The War Between the Sexes
In the mid-twentieth century, before the molecular basis of sex determination was understood, science fiction writers asked a variety of questions: Why do humans have two sexes? Are there other possibilities? Could humans be unisexual? Would a world without the "war of the sexes" be less susceptible to global warfare?
Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
At the height of the Cold War, writers speculated on the connection between the "war between the sexes" and global warfare. A classic example of this speculation is Sturgeon's novel. Sturgeon imagines a colony of people who eliminate their sexual differences and reproduce as hermaphrodites, each showing both male and female functions. Called Ledom ("model" spelled backward), the colony exists in secret beneath a shield that has protected it from nuclear warfare.
1. When an outsider, a "normal" male, discovers how the Ledom colony works, how does he react, and why? Does the colony have a right to turn its members into hermaphrodites? Is the colony right or wrong to make this choice for its children?
2. Do you agree that a "unisexual" society would be less violent than a society with two sexes? If the author were alive today, would he find that societal trends in the United States confirm or refute his views? Has our society become less warlike as our sex roles have become less polarized?
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969).
Le Guin depicts a unisexual society in detail, with emphasis on individual character. The Gethenians appear neutral in sexuality except for a regular period in their monthly cycle when they become "male" or "female." Each Gethenian can become male or female at different cycles. The story is told from the point of view of a human from a human civilization with standard sexuality who visits Gethen to make contact and establish relations. The author also presents a Gethenian view of the visitor. The problem for the visitor, and for his Gethenian benefactor, is how to convince the Gethenians to accept friendly contact with outsiders who are either continually "male" or "female."
A study guide for Left Hand of Darkness is available at
1. Why does the visitor find it so difficult to understand the Gethenians? Why do the Gethenians consider him "perverted"?
2. How convincing is Le Guin's portrayal of a unisexual society? Do the characters come across more as female or as male, or equally both? Does the author's choice of pronouns influence our impression of the characters' sexuality? In your opinion, should unisexual characters be designated as "he," "she," or "it"? Offer arguments for and against each choice.
The Color of Neanderthal Eyes, a short novel in a collection entitled Meet Me at Infinity, by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) (1990). (Note: James Tiptree Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, a CIA agent who started writing in the late 1960s, when almost no women wrote science fiction. A website on Tiptree is at
This novelette depicts an alien race in which the anatomical and behavioral roles of the sexes are arranged differently. A mother conceives multiple children in one pregnancy but always dies upon their birth, leaving the father to raise them. The story is told from the viewpoint of an explorer who impregnates a woman before realizing what will become of her; he then faces the dilemma of raising the children himself.
1. What do you think of the sex roles in the alien society? What are the biological advantages and disadvantages of this system? Does the author's portrayal make an ironic commentary on sexual attitudes within our own society?
2. The anthropologist expresses disbelief that he could impregnate the "alien" female. Why is it extremely unlikely that a human could conceive a hybrid offspring with a creature that evolved on another planet? Explain in terms of the structure of chromosomes and the mechanism of fertilization.
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