(This post is ironic in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, but at the same time quite illustrative)
So last time I discussed the complex elements of sex and society. Sex is a kind of primal element of living creatures, and thus affects how they develop, interact, and work together. Sentient creatures, so my thesis goes, are basically about communication, and sex is just the first form of it. Because it is so core to living beings, sex infuses a lot of what sentient beings do – or the complex structures that evolve and develop as they make societies and civilizations.
Now when it comes to worldbuilding cultures and society, reproduction and sex will inevitably be a part of what you create, because you don’t have members of a society without making more members of society – and all the complications that ensues. Sex may be simple in principle, but it gets pretty complex.
So to help you devise the sides of your society that involve sex (and tangentially that’ll be a lot), here’s a list of areas to consider. This is not a complete list, just a way to get you to develop the traditions, language, and so on for your society.
The fact that this is not a complete list gives you an idea of what you may face.
But First . . .
But first, let’s ask the thorny question – when designing a civilization or a culture or a society, just how much do you need to think about all of this? When you consider all the traditions, habits, words, and so on that involve sex it can be pretty exhausting to try and detail how a society handles sex. So how much do you need to do so you can get on to other stuff?
I mean yes, you can’t spend all your time thinking about sex, even when you feel you could if it was about you having it. You’ve got magic and solar systems and the like to design.
In this case, I advise a few things:
#1 is really important because, if you need to figure something out, you’re primed to figure out the answers for things you didn’t think of.
And with that said, let’s get going . . .
Society And Sex Checklist
So here’s areas that you’ll need to consider when designing sex and societies in your world. As noted it’s not complete, but it should be enough to keep you going.
Lineage: Most forms of reproduction we may conceive involve close lineages – someone is the offspring of so-and-so, who is the off-spring of such-and-such, going back in time. Sex means someone gets out there and produces the generation that produces the next one.
Just consider the battles over kingships and inheritances you’ve seen or read about. Or think about the obligations people have in your culture towards family members.
Is lineage (who’s the family of whom) important in your setting? If not, no worry – but if it is important (or instinctual) then how does it affect society, traditions, laws, and so on?
Exercise: Ask how many times you’ve dealt with lineage-based issues in your life – wills, inheritance, paternity, etc.
Birth: At some point a new life comes into being. So what does the society do then? Considering how much reproducing a society may do, there’s going to be a lot to do and thus . . . traditions, rules, and more.
Birth means you suddenly have a new member of society – and if your’e anything like humans, one that’s rather vulnerable and needs to be raised. It also brings in the complications of lineage, medical issues, validation of said lineage, health, and more. Birth is so complicated people may forget what the person giving birth is going through.
So it’s very likely a society is going to construct a lot of traditions and policies around birth. Birth is sort of the end result of sex – and the beginning of a lot of other questions.
Exercise: Last time you or a close friend or relative had a child, what social, religious, and cultural activities did you engage in? What purpose did they serve (if any)?
Raising Children: Once you’ve got new members of society, your various races and beings and societies are going to raise them. Perhaps there is, again, some difference between the people you write and we humans, but if not, then you’re back to the issue – raising kids.
In this case, you have to ask what raising children does – and following my theme of communication, it’s about taking new members of society and integrating them into said society. It’s helping them become functional, giving them a place, and telling them who they are.
On top of that,it’s also going to be influenced and influence other elements of society. It’s the morals to be passed on, the education, the principles. Raising Children is the end result of sex, and in the way what societies all come down to passing things on. It’s not just genes.
Exercise: How did you get raised to be who you are – and what worked and what didn’t? Why did the traditions and things you experienced exist (even if it wasn’t a good reason).
Puberty (or the lack): Puberty among humans is something we take for granted because we’re used to it. Every joke or lamentation about it seems so standard that we miss what it is – a child beginning the transformation into an adult, and an adult capable of reproduction. That’s actually pretty impressive, but we tend not to think about it.
It’s likely any species you design has some kind of change into having fall maturity and reproductive capacity. If this isn’t part of a species you design, then that alone brings in a lot of complexities. Have a sentient species that can reproduce right after birth and you have some seriously complicated issues. I mean at that point you’ve got human Tribbles.
But I’m going to focus on puberty or the equivalent in your settings, assuming a setting you created has creatures that take time to reach physical, mental, and sexual maturity.
Consider what puberty means. It means the transformation of a creature into a more mature form, which includes reproductive capacity. A society is going to have to cope with that because that’s a big change. It’s almost like the person is evolving into something else just within their lifetime.
Come to think of it, unless maturity comes in a proper order or all at once, sexual, mental, and physical maturity may arrive at different times. As we can see in humans, they don’t always line up – and if there’s something like that in your species, it gets more complicated. You can certainly see plenty of examples in human society where these things get complicated (just look at the arguments over sex education in America)
Exercise: Think of the different rituals you’ve seen for puberty, the different initiations (formal and otherwise), and social concern for adolescents. Now think of what that means for a society you develop.
Adulthood: If you’ve got some kind of maturing process (Puberty) at some point a creature in a society becomes an adult. That’s another level of complication.
Adulthood brings up a huge amounts of issues a society must cope with. When does someone become mature? What is needed for them to be a functional adult? How is this adulthood communicated to people? What rules about sex change at maturity?
Adulthood is when you get handed the keys to society as it were, so most societies consciously or unconsciously, in an organized or disorganized manner, need to have systems and institutions to pull that off. Needless to say plenty of interests – and competing interests – come into play.
Adulthood, to bring it back to our subject, is also when the ability to sexually reproduce is recognized and perhaps even emphasized. The child is now a member of society, and that usually indicates some reproductive capacity. Society needless to say needs to recognize and prepare them for this – and maybe prepare itself.
Exercise: When did you find you were considered an adult – or what do you think your society requires you to do to be considered an adult.
Courtship: Reproduction leads to offspring, offspring grow and mature – and then have more offspring. So when designing your society, you’re going to then have to figure out how society deals with your species finding mates and reproducing – well if they have sex.
It sort of comes full circle.
Societies have an interest in courtship because it usually leads to social bondings (marriage, relationships) and thus children. Actually it can also lead to children without other social issues, which means that society at large is kind of concerned with that as well.
It doesn’t take much reading of human history to see just how much drama, ritual, writing, poetry, conflicts, and time is dedicated to courtship. That should tell you that when you’re designing a society, you gotta gear up and cover courtship. Probably in painful detail.
Exercise: Walk through advice sections of a bookstore and see how many are on anything related to courtship, from dating to weddings.
Marriage: Reproduction leads to children who grow, mature, court, and then bond/pair bond/get married/what have you. Sentient beings enter into some kind of reproductive relationship, so for the sake of your world building I’m just gonna call it marriage.
Societies obviously have an interest in marriage since that involves social bonding, reproduction, and the roles of people. The individuals in societies obviously have an interest as well. So you’ll have to figure out how your society deals with marriage.
Marriage traditions around the world vary, and they vary in history, but their sheer prominence tells you that humans think a lot about it. You can assume most sentient species will be likewise involved.
When it comes to marriages, it’s also important to be aware that expectations and traditions and elements of societies may not be verbalized or obvious. They can be so accepted and so integral and so common no one even knows they’re they’re. Marriage, when you get to it, gets into everyday life – and thus people may not even pay attention to it.
Also marriages have boundaries – which you’re not supposed to transgress. There’s things you don’t do (and you’ll notice those often involve sex in our human societies). These things can change (such as issues of premarital sex).
Exercise: How many people do you know define themselves or are significantly defined by their marital relationships? How many people are defined by those relationships (such as children)?
Conception: OK you get children who grow up, become adults, court, get married – and the system starts all over again. New life gets created.
This is sort of where all of societies’ attitudes about sex come together – the rules, issues, and traditions of creating new life.
. . . or not creating new life. Because birth control, non reproductive sex, and so on also come into the picture. As noted sex is likely to infuse the lives of sentient beings and evolve and be repurposed with them, so there’s also points where you don’t want conception. Just logging onto the internet will give you access to plenty of things about non-reproductive sex that you should definitely not be looking at at work.
Thus your society is going to have plenty of rules for conception, not conceiving, pregnancy, and the like. Simply at that point you’re starting to get to having a new member of society (or avoiding new members), so there will be policies, rules, and traditions. Probably extensive ones.
Exercise: How have attitudes towards sex and conception changed in your lifetime? The lifetime of your parents? Of your country’s history? Why?
Decrease/End of Reproduction: Finally, there’s a point where life forms stop reproducing. Now in some cases that’s death (yes, I know if we drag in cloning, but stick with me here), but in the case of humans at least we often lose reproductive capacity before that point. Because this involves various biological changes, it can be pretty prominent in other ways.
Consider humans. Menopause involves the ceasing of reproductive ability and hormonal changes. Look at the concern about impotence men may have. Just consider issues of royal and family linages affected by age.
Rituals, society rules, obligations, and so on may recognize, have penalties, or compensate for these changes. After all they’re be, to say the least, rather noticeable as people are having it happen to them.
This is an area where world builders don’t give enough thought, in my opinion. So I’m encouraging you to.
Exercise: Where have you seen people deal with a loss of reproductive capacity, how did they react, and what social rules were involved.
Onward And Forward
This is just a limited list of major social areas where a society is going to have rules that, directly or indirectly, relate to sex. It should give you enough to think of.
I can say that sex is an area that is usually not addressed in proper detail in much world building – it’s too easy to map what is known or put “a twist” on an idea, or to just resort to tropes, without really exploring. But a look at the fascinating history of traditions related to sex, courtship, rules, art, and more shows there’s a lot to build and create in your worlds.
Done right it makes richer, more believable worlds and characters.
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.