Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kemmering and Heterosexuality

When reading The Left Hand of Darkness I was very interested by kemmering, and it led me to some questions about how sexuality and sexual desire are represented in Gethen. I was actual very relieved when LeGuin addressed (in a bracketed addition to her original article) the fact that the world she draws is entirely heteronormative. She says, "I quite unnecessarily locked the Gethenians into heterosexuality. It is a naively pragmatic view of sex that insists that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex! In any kemmering house homosexual practice would, of course, be possible and acceptable and welcomed -- but I never thought to explore this option; and the omission, alas, implies that sexuality is heterosexuality. I regret this very much." Indeed, the way that she constructs the kemmering process in the novel explicitly denies the existence of any kind of sexuality other than heterosexuality on a physiological level which was a bit upsetting for me. Though we are obviously not supposed to identify the Gethenians as 'human' it seemed to me that their sexual process was far too similar to the human sexual process to deny the parallels -- calling on descriptive phrases such as 'hormonal secretion' 'genitals engorge' immediately draws on human biology. Obviously, a major human debate about sexuality and gender deals with whether sexual orientation is a genetic fact or if it is a lifestyle choice. She describes the kemmering or sexing process: "hormonal secretion is further stimulated...until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly...they do not know whether they will be male or female, and have no choice in the matter." First, with LeGuin's explicit description of the biological process of 'sexing' the Gethenians, it seems that she is saying that yes, sexuality is genetic and further, the only result of the genetic process is heterosexuality, and anything outside of that is a lifestyle choice. This is only reinforced by the weighty 'either or' statement in this excerpt -- either male or female, and nothing in between. Sexual orientation aside, in constructing this 'either or' scenario, LeGuin denies the existence of transgendered individuals, hermaphrodites, etc.
I don't want to be too negative here, because she of course did say that the heteronormativity was a mistake, and that she regrets that her words locked the Gethenians into an unequivocally heterosexual lifestyle. So, I will end with a few possible questions that might be worth discussing in class tomorrow if anyone has an interest. First, what did anyone else make of the absence of sexuality outside heterosexuality? How do you think an inclusion of more sexual categories would impact the overall narrative?


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