Sex and Sexuality: Why Women Have Better Things to Worry About (by Michael Conley and Jessica Granofsky)

Octavia Butler’s imagined society in Parable of the Sower highlights how unfettered sexual discourse might result in a more dynamic, open, and uncritical view of sexuality. She hypothesizes that without social constraints, the meaning of sex changes. While modern views of sexuality are rigidly structured,  Butler’s dystopia showcases a society stripped of these structures and stringent expectations. Sex is approached in a more methodical way in the novel than in real life; it does not appear to be complicated by distinctions of love and intimacy but rather functions as pleasure, pain, or reproduction. In contrast to contemporary society’s obsession with sex and sexuality as defining features of one’s self, Butler’s portrayal of Lauren demonstrates that women can flourish when less concerned with the social implications of having sex. Lauren’s girlhood is defined by who she is and what she does, rather than simply who she has sex with.Therefore, Lauren is proof that the development of girlhood outside of sexual expectations is beneficial and can result in an appreciation of sex without seeing it as spectacle or a source of shame.

It is important to acknowledge two major differences between Lauren’s society and our own to contextualize her development. Firstly, her lack of sex education is incredibly relevant: people begin having sex when they are still children – twelve years old in Lauren’s case – and teen pregnancy is common. There is a lack of education surrounding contraceptives and they are too expensive for the average person. The majority of people having sex in the novel are not, to the reader’s knowledge, using condoms. Lauren even admits that despite liking, maybe even loving, Curtis, “if all [she] had to look forward to was marriage to him and babies . . . [she] thinks [she would] kill [herself]” (Butler 88).  From this, she sees condoms as a necessity, relating to the aforementioned quotation where she expresses her distaste for pregnancy unless she chooses to have a baby. The second key difference is the notion of governance around sexuality. In our society there are expectations on what women can do with their bodies- abortion and contraceptives- and expectations within social spheres regarding how much sex a woman should have and with who they should be having it. Lauren’s society is essentially void of such control, and though it shows itself in grotesque ways such as the normalization of sexual violence, the relaxed control serves Lauren well: amplified by her hyperempathy, Lauren is able to appreciate sex as a source of pleasure and nothing more.

Another interesting aspect of Butler’s world is that sex is not necessarily related to love, despite being linked to intimacy in our own society; she enjoys her time with Curtis – “smil[ing], loving him” (141)- but outside of sex, she is relatively closed off from the relationship. It is worth recognizing that, “before the [2000s], adolescent romantic relationships were recognized only implicitly as sites for risky or dangerous (heterosexual) behavior” (Tolman and McClelland 246). This explains why Butler, writing the novel in 1993, may have subverted her portrayal of adolescent sexuality. From this youthful base of sexual freedom that the characters in Parable of the Sower can recognize sex not as something that shapes them or heavily influences their decisions, but a natural occurrence worthy of exploration. Sex does not appear in the novel to be more or less meaningful when depicted within or outside of a romantic relationship (such is the 21st century’s predicament) but rather, it appears to be open for interpretation by those having the sex: some want babies, while others want an orgasm. Ultimately, sex remains on the backburner for Lauren, despite her obvious enjoyment of it. She has it when she needs it, but knows that there is more to life, and better things to focus on.

It is from this platform of freedom where Lauren can explore other aspects of herself: she hunts, teaches and writes often with little mention of men or inner-sexual desire. Because of this, Lauren is able to spend large amounts of time contemplating Earthseed and planning for life after the destruction of her community. As Lauren views Earthseed to be “a destiny [they’d] better pursue if [they] hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs” (222), it becomes crucial that she can be independent from others to pursue her dream of a new community. Her uphill challenge of continuing into adulthood without her father is one which is proven to contain an array of challenges, including those found in educational and economic aspects of life, and problems forming long-lasting relationships with other mates (Harris 105-108). And while her normal is perhaps far different than normalcy faced by women in our society, it is not to say that someone today would be incapable of managing the way Lauren does. But in laying down a fiery sermon during a time of great grief, Lauren showed that the things she had been through lead to her conquering that moment. “We have our God and we have each other,” Lauren said, “we have our community, fragile, and yet a fortress” (135). Those are the words of someone with a mindset far from mundane.

The complexity of Lauren’s living situation demands a massive amount of her energy from the beginning of her young adult life. By being free from the judgmental chains of a society which questions what she does with her body, Lauren is able to manage the demands placed on her young shoulders with admirable strength. From having sex in a bush at age 12 to coming onto Bankole while camping, Lauren always had her mind on the bigger picture: a portrait painted on the tides of change and birthed from Earthseed. She knew all along that these men with whom she found pleasure were only means to lustful satisfaction – and she to them – but by recognizing this rather than shying away from it, Lauren made ground on her path to a sanctuary among the stars.

Discussion Questions:

In today’s society, do you think sex is too heavily regulated?

How can education surrounding sex become more comprehensive? When should people start learning about sex and sexuality, and why?

Why are people so invested in other people’s sexuality and sex lives?

Do the benefits Lauren gains (from having less sexual expectations) outweigh the negative consequences? (ie: the normalization of rape)

Would Lauren have been able to develop into the strong, dignified, independent woman she is had she been raised in modern Western society?

Bibliography

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993. Print.

Harris, Tia M. The Outcomes for African American Christian Women Raised without their Biological Father: A Phenomenological Study, Capella University, Ann Arbor, 2014., https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1496770823?accountid=15115.

Tolman, Deborah L., and Sara I. McClelland. “Normative Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review, 2000–2009.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21.1 (2011): 242-55. Web. 5 Oct. 2016

 

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13 thoughts on “Sex and Sexuality: Why Women Have Better Things to Worry About (by Michael Conley and Jessica Granofsky)

  1. I feel as though one of the most pervasive forms of modern sex education taught to young people is that they need to wait to have sex until it is with someone they love. By relying on the fact that adults do not think young people can experience love until they’re older allows adults to have confidence that young people will not engage in sex. Lauren is a good example of how this just isn’t the case. Young people like Lauren experiment with sex, and enjoy sex, outside of what we can really constitute as loving relationships. Although we see Lauren comment on her fondness for Curtis, we don’t get any sense that she is actually in love with him. The sex they have seems to be a chance to discovery their bodies, as well as a form of a coping mechanism seen in the passage after Lauren says goodbye to Joanne. After “Joanne and [Lauren] cried all over each other, saying goodbye,” (139) Lauren “found Curtis and took him back to the old darkroom to make love,” (139) saying that she “needed it.” (139). Even with Bankole, Lauren does not seem to have sex for the purpose of love, but rather “explore the smooth, hard, broad feel of his body,” (266). Butler even suggests to the audience that another reason Lauren has sex with Bankole is to “enjoy the good side of [her] hyperempathy,” (266). I think you are right to make the argument that sex exists outside of love for Lauren because although she mentions that during sex, they love and pleasure one another, this definition of “loving” seems to be describing the physical aspect of love, and not the romantic sense (266).
    One thing I noticed about the book which I was hoping you would have touched on, or can discuss now, was the absence of abortion in the novel. Whenever anyone seems to get pregnant, having the child appears to be the only option. While you both mention that government regulation is nearly nonexistent in the novel regarding sexual matters, I am wondering why people would have an aversion to abortion. One reason could be the cost, but women in history have always found a way (even when those ways were grim and devastating). Perhaps when Lauren mentions that she would rather die than have babies with Curtis, she may be giving us a hint on how abortion works in this dystopic society. Maybe abortion is an option, but it’s highly risky for the mother. Maybe women do die during abortions which is why having kids for Lauren could be seen as such a death sentence. I would like to hear what you think could be a possible reason for the absence of abortion in the novel.
    Another important idea that I would like to get peoples’ opinions on is how sex with an older man works into Lauren’s portrayal of femininity and girlhood. I feel as though in today’s society, girls are not allowed to have sex, and especially not allowed to have sex with men much older than they are. Lauren’s relationship with Bankole structures Lauren’s character as a girl not defined by her age. Bankole even tells Lauren that she looks and acts years older than eighteen (268). Lauren breaks out of the idea that girls are naïve and innocent and unable to have sexualities of their own. With the absence of societal structures that exist in our world today, girls like Lauren are free from the binds of oppressive girlhood that define them as sexless objects.
    I did want to comment on your paragraph about sex education because I feel as though you may have contradicted yourselves unknowingly. You say that Lauren’s “lack of sex education is incredibly relevant,” in the same breath as mentioning that “she sees condoms as a necessity.” Personally, I feel as though Lauren has an incredibly good grasp on sex education since there are many people (especially young people) who do not view condoms as much as a necessity as Lauren does. Lauren even refuses to have sex without condoms because she recognizes their power in preventing pregnancy. This is seen in the passage on page 204 where Lauren talks to Zahra about sex:
    “But I donʼt think I would have yielded to temptation out here with no prospects, no idea whatʼs going to happen. The thought of getting pregnant would have stopped me cold.”
    “People have babies out here all the time.” She grinned at me. “What about you and that boyfriend of yours.”
    “We were careful. We used condoms.”
    Zahra shrugged. “Well Harry and me didnʼt. If it happens, it happens.”
    In my opinion, this proves she has a good grasp on sex education in a time where schools are not teaching children about sex, and at an age where children are not even supposed to know about sex.

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    1. With all of the conversation surrounding abortion and a woman’s rights to choose, you make a good observation by recognizing Butler did not include it as a viable alternative to giving birth. The only reason I can think of, is either Butler found something about abortion so repulsive that she refused to include it, or she was particularizing a part of Lauren’s character which put the refusal of acknowledgement on her shoulders (perhaps going back to Earthseed and the need for community rather than the elimination of potential community members). I say this because abortion itself is natural. And for Butler to create such a seemingly realistic and well-research dystopian atmosphere such as she did, and then leave abortion out, seems to say something deeper about either her or Lauren’s personal beliefs.

      Regarding sexual education, I agree with you on how Lauren herself was educated. While others passed on condoms, she did not due to an awareness of how detrimental having a child might have been to her individual ambitions. I will point though to the difference between formal sexual education and Lauren being intelligent enough to recognize the potential negative ends to having unprotected sex. We meant sexual education in the formal or academic sense, which there seems to be none of in the novel. But you are right in saying that even outside of the classroom, there was clearly some level of education taking place.

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      1. Yes, it definitely is. Perhaps my opinion on this comes from having no real conception of what it would mean to carry a baby or get an abortion. My point though is that humans have presumably always had abortions: evidence shows that Ancient Egypt documented abortive medical procedures in 1550 BC, despite a high chance of physical harm to women who had them. Of course that is only the first written account, but one could assume that abortion goes much further back and is maybe even intrinsic to the human condition. It is this which leads me to believe it was purposeful on Butler’s part to make no mention of abortion. With the amount of rape and unsafe sex found in the novel, it seems certain to me that unwanted pregnancies would be common. These unwanted pregnancies combined with the assumption that abortion is a part of the human condition lead me to believe that at least some women in the novel would see more positive value in a potentially successful abortion than negative value in a potentially harmful abortive procedure. But that is not the case.

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      2. I think you make a really great point, Mike. I wonder, though, if it’s similar to my point about characters not going to the bathroom in novels. Abortion doesn’t seem to be pertinent in the novel. That could be why it isn’t discussed. That said, it is possible that Butler is making a statement in not writing about abortion.

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  2. While I agree with the overarching statement of your thesis – freedom from sexual oppression will allow a more open conversation about sex and sexuality – I disagree with many of the generalities made in this essay about today’s society and the modern female. It is true that there are “rigidly structured” views on modern sexuality, it should be noted, however, that these restraints have drastically loosened in the past couple of years. Sexuality, especially, has become a more prevalent topic of discussion and there is more and more encouragement against “slut-shaming” and the like.

    Two of your discussion questions ask whether sex is too heavily regulated and why people are so invested in other’s sex and sexuality and, in my opinion, these answers can go hand-in-hand. A lot of the issues in regards to today’s obsession with sex can be equated with today’s obsession with social media and the implications of the internet. Society is more and more open about the sexuality of women; however, it is those that display their sexual prowess on social media platforms that open it up to critique. Furthermore, the power of social media allows for likeminded people to ban together and make a statement for or against sexuality. These widespread platforms of discussion complicate the progress already made in today’s society in this discussion. People are invested in the lives of others because they can be, because we have the means to know what other people are doing, thinking, and saying every second of the day – if they want us to.

    The biggest problem I have, however, lies in your final discussion question: “Would Lauren have been able to develop into the strong, dignified, independent woman she is had she been raised in modern Western society?” I am left wondering what this essay is implying about the modern female. Do we not have the ability, as women in modern Western society, to become these things – strong, dignified and independent? I feel as though, by asking this question, you are exhibiting the problems and rigid constraints imposed on girl’s sexualities. While I understand that the thesis of this essay suggests that in order to flourish as girls, we must first be unhindered by our sexualities, I think it would be unfair to modern girls to say that she would not be able to flourish in our society. If the answer to this question is no, what does that mean for us?

    While I think you are right to say that girls in Lauren’s society are liberated from sexual oppression and can, therefore, “worry about better things”, I think this essay simultaneously encourages modern society to strive for this liberation while also displaying the stereotypes which cause it to be stagnant.

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    1. Thank you for your insight and I certainly see what you’re saying. Sexuality is, as it should be, a primary topic of social discourse and I appreciate your thoughts.

      I agree with you for the most part regarding the utilisation of social media in relation to social progress, especially important matters like feminism. It is an invaluable tool in gathering like-minded individuals to fight and stand up for the progression we desire. I would disagree though that social media has made things worse; humans are naturally curious about what other people get up to. I don’t feel our judgemental nature is any worse or has been complicated by social media, but it’s only now glaringly obvious due to the widespread access that social media grants.

      And as far as your claim that we are enforcing stereotypes by asking a discussion question, I must respectfully disagree with you. A strong discussion question should make people think, and maybe even make them uncomfortable by pressing issues that are commonly untouched. If I myself wrote underneath the question, “as a matter of fact, no, women in our society are incapable of being successful because they have too much sex,” than I would be forced to agree with your assessment. But I did not and neither did Jessica. We offered a critique on sexual expectation and used Lauren as an ideal of what being liberated may look like. To paint us as though we are inhibiting female progression by generating conversation is a rather heavy-handed approach to discourse.

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      1. Update: I’m sorry for calling your approach “heavy-handed”; that was insensitive. “Unfair” would have been a better choice.

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      2. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to be accusatory. I wasn’t saying that you or Jessica personally maintain stereotypes about female sexuality – although I can see how that came across. I only meant this as a challenge to your discussion question, to offer another angle on your perspective. Again, I do apologize if I offended you or Jessica (not at all my intention!!!!), I do think this was a really well written paper! I meant only to ask what the implications would be about our society if the answer to that question is no and what that would mean for the modern girl.

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  3. While you bring up some interesting points in this post, I don’t think that the normalization of rape in Lauren’s society was necessarily caused by their more liberated views on sexuality. Despite popular belief, rape isn’t committed primarily for sexual pleasure; it’s a crime that stems from the perpetrator’s need for control and dominance over others. I think that the prevalence of rape in Butler’s version of 2020s America is more reflective of the rage and hatred of others dwelling within the members of their broken society. There is also the fact that they live in near-lawlessness – the perpetrators would likely not be caught by police, who are proven to be useless beyond finding the bodies of those already killed. To me, these seem like more likely sources of the problem than their relaxed attitudes toward sex, though that could conceivably be a minor factor.

    Lauren doesn’t hold back from informing readers that she enjoys sexual pleasure, but I still think that an emotional connection to her partners is there, too. She didn’t want to have children with Curtis, but she was in love with him and wanted him to run away with her. She found herself drawn to Bankole’s personality as well as his appearance and she accepted his proposal of marriage. I think that what differentiates her attitude toward sex from a modern Western girl’s is that she doesn’t have any conception of needing to save herself for marriage, or that having sex before finding “the one” is inherently a bad thing. This is one of the ways in which I think modern society is too restrictive of female sexuality; young women are discouraged from having multiple sexual partners in life, and if they do, then they’re seen as immoral or “used goods.” The characters in Parable of the Sower don’t worry about having multiple partners over the course of their lives – probably because, as Lauren unfortunately learns, they can’t always count on their partner surviving as long as they do.

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    1. Firstly, thank you for your comment. As we touched on the normalization of rape only briefly in the post, it’s important that more time and discussion space is given to the topic. For the record, and in regard to your first comment, we did not claim that the liberation of sexuality or desire for sexual pleasure led to the normalization of rape. At the end of paragraph two we point out that it is a lack of governance and social control that lead to the “lawlessness” which you point out.

      But past that, your observation of dominance and emotional instability as motivators for sexual misconduct is important. The lack of any real social control in the novel, whether it be top-down or from within the populace itself, has certainly allowed the inner-most evils of people in Robledo to run rampant. It is convenient to think that we as a society are slowly eliminating rape and sexual violence through “progressive” stances in law and more stringent expectations placed on one another. But it is alarming to see such progress form another perspective: one that sees those willing to perpetuate sexual violence not being eliminated by society, but rather they can just no longer rationalize being lawfully deviant when it means a higher chance of being caught and longer jail sentences. This seems to indicate that perhaps we are only grazing the surface with these laws and social movements when trying to douse the flame which motivates one human to so viciously dominate another. Butler captures this well by showing what may be the consequence of a social breakdown in a dystopian society not far from our own.

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  4. You make an interesting comparison between Butler’s dystopian society and our own in terms of their treatment of sex and sexuality. I agree that Lauren seems to have a healthy and uncomplicated relationship to sex, but it is important to recognize that because she is the narrator, we can only really understand her conception of sex and sexuality, not necessarily the overall society’s. That being said, the fact that she has sex in a bush and is later consistently having sex in a garage with her long-term boyfriend suggests that teenagers still have to sneak around to have sex, and it is often had in secret locations outside of their homes. Thus, although Lauren is comfortable having both casual sex and sex within a committed relationship, there is evidence to suggest that it is considered at least somewhat shameful.

    In regards to your last discussion question, I am not completely sure what you are getting at. Although Lauren does live in extraordinary circumstances, those circumstances do not necessarily encourage her to be any more strong, independent, and dignified than the circumstances of our society. Regardless of whether or not women in our society are judged for their sexual experiences, I do not believe that their lives are dictated by sex or how other people perceive their sex lives. Women in 2016, just like Lauren in 2025, have more to focus on than sex. Although Lauren’s life is arguably more complicated, it is still her choice to focus on reading and learning survival skills, rather than sex, just as many women in our society choose to focus on their education and careers.

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    1. Your point on Lauren’s first-person narration is a good one. There are questions to be asked of her reliability as a representation of everyone’s feelings in the novel, especially those held by females in regard to sexuality. I would draw criticism though at your use of the word “shameful” to describe potential perceptions of Lauren’s sexual behaviour. Certainly, there is a great deal of shame spread upon women who engage in sexual activity deemed too much or too little by critical others. But I do not see shame in Lauren’s secretive sexual locations. Even in the most sexually pluralistic society, I imagine ‘The Talk’ which parents have with their pubescent children is still steeped in awkwardness. This because sex and shared sexual experience is for some a deeply personal experience. Perhaps this is a consequence of my maleness (or ego), but I cannot fathom a world where I come home from work, hear my daughter having sex upstairs, and think, “Hm, I wonder if they’re almost done. Maybe just wait to put on dinner than.” Lauren is secretive about her sexual actions because she is psychologically inclined to be. (And either way, feeling as though you’re being rebellious makes stuff way more fun!! See: decrease in Coloradoan youth marijuana usage upon their state’s legalization of marijuana).

      And as far as our last question goes we are not getting at anything, but I absolutely agree with your response. In any year, at any time in history, a woman has far more pressing concerns than sex if she so chooses to be concerned with them. Sometimes though society can make that choice seem rather difficult. To someone who has been deeply shamed by their number of sexual partners, or a virgin who hates the fact they’re a virgin, changing your mindset to education or careers is not necessarily an easy thing to do. We’re conditioned to see rightness or wrongness in these actions when it really isn’t there.

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