Science fiction is, in many ways, an extremely horny genre. The futures it depicts are ones where we have grown beyond the confines of our planet, reached into the stars, often met new civilizations...and promptly got the hots for them. So it should come to the surprise of no one that Star Trek, one of sci-fi’s most beloved bastions on TV, is much the same.
That is, to the surprise of most people apparently, until author Leah Bobet pondered an interesting question on Twitter last week. Given advances made in society and equality to create the egalitarian utopia of the Federation, and the general approach to intrapersonal relationships exhibited by the crew of the Enterprise and their fellows, would Star Trek’s society (as it’s presented in The Next Generation) be one where an appetite for casual sex—not just the base act of procreation, as obviously that does exist—still exists?
Or, as Bobet frankly puts it: People in TNG have sex. But do they fuck?
Sticking within Bobet’s parameters—you can’t just name an episode in which someone has sex, or is implied to have had it—to keep it in the realm of whether there’s an attitude of sex-positivity is a lot harder (ooh err) than you may have first thought. Sure, you could say “The Naked Now” because Data and Lieutenant Yar bone after an extremely awkward conversation about how the latter grew up on a world with literal rape gangs. But the episode’s horniness is predicated on a virus lowering the inhibitions of the crew (as a similar one did in the episode’s predecessor, Star Trek’s “The Naked Time”), and said horniness is presented as a dangerous, fatal thing that the crew should fear. Not exactly sex-positive!
That’s not to say that there aren’t at least some elements of “get horny, it’s fine” attitudes to sex in TNG, it’s just weirdly unbalanced among the myriad cultures of the Federation and the worlds the Enterprise encounters. Riker is repeatedly characterized as a horndog in early seasons in a Kirk-ian manner, for example. And there’s the entire existence of the planet Risa as basically “The Vacation Planet for Fucking,” right down to—an interest shared by Riker, once again!—fertility statues and sexual pleasure rites.
In general, the “on the job” nature of our heroes’ adventures in TNG that leaves very little time for an examination into their sexual lives outside of the tamer aspects of romance. But there’s also some weird ways the show shames sexual proclivity, like how Troi and other members of the crew look down on Lwaxana Troi’s gregarious attitude when it comes to sensuality in her myriad appearances. And then there’s just bonkersness like “Sub Rosa,” a.k.a. “That Time Doctor Crusher Got Hot For a Ghost That Had Also Been Hot For Her Grandma, Look, It’s a Long Story, God.”
Things get even more interesting when you go on outside the realm of TNG and examine both what came before—the original Trek’s fuckiness is largely predicated on some of its more regressive attitudes of the time in which it was made, from Orion Slave Girls to Kirk’s Horatio Hornblower flirtatious gusto. But the franchise’s first incarnation also has some fascinating insights into horniness and the suppression of sexuality, like Spock undergoing the Vulcan mating call, Pon Farr, in “Amok Time.”
Fast-forwarding to TNG’s contemporaries in the Trek timeline, with Deep Space Nine you have some of Star Trek’s most lassiez-faire attitudes regarding casual sex. And that’s beyond Doctor Bashir’s almost incessant attempts to get into the pants of Dax—a character for whom sexuality is openly wielded as a power dynamic. Jadzia herself is a prime lens for DS9's sensual experiences, more than happy to regale the exploits of her former Trill hosts. But her character is also used to raise questions of sexuality and gender identity, too, when issues of queerness are touched upon as old flames from Jadzia’s male lives intersect with her current female host.
Then you get to the more base, yet blatant fuckery of Deep Space Nine—the fact that it’s made extremely clear that the holosuite booths in Quark’s bar are primarily designed not for Sisko’s innocent baseball games, or Bashir and O’Brien’s tabletop wargame recreations, but for holopornography and virtual roleplay sessions.
There’s also that time Dax and Worf got sent to sick bay for fucking too hard, but that’s beside the point.
Of The Next Generation’s contemporaries, Voyager might be the most interestingly demure when it comes to sexual pleasure. On a macro level, romance exists. By the end of the show, there are multiple couples aboard the stranded, homeward bound starship, from Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres to the bizarre mashing together of Seven of Nine and Chakotay in the last season. Relationship issues were examined through them and predecessors like Neelix and Kes, or even Janeway and Chakotay’s off-ship fling in “Resolutions,” the pairing that never was—but they’re rather chaste when placed next to Quark’s holosexcapades.
Sex on Voyager comes up as a matter of theoretics rather than pleasure. When the ship is stranded in the Delta Quadrant and the possibility of whether or not this short term science vessel may become a multi-generational starship is raised, it’s an interesting question of family and the messiness of sexual relationships with co-workers. However, it’s never truly examined outside of Naomi Wildman’s birth in season two, and eventually Miral Paris in the show’s series finale. Even Seven of Nine’s own exploration of sex—putting aside the metatext of the male gaze invited by Jeri Ryan’s skintight bodysuit costumes—is explored from the scientific perspective of her better attempting to re-learn human relationships after leaving the Borg collective, leading to that infamous line in “Revulsion”: Then you wish to copulate?
And yet, for its relatively prim and proper approach to sexual appetites, Voyager has an interesting sexual liberation with one particular character: its franchise-landmark of a captain, Kathryn Janeway. Aside from her position as Star Trek’s first leading female captain, a small part of Janeway’s arc in the show is given over to her own moments of intimacy and sexual freedom beyond the rigor of captaincy.
Thematically, there’s the lingering plot element of her having to come to terms with Voyager’s stranding far from Federation space leading to a breakdown in the relationship with her fiancé, Mark, who she ultimately learns moved on from their relationship shortly after Voyager and her crew were declared missing. But there’s also the fascinating openness with which the show lets Janeway engage in sensuality in the form of Fair Haven—a holoprogram recreation of a 19th century Irish village created by Paris in the season six episode of the same name. While visiting, Janeway befriends, and becomes attracted to, one of the faux-villagers, Michael Sullivan—an attraction that becomes so immediately deep that, in some downtime, she promptly returns to the holodeck to essentially write herself some future fanfic, rewriting Sullivan’s character to better suit her...tastes.
Yes, “delete the wife” is a hilarious line, one that Kate Mulgrew delivers with incredible relish. But this whole scene is remarkable, especially in the lens of the gender politics inherent to Janeway’s position as Trek’s “first female captain.” Here is a woman, in a position of power, openly embracing her sexual appetite—in private, away from her fellow officers and her crew, sure, but we as an audience are not invited to mock or lambast Janeway for her desires. She is, in a moment to herself, allowed to be horny. Extremely horny. In a show that otherwise treats sex rather clinically, it’s a fascinating release.
Like a lot of science fiction, I think it’s pretty safe to say Star Trek, in some of its myriad forms, can Fuck. But in comparison to some of its fellows in the genre, the root to finding that horniness is much more complex than it seems at first glance.
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