Gender Without Sex

What is the meaning of gender if you don’t have a physical sex?

This question came about from my NaNoWriMo novel. The Cyborgs1 have true Artificial Intelligence (AI), software beings that have no physical sex. No more than Firefox or Emacs has a sex. Exactly half the race lacks this quality of sex.

And yet, each AI is paired with a biological intelligence (bio).2 Bios are descended from Humans, and thus are sexed. So while each AI is sexless, they have a historical and societal concept of sex.3

In addition, humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize objects around them, especially as they begin to show more personality. I imagine that long before true AI was developed by the Cyborgs, they had pseudo-AI with gendered personalities, or at least a gender imposed upon them by bios.

Gender is an important aspect of personality and relationships with other people. While it is easy to assume a non-sexed individual will also be lacking in gender, this is rather simplistic and, in my opinion, not very realistic. In either case, I find it uninteresting.

Gender also gives clues to social roles, which give at least a basic under-pinning to the assumptions of culture. At least it does in our society, which is traditionally gendered. Much like the rules of writing in English, knowing these roles is the first step in determining how to use them.4

One story that deals with this question of a genderless society: a particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This episode featured an androgynous race, people that eschewed a division of the sexes that their [primitive] ancestors once employed.5 The show conflates sex and gender; for the purposes of this essay I will make this distinction. The race is of a single sex, which lead to a melding of gender into androgyny.6

In the episode, the majority of the race is pre-disposed to androgyny7, but some are not. Though the race is sexless, there is still a tendency toward one gender or another in some small percentage of the population. A genetic pre-disposition that manifests itself [in the example we see in the show] as a predilection toward a gendered social identity.

This is given as some bio-chemical drive rather than some choice made by these gendered individuals. Our main insight into this secret world indicates that most are quite frightened and yet require some sort of outlet for their gender.

I find this mirrors quite nicely the situation I am considering in my own story. There is no physical basis for gender (AI reproduce asexually, the details of which are unimportant at the moment8), yet there is some social drive for it based partially on the half of the population that is both sexed and gendered. As I mentioned, early pseudo-AI were likely to have had gender imposed upon them through a degree of anthroporphization.

In this way, gender is in the historical roots of my AI beings even if there is no physical reason why there should be a gender. It is already a part of the society within which they exist. It defines a certain code of behaviors and interactions. The AI could merely declare themselves androgynous, but though they are sexless I imagine them to be predisposed to some sort of gender if only due to their history.

For the purposes of my particular case, AI are disposed toward one of three genders by some inner software process: Male, Female and Androgynous. I mentioned previous that a single Cyborg is made up of both a bio and an AI, two distinct minds. This raises another question: would both the AI and the bio have the same gender?

If one assumes sex and gender are synonymous the answer would be easy. But that’s neither fun nor realistic9. There is no reason to suppose bios don’t also have three genders that are completely separate from the AI’s gender. In fact, this makes them much more interesting. A single Cyborg now has one of nine genders.10

If gender is an important variable in social roles, as I have laid out earlier, this creates an explosion of possible interactions entirely due to one’s gender combination. A total of 45 different combinations of gender interactions, and a different social assumption for each.11

Given that entire books currently exist attempting to explain the ways males and females interact in our society, entire libraries could be devoted to gender interaction in my Cyborg society.

I am unlikely to write such a library for the purpose of my book. I’d prefer to spend the effort writing the book itself.12 But it certainly does provide a rich landscape for very non-human interactions.13

C.S. Friedman handled a very similar situation in This Alien Shore. It wasn’t with gender, it was with a society where insanity (for some definition of insanity) was the norm. In order to function as a society, people drew complicated patterns on their faces to show what their particular insanities were. A complex set of social codes existed to indicated who should defer and the ways in which people should interact based on these face paintings. These paintings could actually change from day to day based on the mood of the person.14 It was well done, and explained very well. But, unlike in my case, this needed to be explained as it was an important part of the story and interactions between characters. It does provide an interesting example of this sort of social construct.

In the end, I brought gender into the world of inherently sexless intelligences based on the assumptions that gender is a) inborn and b) social in expression. It certainly does provide an interesting challenge when writing these characters. I find it useful to think of similar examples and try to lift the useful bits of them in creating this race, and the characters that belong to it. My goal is to create a people that are both culturally diverse and yet obviously non-human, and this is one step toward my goal.


1 The races in relation to my novel are capitalized: Cyborgs and Humans. Lower case ‘humans’ refers to people outside the context of the book.

2 This is somewhat analogous to the Trill in Star Trek, though in this case the AI dies along with the bio.

3 One could make the argument that this makes an AI just as sexed as the bio half. I have chosen not to make this argument, mainly because I see sex and gender as separate even without the AI. AI by itself is not inherently sexed in the same way a bio would be, in a historical sense. This is the starting point of my thoughts.

4 And break them when necessary, but that is outside the scope of this essay. I could probably go into great detail of what it would mean to be a gender-queer AI, but it is not something I have explored as of yet.

5 Note that it is unclear whether these ancestors needed two sexes to procreate or not. At the time of the show, it is indicated that there are two people involved but there is only one sex. Several biological and evolutionary questions arise from this, well beyond the scope of this essay and this author’s current interests.

6 Another story that deals with an androgynous gender is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. It has been long enough since I read this that I do not know how relevant it would be to this thought experiment.

7 At least, this is the assumption the show makes. I have no mind to dispute it. I think it would be quite interesting to produce some writing set on this world or some similar world, though I admit I am unlikely to do so.

8 An example of AI reproduction can be seen in Ghost in the Shell, though Motoko is generally given as female and Puppet Master as male.

9 By ‘not realistic’, I refer to my own experiences and observations as a modern human and long-ancestor of the individuals in question.

10 This brings on another question: Is an AI gender the same as the corresponding bio gender? Put another way: is the AI female the same as a bio female? This reminds me somewhat of the D&D alignment system of yore, which is a good parallel. This alignment system has two orthogonal axes. I would say my two gender axes are not the same, nor are they dissimilar. In other words, they are not inherently orthogonal in the same way. This is an interesting thing to note, but I don’t see it leading me anywhere at the moment. For my purposes, they are orthogonal: a AI-female is a different thing from bio-female.

11 An example of a social assumption is who leads in a dance. In Star Trek‘s androgynous society the taller person leads. Among us humans, it is traditional that the male leads. In my experience it is actually more complicated for various reasons, but there is still the underlying assumption that the male leads though the assumption can and often is broken.

12 Or in procrastinating on writing the book itself by writing essays on the various thought-experiments I’ve undergone in the process of writing the book.

13 The Cyborgs actually have yet another dimension to consider in their social dealings: Caste. This is entirely out of scope for this essay.

14 Someone with bi-polar disorder, for example.

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