The 51st Century and The Future of Sex

“You people and your quaint little categories.” – Captain Jack Harkness

I don’t get to see a lot of bisexuals/pansexuals/queers who love people of multiple genders on television. Usually, even if a character takes up with a person of a not-heretofore-preferred-by-said-character gender, the typical reaction is “Oh, so you’re gay now?” or “I knew you were straight all along!”. If the possibility that someone can be attracted to more than one gender is raised, it’s generally scoffed at.

Captain Jack Harkness is different. A consummate “omnisexual”, Jack is shown in Doctor Who and Torchwood to flirt, have sex, and develop romantic relationships with men, women, and non-humans. He is believable when he grieves for the wife he watched age and die every bit as much as he is swooning over The Doctor (and nearly everyone else on screen). Amazingly, the rest of the Torchwood team all more or less join him on the middle of the Kinsey scale. The Whoniverse avoids suggesting that these people are fooling themselves, confused, or doing it for attention. I cannot think of any representation of my sexuality in pop culture that compares, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate it.

But there’s still something that bugs me. See, it’s not just Captain Jack who flies the pansexual flag; It’s stated several times that his attitudes and behaviors are typically 51st Century. Add to that the fact that the present-day Torchwood team is on board too, and all this seems to reinforce the old “everyone is at least a little bisexual” Kinsey-inspired cliche.

Which really, everyone is not.

In the queer community, the polyamorous community, the BDSM community, it’s easy to give in to the attitude that these orientations are more evolved, that their members have grown beyond the need for the more traditional “quaint little categories” that populate mainstream culture. The implications of the 51st Century attitudes presented in the Whoniverse seem to be that the human race is destined to outgrow heterosexuality, homosexuality, and quite probably monogamy, in favor of sexual expression that is more or less exactly like Jack’s.

Is a future that has eradicated our current diversity of sexual identities indeed a more mature one? Many portrayals of our species’ distant future, most notably those playing with utopian themes and their deconstruction, involve humanity moving toward–or being forced into– homogeneity. But wouldn’t true evolution and social progress involve social pressure to embrace increasingly different otherness? Of course, the 51st Century is not portrayed as the pinnacle of human evolution by any means, but with their 30,000 years on us, the message is right there: one day we will be beyond such petty things as sexual orientation, which is clearly a cultural construct because deep down we’re all omnisexual, obviously. Oh, and we will also smell fabulous.

But back here in the 21st Century, who are we to claim that pansexuality or any other specific orientation is more evolved? Limiting who people love and have sex with is, as we can hopefully all agree, backward. But pretending that whatever limits a person’s own attraction may naturally fall within is atavistic and closed-minded is equally flawed. Personally, I’m waiting for a future where we all celebrate and embrace one another’s identities and categories, no matter how unlike our own they may be. Captain Jack would deliciously fit into my future, but so would straight people, gay people, asexuals, sapiosexuals, queers of every stripe, people who prefer missionary position with the lights off, and every other permutation of loving, not-loving, shagging, not-shagging, and being ourselves.

Let us outgrow none of our amazing shades of love, not ever. Only our present day’s pathetic shades of fear.

13 comments

  1. Jennie says:

    Not much to add to that, really.

  2. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a fascinating novel from the point of view of a character who goes to war in space, and thus ends up skipping huge chunks of time (because the spaceships have faster than light travel I think) and thus whenever he comes back for a break, a generation or two has passed, and society has changed its attitude to sexuality. At one point he’s referred to by the new recruits as the ‘Old Queer’ because he’s like, the only straight guy left in the world.

    I think science fiction is one of the best possible genres to explore all manner of sexual and societal options, and yet so much of it simply mimics what humans are like now. I thought the idea of a pansexual future was fascinating, and I think in general it’s nice to hope that people are a lot more accepting of differences in the future than they are now.

    • Justina Robson says:

      I’m with you Tansy! Warp speed forward to a less warped future.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      @ Tansy Rayner Roberts — Thanks for the heads up on The Forever War. Sounds very interesting, I put it on my to-read list.

      @ quizzicalpussy (that’s a name) — thanks for the very interesting read. I really like what you had to say, just at a loss for proper words at this moment to extend on it. But basically I love the idea that lack of judgement, from any side, is a key to a future of healthy, accepting sexual attitudes. Removing the biases of any label, such as the idea that being bisexual or polyamorous is exotic and therefore more evolved, means that people’s sexual identities are not fetishized or demonized.

  3. Nightsky says:

    Yes, absolutely. I’m ace, and it’s always hard hearing from people like Jack or my friends who are poly that having more sex and more relationships means being more evolved or advanced or something.

  4. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Hmmm, I wonder if it would be an applicable interpretation to say that the 51st century is just sooooooo open minded, that inhibitions are what’s really been excluded, not diversity? That’s maybe how I’d write it if we were to go into more detail.

    • This is how I prefer to interpret it – surely asexuality and monogamy and even the occasional pocket of heterosexuality (rare, but exists) is included, it’s just that human society has no sexual hang ups or assumptions that there is a default type of sexuality… but that could be a very generous interpretation.

      I also kind of like to think that Jack is especially flirty/sexual even for the 51st century, rather than representing the average. Or no one would get anything else done!!! Still that does explain why the Doctor prefers to stick to the less sexytimes 20th and 21st century if possible…

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        – “it’s just that human society has no sexual hang ups or assumptions that there is a default type of sexuality”

        I interpret it similarly. Not so much a lack of inhibitions (as Rich Ludlow said), more a lack of stereotypes and judgment so we don’t have the illusion that any one profile is the default sexuality. Or that there is such a thing as default sexuality, just individual sexuality.

        • Beatrice says:

          Agreed.

          I always interpreted it to mean that by the 51st century, there is no stigma about queer relationships and we see the full diversity of human sexuality, and people are less fixated on who’s gay and who’s straight and who’s bisexual and who’s pansexual. While Captain Jack is sort of omnisexual, I always thought he found the need to pin his sexuality down and [i]call it something[/i] quaint, not the existence of people who were strictly straight or gay. But labels are useful things, and for some people [i]can[/i] be very important, so I realize for some that interpretation is not necessarily more positive.

  5. Ide Cyan says:

    Bo on Lost Girl is another example of a bisexual (and lead) character on genre TV. (In the mainstream, there are Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, and Nolan Ross on Revenge, who are both important central, but not lead characters; to name two current series.)

    re: evolution/progress, which are linked throughout this article:
    “wouldn’t true evolution and social progress involve”…
    “who are we to claim that pansexuality or any other specific orientation is more evolved?”

    I’m leery of equating the evolution of social mores with progress, for two reasons. One is that, as can plainly be seen in current politics on many fronts, social change doesn’t necessarily “forward” move in a direction that is more liberated than before, or better than things used to be for a given class of population.

    Second, and more importantly, is that it’s easy, and dangerous (or useful…) to mystify progress or evolution as being preordained phenomena — that they are paths traced ahead by nature or destiny or a deity, that people follow, instead of the result of specific social dynamics that people create. This reification of those concepts puts them at a remove from what people do, and the mystification alienates individuals from their sense of social agency. It’s hard to believe there’s a point in working for a revolution when Progress is an uncontrollable force of nature. And aside from its un-Darwinian unscientificness, the usage of evolution in a social context as an equivalent of progress, as a path on a gradient of values, can equally run the risk of mystifying those values by taking them implicitly for granted, and therefore inalterable, and the direction of the change along those values as natural, as a given thing, both of which make it unthinkable for people to have the agency to influence the course of that evolution. Or to convince them they have no need to because it’ll just happen — in a self-defeating prophecy. (Natural selection has no goal. People working toward social change can and do have goals. People have long used the concept of natural law as an ideological justification for oppression and a tool to mystify it and deter revolutions.)

    There are some gloriously absurd (& infuriating) example of lectures in early Star Trek: TNG episodes that exemplify this. It’s a trecherous tack to take in approaching SFnal representations of future societies. (Drawing distinctions between what characters think, what societies believe about themselves, and what the narratives imply about the worldbuilding that underpins them!)

    But New Who has really shied away from giving us portraits of future societies of any degree of complexity or social extrapolation (beyond things like reality shows or mass transit; one-issue futures rather than monoclimate planets). Individuals like Jack (or River — though given what they made of her backstory…) from the 51st Century are not presented in their context of origin any more than the Doctor is. What is implied about their attitudes to the (relative to them) past eras they visit can reflect the view that people have progressed beyond “quaint little categories”, but the show itself doesn’t do much to support it. And under Moffat’s run as showrunner, may even be working against it, given the example of the thin-fat gay married soldier couple. If they’d really abolished quaint little gender categories, wouldn’t they have been presented as more than a joke defining them by those?

    • Nightsky says:

      And under Moffat’s run as showrunner, may even be working against it, given the example of the thin-fat gay married soldier couple. If they’d really abolished quaint little gender categories, wouldn’t they have been presented as more than a joke defining them by those?

      This really bothered me, too. “Gay marriage” will be plain ol’ “marriage” within years, not decades, and certainly not centuries.

  6. Alice says:

    I like to think that it means that in the 51st century, people in general think sexuality is much more complex and multifaceted than just what gender you’re attracted to and also that it isn’t all that important. So I imagine that for Jack, everyone in our century is strangely fixated on that specific part of sexuality and it’s kind of like if I visited another century where everyone keeps asking me what my blood type is and making a really big deal about it.

  7. Radek Piskorski says:

    The 51st century is THREE thousand years in the future, not thirty thousand.

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