Sex on Gethen

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?


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Sex on Gethen

  1. Glad you are enjoying the book! Pronouns do become an issue, don’t they. Marge Pirecy wrote a scifi book called Woman on the Edge of Time in which she takes on gender issues as well. There are definately male and female, but there are no pronouns designating such. Piercy makes up the pronoun “per” and applies it equally to everyone.


  2. SFP

    I wore my “Guess What I’m Reading?” shirt to the grocery store yesterday and a clerk actually asked what I was reading. And then I asked her, and found out that she’s trying to start a feminist reading group on campus. I think I’ll pass the title of this one (as well as that of the Piercy) on to her!


  3. This reminds me of Melissa Scott’s “Shadow Man” – which postulates a distant future where Faster Than Light travel has altered human DNA to a point where there are now 6 genders (I think there’s 6. It’s been a while since I read it that book. Sorry if my memory is hazy on this.)

    Her solution to the alternative pronouns is to go beyond the English alphabet and use Greek symbols to designate the alternative genders. So instead of “her” you might have “ðer”

    When I was reading it, I was totally disorientated because of the whole alienness of all these different genders and their Greek-symbol pronouns to keep track of. It suddenly felt like I was learning a new language. But it also made me realise how much of my concept of gender is trapped by language.


  4. This sounds like a fascinating book–very outside what I would normally read. I like the idea, too, of a society where gender doesn’t mean one half the population has more power than the other half, and certainly without violence. It could only happen in a book, I guess. Language really is heavily laden with gender–I wonder if all languages are like that? In other languages it is even worse where even nouns are either feminine or masculine. I wonder how hard it was for Le Guin to write something like this–that is so different than reality. I’m not sure I would ever have the creativity to come up with such a place. I’ll have to check her out.


  5. Stefanie — I will have to put the Piercy book on my list; it sounds great too. And that’s an interesting solution to the pronoun problem.

    Susan — great t-shirt! How many people actually ask you? The Le Guin novel would make for an interesting discussion I think.

    Dark Orpheus — that’s the wonderful thing about this kind of book, isn’t it, that the language can alienate us and really make us think! Perhaps I should read more sci-fi; thanks for the mention of Scott’s book.

    Danielle — it’s outside what I normally read too, but I’m glad I’m reading it, definitely — good to try new things, right? 🙂 Yeah, I suspect things are a bit easier in English than they are in other languages, since we don’t have the masculine and feminine nouns — but still, it’s hard to use gender-neutral language sometimes. I think it’s fascinating the way our cultural biases are built into the language.


  6. Nic

    Glad you’re enjoying this – I think it’s a wonderful book! I’d suggest that the narrator’s use of the male pronoun is meant to reflect his assumptions (which are upset, neatly, at several points in the story), for all that he considers himself a neutral observer.

    As to other SF books in a similar vein… I’ll have a think and get back to you. 🙂


  7. LK

    I’ve never read her (other than a short story, long ago)…I enjoyed your take on this. Another TBR.


  8. Nic — I am SO enjoying it; I’m rather surprising myself. And your point about the narrator seems exactly right — we do get everything from his perspective and one of the interesting things about the book is all that he gets wrong or can’t grasp fully.

    LK — definitely, pick it up if you at all tempted!


  9. Danica

    It’s incredibly interesting, the elimination of gender roles and its utopian result. It always puzzled me, however, that lack of genders meant lack of nationalism… thus no wars, on Gethen. I suppose it’s because they have no sense of duality – of being “superior” to another person?

    I wonder if you understand this better than I do, this typically isn’t the sort of thing I excel at. c[=


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