Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gethen & Gloria: Differences in Single Sex Societies

Tags: Single-sex vs. third sex, fantasies/sexual desire, gender, sexuality

 “When you meet a Gethenian, you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectation of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex.” (Le Guin 94)


Last week in class, we discussed Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and the concept of “being female” in a world where there was once, but is no longer, a male gender. Lorimer thinks the inhabitants of the future he encounters might call themselves “Women’s World”, “Liberation”, or “Amazonia” – names that are based around the absence of men, or emphasize women’s “freedom” from them. But in fact, the women call themselves they call themselves “human beings… humanity, mankind…the human race” (Tiptree 216). 

In light of this, we discussed in class the question of what it means to be female in the absence of the male, and how the concept may have changed – one example given as a sign of a fundamental difference between the women of the future and the women of today was the attitude toward fantasies. In response to Lorimer’s comment that “everybody” has aggressive fantasies, Connie replies, “’But nobody does… I mean, [have]the fantasies’” (Tiptree 215). These women are thus somehow very different from the women of today, who do have such fantasies as well – there is a fundamental difference, then, between the women of the future and those of today.

It is to this difference that Ursula LeGuin seems to speak when the Investigator of her novel writes, “What is very hard for us to understand is that four-fifths of the time, these people are not sexually motivated at all…The society of Gethen, in its daily functioning and its continuity, is without sex” (Le Guin 93). Although written by a woman of Chiffewar (and therefore still marked as being potentially very different from the words of a woman of Earth today), these words are still framed as thoughts  about Gethen from the point of view of a person whom the reader can find more relatable than the people of Gethen themselves – if only because she shares the characteristic of coming from a bisexual society. Such a woman finds the very concept of a world without the constant potential presence of sexual desire or the fantasies of sex to be difficult to understand, suggesting that both Tiptree and LeGuin seem to share a belief that in a society where only one sex is present, a constant desire for sex, or fantasies of sex,* disappear.

Of course, there appears to be a biologically inherent reason for this in Gethen that does not seem to be present on Gloria – in somer they simply have no sex drive, unlike the women of Gloria, who undergo no such biological change. The question that arises from this is – what are the differences that arise in these two types of single-sex societies: (1) a society where everyone is a gender that has historically been defined in relation to another gender that is no longer in existence, and has not been for so long that the people no longer really remember it, but still use the language that was defined by this difference in genders; and (2) A society where everyone is a single sex** that is not neutral, as Ong Tot Oppong comments (Le Guin 94), but has in it the potential of two other sexes that seem to exist to complement and be opposite to each other  (from a traditional point of view), and where the language itself reflects these differences.  Why might the concept of fantasy disappear from both such societies? Is there a difference? I’d imagine there is, yes, but more importantly, what is the nature of that difference?

After all, the advice that Ong Tot Oppong gives to her reader (at the beginning of this post) seems like it might have stood the crew of the Sunbird very well (you know, if they hadn’t been…well, drugged…)

My notes are after the jump -

*Or at the very least, violent fantasies about sex, if you want to understand Connie as saying  that nobody has “aggressive” fantasies about sex, but not actually saying anything about whether they do have fantasies in general. However, I would argue that Connie’s very general reply – “I mean, the fantasies” – seems to imply all types of fantasies.

**And I say that Gethen has only one sex –  despite the commentary that during kemmer, each person seems to take on traditional gender roles according to their kemmer state – based on a logic that is very similar to that which Ong Tot Oppong, the Investigator from Chiffewar, gives with regard to childbearing and society – when everyone has the potential to be either one gender or the other gender at any given time, and therefore, to have the experiences of both roles, there is, for the purposes of this discussion, only one sex (although I will say this is not really valid in regard to the points others have raised).


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