People told me I could expect to find some interesting gender dynamics in Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and that’s exactly what I’ve found. The story takes place on a planet that is called Gethen by its inhabitants and Winter by everyone else because of its extremely cold climate.
The inhabitants of Gethen have a very different kind of sexuality than humans do, and I’m finding it fascinating. Gethenians are ambisexual, meaning that they are capable of being male or female and they switch between the two. They follow a sexual cycle slightly shorter than a month that begins in a sexually neutral state; towards the end of the cycle they enter what’s called “kemmer,” a period of sexual activity that lasts 4-6 days. During this time if they find a desirable partner also entering kemmer they each take on either male or female characteristics and can have sex. They have no control over which partner is male and which female. Either partner is capable of taking on the female role and therefore either partner can become pregnant.
Kind of interesting, isn’t it? One of the book’s narrators, who is not from Gethen and therefore whose sexuality is like ours, speculates on how these differences in sexuality lead to differences in culture. I’m going to quote a long passage from this section, which I think would be better than if I were to summarize it; speaking of kemmer, the narrator says:
Everything gives way before the recurring torment and festivity of passion. This is easy for us to understand. What is very hard for us to understand is that, four-fifths of the time, these people are not sexually motivated at all. Room is made for sex, plenty of room; but a room, as it were, apart. The society of Gethen, in its daily functioning and in its continuity, is without sex.
Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be … “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.
Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.
Would you want to live in a world like that? There are other aspects of Gethen that don’t sound so appealing, but I can’t help but like the idea of a world where sex and gender still exist, but without the inequality and violence associated with them.
One challenge this model of gender presents to the author is what to do about pronouns; male or female pronouns aren’t really accurate and neuter ones aren’t either, since Gethenians aren’t neuter at all. Le Guin has her narrators use the male pronoun, and although I don’t really like this — it makes it seem as though Gethen is populated only by men — I’m not sure what I would choose instead. To make up a pronoun?