Flexuality: The Elasticity of Sexual Norms in the Works of Octavia E. Butler

dawnAmongst the many rich and complex topics tackled by legendary science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler, few are more perennial than sexuality and the inherent moral questions it raises.  Butler herself appears to take no moral position, simply presenting behaviors and situations that might be considered objectionable by some, and leaving it for them – be they readers or her characters – to discuss the implications.

This essay will present an examination of how Butler challenges sexual norms, from the incest taboo in the Patternist series, to interspecies sex in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, to pedophilia and rape in Fledgling, and arguably all three of these in her short story Bloodchild. These stories show us how norms, particularly sexual ones, are flexible between worlds, cultures, and especially individuals.  Her challenge to human moral hegemony is implicit, but there is also an acute self-awareness throughout her work that suggests she wanted to inspire discussion.

Interspecies Sex, Heteronormativity, and Ménage à trois

The Xenogenesis trilogy presents a world in which humanity has destroyed the Earth in an unnamed conflict, the means unknown except that they are absolute.  However, due to the efforts of a benevolent alien species known as the Oankali, the remnants of humankind are salvaged, and the planet is entered into a slow restorative process.

The Oankali’s benevolence, however, is not without conditions.  In order to rein in what they consider to be the cause of humanity’s destruction – that is, a biological predisposition towards hierarchical behavior – they use their biotechnology to sterilize us.  As it turns out, the purpose of sterilization is not to prevent procreation, but to see it continue along the paths set by the Oankali, which involves their direct participation.  In 1987’s Dawn, the first book of the series, Butler broaches the subject of interspecies sexual relations and crossbreeding.

The Oankali are masters of DNA manipulation, to the point that they can retain a complete memory of a being’s entire genetic makeup for use in duplicating them.  The Oankali nature as well as their culture – including gender and sex roles – all revolve around assimilating the genetic traits of other species in order to strengthen their own gene pool.  For the Oankali this is more practical than moral – a matter of evolution, even survival, for their species.

The Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi, this third being neither more male nor female, and in fact completely different from both.  The ooloi are essential to Oankali reproduction, which involves all three sexes, and is otherwise impossible.  The ooloi role is to extract gametes from both male and female and to induce fertilization within its own body before replacing the new zygote into the female and chemically stimulating the womb for bringing the new life to term.

In her essay Eugenicism: The Construction of Queer Space in the Works of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, Freda Fair discusses how Butler uses Oankali social constructions to flex rigid sexual and gender norms.

[Gender roles] are constructed in order to extend along a prescribed sociological trajectory that rests on the existence of a biologically attainable end. Thus, whether it is about pregnancy, menstrual cycles, and erections all have a locale inside of the normative sociological gender-sex trajectory of male and female… [Fair p. 78]

Fair acknowledges the disruption of the gender binary for the mere existence of a third, but also points out that how and where Oankali and humans enter “male” and “female” spaces is dictated by the ooloi.  After all, it is the ooloi who receive sperm from the male, which is traditionally a female role, but perhaps with greater agency in that the sperm is actually withdrawn rather than deposited.  The ooloi also withdraws the egg from the female, a process for which there is no analog in human sexuality, and renders male and female identical with respect to their “passive” role in the reproductive process.

Because sharing genes between species is endemic to Oankali evolution, the ooloi are capable of facilitating interspecies reproduction as well.  The challenge to sexual norms is first introduced in Dawn, when main character Lilith Iyapo participates in sexual intercourse with Joseph, a human man, and Nikanj, an Oankali ooloi.

Nikanj freed one sensory arm from Joseph’s waist and extended it toward her.  She stayed where she was for a moment longer, proving to herself that she was still in control of her behavior.  Then she tore off her jacket and seized the ugly, ugly elephant’s trunk of an organ, letting it coil around her as she climbed onto the bed.  She sandwiched Nikanj’s body between her own and Joseph’s, placing it for the first time in the ooloi position between two humans.  For an instant, this frightened her.  This was the way she might someday be made pregnant with an other-than-human child. [Dawn, p. 161]

The above circumstance clashes with our social norms on three distinct levels, each with a different degree of severity.  The mildest conflict is the matter of sexual relations between three people.  Threesomes, or ménage-a-trois if taken to the degree of full companionship, has found acceptance at various times up to the modern era, though usually in an “unofficial” capacity.

In other words, what people do in their private lives may differ greatly from their own account of their activities in the public sphere.  Either way, three-way sexual relationships at the very least have often existed in opposition to the “romantic ideal” of sex as an expression of love between two people.  It especially conflicts with institutional marriage, which has often throughout history and across cultural boundaries been a social imperative.

Within the context of science fiction, perhaps only the most conservative of readers would take issue with three-way sex in Dawn, were it between two men and a woman, or two women and a man.  Three men or three women might be viewed with greater disdain for it then also being gay sex.  Which brings us to the second clash with normativity.

If gay sex is so objectionable, even more so than a threesome, how are we to accept Butler’s concept of a third sex?  Not male, not female, but…well, it would seem our rigid adherence to binaries leaves us without a term to apply to the situation.  This is demonstrated through Lilith’s interaction with Jdhaya, the first Oankali she meets:

Lilith glanced at the humanoid body, wondering how humanlike it really was. “I don’t mean any offense,” she said, “but are you male or female?”

“It’s wrong to assume I must be a sex you’re familiar with,” it said, “but as it happens, I’m male.”

Good. “It” could become “he” again. Less awkward. [Dawn, p. 13]

Humans are most often viewed with respect to a sex and gender binary: males and masculinity versus females and femininity.  Yet there are countless individuals of varying circumstance who find this polarity to be restrictive – socially, psychically, and even physically.  Many people have, as a result of rational reflection, or intimate feeling, concluded that gender is fluid, and as such they may be plotted anywhere along the continuum between male and female.  A person may be biologically female, but identify as male, or more commonly as a gender that exists between the two poles.

Those who fall under the umbrella term transgendered experience a distinct disparity between their own sense of their gender and their biological, i.e. sexual, manifestations.  That is to say, those who are born biologically male or female strongly identify – physically and psychologically – as the other, or as neither, again existing somewhere along the continuum between the two.  To be clear, this is not some mere schism between the biological and the psychological, but the very reality of the transgendered individual, one that happens to exist apart from those hedged in by the binary.

As with all things that conflict with social norms, the struggle of these individuals to be recognized for the sex and/or gender with which they personally identify, often makes them the target of reprehensible discrimination and abuse.  Although recent years have seen more publicity and sincere dialogue around issues of sex and gender, these circumstances and how those they affect have been treated is hardly new.  For that we can assume that even were the circumstances of Dawn to have come about in the 1800s, or were they to occur tomorrow, our reaction as a society would probably be much the same.

That being the case, it is no wonder at all that the humans of Dawn have a sort of knee-jerk rejection of the Oankali, and especially the ooloi, for their conceptually foreign gender roles and truly “alien” third sex.  Were we as a society able to even accept those amongst our own species who do not fit within rigid sexual and gender “norms”, we might be more amenable to the ways of the Oankali.  Alas, there is one more major point of contention between humans and Oankali in matters of sex and sexuality.

The interspecies sex taboo in human society gets smacked with the label “bestiality”, which contains all manner of assumptions about the differences between “man” and “beast”, and the presumed eminence of humankind above all other creatures.  It is, by this pretext, beneath us to engage in sexual activity with other animals.

However, if we examine it objectively, separating out the socially conditioned revulsion attached to it, the real moral quandary inherent to sex with animals is that it may amount to rape.  The real separation between humans and animals is a communication barrier.  We cannot know their minds, and as such we cannot presume or even ascertain consent.  Were this communication barrier to be removed, and with it perhaps the idea of human superiority, I imagine that the stigma towards bestiality would have to be reexamined.

The issue of interspecies sex as a matter of superiority also evokes a terrible historical precedent: the morality and legality of so-called miscegenation, a thoroughly racist concept defined as marriage, sex, or procreation between different racial groups.  The imperative against interracial relations was perhaps most pronounced amongst Europeans, and indeed the term miscegenation most often applied specifically to relations between Europeans and other groups, not so much between two non-European races, or between two European ethnicities.

The reasons for this are clear.  The social and pseudo-scientific consensus in Europe and its colonies around the world was that races demarcated the boundaries between species, or perhaps “sub-species”, there being three: Negroid (African), Mongoloid (Asian), and Caucasoid (European).

In some cases, miscegenation was not merely a social taboo, but seen as the equivalent to bestiality for the fact that other races – especially peoples of Africa – were regarded as less than human.  It was not enough for non-Europeans to be seen as “other”, but implicit in that otherness was inferiority.  Indeed, it was for their less-than-humanity that the enslavement of African people could even be justified.  It was within that institution that human beings could be treated exactly like animals: used for labor, selectively bred for favorable outcomes, traded and sold as nothing more than property.  So of course it would be prohibited for a “real” human being – i.e. a European – to lay with a mere animal.

Yet, for all the stigmas against miscegenation, slave-owners mating with the enslaved – often rape – was a common practice.  There is an unconscionable paradox in how slavers could have sex with enslaved peoples in spite of their being viewed as animals, while actual bestiality remained forbidden.

This is not a defense of the practice of having sex with animals, but rather a challenge to an obvious hypocrisy.  If the enslaved were mere animals, then by their own rules, the European slavers should not have taken to having sex with them.  Of course the truth is that they were human beings, but social acknowledgment of that fact would cancel out the “less-than-human” justification for slavery.

More relevant to my analysis, however, is the idea of superiority and inferiority between species mentioned earlier.  This human tendency towards hierarchical behavior – the Oankali consider it indivisible from human nature – is what lies at the heart of such despicable concepts as miscegenation, and perhaps why, instinctively, the humans in the Xenogenesis trilogy reject sexual integration with the Oankali.

It must create even more confusion for the humans who reject the Oankali “other” in being forced to acknowledge the latter’s superiority, demonstrated through their absolute control over the human population.  In this way, if interspecies sex is to be viewed as bestiality, then the Oankali become analogous to the human, while the humans, whose ability to mate is strictly controlled by the Oankali, and procreation only possible through the ooloi due to sterilization, have been relegated to the role of beast.

Dawn presents a plurality of views and levels of acceptance of the Oankali and their integration of humans into their way of life.  In a way the ooloi and the sexual conundrum they present for humanity serve as an open question – about normativity, about propriety, and even morality.  There is an implicit challenge to human society, to examine and re-examine our understanding of sexuality, that we might find it more flexible than our social norms dictate.

Incest, Inbreeding, and Eugenics

mind_of_my_mindThe incest taboo is examined in the Patternist series, in which a god-like body-swapping telepath by the name of Doro aims to produce a superior race through thousands of years of eugenics.  This necessarily involves a lot of inbreeding, with Doro himself often mating with his own children.  The obvious stigma towards parent-child breeding becomes a bit muddier when we consider Doro is never in the physical body of the parent when mating with one of his children.  In Mind of My Mind, main character Mary – a daughter of Doro – reflects on her feelings towards him:

I remember once when I was about six years old I was sitting on his lap frowning up into his latest face.

“Shouldn’t I call you ‘Daddy’?” I asked.

Until then, I had called him Doro, like everybody else did.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said.  And he smiled.  “Later you won’t like it.” [Mind of My Mind, p. 17]

As Doro anticipated, he and Mary do engage in a regular sexual relationship, one that is only possible where Mary does not regard him as her father. Indeed he is only ever “Doro”, not “daddy”, and any thoughts to the contrary are lost along with the biological body Doro inhabited in order to conceive her.  Still this raises the question of whether or not parentage is merely a biological reality, a social construct, or a combination of the two.  More importantly, is the problem implied by the incest taboo a physical one or a moral one?

The incest taboo seems to exist in one form or another in cultures throughout the world, and therefore its origins are near impossible to determine. Whereas many taboos originate from practical concerns – for example the taboo of eating pork stemming from pigs carrying disease – the incest taboo cannot be so easily pinned down.  Practical concerns about incest, to do with genetic disorders flourishing within small or isolated populations, were certainly not on the minds of people in the time of Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex may be viewed as a critique of incest to the point of suggesting that it ultimately brings one’s doom:

Blind, who once had seeing eyes,
Beggared, who once had riches, in strange guise,
His staff groping before him, he shall crawl
O’er unknown earth, and voices round him call:
“Behold the brother-father of his own
Children, the seed, the sower and the sown,
Shame to his mother’s blood, and to his sire
Son, murderer, incest-worker.”
[Oedipus Rex, vv. 456-478]

In the case of Oedipus, there were no physical consequences to his having sexual relations with his mother, and there was no moral quandary so long as neither knew the other’s true identity.  Sophocles, however, transmitting the norms of Greek culture at the time, made Oedipus’s incest a teleological problem, one that aside from any social or physical consequences invokes punishment from fate.

The situation between Mary and Doro in Mind of My Mind is a sort of gender reversal of the Oedipus story, what has sometimes been called an Electra complex.  Generally, this complex is used to describe daughters with an affinity to men who resemble their fathers.  But for Mary, perhaps because of the different socialization she receives as a part of Doro’s collective, it seems perfectly natural for her to have sexual relations with him.  Even so she still must separate his identity as “Doro” from his identity as “daddy”.

The fact that he has different bodies is interesting because it makes us examine the multiple dimensions of sex: physical and emotional.  On the one hand, the man she sleeps with does not have the same physical body as the one that gave birth to her, but he does have the same mind.

The practical concerns of incest around inheritable diseases or conditions are a non-issue given that procreation is not the purpose in this case.  The moral concerns, once removed from the practical, become completely subjective and vary between individuals, groups and societies.  They do not apply at all within Doro’s breeding collective.

On the contrary, the idea of inbreeding for the sake of preserving racial or sanguineous “purity” has been common for centuries, such as the “cousin marriages” of European royal families.  Even the degree to which inbreeding or intermarriage is considered acceptable varies from place to place and culture to culture.  In ancient China, for instance, patrilineal intermarriage was expressly forbidden, while matrilineal was permitted.  Neither would be acceptable in ancient Rome or contemporary Western society, such as the United States where incest is legally prohibited.

Apart from social stigmas, looking to incest as a vehicle for the propagation of genetic disorders retains some practical legitimacy for human beings.  The opposite is true for Doro and his brood, as he mates relatives in order to transmit favorable traits into future generations.  While he is no geneticist, his immortality grants him the luxury of an eternity of trial and error.

The implicit question Butler raises here is whether or not incest could be acceptable once removed from any practical concerns, such as the propagation of negative genetic traits.  And if we are to look at sex strictly as a means of procreation, then where inbreeding allows for the evolution of the species, would it not only be acceptable, but perhaps favorable?

Pedophilia, Rape, and the Age of Consent

fledglingFledgling, Octavia Butler’s final novel, addresses the issue of pedophilia, or at least perceptions of it and the moral questions it raises.  The story revolves around the relationship between humanity and the Ina, a humanoid species that evolved in parallel, and which forms the basis for the many vampire legends.  Like vampires, the Ina have a master-slave relationship with humankind.  They all live together in communes, with the humans providing food (by way of their blood), sex, and companionship. The arrangement is ostensibly mutual, except that the humans are enthralled to the Ina by way of some chemical influence exerted through the exchange of bodily fluids.

Main character Shori is a fifty-three year old Ina, who in spite of her age, retains the appearance of a prepubescent girl.  One of her thralls a man in his twenties named Wright Hamlin, who is torn between his supernatural attraction to Shori and the sense that he is having sexual relations with a child.

I looked at him and saw that he was looking intently at me.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” he said.  “It feels good.  Which is weird.  How do you do that?”

“I don’t know,” I told him. “You taste good.”

“Do I?” He lifted me, squeezed past the division between the seats to my side of the car, and put me on his lap.

“Let me bite you again,” I whispered.

He smiled. “If I do, what will you let me do?” [Fledgling, p. 11]

At this point in the novel, Wright has yet to become aware of Shori’s true age, but there is a subtle sense of awareness in how he lifts her and places her on his lap, as he might handle the child she appears to be.  Yet only moments later he is asking sexually suggestive questions.  If his awareness was in doubt, it becomes unambiguous a few paragraphs later:

“You’re way too young. Jailbait. Super jailbait.”[p. 12]

The truth, of course, is that Shori is much older than Wright, and that under normal circumstances their relationship might be looked upon with disdain of a different sort, though ultimately with no real moral or legal implications.

Sexual relationships between adults and children are stigmatized for the assumption that children are not emotionally mature enough to consent.  The age of consent is a tricky one, however, as emotional maturity varies by individuals more than by age.  And indeed, the legal age of consent also varies from country to country – as low as twelve and as high as eighteen.

However, the argument can be and has been made that maturity is a consequence of biology, and that it corresponds to a certain level of brain development.  Recent studies show that the brain does not stop “maturing”, and with that a person doesn’t make truly “adult” decisions, until reaching their mid-20s:

Previous research has shown that most teens’ gray-matter structures – including those involved in decision-making – are less advanced than those of adults, as you would expect, until now no one had studied teens’ white matter, which works along with gray matter to produce decisions. The key part of white matter is called myelin, a fatty substance that coats the individual neural strands, or axons, that make up white matter. Myelination of axons begins during childhood and is completed at the end of adolescence, around the mid-20s. [Cloud 2009]

For this reason, if we tie the age of consent to biological development, it might be increased significantly.  I anticipate that such a change in the law would not be well received anywhere in the world.

If the issue is consent, and if sex without consent is rape, then we must also examine the relationship between Shori and Wright in a different way.  Shori’s supernatural nature has a seductive effect on Wright, and if we assume he has some revulsion to having sex with a child under normal circumstances, it can even be said that he is being compelled by Shori to act against his will.  The question of consent, then, has less to do with adults and children, than with Ina dominion over humans.  Is the sexual influence Shori exerts over Wright, then, tantamount to rape?

The Ina exert influence over their human companions – called symbionts – through biochemical exchange.  As Shori’s father explains to her:

We addict them to a substance in our saliva – in our venom – that floods our mouths when we feed. I’ve heard it called a powerful hypnotic drug. It makes them highly suggestible and deeply attached to the source of the substance. They come to need it. [Fledgling, p. 79]

This exchange not only enthralls the human symbionts to the Ina, but makes them physically dependent.  Ordinarily Ina outlive humans by centuries, but where one perishes prematurely, their symbionts must quickly be bonded with another, or risk dying themselves soon afterwards, from withdrawal.

While this relationship between Ina and human sounds rather one-way and predatory, the word “symbiont” suggests what it really is – a mutualistic symbiosis in which both gain considerable benefits. The Ina are able to feed, and their venom nearly doubles their companions’ life expectancy.  Still, in spite of the mutual benefits, due to the catalyst to the symbiosis being an imposed biological imperative, the question of consent still remains.  Where a human comes to accept their role as symbiont, is it really a choice, or are they essentially drugged into compliance?

When the story begins, Shori has lost most of her memory, and the first few chapters are spent with her relearning the ins and outs of human-Ina relations by way of her own connection to Wright Hamlin.  As she recalls the true nature of the relationship, however, she offers Wright the choice of leaving her.  She informs him that he does have the ability to do so at such an early stage, but that soon afterwards their separation would be impossible – and for Wright, fatal.

We come to understand that this is how most if not all Ina-human symbioses play out, that in spite of the biochemical tether, there must be some initial consent on the part of the human before the bond can be realized.  So as to the question of whether or not Shori can be said to be raping Wright Hamlin, the answer would appear to be no, for how enthusiastically he agrees to remain as her symbiont.

Still, the ethical lines are blurry, because who is to say at which point a human becomes enthralled, and whether or not that initial consent is given without any influence from the Ina.  Indeed Wright had already been subjected to Shori’s venom when he made his choice to stay with her.

Furthermore, these “consensual” symbioses do not preclude situations where Ina simply prey upon humans for their blood without forming a permanent bond with them, usually so as not to exhaust their own symbionts.  It also does not stop Ina from using their influence to manipulate humans into serving their other interests, from keeping their existence a secret to protecting their communes.

Where the taking of blood, and with it a transmission of Ina venom, also includes sexual relations, but does not lead into a new symbiosis, it does seem to be a case of rape.  The human victims, however, for what they receive in exchange – pleasure beyond anything they’ve ever experienced – is likely to disagree. This is trademark Butler, because here we find the moral conundrum, or rather the flexibility in our sexual norms explored between human and Ina.  Again, Butler merely asks a question, but does not give any definitive answer, leaving the matter open to discussion.

Intersections and Gender Fluctuations

bloodchildBringing it all together is Bloodchild, which although only a short story, seems to exist at the intersection of sexual themes explored in Butler’s other works.  It features the interspecies sex of Dawn, the issue of consent from Fledgling, and arguably from a social standpoint, the incest of Mind of My Mind. In addition, it introduces the concept of male pregnancy, automatically at odds with normative notions of human sexuality and gender roles.

The premise is that humans, having long fled hostile circumstances on Earth, settled on the world of the Tlic, a sentient race of caterpillar-like creatures.  During the initial encounters, humans fought against the Tlic and were eventually subjugated and corralled in the way of farm animals.  They were heavily drugged to dampen their will, which allowed the Tlic to use them as living incubators for their own young.  Over time this relationship changed, however, with Tlic and humans entering into a consensual family dynamic, one son from each human family appointed to be the host – known as N’Tlic – for the single fertile female from each Tlic family.

Gan, the point of view character of the story, is the appointed host, chosen by T’Gatoi, a Tlic politician who oversees the Preserve, a closed human colony.  T’Gatoi was a long time member of Gan’s shared family, having been hosted by Gan’s own father, and growing up with his mother. With respect to a traditional human family structure, T’Gatoi is the equivalent of Gan’s sister, and yet she chooses him to bear her young.  She chooses him at a young age, and many of his formative years were spent preparing him for the task of becoming an N’Tlic.

However, once Gan witnesses a rather traumatic Tlic birth, he has second thoughts about his role, and even considers suicide as an alternative.  In the end, however, he chooses to go forward with the pregnancy, for the fact that he loves and trusts T’Gatoi, but also to spare his sister, who would’ve been chosen in his absence.

Gan lays with T’Gatoi in a ritual that can only be regarded as sexual for the fact that it will eventually lead to T’lic reproduction, but also in Butler’s choice of imagery.

I undressed and laid down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of the ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine. [Bloodchild, p. 53]

This scene clearly disrupts the traditional gendering of sexual intercourse, both in terms of the male and female roles and the expected outcome.

In the essay Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young? – the title being a question T’Gatoi asks Gan – author Elyce Rae Helford discusses how many attempts to challenge traditional gender roles fall flat, because they attempt to deny gender altogether, while still using the binary encoding of certain actions and activities as “masculine” and “feminine”.  Critical theorist Alice Jardin calls this encoding process gynesis.

The undulating body of T’Gatoi, forcing the egg into Gan’s body, recalls human intercourse from both female and male positions: T’Gatoi’s action embodies both possession of the female egg and male penetration and ejaculation. [Helford, p. 264]

The sex scene from Bloodchild is an example of gynesis, but Helford suggests that a deeper reading presents a legitimate challenge to the encoding process, perhaps even destabilizing the binary altogether rather than merely reversing roles.

Her argument rests on the fact that there is little focus on the genders of Gan or T’Gatoi, or upon the role of the male Tlic, whose function, much like human males, is to fertilize the eggs.  Tlic males, however, are short-lived and serve no additional role in the raising or protection of the child as is common amongst the males of other species, including humans.  So here we have a complication instead of just a re-encoding, with different aspects of the traditional roles split between males and females and across species.

Beyond this, I would argue that Butler’s imagery also adds a symbolic dimension to the sexual dynamic between male and female, human and Tlic. Consider, for instance, that the very body of T’Gatoi is phallic, which corresponds to her occupying the traditionally “male” role of being the penetrator and impregnator. Yet one might also look at the very name of T’Gatoi’s race – Tlic – and see that it is an anagram for clit, which in spite of being a female organ, is still phallic, and is in fact the female equivalent to the penis.  Was this intentional on Butler’s part, or perhaps something that surfaces on a more unconscious level?

Either way, Butler has created a sort of concentric juxtaposition of gender roles, wherein a female entity in the vague shape of a male organ invokes the name of its female counterpart only to fulfill a traditionally male role in sexual intercourse.  All of this and perhaps Butler’s only true goal was a mind fuck.


The science fiction of Octavia E. Butler is known for its ability to, as Elyce Rae Helford puts it, “bridge the gap between ‘high’ and popular culture”.  As readers we are never merely exploring a foreign galaxy or settling on an alien world. Earth is not merely being invaded by hostile alien forces, nor are our bodies simply host to malignant parasites. These are the tropes of popular science fiction.  Butler grazes them to create a familiar framework, but always plumbs to new depths, using science fiction as a tool through which to ask implicit questions challenging our notions of normativity or propriety.

We often regard gender and sex and sexuality as rigid constructs, or perhaps we don’t view them as constructs at all, but rather an inseparable part of reality itself.  There are always limits to which people are even willing to think about such charged issues.  It is as if even thinking outside the norms, let alone issuing any sort of open challenge, is to participate in social deviancy.

People often fail to consider the subjectivity of norms, that under different circumstances – social or biological – that the behaviors we take for granted might be regarded as aberrant.  Or more importantly that this is not merely a hypothetical or a thought experiment, but that people actually do live under different circumstances, and those behaviors we regard as aberrant are simply different, and only stray from the “norm” for the fact that they are in the demographic minority.  Going even further, we fail to consider that differences are not so black and white – or straight and gay, or masculine and feminine – but exist within a spectrum, separated by degrees.

Even where there is “tolerance”, the implication is that there is still something wrong and only by one’s graciousness can there be any civility around it.

“I have no problem with gay people,” someone might say, “I just don’t agree with their lifestyle.” They do not realize, nor even consider, that sexuality is not a choice, but an inexorable aspect of being human.

Human.  Perhaps therein lies the limitation. The Oankali in Lilith’s Brood attributed hierarchical behavior to our very natures and claimed that it was responsible for the “mass suicide” that destroyed most life on Earth.  Given our enthusiastic willingness to destroy each other for our differences, this prospect sometimes seems more science than fiction.

I would argue, however, that these shortcomings of humanity are not genetic – such as could be weeded out by several generations of Oankali engineering – but memetic, meaning that they are rooted in the propagation of cultural rather than biological data.  Those who study memetics say that our bigger human brains developed to accommodate memes, to better enable us to transmit them, and that in fact they, rather than genes, are the selfish driving force behind our unique sociobiological trajectory.

If that is true, then we do not need cosmic intervention from the Oankali, manipulation by the Ina, the eugenics of Doro, or to be corralled by the Tlic.  We need to instead take a hint from the Oankali, only assimilating new memes instead of genes, in order to assure our preservation as a species. Namely we need to better cultivate an awareness of the fact that differences can co-exist, and in fact, must co-exist peacefully.  We also need to more aggressively propagate very old memes such as compassion and humility, not just as abstract ideas, but as concrete practices.

Where do we begin if not with open and candid dialogue that acknowledges these degrees of difference between us, that recognizes the subjectivity of who or what is “other”, and how anyone should be treated because of it?

Freda Fair and Elyce Rae Helford might disagree with me that Ms. Butler did not have any agenda – political, social, or otherwise – in the crafting of her stories. I contend that these commentaries, these implicit challenges to the construction of social orders, naturally emerged out of the kind of person that Butler was – one who simply dared to think beyond what manifests as the “norm”.  Butler, in the afterword to Bloodchild published in a 2005 collection, said:

Other people have done all the print interpretations of my work: “Butler seems to be saying…” “Obviously, Butler believes…” “Butler makes it clear that she feels…” Actually, I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.

Regardless of our different interpretations, I think that all readers of Butler come into alignment in our acknowledgement of what she brings to the discussion of sex and sexuality.  We should be thankful that she decided to put her thoughts down on paper, that we might discuss them amongst ourselves and add some diversity to the meme pool. Thinking “differently” about issues of sexuality – flexing sexual norms – is not only purposive in the ongoing struggle to achieve sexual justice, but creates a pretext for our continued examination of what it even means to be human.



  1. Butler, Octavia E.  Mind of My Mind.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1977. Print
  2. Butler, Octavia E.  Dawn.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1987. Print
  3. Butler, Octavia E.  Fledgling.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. Print
  4. Butler, Octavia E. “Bloodchild.” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine June 1984: 34-54. Print.
  5. Sophocles.  Oedipus Rex.  429 B.C.
  6. Fair, Freda.  “Eugenicism – The Construction of Queer Space in the Works of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany”  Digital Commons at Macalester College, 2006. Print.
  7. Helford, Elyce R. “Would You Really Rather Die than Bear My Young?: The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild” African American Review 28.2 (1994): 259-71. Web. 17 May 2011.
  8. Cloud, John. “The Teen Brain: The More Mature, the More Reckless” Time.com. 02 Sept. 2009. Web. 07 Mar. 2011.