Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heterosexuals and Virgins

I've recently read two books by an author named Hanne Blank, STRAIGHT: THE SURPRISINGLY SHORT HISTORY OF HETEROSEXUALITY and an earlier work, VIRGIN: THE UNTOUCHED STORY, which offer lots of fascinating information and provocative questions for writers working on alien romance. These books defamiliarize and call into question two concepts that most of us probably take for granted as obvious. STRAIGHT highlights the fact that the term "heterosexual" was invented in the nineteenth century simultaneously with "homosexual." Human beings had been erotically involved with people of the same or opposite sex from time immemorial, but the idea of "sexual orientation" as a fixed "identity" didn't exist. Ironically, the invention of the paired terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual" was meant to conceptualize both as equally legitimate rather than privileging opposite-sex relationships as the default "normal." VIRGIN surveys social, medical, biological, and religious beliefs and customs surrounding virginity throughout history. Hanne Blank discusses how unstable the nature of "virginity" is. If a virgin means someone who has never engaged in sexual activity, how do we define sexual activity? If it means a woman with an intact hymen, that definition overlooks the fact that many women don't approach their first sexual encounters with intact hymens, and some don't bleed or suffer pain at the "loss" of virginity. (One interesting element of medical history documented in this book that I wasn't aware of—the hymen wasn't even known to exist until a few hundred years ago.)

The common factor between these two books is that both heterosexuality and virginity are treated as concepts, not concrete biological facts.

If we eventually meet aliens with different reproductive biology from ours, these concepts might not apply to them. Sexual orientation would mean nothing to hermaphrodites or to the inhabitants of the planet in Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, who are neuter most of the time but randomly become either male or female once a month. Species with more than two sexes, if they have sexual taboos at all, would focus on different behavior patterns from those we label heterosexual or homosexual. Virginity would mean nothing to a parthenogenetic species whose members are born pregnant like Tribbles (that's not impossible; some aphids reproduce this way). Nor would virginity have much application to an intelligent bee-like race, made up mostly of sterile workers and one queen who devotes her entire life to producing offspring. As for species that reproduce by budding or fission, of course they wouldn't fit into our categories of sexuality at all.

The protagonist of Theodore Sturgeon's novel VENUS PLUS X is transported to a future utopia. He admires this civilization's peace, prosperity, and advanced technology. After the initial shock, he accepts the fact that the people are hermaphrodites. Indeed, the absence of gender roles and sexual tension seems vital to the tranquility of their society. Near the end of the book, though, he faces the revelation that members of this mutant human race aren't born hermaphroditic. Surgical and chemical treatments in infancy transform them into that condition. Instantly the protagonist's reaction shifts from admiration to sickened horror. The discovery that their reproductive biology is "artificial" rather than "natural" makes all the difference. Why? After all, this procedure has made their utopian society possible. Like most of Sturgeon's work, a deeply thought-provoking story.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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