Sunday, July 29, 2007

Psychological consequences of Alien Sex

Psychological consequences of alien sex for the human character (... and, especially for the alien!)

By Barbara Karmazin

1. FIGHT or FLIGHT response: This is the very basic response pattern regardless of species.

Imagine that you’re a caveman/woman/child picking berries when you come nose to nose with a sabre-tooth tiger. While you were gathering, the tiger was hunting, and the sight of you makes his mouth water.

Evolution gives your body a set of automatic responses that take over in the event of an emergency. At the sight of the tiger, your hypothalamus sends a message to your adrenal glands and within seconds, you can run faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, think faster, and jump higher than you could a few earlier.

Your heart pumps at two to three times the normal speed, sending nutrient rich blood to the major muscles in your arms and legs. The tiny blood vessels (called capillaries) under the surface of your skin close down (which sends your blood pressure soaring) so you can sustain a surface wound and not bleed to death. Your eyes dilate so you can see better.

All functions of your body not needed for you to fight or flee shut down. Digestion stops, sexual function stops, even your immune system is temporarily turned off. If necessary, excess waste is eliminated to make you light on your feet.

Your suddenly supercharged body helps level the odds between you and your attacker. Consequently, you narrowly escape death by leaping higher and running faster than you ever could before. When the danger is, you find a safe place to lie down and rest your exhausted body.

FLASH FORWARD to the present day. Despite the huge amount of technological change in the ensuing 25,000 years, you have the same set of internal body parts as that of your remote forefathers and foremothers. You're in the break room at work, hunting for coffee and gathering donuts.
Your boss walks in, hunting you. He says, "Could I see you for a moment in my office, please?"

At the sight of the tiger, er, uh...your boss...your hypothalamus sends a message to your adrenal glands and within seconds your body summons the strengths and abilities that your stone-age ancestor needed to fight a sabre-tooth tiger.

Blood pressure soars as you take the long walk down the hall to your boss's office. You remember a rumor you heard about an upcoming round of layoffs. Now your mind races, your heart pumps harder, your mouth dries up, your hands feel cold and clammy, sweat pours down your and you may even feel a sudden urge to go (to the bathroom). Maybe you'd like to run and hide or maybe you'd like to punch your boss in the nose, but you can't do either. Welcome to the modern era.

(Every time your body triggers the fight or flight response, for situations that are not truly life-threatening, you are experiencing, in effect, a false alarm. Too many false alarms can lead to stress-related disorders like, heart disease, high blood pressure, immune system disorders, migraine headaches, insomnia and sexual dysfunction.)

So, going back to our aliens. If an alien, vampire, werewolf or stranger suddenly appears in your bedroom, what’s going to happen? Are you going to open your arms and legs and invite him or her into bed with you for a sexual tryst? Or are you going to reach for the baseball bat you keep under your bed and clobber this intruder, then run away and dial 911 for help?

Keep this normal psychological reaction in mind whenever you set up a sudden meeting between human and alien.

I kept this fight or flight response in mind when I wrote the first face-to-face meeting between Sonia and Rulagh. And because Rulagh is an exo-biologist working for the Interstellar Humane Society, then this meant he would also be aware of this common response to danger and/or a potentially dangerous stranger. So of course, he uses that knowledge to defuse the situation and reassure Sonia that his intentions are harmless instead of dangerous.

2. Stockholm Syndrome: I’m sure you’re familiar with this syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome comes into play when a captor/abductor shows token acts of kindness to his or her prisoner. It typically takes about three or four days for the psychological shift to take hold.

A strategy of trying to keep your captor happy in order to stay alive becomes an obsessive identification with the likes and dislikes of the captor which has the result of warping your own psyche in such a way that you come to sympathize with your tormenter. Rescue attempts are seen as a threat, since it's likely the captive would be injured during such attempts.

It's important to note that these symptoms occur under tremendous emotional and often physical duress. The behavior is considered a common survival strategy for victims of interpersonal abuse, such as battered spouses, abused children, prisoners of war, and concentration camp survivors.

Needless to say, if your hero or heroine is a reasonably intelligent and educated human, then he or she would also know about the Stockholm Syndrome and would be suspicious of his or her feelings if he or she were captured, kidnapped and/or imprisoned by an alien.

I’m also sure if your readers are reasonably intelligent and educated, they would also be aware of the effects of the Stockholm Syndrome and would also be suspicious of the validity of any emotional attachments formed under this type of alien/human scenario. Last but not least, it’s a very common SF cliché to have aliens kidnapping human females for sexual experimentation.

So, if you’re going to have a situation where a human is abducted, number one, you need to make it a plausible abduction, not a cliché one and number two, you need to establish very quickly that the human is free to go within the first hour after abduction but decides to stay and help the alien resolve the issue that caused the abduction in the first place.

For example, the alien abducts the human because he or she needs a critical component to repair his or her spacecraft. Have the human and alien work together to solve a problem and in the process of solving the problem get to know each other better and watch the sexual attraction and emotional bonding grow before you have any sexual interaction take place. Create the sexual tension first. It’s a lot more exciting, sensual and romantic that way.

Another example or twist of the trite alien kidnap cliché could be a third alien enemy species who kidnaps the human and throws him or her into the holding pen with another alien species. This type of scenario forces the human and alien to work together to escape and of course they forge emotional bonds while planning their escape, escaping, eluding their mutual enemy and defeating their mutual enemy.

3. Florence Nightingale Syndrome:

Florence Nightingale Syndrome refers to an inappropriate attraction which can arise between two individuals, one of whom is receiving support or positive attention of some kind. In time, natural feelings of gratefulness and appreciation become exaggerated, turning into declarations of love. The receipt of medical attention is a prime opportunity for such interactions to take place. Obviously, the relationship between Florence Nightingale and the soldiers of the Crimean War, who were said to kiss her shadow as it fell across their bed, gives rise to the syndrome's name.

Florence Nightingale Syndrome is also used to refer to a constant and uncontrolled desire to protect and alter the lives of others, often without regard to whether one possesses either the right, or indeed the ability to do so. The feeling of providing help reinforces within the individual a feeling of power, and thus provides for the basic need to feel wanted and loved.

4. Dominance/Submission:

Many of the different animal species you will look at as models for shapeshifters and aliens have a complex social hierarchy that blends dominant and submissive behaviors to form their packs and family groups.

a. BDSM is a specific sexual subculture with specific rules and guidelines for the relationships within this subculture.

D/s consists of a consensual relationship that is based around a power exchange between two people. One person is the controlling one, known as the Dominant; the other person is the controlled one, and is known as the submissive (note that 'Dominant' is usually capitalized and that 'submissive' is not). The submissive gives a certain amount of 'power' to the Dominant over their lives. This can be as simple as the Dominant telling them what to wear each day, or can be as complex as the submissive having to ask the Dominant for permission to even leave the room. The important thing to note here is that we are talking about consensual relationships. The rights of the submissive are not taken from them without consent, they are given freely during a period of negotiation.

Total Power Exchange Arguably, the 'pinnacle' of D/s relationships is a Total Power Exchange (TPE) relationship, where the submissive gives up all control to the Dominant. Total means just that. The Dominant controls every aspect of their lives from what they wear or eat, to where they go and who they see. (You’re walking a very fine line between D/s and Domestic Violence with this type of relationship. Why? Because many abusers seek to control every facet of their spouse or lover’s life.)

Here’s a list of terminology within the D/s lifestyle:

Dominant - The person who has been given some amount of control over the submissive. Other terms describing them are Dom and Domme.

submissive - The person who gives some amount of control to the Dominant. Other terms describing them are sub, pet and slave.

D/s - Dominance and submission. A power exchange relationship.

Lifestyle - Generally those that practice D/s are part of 'the lifestyle'. It doesn't mean anything, it's just a descriptive term.

Vanilla - a non-D/s relationship.

24/7 - Living a D/s relationship 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To put it another way, you are always in a power exchange relationship.

Scene - The best way to describe this is to think of a 'scene' from a movie. This is one interaction between a Dom and a sub. It doesn't have to be sexual; all that is required is that a power exchange has taken place. Those not in a 24/7 relationship tend to have 'scenes' where the power exchange happens. Even those in 24/7 relationships can have scenes, where the exchange becomes deeper.

Top - A person who Dominates for only a scene. If you think of it as a 'one night stand' in the D/s lifestyle you wouldn't be quite correct, but it's a good start. This doesn't mean that the Top is a 'Dominant', just that the dominate for the one scene.

Bottom - A person who is submissive for only a scene. This does not mean the person is always a submissive, just that they are submissive for the scene. See 'Top'.

Switch - Someone who switches between the Dominant and submissive roles.

Safewords - These are words that are used by either Dom or sub to slow down, or stop a scene. Having negotiated a safeword is very important. It means that if something is happening that makes either person uncomfortable, they can either back off a little, or stop.

b. A Few Myths, D/s isn't about Abuse

Though the point has already been made it's important to emphasize that the normal D/s relationship is about a consensual power exchange. Whatever happens to the sub, whatever demands are made of them, they have agreed to this. If they haven't, if they never asked for this, or they don't want this, then it's an abusive relationship not a BDSM relationship.

Submissives aren't always women. If your image of a submissive is a woman, no matter how she's dressed, think again. There are a great number of male submissives.
Submissives aren’t weak. If someone has to have someone else run their lives for them they must be weak, right? Wrong. Many submissives are quite powerful people outside their D/s relationship: lawyers, managers, business people, police, soldiers and so on. For some, being a submissive in the home, or merely in the bedroom, is a way of escaping from the normal pressures of being in charge.

D/s isn't about Kinky Sex. Sure, D/s couples often have kinky sex. Then again, vanilla couples often do too. What defines a D/s relationship has very little to do with the methods used, so much as the power exchange. A simple 'no' when a sub asks if they can have a drink can have as much 'power' as getting them to kneel.
Entering a D/s Relationship. When two people are about to enter a D/s relationship, the first step is negotiation. This is a period where no power exchange occurs, but is a discussion where the parameters of the relationship are discussed. How much power will the Dominant have over the submissive? What hard limits do both have; that is, to what activities are one or both opposed? What will be the safewords? What will be the period of the relationship?

Often after negotiation a contract is drawn up, setting out all of the parameters discussed. In this way there can be no misunderstandings.

c. Erotic SF/F, BDSM and aliens

Many Erotic SF and Fantasy writers model their alien and futuristic human cultures using the BDSM culture. A few of the very popular stories walk a fine line between an abusive type of relationship and the classic Stockholm Syndrome psychological response.

You can incorporate elements of BDSM into your alien cultures but make sure you know what you’re doing and make sure you have a specific list of behavior/cultural rules set up for the culture when you do this. Don’t just do it on a random fashion and always show consent for the relationship. Know what rules you have and know how each rule effects the way the aliens interact with each other and with humans.

Because I worked for twenty-nine and a half years as a bilingual social worker in my day job and have had numerous cases that involved abused women, abused men and abused children, I’m very aware of this fine line. I also have a tendency to avoid the more extreme versions of BDSM culture and will often use only the mildest forms of sex play from this culture in my writing because of my past work and personal experiences.

When I created Rulagh’s alien culture for The Huntress, I modeled his entire culture on a basic pack family system where dominant and submissive members cooperate within their pack and fight all outsiders. Their corporate/business interactions are also very dependent on dominant and submissive behavior patterns with each corporation/business looking at the other corporations/businesses as non-pack members and enemies to be watched.

Sonia and Rulagh staged ‘scenes’ of dominance and submission during their sex games with one another and forged deeper bonds of love and commitment to each other with these scenes.

I combined the fact that reptilian sexual arousal is scent-based and the fact that many animal species use scent to physically ‘mark’ their territories. So, because Rulagh’s species has two penises, I decided that the second penis was used to ‘scent mark’ their women. Rulagh’s unique pheromone scent from his penis happens to be cinnamon.

Sonia and Rulagh had to fight the other alien members of the team sent to Earth on their animal control mission in order to establish their dominance and leadership of the team.

5. Cross Species References/Standards of Beauty and Sexual Attractiveness:

When you look at a horse galloping across a field, you recognize and admire the beauty of its body even though this is a different species. The same recognition and admiration occurs when you see images of wolves, bears, seals, dogs, cats and many other animal species.

You’re not sexually aroused because you’re aware that they’re animals and that their intellectual capacity and ability to communicate with you and interact with you is not on the same level as another human being. However, this doesn’t stop you from forming bonds of love. I love my furbabies, my dogs and cats. And I’m sure that those of you who are in this group who have pets, all love your pets dearly and you know your pets love you and return your affection with licks and touches and body contact and they enjoy it when you touch them and pet them also.

The key element here is intelligence. I went over that element in detail during my first lecture when I went over the definition of bestiality. Regardless of shape and form, if the intelligence is present and the intelligence level is equal to or higher than human intelligence, there is no bestiality. Without intelligence then there is no way to form emotional and sexual relationships.

Many SF writers when they write an alien often show the aliens looking at humans with disgust and horror because humans look so different from them and humans don’t meet their standards of alien beauty. Perhaps, but the ability to recognize the beauty of another species is already there despite the physical differences. I believe that aliens have this ability also and will be able to recognize the attractiveness of the human form despite the differences the same way humans can recognize the beauty of a horse, wolf or panther.

On the other hand, just as there will be aliens who can recognize and admire the physical beauty of other species, there will always members of the alien species who loathe anyone or anything different from their normal expectations of beauty and sexual attractiveness.

The traditional view of sexual arousal focuses on the physical changes associated with the genitals. Sexologists have broken the sexual response cycle into four phases, excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. The amount of time a person spends in each phase, and even the order in which they experience them may vary.

At birth we respond to sexual stimulation based solely on instinct. If we feel safe and our basic material needs are met, we will most likely respond to sexual stimuli very easily. This is perhaps why the simple acts of nursing and exposing the genitals to air results in sexual arousal in infants. At birth our bodies are very sensitive to external stimuli, and our minds have not learned "appropriate" sexual response yet. As a result, at birth, orgasm is probably controlled more by physical stimuli than mental thought processes. Orgasm is a simple physical reflex response at birth.

By the time puberty rolls around we have already been taught "appropriate" sexual response.

Sexual arousal and orgasm is a complex process involving the entire person, mind and body. The human mind receives in sexual stimuli from the body, processes the stimuli, and based on past learning and experience this causes a physical response. The brain may start the sexual arousal process in response to thought (sexual fantasy), visual stimuli (seeing a partner nude), audible stimulation (hearing a partner's voice), olfactory stimuli (the smell of a partner's body), and taste (the taste of a partner's body).

The mind and body while able to experience sexual arousal separately cannot experience orgasm separately. Orgasm requires both the mind and body to work together. Mental thought alone can trigger orgasm, but the actual sensations are physical reactions.

Then there is what I call the feedback loop in sexual arousal. Knowing and seeing that your lover is aroused makes you feel sexy. The same thing applies to your lover, when your lover knows that you’re aroused that increases your lover’s arousal. Back and forth this feedback loop continues throughout the love scene until both (or more) participants orgasm.

Many SF writers use this ‘feedback loop’ to describe two or more persons linked mentally while they’re making love and knowing and feeling the other lover/lovers reactions and arousal stimulates all to a mutually satisfying and mind-blowing orgasm.

What if your aliens have a special sensory and telepathic ability that occurs whenever they have physical contact with others? You could write very intense and involved love scenes using this concept.

Keep the complex dance of sensual thoughts, actions and reactions in mind when you consider how to show an alien’s POV (point of view) and their cultural matrix for interpersonal relationships. Try to apply this information on general psychological reactions to different situations and the basic information about sexual arousal when you create your aliens. The possibilities are endless.

Thank you.

Barbara K.


  1. Wow, what a complex and thought-provoking post. The cautions about not crossing the line into abuse are particularly interesting. That's a delicate balance esp. important to maintain in, for example, vampire fiction, where we usually postulate that the vampire can control the human partner's mind and emotions if desired. RE abduction, the recent paranormal romance anthology DEMON'S DELIGHT contains a story by Emma Holly, "Demon's Angel," set on her alternate Victorian Earth in which "demons" -- actually an alien species called Yama -- inhabit the north polar region. A female Yama scientist abducts a human man to use as a subject in experiments that will save or doom not only her career but her status in her society. Holly convincingly portrays the progress from suspicion to trust between the two characters.

  2. That's correct, Margaret. There is a delicate balancing act/tightrope to walk if you're writing BDSM and Dominant/submissive sexuality.

    Because I worked for 29 & 1/2 years in my day job as a bilingual social worker and was involved with a number of domestic violence cases, I'm very aware of these issues whenever I write my characters.