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Explain Sex To An Alien

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As I mentioned a waaaaays back, one of my classes recently was the Sociology of Sex, with the excellent book edited by Dr. Tracey Steele. (No, really. It's good.) A lot of my sex-oriented posts lately had a start in that class. The below actually is part of my final for that class. (Read it anyway, dammit. I hadn't had this much fun with a final since... well... yeah.)

Describe sex to an alien. Assume they haven't been listening to our broadcasts - or at best, are horribly confused by them. What is sex? What isn't sex? What does it mean - or not mean?

All of the references here are to articles within the text. The price is a bit steep, but much of the source material is also linked to in past entries (or at least, the abstract is linked to). Despite the price, Sex, Self, And Society is easily my favorite textbook from my undergrad career. (My favorite textbook that wasn't a textbook is Privilege, Power, and Difference.) Which, by the way, my undergraduate career is over as of today. Go me.


I'd be more impressed by the saucer, the short grey alien in front of me, or its black shiny eyes if I didn't know it was all lifted straight from that bad Whitley Strieber movie. Still, its ability to listen in on our media makes the question - Pat's question - all the more mystifying.

"Sex," it repeats in Ben Stein's voice. "Tell me about sex."

I resist the urge to say "Bueller..." and reach into my bag. The green & white book has already been promised to two different people who want to read it, but this kind of overrides their requests.

"I have this book -" and my fingers are only slightly singed from the heat ray that obliterates it.

"Or not," I say.

"Tell me about sex."

I sigh, sit, and motion for Pat to sit next to me. "First of all, Pat, you just obliterated my references. I was going to..."

The alien hands me another copy of the book. I take it, and shake my head.

"Right. Okay, fine. First thing you need to understand is this. Humans are animals. So on one level, there's a biological thing going on. Sex is how we combine our genetic material to avoid errors. Without the combination, a genetic mutation can cause cascade effects throughout the population's descendants more quickly. This is done by the male of the species - with an organ that becomes erect during mating - squirting gametes into a special organ in the body of the female. About every twenty-eight days, the woman becomes fertile, and produces her own gamete; the two are supposed to meet inside the woman's body. But it's the actual act where the male's erect organ enters the female that is considered biological sex."

Pat looks confused, so I gesture for it to be patient.

"That was the easy part. First, people get pleasure from biological sex. It's routinely hooked into our pleasure centers. But that's also where it gets complicated. We aren't just biological creatures; there's an overlay of consciousness over all of that. So what might start out as a biological urge or drive can be altered, fulfilled, and shifted through the mediation of conscious experience. See, that pleasure is not only caused through penetration of the male organ into the female organ. Many types of friction - though preferences vary - can still stimulate these pleasant sensations. The person themselves or other organs with other people can cause these same sensations.

"So when that pleasurable sensation gets associated with a particular situation, type of person, or anything else, that can cause the anticipation and resulting stimulation to be more or less intense. And when it's intense, it's a pretty intense sensation. Since it is so intense - and also because it is tied with biological procreation - it also gets wrapped up into a whole other set of things with our consciousness. Those feelings of pleasure - and the anticipation of them - gets associated with ongoing relationships (Siedman). They get associated with power. Because they're so powerful and sparsely shared, deciding who gets to cause those sensations with whom gets to be a Big Deal (Luker, Rothman, Griscom). And forcing others to give you those sensations - that's a Big Deal too, though it's one that society usually frowns on (Beneke, McCall). Yet even that kind of disapproval gets wrapped up into ideas of power and authority, where people use these couplings to justify other kinds of power structures and hierarchies (Hall).

"And that's just talking about heterosexuals - the male-female coupling. Sometimes people prefer to be with people of the same gender. Relatively recently, they aren't just behaviors, but actually started considering their entire outlook as different (Katz). Then everyone else had to figure out how to prove that they fit in the same old categories, since just dividing people up by which organs they had wasn't useful any longer. They selected some behaviors - and continue to amplify them to make sure everyone around them knows they like people of the opposite gender (Messener). We tend to think of males having bigger problems with this, but women have just as many issues trying to keep identity from being mixed up with who they care to have sex with (Lewin). And even more recently, we've started to actually pay attention to people whose organs aren't as well-defined as everyone else's, or who view themselves as being the opposite of what their organs say they are. Then not only does their appearance have little relationship to their biology, but it also has little relationship to whom they care to have pleasure with (Devor).

"In a lot of ways, we're still dealing with the fact that we aren't just non-conscious apes. We finally have both the intellect and the resources to transcend a lot of the social structures and categorizations that biology and scarce resources forced us into, but trying to fight inertia is hard."

I breathed heavily, fingers worn from flipping through the Table of Contents, pointing Pat at the appropriate essays. It looks at me again, and I see... nothing in those big, black eyes.

"Dude," Pat says to me. "I just want to know where to put the anal probe."

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