast off your sexual hangups! Trade in that old set of synapses! Buy the new, new, NEW (fill in sex of your choice).

John Varley's sex-change utopia is not a useful fictional/laboratory for trying out our sexual stereotypes because it, too, is based on a stereotype -- Malleable Man. Fictional lessons, if they are to be used, must make some contact with our real lives. And we are not infinitely changeable.

There are helically-stored, immutable instructions impressed into the human brain, and these cannot ultimately be ignored.

One of the central lessons of our century is that the opposite ideal has produced vast police states. The program of the Soviet Empire and its imitation, client states was to bring about the millennium by conditioning the populace. Orwell -- arguably the greatest English science fiction writer since Wells -- saw clearly that Communists and Nazis alike thought they could produce a New Man from the tattered cloth of ordinary folk, given enough conditioning. Orwell was terrified that it worked too well. Luckily, time has proven him wrong -- but it was a near thing.

Why do we learn so little from such a clear case? A proper regard for the irreducible traits we carry would lighten the hand of the reformers, make a wiser world.

In science fiction, our concern for mind-body dualities and man-machine interfaces ignores a singular fact. Our minds aren't cleanly divided along a software/hardware divide. Our software, if you like, redesigns its hardware over time, laying down fresh pathways, modifying others. Synapses build anew as you sleep.

Our sexuality--polymorphous and powerful as it is--will not abide easy changes in the "software". Hormones and neurological wiring can't be neatly patched, trimmed, deleted, copied or edited.

The weight of what we have been is considerable. A woman who has been a man is not the same as a woman who has never been otherwise, or wished to be. Freedom, even the blithe liberty technology can convey, is both the ability to change vectors, and having the weight of character to make changes mean something.

Our dreams of escaping our selves, escaping even history, is in the end the longing for a kind of triviality. Transsexuals can strive for the Other, but they cannot ape the embedded hormones, the delicate balances of glands, the full and weighty life that the mind-body synthesis commands. Motherhood, fatherhood, the ecstasy of union--these are not experiences detachable from the rest of life.

To be interchangeable may make us more free, but it would also make our lives matter less. Sexuality, it seems to me, can be aided by technology only at the margin. Abortion, contraception, sanitation--all help. In the decades to come, biotechnology will far transcend these rather simple options, presenting us with fresh choices which will excite us, horrify us, tempt us, and provoke endless arguments--all dancing about one central question: who are we?

We are the thinking beings moored in the body. We will always have pangs of love, of jealousy, of loss. Men and women will always clash, because they have different sexual strategies. This struggle is part of the sexual specialization we see in our bodies, which evolution in old Africa has made moderately different.

Difference brings us agony and amusement alike. The tension between men and women is part of our power. The same stresses which make for romantic comedy helped us transcend the veldt.

Even in the glitzy techno-future, we cannot solve our problems and remain recognizably human by slicing up the human experience into sanitized, detachable parts. The unconscious, and the body it is deeply rooted in, will be heard.

Copyright 1995 by Abbenford Associates

 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

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FICTION
BRAGGING RITES
by Samantha Murray

THE TRAGEDY OF THE DEAD
IS THAT THEY CANNOT CRY

by Sunil Patel

THE LOYAL ORDER OF BEASTS
by Kay Kenyon
YOU CAN ALWAYS
CHANGE THE PAST
by George Nikolopoulos
IT TAKES A SPECIAL-
SPECIAL PERSON

by Andrea G. Stewart

LOCKED ROOM
by Kevin J. Anderson

GOLF TO THE DEATH
by Alex Shvartsman

MY MONSTER CAN BEAT
UP YOUR MONSTER
by Brennan Harvey
THE OBSERVER
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
YOUR GRIEF IS
IMPORTANT TO US
by Yaroslav Barsukov
DO NOT CALL ME BENTO
by Tina Gower

IN THE GROUP
by Robert Silverberg

INTERVIEW
Mike Resnick
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Double Star (Part 2)
Heinlein's First Hugo Winner
by Robert A. Heinlein

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 


 


 

 

 

 

 

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