Literature’s dark tales offer warnings and lessons we can learn from.
The accelerating pace of technological change has encouraged extreme predictions about the future. While some futurists are optimistic, believing that we stand at the dawn of a bright new era, others warn that emerging technologies could have catastrophic consequences.
This dichotomy is also apparent in their predictions about the future of sex. Will virtual reality open up new sexual frontiers, as futurist Ray Kurzweil anticipates? Or will it only alienate us from our bodies? Will sex robots have therapeutic uses, as bioethicist Arthur Caplan hopes? Or will they only reinforce social inequalities, confirming the criticisms of robot ethicist Kathleen Richardson?
We also see these ideas explored in speculative and science fiction. As well as expressing our hopes and fears, fictional utopias and dystopias can teach us what we most value about sex and relationships. This is particularly true of dystopian literature, which is more common than its utopian counterpart. Indeed, many books that at first appear utopian turn out to be dystopian—the appearance of paradise revealed to subsume a dark underside.
Dystopias in literature
One of the most archetypal examples is the novel We (1921) by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. It imagines a world in which a totalitarian state controls the lives of its citizens in accordance with strict industrial and rationalist principles. The protagonist, D-503, has a lover, 0-93, assigned by the state to both him and his best friend. Due to her diminutive stature, 0-93 isn’t permitted to have children.
In such a world, sex is impersonal and regulated. The state has taken over both sexual and reproductive rights. Only when D-503 meets the rebellious and seductive I-330 does he begin to contemplate rebellion himself.
Zamyatin’s novel inspired George Orwell to pen Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), one of the best known dystopian novels. It likewise portrays a fascist industrial state committed to mass surveillance and the suppression of individualism. Winston Smith writes propaganda at the ironically named Ministry of Truth until another rebellious heroine with unorthodox views of love and sex, Julia, confess her feelings for him.
Their relationship is illicit because the Party, headed by Big Brother, teaches that sex exists only for procreation. The state seeks to depersonalise sex, to strip it of both romance and eroticism, lest it divide loyalties. As Thought Police agent O’Brien explains to Winston, the government wants to eradicate desire entirely, to “abolish the orgasm.”
In some ways, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) explores opposite ideas. Where Orwell’s dystopia is drab and ascetic, Huxley’s is colourful and hedonistic, with human happiness assured thanks to the fictional drug soma—a prison of pleasure rather than pain.
Both books, however, feature societies based on the rationalization of industrial and social relations. In the World State, people are engineered artificially, which effectively divorces sex from reproduction. Promiscuity is encouraged for pleasure. However, as in Orwell’s masterpiece, this also leads to the inhibition of meaningful romantic relationships.
In showing us a nightmare world in which the state exerts control over sex and reproduction, Zamyatin and Orwell emphasize the value of individual choice in both matters. In all three dystopias, the authors express their fear that sexual relationships could become divorced from meaning, intimacy, and eroticism.
Some of these themes are also explored and expanded upon in film. In the nightmare world of George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), emotions, sex, and individualism are outlawed. The population is kept compliant using mandatory drugs, and human reproduction is artificial.
Again, humans have become cogs in a massive industrial machine, which they exist only to serve. Sex threatens the state because of its potential to foment intimate individual connections.
Where THX 1138 recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four, another movie from the same period, Logan’s Run (1976) draws heavily on Huxley’s Brave New World. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, it presents a post-apocalyptic world in which drug use and casual sex are encouraged, distracting the populace from the fact that all residents are executed upon turning 30.
Sex is readily available in an orgiastic “Love Shop” (in the book, an exhibitionist brothel made of all glass), and using a home device called the Circuit, which teleports people directly into one’s living room (basically an extreme version of Tinder).
The movie warns against the excesses of hedonism, which can also render sexual relationships trivial and unrewarding—a performance, or a relationship based only on objectification.
Both utopias and dystopias have also played important roles in feminist fiction, enabling feminists to imagine new, better worlds, and describe the imperfections of this one.
For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) follows three male explorers who discover a land populated only by women; Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) features both a world where men have died out, and a world in which men and women wage a literal war of the sexes.
In Woman on the Edge (1976), Marge Piercy juxtaposes utopian and dystopian societies by imagining a possible future in which artificial wombs have freed women from the burden of reproduction, and another in which women are only valued for their appearance.
Perhaps the best-known work of feminist speculative fiction is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), now also a television series. The novel has several Orwellian aspects: a repressive, totalitarian state; secret police; and sex devoid of romance and pleasure, a duty performed for reproduction.
However, Atwood’s dystopia is also emphatically built around extreme patriarchal institutions, which its adherents justify using a literal reading of the Bible. In the Republic of Gilead, wives are the property of their husbands, and the few fertile women remaining in the world are “handmaid’s,” sexual slaves used for breeding purposes. They lose even their own names, becoming the possessions of their “commanders.”
In this environment, sex is politicized, stigmatized, and tightly controlled. Handmaids have no sexual or reproductive rights, and the act itself becomes clinical and traumatic.
What all of these dystopias express is the importance of choice, independence, and respect. Only in a nightmare world are these taken away.
What we can learn
In dystopian fiction, we learn about our deepest fears for the future, and in turn what we value about our world. What we most fear to lose is often what we most cherish.
In the novels and films here, four main themes are apparent with regard to sex. We fear the prospects of not having choice, human connection, pleasure, and equality when it comes to sexual relationships. In some dystopias, one or more of these supplants the others; in others, all are destroyed, often sublimated to a higher power.
If we grant that these fears are valid, we can see that in order to build a positive future, we need to preserve and balance these qualities. Sex is a fundamental part of human nature and relationships. To have a worthwhile future at all, we would be wise to heed the warnings from dystopian literature, and strive to hold close and fight for what we most value about the world today.
Image sources: Sstrobeck23, Chris Protopapas, Tom Blunt