We are living through the golden years of apocalyptic storytelling, and nothing is immune from dystopia fever - even sex. In fact, the sexapocalypse has been with us since at least the days of Hieronymous Bosch, a 15th century Dutch painter famous for depicting the end of days in vast canvasses packed with tiny figures enjoying bizarre sexual scenarios. More recently, novels like The Handmaids Tale and comic Y the Last Man suggest that horrific gender scenarios will play a major role in our dark future.
But is the sexapocalypse really something to fear? Or could it actually usher in a new era without the old sexual hangups and oppression that many of us struggle with today? We asked a group of brave scientists and science fiction writers what they think the coming sexapocalypse will bring.
A sexapocalypse can be many things, from a scenario where one gender is wiped out or humans can no longer reproduce, to stories about dystopian sexual hedonism (think Logan's Run or Brave New World). Or it could be some event that completely transforms everything we believe about what it means to be male and female. No matter what, the sexapocalypse is sure to usher in a strange new world where sex is changed forever.
In the early 1980s, cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker published a bizarre novel about math and alien invasion called The Sex Sphere. In it, humanity is nearly destroyed when the planet is invaded by aliens who are made of nothing but sex organs, and seemingly exist entirely to latch onto humans and have constant sex with us. Eventually there's a showdown with a giant vagina dentata, and everything returns to normal. So naturally, I turned to Rucker for a sense of what a sexapocalypse might look like. Inspired by Bosch's work, which he said "didn't look like much fun," he wrote this hallucinatory description:
A simple idea is that any part of your body can sprout a penis or open up into a vagina. "We just shook hands." Telepathy could be a kind of sexual thing, too—-after all, a big part of sex is getting into a deep feeling of synch with your partner. The synch aspect is one reason why music can seem so sexual. So on sexapocalypse day the Big Beat starts up and everyone's rocking it. We melt into gouts of sperm and roly-poly eggs. We wriggle into the ground. Ma Earth swells up like a milkweed pod. She splits open and our star-children drift to the stars. Here we come!
So this sexapocalypse, which doesn't sound too bad, offers us Earth and the stars instead of spirituality and Heaven.
Sci Curious, the nom de plume of a neuroscientist who studies physiology, jokingly suggested something similar to Rucker's vision. "I think it would involve giant genitalia waving everywhere," she said. But then, on a more serious note, she speculated about a world where a person's gender could have nothing to do with what they do sexually:
I imagine a sociological sexapolcalypse that involves the complete dissociation between biological sex and gender. It would change the concept of biological sex for many people, as well as what sexual intercourse means, in very fundamental ways. So much of modern society is based on assumptions about gender that to take away its link with biological sex would completely alter how society functions.
In essence, a sexapocalypse could usher in a world where nobody makes assumptions about you — or what you like to do in bed — based on your genitals.
Many of the people I talked to about sexapocalypse saw a distinctly political side to the idea. David Williams, author of near-future technothriller The Mirrored Heavens, summed this up succinctly:
Sexapocalypse is what Red State America thinks will happen when gay marriage gets legalized, contraception and sex ed are in every school, women can do what they want with their bodies, anything consensual is nobody else's business, the invisible sky fairy gets seriously vexed, and we finally steer past all these issues-that-shouldn't-be-issues and get on with the business of making the future real.
Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky offered a truly dark sexapocalyptic vision that plays on some of the same politics that Williams alludes to.
Gorinsky speculated in email:
Like all the best human-borne apocalypses, the sexapocalypse stands the best chance of crossing the point of no return if it becomes a battleground for an extant culture war. As some of today's more common STIs become truly ubiquitous, pro-abstinence forces will gain traction in mainstream (non-religious) culture. As they become ever more intent on reforming the sexually active, they will eventually resort to tactics such as sending sleeper agents into sex doll factory lines to replace their genital technology with hidden ballistic or castrative weaponry, or flooding self-updating application front-ends for smartphone-guided teledildonics with viruses that cause unpredictable outbreaks of internal bruising — or worse. Once the first wave of sabotage comes to light, the partners and loved ones of the afflicted will seek revenge in kind: armed massacres of cuddle parties, promise rings with remotely deployed pinpricks bearing contagious biological payloads, and the like. The possibility for escalation in this scenario is self-evident, but what will truly be surprising is the percentage of the global population that will care enough to take mercenary action against one side or the other within a year of onset.
Now there is a scenario I'd like to see explored in a science fiction novel.
Sexapocalypse politics go beyond conservative vs. liberal skirmishes, however. University of Illinois anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who studies medicine and gender, told me that her "sexapocalypse to celebrate" will come when gender bias is drained out of medical studies. She imagines a world where:
Gender bias no longer influences pharmaceutical priorities or federal funding, and when we accept a wider interpretation of normal variation in human form and function. Issues like why black women have higher mortality rates for breast cancer, or why postpartum hemorrhage seems to strike so randomly yet is so deadly, or the black box of transgender reproductive health, all would be resolved before cures for erectile dysfunction or baldness. Finally, we would do away with all the underfunded, misunderstood syndromes – polycystic ovarian syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and premenstrual syndrome, to name just a few – and start to identify the origins of these clusters of symptoms.
In some ways, Clancy's goals for the post-sexapocalyptic world are quite humble. She simply wants diseases and syndromes that affect women to be given as much attention and funding as those that affect men. Maybe once Sci Curious abolishes the connection between gender and sex, we'll be closer to that goal.
Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, argued that "the sexapocalypse is already here." She said:
Across East, South, and Central Asia and in parts of Eastern Europe, females are rapidly becoming a minority. Thanks to sex selective abortion, countries like China, Armenia, Vietnam, India, and Albania now see over 11 boys born for every 10 girls. In some Asian cities the sex ratio at birth is as high as three to two. As one old man I met in a booming Chinese town put it: "Everyone has boys now."
Sexapocalypse is not good for women. As females become the scarcer sex, violence, societal instability, and crime spike. "Surplus" men from sex selection hot spots resort to buying wives from poorer countries. And a change in the balance between the sexes alters the nature of that other type of sex as well.
For those in the sex trade, sexapocalypse is great for business. (Chinese sex worker Hooligan Sparrow has suggested as much on her blog.) For gay men-especially those in the closet who face pressure from their families to marry - the gender imbalance is probably a good thing. But for heterosexual men who take for granted the existence of a potential mate, it's too late.
From Hvistendahl's perspective, we've already created a science fictional sexapocalypse, using new technologies that allow parents to weed out unwanted daughters before they're born.
The sexapocalypse could mean liberation or desolation, depending on how you look at it. Either way, we'll never be able to think of men and women the same way again.