by Lynda J. Williams (co-author of the Okal Rel Universe series)
presented on web to Science Fiction and Organization Sept 15, 1999
If gender-differentiated human behaviour is driven by biological imperatives tied to reproductive strategies, as argued in works of evolutionary biology such as Robin Baker's Sperm wars: the science of sex, then only changing the rules of reproductive success can yield genuine variations on the status quo. Nature itself yields up anomalies suggestive of what might be possible, but science fiction is uniquely fit for making variables of gender traits most people instinctively accept as constants, such as the absurdity and/or physical impossibility of a woman forcing sex on an unwilling man.
The Vrellish, a fictional race of bioengineered humans featured in the Okal Rel Universe series, illustrate what such a shift in biology might look like, within a cultural framework where it is the norm. In the process questions can be asked and answered, at least in fictional dramatisation, about what is a fundamental consequence of male and female sexual and reproductive mechanics, versus attendant secondary sex characteristics such as disposition or muscular strength, and the power structures and competitive processes of the culture in which reproductive strategies succeed or fail. Evolutionary biology is applied to justify Vrellish nature in terms of the reproductive dynamics of its formative environment.
VRELLISH vs. AMAZON
Myth, and its modern cousins fantasy and science fiction, have a fondness for warrior women. No complete survey is attempted here. The goal is to distinguish the Vrellish thought experiment from the most typical manifestations of the mythic or fictional Amazon.
Amazons themselves, cited in the ancient works of Herodotus and Apollonius Rhodius, constituted a female-only society. Mechanisms are suggested for how they bear children and reject the male ones, but despite this the myths that feature them tend to pair them up with outside males, like Theseus. At that point they cease to be Amazons. As a distinct culture, the Amazon solution is mono-gender. It is also extremely anomalous, competing -- usually unsuccessfully -- with much more common bi-gender cultures.
Males are as intrinsic to Vrellish culture as females. There are just far fewer gender differences in physiology or behaviour. The Vrellish also constitute a culture that has dominated its home environment for a millennium, expanding into outside territory more often than being encroached upon by invaders.
Fantasy and science fiction has two favourite variations on the woman who is, emphatically, not at the mercy of any man. One is the sexually insatiable she-thing, like Zev of the TV series Lexx. The other is exemplified by the aggressively virginal Red Sonja, created by Robert E. Howard. Both are far from normal by prevailing standards. Zev is a bioengineered sex slave gone wrong who can morph into a ferocious reptile. Red Sonja is equally rare in her own, dawn of history, setting. Lusty or chaste, super-powered or merely gifted, such women are exotic aberrations even within their own fictional settings.
The Vrellish, male and female, are not the only kinds of humans to inhabit their universe, but they are among the founding races of the wider culture within which they compete for goods and territory, and perfectly normal -- for Vrellish.
Distinguishing the Vrellish from anomalous individual women, or unstable mono-gender cultures, is important because the methods of evolutionary biology can only be applied where large numbers compete to out-breed each other over long stretches of time.
Here it must be confessed, immediately, that the thousand years allotted to Vrellish development in the Okal Rel universe series would not be long enough to justify the biological differences posited without the science fictional kick start of a healthy dose of preliminary bio-engineering. But one might reason that were pure evolution given its head it might have covered the same ground over a much longer period but within the dates established in the fictional history of the Okal Rel universe, the evolutionary biology approach really amounts to more of a cultural sculpting out of existing raw material. That is, given a starting population of already artificially altered human stock, turned loose in the "wild", how would the prevailing pressures of natural selection account for Vrellish culture as it exists a thousand years down the road?
EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY / PSYCHOLOGY
The relatively new science of evolutionary biology explains behaviour in terms of its competitiveness in procreation, setting aside all other criteria as secondary. In other words it asks the question: How are the traits that we, or other animals, possess explained as the culmination of competing reproductive strategies. The competition concerned may be between genders, families, species, different approaches for prevailing against the environment or even rival sperm racing to impregnate the same ovum.
When evolutionary biology is used to explain psychological phenomena, such as why a man may indeed be sincere -- at the time -- about wanting to spend his entire life with the woman he is trying to seduce, it is often referred to as evolutionary psychology instead. Both explain physical traits and emotional states in terms of competing strategies of reproductive success played out over the long term in many variations.
It is important to grasp that none of this is meant to be deterministic with regard to any single instance of anything. Evolutionary biology and psychology deal only in large numbers, over many trials. Like probability, they have nothing to say about the result of any single trial.
To make this clear, consider a population of size N at time T1. Individuals, groups, or even genes might be identified as instances of the population. That is, we could be talking about N people, N families, N examples of a gene for digestion, etc. Variations exist between instances of N. For example, individual females may have more or less sex drive. Some instances of the digestion gene may work better on cellulose than others. Those traits which make a significant contribution to leaving more copies of themselves in future populations, at time Tx where Tx is greater than T1, are the winners. Traits which tend to result in editing themselves out of the gene pool, are losers. Note that traits which are neutral, or packaged with valuable ones, may be taken along for the ride. It is also important to grasp that this is an on-going process in which rival strategies, such as honest monogamy and deceitful infidelity, vie with one another in myriad trials spanning hundreds of generations complicated by all the other sets of N that have a bearing on survival. It is, after all, possible to have genes, be an individual and participate in many different social groups all simultaneously.
Nature likes things messy, and species do not move uniformly in any one direction. That would be fatal, for without variation there would be no capacity to adapt as the environment altered. At any time Tx, however, the majority of the living population will manifest a stronger showing of those traits which proved most effective for their ancestors.
This, of course, is simply evolution. What is new about evolutionary biology is its recent determination to take on psychological phenomena. Hence the frequent appearance in the literature of the term "evolutionary psychology" instead of the more comprehensive "evolutionary biology". The latter is preferred here simply for its greater breadth of coverage since the Vrellish are a physiological as well as psychological variation on the human norm. Ideas are also drawn from the use of evolutionary reasoning in evaluating the success and failure of cultural alternatives over a shorter time span than that normally associated with biological change. Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning work, Guns, Germs and Steel, describes how environmental opportunities determine the fate of competing cultures over mere thousands of years instead of the much longer stretches normally associated with evolution. (Diamond, 1999).
Human gender differences, therefore, are the net result of aeons of breeding experiments in which no single end point is inevitable. But there are patterns. Males and females of monogamous species tend to have roughly equal weights and sizes while the dominant gender is bigger in species that go for a one to many arrangement. Almost always it is the male in the latter instance that dominates a group of females, but a few species of shore birds reverses (Diamond, 1997, p. 26) that equation, as does the common bee where an entire hive serves the reproductive interests of a single female. Humans fall within the "ambiguously monogamous" category, on average size difference grounds (Blum, 1997, p.120).
Evolutionary biology explains patterns, and the exceptions that violate them, in terms of differential breeding success. Monogamy is prevalent in birds because two parents are typically needed to tend an egg, and both genders are equally capable of doing so. Mammalian arrangements saddle the female with a greater burden, giving males the opportunity to desert. The males of non-monogamous species can get left out, given a roughly 50-50 birth ratio. This motivates non-monogamous males to fight other males for females. Males can increase their procreative output through rape, so it happens. A female who succeeds in picking her mate may do better than one who is forced, but will still breed. And while a male can "cast his genes into a wider net" with promiscuity, "the number of males a female can seduce has no reproductive gain whatsoever" (Blum, 1997, p. 268).
In the words of Blum's key source on this point, anthropologist Bobbi Low: "Evolutionary theory predicts that potentially lethal conflict will occur when the possible reproductive rewards (mates, status, resources for mates) are high; and that, within mammals, males will more often be in a position to gain than females...Throughout evolutionary history, men have been able to gain reproductively by warring behaviour; women have not."
Exceptions to any norm in Earthly biology, however, require only that a variable or two shift. For example, Diamond explains the sex-role-reversal polyandry of Spotted Sandpipers in terms of severe loses from predators and unusually large eggs which yield precocial young well enough developed to make do with a single parent's attention once hatched. If the female looked after her clutch, instead of the male, she would not recover sufficiently to produce a second clutch if the first was lost. If it is lost, she will mate with him again. But if all goes well with the first nest, she will take advantage of the opportunity to fight other females for any remaining males to tie down on a second or third nest.
"Though seemingly remote from human sexuality," writes Diamond in Why sex is fun, "shorebird sexuality is instructive because it illustrates the main message of this book: a species' sexuality is molded by other aspects of the species' biology." (Diamond, 1997, p. 28)
HOW ARE THE VRELLISH ANOMALOUS?
To look at the Vrellish from the point of view of evolutionary biology, it is necessary to identify what is to be explained. How are the Vrellish different from the mammalian norm, in general, and in particular from ordinary humans? This section isolates the oddest traits. The justification for them is deferred.
The most obvious difference is Vrellish monomorphism. Genitalia differ, and the females have small breasts, but both genders are about the same size and weight. Normally, this would indicate strict monogamy. But the Vrellish of both genders enjoy a variety of sexual relationships, reproducing by contract, by conquest and by casual encounters.
The Vrellish do not marry, so they do not speak of each other as "husband", "wife" or even "spouse". The principle social unit is the clan, organised around a liege who is the dominant member of the extended family group. Vrellish lieges may be male or female. Both genders form recognised sexual partnerships of various sorts. Of these, mekan'stan relationships are the most stable and extend to military and trade alliances. The superior Vrellish partner is called the mekan'st, and the inferior one the mekan, regardless of gender. Having zero to five mekan'stan is within cultural tolerance but something between one and three is usual. If a Vrellish woman has two or more children by the same male, it would probably be with a mekan or mekan'st. The next most likely repeat sire would be a liege, or the close male relative of one. Vrellish women often have children by contract. Usually this involves buying, or earning, the services of a desirable male and is a mutually respectful arrangement between families with liege-vassal or significant mekan'stan bonds.
Vrellish children are usually raised by their maternal kin, which is not unusual enough to require a special rationale. More unusual is the reluctance male Vrellish feel toward siring offspring on unrelated Vrellish females in the absence of trusted political relationships between the families. Male Vrellish make a distinction between human (or near-human) females and Vrellish females.
Female Vrellish are likewise extremely conscious of whether a prospective mate is more or less Vrellish than herself, but she is rarely reluctant to have sex with any likely male, with the sole and pronounced exception of close relatives. Vrellish females are attracted with almost compulsive force, however, to unrelated Vrellish males, and particularly hostile ones. In short, there is nothing a Vrellish woman finds sexier than the male she has just had a hell of a time defeating, or even been defeated by herself although in the latter case other feelings might dominate.
These are unusual dynamics not only in human terms, but for any mammal. Why would males be reluctant to mate with strange females, while their sisters are turned on by enemy males? Most challenging of all is the female Vrellish capacity for rape of an unwilling male, referred to by the Vrellish as 'soul baiting' or 'gene stealing' for the sake of its self-consciously procreative intent. The reference to the 'soul' pertains to Vrellish believe in reincarnation through one's direct descendants, a social mechanism that helps put a premium on reproducing at least once before risking death too strenuously.
Finally, while both genders of Vrellish are sexy, compared with humans, it is only the female case that is a particular surprise. Males of any promiscuous species tend to pump up their genitals in an effort to beat out the competition inside the female's body since barring other males access is not possible. What, however could a Vrellish female hope to gain by having lots of sex?
Before answering the key questions identified, a look at possible real life examples will help stretch the bounds of possibility a little.
REAL LIFE MODELS
There is no widely held consensus on what does or does not constitute science fiction. But tinkering with parameters to see where prevailing theories might lead, and how we react, is undeniably one of its potencies. This does not absolutely require that anything portrayed in science fiction must have a non-fictional parallel. Even the long experiment of life on Earth is not spacious enough to manifest every quirk that might be theoretically possible. Since life on earth, to date, is the only empirical evidence we have to go by, however, it would be reassuring to find even a few isolated examples that point in a direction counter to the prevailing norm of gender behaviour in mammals. In fact, while Vrellish nature is to a serious extent alien (and certainly fictional) most of its features have parallels either in the animal kingdom or in case studies of unusual human individuals.
Violent women exist. They are about ten times less common than their male counterparts, exhibit a different modus operandi, and according to the author of When she was bad, (Pearson, 1997, p. 156) tend to be down played by a society unwilling to take them seriously even when a female killer wracks up multiple victims. "...the English speaking world was riveted by Jack the Ripper," Pearson writes, "but no one has heard of Jane Toppan, and no one paid much attention to Belle Gunness, who fled Chicago in 1908 after killing forty men and four children ... No lore exists about Louise Peete, either, born in Bienville, Louisiana, in 1883, to high-society parents, a psychopath who drove all four of her husbands to suicide, shot and killed at least two other men, bludgeoned to death a woman, and had another man committed to an insane asylum so that she could take over his bank account." The Jane Toppan referred to was a nurse, convicted of poisoning nearly one hundred patients in a Connecticut nursing home shortly after Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes in London.
Extending the search to the animal world eliminates any concern about the possibility of dangerous, aggressive females. Female lions, for example, do most of the hunting for their pride. The female hyena is, literally, a high testosterone animal.
But though female aggressiveness is not without precedent, it is harder to find exemplars of female Vrellish sexuality.
Evolutionary biology is quick to explain why. A female cannot increase her reproductive output by having more sex with more partners. Her goal is to pick the best sire, genetically, and secure long-term child rearing support. A male can increase his reproductive output by having more sex with more partners. This fundamental tension underpins what evolutionary psychologists like to call the "gender war".
Is the Vrellish female's sexual appetite, therefore, without natural precedent?
Not exactly. Potent female desire is not outside nature's repertoire, as anyone who has owned a cat in heat can surely testify. In most mammals, however, it is confined to short periods because that is all that is necessary for the females to get pregnant.
More interesting than cats, is the pan-sexuality of a primate which, like humans, has sex in circumstances where procreation is not relevant.
Bonobo apes are so closely related to both humans and common chimpanzees, that the three species differ from one another genetically by about one percent. Despite this, sexual behaviour for the three species is radically different. Chimpanzees come into heat, human and bonobo females are receptive all year.
Even more so than humans, bonobos use sex for social purposes. Masturbation, "french" kissing, female GG rubbing, male homosexual contact, and active mimicry and involvement from infants are so common place, in addition to potentially procreative sex, that bonobos cannot be observed for an hour without witnessing some sort of sex act. Inhibitions still exist, such as incest avoidance, but sex is used heavily to defray tensions and as play behaviour. Researchers like Frans de Waal suspect the bonobo's pan-sexuality may be implicated in very low rate of violence in bonobo society. Rape, for example, although observed in chimpanzees as well as humans, is not a bonobo behaviour. Instead sex seems to be the glue that holds bonobo society together (de Waal, 1997, p. 99). The females are active participants in all that sex. "Bonobo females," writes de Waal, "have unusually prominent clitorises and are among the most sexually solicitous creatures in the animal kingdom." (de Waal, p. 1997, p. 111)
Male bonobos cannot profit from infanticide and rape because they have no way of knowing whether the infant they kill is their own, and cannot monopolise females. This suggestion is further born out in the large size of the male bonobo's sexual organs. As a rule, the males of species which compete at the sperm level rather than the access to insemination level, tend to have large testes. In Sperm wars, Baker describes the surprising extent to which this phenomena may operate in human males. It may surprise most people to know, for example, that human ejaculate includes infertile sperm cells specialised in blocking or killing foreign sperm within a woman's reproductive tract.
Baker's biochemical analysis also touches on the conflict between a female's need to defend her body against foreign invaders of any kind that might do it damage, and a sperm's motive to survive as long as possible in a foreign body. Blum cites an extreme example in which the supermale fruit-flies exterminated a whole generation of females by producing semen that was too toxic. Ordinary fruit fly semen is a little toxic, precisely to discourage a female from succeeding with another male. (Blum, 1997, p. 221) Female sexual chemistry is equally fascinating. In Sperm wars, Baker describes three functions of female orgasm, including clearing out disease causing invaders and dead sperm and prepping for successful future intercourse (Baker, 1997, p.169). The women's white cells also impact the success of sperm after insemination, by hunting them as they would any other foreign invader. The important aspect of all this biochemistry, for the Vrellish question, is to note that things are not always straight forward after insemination has taken place.
How about rape?
Must a female, by virtue of sheer biology, always be vulnerable to rape but never capable of it? To tackle the first item first, consider lordosis, the process by which a female rat raises her vaginal opening to receive the male's penis.
Lordosis has no parallel in humans. It is a reflex action caused by ovulation. The interesting point is that here is an anatomical obstacle that makes it impossible for a male rat to force an unreceptive female.
A male hyena would make an unlikely rapist for different reasons. The female of this species is the more aggressive animal. She also sports an organ that looks very much like a penis. To have intercourse, the female hyena must help. In Blum's words, "The female first retracts her dangling tube into her body. Then the male has to insert himself into it." This is no easy feat for the male, and requires the female to keep very still while he's at it.
In the animal world at least, it seems perfectly possible for biology to eliminate the reproductive value of men raping females.
How about females raping an unwilling male?
The very suggestion goes so against the grain of human nature that the usual response is laughter or scorn. Indeed, a female forcing a male to have sex is not something that crops up often in the animal world, unless one counts chemical inducements. The problem has two parts.
First, is it physiologically possible? This would depend on whether, by definition, male ejaculation constitutes consent because it involves pleasure. That is equivalent to saying that a woman who experienced an orgasm while being raped was not raped, by definition, which seems ludicrous. Surely a distinction can be drawn between physiological responses, however elicited, and the mental state of being willing to engage in them.
Assuming ejaculation does not, ipso facto, imply consent, then the question is could a man who did not want to ejaculate into a woman be forced to do so? This question, in turn, amounts to whether or not an unwilling male can be made erect and caused to ejaculate by manipulation.
Any one who has taken in certain exotic acts in strip bars knows that some women have a lot more control of their vaginal musculature than others. It does not seem far fetched to postulate that Vrellish women could have larger and stronger sexual organs than their human counterparts, which would be capable of gathering in and strongly stimulating a healthy male with natural susceptibility, whether or not he was willing to co-operate. What those circumstances might be, and how they could possibly be disproportionately favourable to her genetic interests, remains to be expounded. We are talking here solely of what might be physically possible given some modest enhancement of human female anatomy.
Anyone who cannot imagine pronounced variations in female primate anatomy need only study the photographs of Bonobo apes, in the surprising and beautifully illustrated book by Frans De Waal and Frans Lanting, to realise that the status quo for any evolutionary line is always only one possible, temporary, end point. "Bonobo females have unusually prominent clitorises and are among the most sexually solicitous creatures in the animal kingdom," de Waal captions a photograph of a bonobo female's lazy masturbation session. (de Waal, p. 1997, p. 111)
But physiology is really the least significant factor. If nothing else, female rape of males could be facilitated by drugs. The key obstacle is psychological.
Blum quotes psychologist Neil Malamuth of UCLA on the topic. "In today's [more equalised] culture, it's feasible that a woman in Bosnia could put a gun to a man's head and say, 'Give me oral sex or I'll kill you.' But I haven't heard of that happening. It's not just a matter of male and female physiology but of psychology. The minds of women don't seem to have the similar capacity for coercive sex." (Blum, p. 248)
Even Patricia Pearson, author of When she was bad: violent women and the myth of innocence, might agree on this score. Most of the cases she cites of females in the role of sexual abuser involve children, and women serial killers tend to operate by stealth on those within their power rather than attacking healthy males out of a sexual motivation.
Vrellish evolutionary biology will need to explain, therefore, not how female rape of males might be accomplished physically but its underpinning differential reproductive advantage for the women. According to evolutionary biology, if such an advantage is demonstrable, then the behaviour will be in an organism's repertoire just as rape of females by males is in the human repertoire. For humans there is no reciprocal gain to be had by females being able, and willing, to force a male who refused to have sex with them, and neither sex bothers with rape among Bonobo apes although physiologically it would be just as possible for male Bonobo's as for humans.
EVOLUTION OF VRELLISH BEHAVIOUR
At this point it is necessary to delve into the fictional setting of the Okal Rel universe, set a thousand years into the future beyond the unidentified date of the fall of Earth. While "modern" Vrellish do not acknowledge the fact, they began life as artificial product known as "sevolites", after the name of the company "Self-Evolved Limited". The Vrellish breed of sevolite was custom designed to contend with the physically debilitating and psychologically corrosive method of faster than light travel called reality skimming. To combat the ills of reality skimming, the original Vrellish were made physiologically regenerative and psychologically robust.
The fact that the Vrellish are great pilots, and that this requires certain superhuman qualities, is key to the development of their sexual behaviour. The details of reality skimming, itself, are not germane. (They are provided as an auxiliary appendix.) Likewise, although there are three types of sevolite in the Okal Rel universe, the rest of this discussion will use "sevolite" as if it was synonymous with "Vrellish" unless explicitly stated otherwise. Other types of sevolites will be dealt with as a unit and only to the extent that they impinge on Vrellish cultural development.
Vrellish culture thrived for a thousand years in a region of space known as Red Reach. The starting population included humans, pure Vrellish males and pure Vrellish females produced by copying the male model with the minimum necessary changes. It was something of a rushed job, since the original plan involved breeding the Vrellish, who were all male, with another kind of sevolite.
Interbreeding between Vrellish males and human females created hybrids but Vrellish females proved very hard to make pregnant. To begin with, this was an artefact of their artificial origins. If the offspring of Vrellish females by Vrellish males did not enjoy a major tactical advantage in Red Reach politics, the hybrids would have taken over, with fewer and fewer "highborn" Vrellish every generation.
But "highborns" are the super weapons of the Okal Rel universe, able to neutralise the military prowess of less Vrellish enemies.
A highborn is either a pure Vrellish individual, or a hybrid sufficiently Vrellish to manifest all the original Vrellish traits. Vrellish clans in early Vrellish culture, prior to the development of ritualised alternatives, lived or died according to the strength of their highborn contingent. This is the crucible which, over a thousand years, forged the Vrellish culture at the time of Okal Rel universe series.
The cut off for being highborn falls at about 50% Vrellish. Inferior hybrids are merely tougher than ordinary humans. Between 40% and 75% fetuses risk spontaneous abortion due to the all-or-nothing nature of the set of physiological traits known collectively as highborn syndrome. The risk is greatest in the middle of the range, tapering out toward either edge. The risk is greater, also, if the father is greatly superior to the mother (or visa versa but this seldom happens). This is because in an imbalanced mating, the chances are that the only hope of getting a key, dominant Vrellish gene is from a single source. More viable highborns will result from two 60% Vrellish parents, than -- for example -- a 90% Vrellish male and a 30% Vrellish female.
On the whole, the best way to get a highborn, is if the mother is highborn. This is why Vrellish females succeeded, despite the difficulties of their awkward start and persistently quirky fertility.
The early Vrellish matured fast and died young in an endless series of small, personal wars over territory. Habitat suitable for raising food, keeping dependant humans and hybrids, and servicing space vessels is Vrellish treasure. Since Red Reach did not have a limitless supply, clan warfare sprang up in which highborns isolated their dependant hybrids and humans on bases which they jealously defended from rivals.
Despite the greater-than-human potential for longevity of highborn regenerative powers, the Vrellish grew up fast, lived hard and died young. This put a premium on breeding highborns, since any clan that failed to do so lost its single most effective weapon against rivals.
It is the dynamics of intra-Vrellish clan warfare that explain the strange aspects of Vrellish sexuality.
To review, these are: monomorphism in the absence of monogamy, a strong indiscriminate female sex drive, reluctance by the male to mate with strange females and finally just the opposite drive in the female to mate with rival males, and even to rape them if necessary.
Monomophism was a given of the way that the Vrellish got started. As such, it cannot be expected to predict sexual behaviour in the same way it would if the Vrellish had evolved, naturally, over millennium. It is baggage. Nonetheless, if it was detrimental to Vrellish survival, it should have changed over the thousand year history during which the Vrellish energetically sculpted themselves into their modern form by testing different strategies of warfare and breeding on each other. Apparently being bigger and stronger would not improve procreative success for either sex.
By now it is established that such success would mean producing more highborns, first, and more dependant hybrids, second. This is the case because without the highborns, hybrids are at greater risk also, from clan enemies.
A highborn Vrellish woman's indiscriminate sex drive is a direct consequence of her quirky fertility. Also, her body's defences are such that it usually takes a male at least as Vrellish as herself to get her pregnant. Even then it may take much longer than it would in humans. She does not need to worry about risking a wasteful pregnancy, since any fetus able to survive until she notices she is pregnant is bound to be at least as tough as she is. Even a miscarriage by an inferior male is valuable, because it primes her system. Her sexual insatiability is a means of adjusting her internal biochemistry. As in bonobo society, sex is also a means of relieving tension, but the tensions a Vrellish women wishes to relieve by sex are her own hormonal challenges as much as external social ones. This is why bonobo style pan-sexuality is not observed among the Vrellish, except in heterosexual forms, despite their highly physical nature.
Sex for the Vrellish female is always just a little bit procreative in intention because her need to breed is desperate. This is not, of course, a conscious matter. Vrellish women typically are not aware of a pregnancy until quickening, and have viscously rapid gestations, yielding small but precocious infants after about four months of being "grounded". Despite the swift production, and a fierce devotion to family that embraces their own offspring just as hotly as any family member, Vrellish women do not like pregnancy. They are not really made for it, and while a thousand years of constant struggle has helped by weeding out the least fit and most pregnancy-phobic, if they didn't like sex, a lot, they might not have as many children.
Another reason for female Vrellish lustiness is that she is never sure when she might be fertile. Therefore she cannot afford to miss a chance to store up sperm in what Baker describes as the human female's cervical crypts, in which sperm can survive for up to eight days in humans. (Baker, 1997.) Even if she has had enough sex to feel satisfied, improving the quality of the sperm available to her is always desirable, making her lust afresh after a suitable, higher sevolite than anyone she's had recently. Even exposure to mundane human disease agents, acquired through sexual transmission, could help her get pregnant by occupying her formidable immune defences that might otherwise be busying killing off the sperm of a Vrellish lover.
Male Vrellish highborns lead something of a double life. On the one hand, they have a considerable genetic investment in the hybrids they sire. Vrellish social norms gives them plenty of access to inferior females, and biology favours them as fathers in internal competition with inferior male rivals. Vrellish males do not normally need to resort to rape to become fathers, nor to excluding inferior males from access to shared women. As members of the clan's highborn fighting force, they protect this genetic investment as well as their nieces, nephews and half-siblings.
Sex with female peers is problematic for male highborns. Most of the females in their clan will be close relatives. Mekan'st relationships, and vassal-liege bonds between clans, are the best way for males to sire highborn offspring. But these children will be raised by their mother's clans. This will be advantageous to the male's clan only if relations with the mother's clan are stable enough to keep them allies for the long term. He would not want the disproportionately powerful son or daughter of a highborn mother to be up against his maternal clan and hybrid offspring in the next generation.
Vrellish culture reinforces the unwritten rules of biology regarding highborn-highborn reproduction, through the reincarnation belief. A male might express his distrust of a foreign highborn female as an unwillingness to let a soul of his line be reborn into a stranger's clan. Obviously he might also be consciously aware that the child he sired today could return to threaten him and his many hybrid children.
Again, it is only the significance of highborns in inter-clan warfare that makes this so important.
Female Vrellish try, and sometime succeed, in seducing equal or superior males. There are opportunities at gatherings or when strangers meet while travelling. In addition to any concern about future claims to property or threats, however, a male who allows himself to be seduced by a powerful female is giving away a marketable commodity. He or his liege (male or female) might be able to do better if the business was conducted by child contract. He may be happy enough to sire children to his heart's content on his inferiors, but to do so without a sense of the politics concerned where a highborn female is concerned would be a careless act. The odds of getting her pregnant with a single attempt are seldom good, but the rarer and more exciting an opportunity she finds it, the better the chances her fertility will kick into gear.
This leads to the final challenge of female Vrellish behaviour. How can it ever be in a female's interest to force sex on an unwilling male? This happens -- although opinions about it are as mixed in Vrellish society as they are in human ones -- for the very simple reason that a rival male is the absolutely best sire material for a highborn female. He is unrelated, she isn't going to get him via established alliances, and all she wants from him is his sperm.
During Red Reach's thousand year history of constant, small scale warfare, whole clans have even co-operated in keeping defeated or kidnapped males prisoner until their female highborns were finished with them. It happens, in Vrellish biology, because there is an advantage to be gained by doing it.
Vrellish highborns, male and female, are difficult people to force to do anything. On the whole, however, stealing sperm is far easier than first getting a female highborn pregnant and then keeping her that way through a short but intense pregnancy. Neither gender does well in captivity, and tends to go berserk. Just as the zebra cannot be domesticated, Vrellish women cannot be successfully raped in reproductive terms. This does not mean that enemy males may not rape a captive enemy for other motives although given Vrellish attitudes to sex it would hardly be viewed as the greatest of all possible injuries.
The development of ritual warfare mechanisms, involving duels, helped the Vrellish reduce the damage to property and loss of life inherent in their constant space wars, but preserved the template on which Vrellish development was built.
Rights of challenge, for example, followed the old rule of shared blood, making a liege's hostile child an especially dangerous phenomena. This came about after the Vrellish became loosely united under a single liege for purposes of representation at the central court where an oligarchy of other sevolite powers met. The influence of other non-Vrellish sevolites was felt in other ways, as well, but invaders were never successful in taking territory in Red Reach, except temporarily. The Vrellish could throw anyone out of their territory. The pure Vrellish could not, however, organise sufficiently to expand themselves, due to their tendency to work best in small family units which compete in complex patterns of alliance and enmity.
This pattern of behaviour, acted out in reality skimming conflicts where highborns are effectively super-weapons and females are the key to sustaining a clan's population of highborns, is the crucible in which the unusual sexual norms of the Vrellish were forged.
In Sperm Wars, Baker declines to take a moral stand concerning his findings. In a similar fashion, the development of a Vrellish cultural model should not be mistaken for advocacy of adopting this approach to gender equality, except perhaps in fictional exercises.
If the paper, itself, has moral aspirations, they are to perform the thought experiment of divesting behaviours such as rape or promiscuity of their strongly gender-biased baggage long enough to evaluate them on the basis of physical assault, abuse of power, violation of another person's reproductive potential or breach of trust. It is the author's belief that such gender-neutral moral grounds are more just to both genders, and less vulnerable to misrepresentation or belittling by either one.
As for the Vrellish characters in the Okal Rel Universe, while they confront their challenges with their own special baggage rather different from the human norm, they are judged according to their actions under the prevailing circumstances.
In his book, The Evolution of human sexuality, Donald Symons remarks, "the sexually insatiable woman is to be found, primarily, if not exclusively, in the ideology of feminism, the hopes of boys, and the fears of men." It will be interesting to discover if by creating them, even if only in fictional thought experiment, we may find out if they do, indeed, appeal to feminists, frighten men or turn boys on. Whatever our reaction, if we can demonstrate that they might be just as plausible as the status quo, given a different set of shaping pressures, it might jog our higher brains to look at the whole question from a fresh perspective.
That, at least, is always the hope and the promise of science fiction.
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