more on sexual difference

My friend Adam Roberts’s response to my Tiptree-and-difference post pushes me to clarify a few points. Or rather, to realize that I can’t yet clarify a few points and need to think further. 

Imagine a sliding scale of sexual difference, ranging from, on the far left, … I don’t know, maybe having sex with a clone of yourself? — to, on the far right, “aliens in the shape of slime-blobs, or sentient piles of concrete blocks” (to quote Adam). Adam’s point is that the sexual xenomania of the man in “And I Awoke” is focused on aliens with a generally humanoid shape — aliens who, if you consider the possible morphologies of sentient life, manifest only minor differences from us.  

So for any given person there will be a Point of Maximal Allurement — a point at which likeness and difference are balanced in such a way as to maximize desire. Tiptree suggests that if we humans ever do encounter aliens, that slider will, for many people, move to the right. New differences lead to new allurements. The question Adam asks is: Will it really happen that way? Is there, as Tiptree seems to think, a latent human xenophila just waiting for its chance to become manifest? (Adam has his doubts.) 

But as I think about this I realize that Tiptree only occasionally suggests that such xenophilia is human — in the stories it is typically, rather, male. (The only exception I can think of is the unnamed, silent wife of the man in “As I Awoke,” and the strong suggestion is that her attraction to aliens is masochistic. The narrator’s sister in “A Momentary Taste of Being” is drawn to another world, another way of being, in a way that seems, to me anyway, unrelated to sexual desire.) And many of Tiptree’s stories represent male desire as a manifestation of male dominance: a man’s libido simply is the libido dominandi

And that in turn makes me realize that I have not clearly defined allurement. Desire for intimacy ≠ desire for pleasure ≠ desire for conquest. And even if for men the third of those always displaces the other two, that doesn’t really answer the notorious Freudian question: “What do women want?” Tiptree’s stories — that is to say, stories written by a woman under a man’s name and almost always from the perspective of a male character — tell us a lot about what men want. But what do the women in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” want? In “The Women Men Don’t See,” what does Ruth want when she asks the aliens to take her away? She doesn’t say. Tiptree leaves such matters to the contemplation of the reader. 

But did Alice B. Sheldon think she knew? She herself was twice married to men, but once said, “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.” One could draw any number of conclusions about how her own patterns of desire shaped her fiction, and about why she does so much more to represent male desire than female, but it’s impossible to be confident that any of them are right. 

July 5, 2021

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