For a genre that often really tries to ground itself in, if not a realistic, then at least a vaguely probable future, cyberpunk misses more than it hits when it comes to human sexuality: especially considering the technological and social changes that are taking place right now.
These too-often misses are even more egregious when also factoring in cyberpunk’s outlaw attitude: that the characters are predominantly cultural and social outsiders. Normally these kinds of people would be the ones who would be pushing the limits of eroticism—creating their own forms and pleasures without regarding what anyone might think of them.
Instead, we mostly have protagonists who are woefully, painfully mundane when it comes to sex. Sure, there might be a secondary, or even tertiary character who might be LGBT or (oh my god) kinky but they are never featured players: existing mostly to give the book, movie, or whatever the illusion of being provocative and outrageous.
For example in the (and, yes, I am going to go there) seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, there is only one brief sex scene. In fact, most of Gibson’s work steers well away from anything except heterosexual characters having heterosexual sex. In a word: Yawn!
The same can be said of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon series, which completely and frustratingly misses just about every opportunity to thoroughly explore the ramifications of being able to exchange physical bodies. Not only that, but his frankly horrible sex writing generates more squirming nausea than anything close to arousal.
A few authors, to give them credit, have pushed back against this unimaginative view of sex in the near future. In Richard Kadrey Metrophage there’s a polyamorous relationship and even a ménage à trois—though it comes off as more titillating for titillating sake than really being an exploration of future sexuality.
Much better is the sadly far-too-often overlooked cyberpunk classic Bad Voltage by Jonathan Littell which, while it doesn’t speculate on the future of sex, does feature a wonderfully depicted bisexual character—so much so that this book really should be held in higher regard as doing both cyberpunk and queer characters right.
Similarly excellent is George Alec Effinger’s Marîd Audran series, beginning with When Gravity Fails, which creates a world where transgendered characters aren’t just present but accepted as part of his speculated Arabia of the next hundred years.
And we can’t forget proto-cyberpunk works such as Jean Marie Stine’s brilliant Season Of The Witch—where sex reassignment is common and even used as punishment for sexual assault—and the mischievously delightful sexual decadence of Alfred Bester’s Golem 100 and The Computer Connection.
There are no doubt other books that do well, what so many others do so badly—and please share your favorites—but the fact remains that even when cyberpunk does get close it is still far too dull when compared with what the next few decades will bring to the human sexual experience.
But before I get into this, do keep in mind that what I’m about to write about isn’t pure speculation, but rather is based on current trends as well as real scientific developments. Though, as always, I’m as guilty as cyberpunk when it comes to really accurate future forecasting.
That out of the way, one of the biggest changes that are going to happen—and sooner rather than later—is society moving beyond the idea of gender.
We are already seeing the beginning of this in the growing movement recognizing that gender is a personal identification and not limited by physiology: that what and who you are is your own decision and no one else’s.
What this means is that in the next few years gender won’t be limited to blue and pink but instead, there’ll be—and, yes, I’m going to go there again—a rainbow of possibilities. Instead of labeling anyone anything we will instead get used to simply asking, politely, what a person’s gender preference is.
If you’re thinking about sex in all this, which is very different than gender, then keep thinking: with genetic processes like CRISPR andcybernetic augmentation, won’t the equipment people have down their trousers (or anywhere else on their bodies) will be just as variable?
Then there’s the impact of altering reality. No, I don’t mean Arthur C. Clarke levels of technology but rather when virtual and especially augmented reality become commonplace.
When this happens, we’ll be able to enter a completely unique, but ultra-realistic world, or have it visually combined with the one we already see around us. Human sexuality will then explode with new forms, styles, and pleasures—our erotic imagination allowed totally free reign.
But one of the biggest changes is going not to be through technological innovation but social evolution. We are already seeing much of it already, from #metoo to gay rights: the growing acceptance that human society has to make some serious alterations in how we think about sexuality.
Part of this is passing beyond old cultural behaviors and beliefs, especially ones that have outlived their usefulness while embracing new modes of behavior. Clear consent will hopefully become an integral part of life, with people accepting it both as a sign of respect but also as a way of being empathetic to the sexual needs/concerns of other people.
Marriage will shift as well, with other forms of emotional and sexual interactions becoming equally prevalent: polyamory, relationship anarchy, asexuality, and even BDSM relationships becoming an accepted part of human society.
There’s a lot more to go into, including the impact of being able to modify our own neurochemistry as well as the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics, but I think the point is made: cyberpunk needs to step up its high-tech/low-life game when it comes to looking at the future of sex.
The good news is that the future isn’t going anywhere. There’ll always be time for writers, filmmakers, and artists to let go of the dried up old past of sexuality and instead give us some truly imaginative and speculative glimpses of what the future might bring.
To quote from William Gibson himself: “The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.”
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Now this, is an excellent article. I always felt this was one of the areas where cyberpunk was not true to being punk at all. Punks always reject norms, and hetero monogamous vanilla sex is a huge norm. Punks want everything else torn down, why would that get a pass?
Sex is just a part of being human. If other parts of being human are evolving, this should evolve as well.
I’m a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, but this is a fair critique.
For anyone interested, Trouble and her Friends by Melissa Scott (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZIU2IA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1) is a very good bit of cyberpunk where the main characters are anything but hetero-normative stereotypes. It’s been one of my favorites for years, especially the way it deals with on-line play and identity.
So glad you all liked the piece! Yeah, while I think that cyberpunk needs to step up its game I do have hope that we’ll be seeing some more inclusive and forward-thinking works in the near future. Big thanks for mentioning Trouble and her Friends by Melissa Scott – totally forgot about that one: should def have mentioned it.
Steven J. Matos (Scum)
Oh man I need to buy that one now.
Curtis Lee Cancino
The “problem” with discussing the future of sex is twofold: that being sex is had for reproduction and enjoyment. The cyberpunk aspect you wish covered here would fall strictly into the enjoyment-half of the equation. The thing is, humanity will always be binary, meaning that the ole in and out is where it’s at, regardless of the transgender agenda currently being pushed on society at large. The only way sexuality will not be binary is if humans somehow learn to mate like plants, as cyber enhancements will still focus only on the ole hokey pokey in one way or another.
Queers aren’t special, they just prefer to be queer. That is nothing new in the history of the human species. The only true cyberpunk sexual revolution comes in the form of pleasure implants. With neural stimulattion, any problems of reproduction are completely removed, as it focuses totally on the pleasure aspect of sexuality; the enjoyment one gets from a coupling without having to couple, triple, or whatever. It remove the aspect of touch. So biopunk is really the only true sexual frontier out there, if there is one for humanity. Otherwise, a fleshlight is about as cyberpunk as things are gonna get for a while yet. #JustSaying
Curtis Lee Cancino
Edit: … a fleshlight and a vibrator are …
This is the better stance to take. Part of the overall issue with cyberpunk and sex, is that it heavily, and I mean HEAVILY, starts from the proposition of the “blank slate” theory of human physiology. From that position, sex/gender is assigned by “exterior forces”, i.e. language, society, culture, etc. So then folks in this camp leap to the conclusion that “everything is a choice”. And if you’re not paying attention too closely, that lands you in the camp of “sexuality is a choice”. AND if you take that stance, what you’re saying is all too similar to what anti-gay rights folks say: that homosexuality is a choice, and as such can be mediated out of a person, i.e. conversion therapy. (I’m forthrightly against this stance)
You can extend this argument outward and start to see its’ negative implications. The problem is that the community who advocates that “everything is a social construct” only say so in order to radically change everything according to their desires. Which in part, is fine for their own ends, but there’s a thread of logic in this which aims to change EVERYONE according to their desires.
No doubt in the future, people will continue to modify their bodies according to how their consciousness sees fit, extending into the sexual sphere. This also will interfere with our moral standards: right now, sex falls into the category of “what happens in your bedroom is none of my concern”. But what if people start to modify/splice themselves with literal animals? Behold, a man becomes a horse. Now what? Will that be accepted? Will there be “hybrid-rights activists” in the future?
TL;DR: Sexual norms are ancient, “revolutionary” trends are not particularly new. But there needs to be a new critical stance that integrates evolutionary theories into cyberpunk fiction, and throw out all the tabula rasa in it. Otherwise, this genre will run into the vein of “flat earth fiction”.
Note for readers: my comment was in response to Curtis Lee Cancino’s comment.
Curtis Lee Cancino
I don’t see the connection.
I’ll put forwards Ren Warom’s Escapology and Virology as books well worth reading, with transgender and queer protagonist and side characters.
(Both are fantastic books in their own right)
Side note: can we please not pretend that queers “prefer” to be queer, nor that a transgender agenda is being pushed on “society at large”? That’s nonsense and reductive, and treating either group the same way as we treat the overwhelming majority will not reduce the rights or quality of life of the overwhelming majority in any material way whatsoever.
Thank you for that, Neon Snake. Punk, cyberpunk, biopunk, and whatever other kinds of punk culture out there should all strive to be more progressive–that’s the reason we exist, to challenge cultural norms. We’re in the damn future, let’s fucking act like it.
Curtis Lee Cancino
I’ve studied conspiracies before it became a fad, i.e., before the millennial flip, so I’m rather bias upon what is happening in all media today. To me, “they,” the megacorps and media moguls, seem to be bent on the total eradication of the basic heterosexual family life and couplings that has created every single one of us, as they try to get everybody to be either queer and/or polygamous. By my saying certain people “prefer” to be queer, I’m not downplaying those people’s way of life, I just don’t know how else to respect who they are without wording it in an even worse and ultimately criminalizing way. Queer people are those who know what they like and pursue that lifestyle, is all I’m saying, regardless of interpretation.
That being said, in my opinion, being gay or trans is not cyberpunk. Far from it! As I had said (or maybe implied) before, they’re both lifestyles from the dawn of time. If you study reality for what it truly is, this is a basic fact of life, in spite of what your favorite media platform is telling you. My question, based upon the idea of this article, is “What is cyber-sexual?” Well, “cyber,” in our day and age, directly correlates to and with technology. Period. Augmented sex glads still deal with spilling DNA. Whereas neural implants only stimulate the mental connectors, and may or may not result in physically busting a nut. At the state of sexuality that society is currently in, all people still need that touching and rubbing sensation to get off. If humanity is to ever truly become non-binary, those people won’t be human anymore.
Humans Are Absurd
You have the only response I agree with. This agenda pushing of the writer, the media at large, etc. comes off as just another cyberpunk antagonist. This “rebellion” against gender “norms” and sexuality “norms” is so hypocritical and illogical. It bums me out that people think that they are non-binary when they are completely normal. Fluctuation of hormones in a neurological setting is very normal. It is also very normal for individuals to be attracted to others outside of their normal preferences. I guess everyone is bi or pan then, with social conditioning.
The old ideas of the personal sexual simulations/A.I. are as “progressive” as anything could be because the user is the one picking and choosing.
As for the polyamory stuff, it is generally a concept for insecure individuals. Not that there is a clear amount of lovers that works. Zero…or rather the A.I-esque lover is likely the closest to working in terms of a “relationship”.
The consent problem that the writer brings up is so awful.
Sad to know that the best cyberpunk sex is in Demolition Man… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67DN3uvwXkE
And worst is in Snow Crash hahaha
I dont know… Snow Crash isn’t great but have you read The Windup Girl? Shockingly bad in that department.
haha I know right? (The Snow Crash comment).
Curtis Lee Cancino
In the book, Perfect People, by Robert Lieberman, there is a sex scene kinda like in Demolition Man, but it’s still a touchy-feely affair of sorts and less direct neural stimulation.
Very well written article. Funny how I thought someone might bring up Snow Crash due to the sex part in that, which was interesting and maybe a little illegal (YT and Raven). Thanks for the article!
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