by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison
At its core, its a very simple concept: A biological function whereby genetic material from two (at least on Earth) individual organisms of a sufficiently similar type are combined in order to produce offspring. And for many organisms, thats where the concept pretty much starts and ends. For many, such as plants and insects and many species of fish, physical contact between the two organisms isnt even required in order for successful reproduction. When we get into other higher (for certain values of that term one chooses to use) species, physical contact in a very intimate sense is required. Even then, however, intimacy is usually purely a description of the physical act, and attaching emotional content to it is reaching.
There are very, very few organisms on the planet where sex has an emotional context over and above the drive to reproduce. In fact, there are only three that we know of: Humans, bonobos, and bottlenose dolphins. Of course, every species has its statistical outliers, but its only in those three species that sexual activity has been observed on a regular basis in a context that makes it clear that it isnt just about producing little humans and little bonobos and little dolphins. All three engage in sex where reproduction isnt possible (homosexuality), all three engage in sex even when there isnt someone else around (masturbation), and in at least two of those animals, some individuals have gotten kinky outside the species: Dolphins have been observed getting, umm, frisky with humans in the water and everyone reading this should be aware of the other one.
So sex has, in at least some species on the planet, evolved into a means of social interaction that transcends reproduction.
But will that hold true for all intelligent lifeforms, whether we discovered them or someone creates them? Obviously we cant say for certain, but since Im talking fictional context here, the answer is almost certainly an emphatic no. And in cases where it does represent a social interaction, it might represent something very different than it does to us humans.
Second thing first. Consider the draconians I described in an earlier column, where sex isnt just a matter of reproduction, but also of dominance in the society. For draconians, sex is all about exerting power over the other for the individuals benefitin other words, rape. Mutual satisfaction or expressions of love? A draconian would find such notions utterly alien. So would the Lyrans in E. E. Doc Smiths Lensman series, the prototypical race of space Amazons where the women run the entire society because the males are barely more than glorified monkeys; smaller, vastly lower intelligence, and only useful for reproduction. Smith being a writer of his time, he never gets into the possibility of homosexuality, so we dont know if it exists for the Lyrans but lets assume it doesnt. Sex, for a Lyran, is a necessity, not a recreational activity or method of pair bonding. Again, they find such concepts totally bizarre.
(Lest one think that the biology I defined for the draconians sounds absurd, well, there are marine invertebrates that engage in whats been termed penis fencing. The animals are hermaphrodites and attempt to penetrate the other without being penetrated themselves, thus forcing the other one to have to expend the energy of producing offspring while the winner wanders off to try its luck again.)
Now first thing second. Societies (or species) where sex isnt a significant factor in social interaction are simple to conceive. Note that I said sex, not reproduction. Producing the next generation will be a concern for any intelligent species. Reproduction is an iron-clad necessity; having a separate social/emotional/cultural meaning for the act of sex, not so much.
Lets look at some hypotheticals. In most cases, I can cite examples of real Terran species (albeit of the non-intelligent variety) that exhibit the sexual paradigm of interest, so the biology is demonstrably possible; where it doesnt exist, Ill try to make it not-impossible.
One obvious possibility, right off the bat: The dedicated breeding seasonheat, must, estrus, whatever one chooses to call it. Many animals, even mammals, have a dedicated breeding season where theres no display of sexual activity outside of it. Thus, an intelligent species might simply have zero interest in sex outside of season. If the breeding season is accompanied by physiological changes, you might get a dual zero-interest effect; not only are the sexes not psychologically interested, they dont even look attractive to one another most of the time.
Second obvious one: External fertilization, such as in fish. The reason why is also obvious. Male and female might not even be required to be present at the same time.
Third obvious one: In some species, mating can take on a let us say fatal attraction. Theres a reason the black widow has become a synonym for a deadly woman, although the female spiders reputation is somewhat overblown; much of the time the male spider does manage to make his getaway. For some species of praying mantis, however, the male cant release sperm to fertilize the females eggs until hes been decapitated. The first time truly is mind-blowingshortly followed by mind-swallowing on the part of the mother-to-be. The contrary is also possible; one can postulate the female dying as part of the reproductive cycle.
You want more? No problem! Heres three more from the real world: One-time-only fertilization, where a female mates once in her life and never again (i.e., ants). Theres parthenogenesis, where reproduction requires no sex at all and the daughter is the clone of the mother (i.e., certain species of lizard, including whiptails). Theres the parasitic male, present in some species of deep-sea fish, where the male is many, many times smaller than the female and lives as a literal parasite, feeding off of her and losing its capacity of living independently. At least in this particular case, size does matter when it comes to sex meaning anything.
No matter what the physical mechanics are like, its possible that sex could be a painful necessity for any given species. The marine worms and their penile swordsmanship I mentioned is an example: Getting a sharp object shoved into youno, not into an appropriate opening, but through your skin and into youprobably isnt what one could call a mutually satisfactory experience.
Going into the not-quite- of-this-Earth, theres the possibility of multi-partner sex, where male and female deposit the appropriate genetic materials into a third individual, who then actually produces the offspring. Or perhaps male and male (female and female?), skipping the distinction between egg and sperm, and instead doing direct genetic reshuffling in the third individual. Or maybe sex is simply something that gets done with as much passion as sneezing; literally wham, bam, thank you, gender-appropriate-member-of-the-same-species.
Now the interest in the story comes from what you make of that difference in how sex is viewed, if such is required in your story.
Have fun, and keep it clean out there (I know, I know, lost cause )!