Sexual Politics: Revelations Through Science Fiction
Science fiction can reveal truths about reality by subverting the standard narrative in a way that bypasses bias, desensitization, and social norms. Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” utilizes the unfamiliar narrative of the Tlic and Terran species to reveal the sexual politics of unequal power dynamics currently existing between men and women. Butler uses dialogue between T’Gatoi and Gan to unpack the complexities of sexual politics as they relate to agency, consent and love.
The presence of power in sexual politics can create a lack of agency or choice for one individual. Unequal power makes consent unnecessary because agreement with the individual in power is so strongly implied that there is no premise of asking. In discussing Lamas’ position as a host, Gan and T’Gatoi reveal the Terrans’ lack of choice and the Tlics’ unquestioned power.
“I wonder if he would ever do it again.”
“No one would ask him to do that again.”
I looked into the yellow eyes, wondering how much I saw and understood there, and how much I only imagined. “No one ever asks us,” I said. “You never asked me.” (Butler 23)
T’Gatoi’s words imply that Lamas had a choice in his own implantation and suggest that she is so accustomed to these reproductive practices that she views them as inherently correct. By saying Lamas would not be asked again, T’Gatoi is not indicating that Lamas was asked in reality, but revealing her assumption that Lamas wanted to host the children; that he would so assuredly agree to it, asking would be superfluous. The Tlic position of power largely removes them from fully identifying with the practice’s consequences on the Terrans. T’Gatoi is acknowledging the hardship faced by Lamas, but merely because he has already accomplished the task. Her acknowledgment of sacrifice is not enough to make her stop these reproductive practices because the Tlic deem them necessary. Gan points out the fallacy of her words by reminding her that there was no question of choice to begin with. Consent is not valued, promoting the view that Terrans are obligated to participate in this practice.
Rape exemplifies a scenario in which women are seen not seen as agentic bodies and consequently their decisions are either unvalued or assumed. This highlights beliefs that women are somehow innately supposed to receive and serve the needs of men. The sexual politics of male-female relationships provide men with a power so great that they feel they are not required to ask permission because they already have the right to do as they please.
Consent and Coercion
Beyond whether there is an opportunity to give or receive consent, consent cannot be truly given under coercion. T’Gatoi provides Gan with the illusion of choice, but riddles it with notions of guilt and duty.
“At least it was a decision I made.”
“As this will be.”
“Ask me T’Gatoi.”
“For my children’s lives?” (Butler 24)
Gan pointedly requests the dignity of being asked; he wants to have the agency to decide what will happen to his body. He may not even be concerned with saying no; the Terrans may be too entrenched in the hierarchy to actually be able to say no, but he at least wants the illusion of such agency. In response, T’Gatoi provides Gan with a question, but it is not a genuine choice. T’Gatoi’s response equates Gan’s request into a direct attack on her children. T’Gatoi creates the impression that the matter is either or; either Gan hosts the children or they will die. T’Gatoi fully ignores the risks to Gan’s life and other available host options for implanting her children. Her power is evident in her exclamation, “This is my life, my family!” (Butler 25). The Tlics’ needs are inherently more important than the Terrans’ because the Tlic possess the most power. Not only is T’Gatoi not asking Gan to choose, she is appalled that he would ever question whether or not he should host her children.
Men’s sexual desires are framed as needs and women, encouraged to take on a caretaking role, are expected to fulfill these sexual “needs.” Even if a woman does not wish to engage in sexual activity, she may feel obligated. This obligation or guilt can be present whether or not the male partner consciously creates the coercive environment. A man may make appeals to a woman’s love to persuade her into sexual behavior. The presumption is an intimate relationship includes a commitment to male sexual satisfaction.
Sexual politics are convoluted by the coexistence of love and unequal power. The story is not merely one of the Tlic forcing their will on the Terrans. There is a clear dissonance between feelings of affection and entrapment. The two species are connected through families and made to feel allied. T’Gatoi is helping to keep the Terran families together and protecting them from the desires of Tlic to use them at will. T’Gatoi chose Gan as an unborn child to be her host and establishes a connection with him throughout his childhood.
“But you came to me…to save Hoa.”
“Yes.” I leaned my forehead against her. She was cool velvet, deceptively soft. “And to keep you for myself,” I said. It was so. I didn’t understand it, but it was so.
She made a soft hum of contentment. “I couldn’t believe I had made such a mistake with you,” she said. “I chose you. I believed you had grown to choose me.”
“I had but…” (Butler 28)
Gan shows his attachment to T’Gatoi through his proclaimed desire to have her to himself; he implies he would be jealous if T’Gatoi was with his sister. Gan’s desire to maintain T’Gatoi’s attention and her acknowledgement of choosing Gan demonstrates their connection. T’Gatoi speaks of her desire for a mutual connection between her and Gan; she cares for him and does not want to force herself upon him. Yet even this connection is complicated by her previous words, “I must do it to someone tonight.” (Butler 27). T’Gatoi will do what she feels necessary because she has the power to act on her decisions.
The line between whether a person wants to do something merely because he or she loves the other person or because norms coerce them to do so can be frustratingly indistinguishable: women may engage in sexual behavior which they desire, behavior which they do not desire but consent to, or that which the consent to only through coercion. A woman may not desire to engage in sexual activity despite love for her partner. Conversely, a man may coerce or force a woman whom he loves into sexual activity. While not all relationships involve love, love complicates sexual politics because there are prescriptions about what one should do for those they love. Ultimately, love and sexual politics are intertwined, making it difficult to determine which acts, feelings, and beliefs are prescribed by power dynamics and which are driven by love.
One cannot fully understand the intricacies and depth of influence of society while still entrenched in that society. Only by removing us from our own understanding of gendered relationships is Butler able to provide us with a full picture of the complexities involved in such hierarchical interactions. Creating a relationship so utterly unknown allows the audience to react at a gut level without reference to the norms usually used to frame relationships. The subversive narrative of Bloodchild provides a unique perspective on sexual politics.
Butler, Octavia. "Bloodchild." Bloodchild and Other Stories. 2 ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. Print.