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.

Magical Influence on Sexuality

I’ve been thinking about gender recently. This has come out of the
question of the meaning of gender when the intelligent being in
question has no sex. With the added complication of these sex-less
beings making up half (exactly half, actually) of a race, where the
other half is sexed1.

A question popped into my head on Friday while musing a new story: If
a straight person switched sex through vague magical means,
would this person be straight in the context of the new sex?2

I can think of three examples off-hand of this sort of thing.
Ranma 1/2 and Misfile are two of them. The characters in each story go
through a sex change, but their minds remain the same. They make the
assumption that a person will be attracted to the same gender through
an unwilling sex-change. The implication is that their attraction is
mind or personality based.

The other possibility is that the characters in question did not
re-examine their physical desires post-change. That is certainly true
of Ranma, who denies sexuality as part of the show’s premise. Misfile
is a little more clear on this point; Ash is either still attracted to
girls or he’s still uncomfortable around them as if he is. The
possibility that s/he is now physically attracted to boys is not

This seems counter to some of my own observations3. Sexuality is
as much physical, if not more so, than a product of the mind. A
person’s past experience and memories may indicate a preference for
one gender, but what happens if one’s body no longer responds in the
same way? This would cause quite a cognitive dissonance.

I see three ways of resolving this cognitive dissonance. The first is to
assume it is part of the change. The other is to deny the physical
evidence and continue with the mental experience of their
attraction4. The third is to decide the experience has caused
him/her to be bisexual.

The third example I mentioned is Danny Blender. The story has not
reached a point for me to comment on it in this regard.

This line of thought has been occupying my mind of late. I’m not sure
where it will lead, or if it will lead anywhere. The idea of this sort
of character piques my interest, it does not make for a very
interesting basis of a story, or even a character, on its own. Beyond
what I’ve written here, I don’t see much I can add to the genre. I
could probably write something as a social commentary or some such,
but I am entirely uninterested in such an endeavor.5

At some point I will have to finish the other essay I have alluded
to. It is somewhat more pertinent right now, given that it is a
significant feature of the novel I am currently working on.


1 This is a topic of a post/essay that
is half-finished, and not the subject of this particular post.

2 Since these changes are supernatural in nature the laws are
entirely subject to the creator. This essay is not meant to be a
criticism in any way, merely a thought-experiment. The post-change
sexuality in each is based on the needs of the story rather than any
sort of social commentary and should be taken as such. In fact, I
would recommend each of these; I highly enjoy all of them.

3 Keep in mind that my observations are entirely subjective. Nor
do I pretend to be an expert on this subject. In point of fact, I
would say that my observations and knowledge are somewhat limited as I
haven’t had a chance to talk to many people about it. Any knowledge I
have is through observation, reading material and my own thought
experiments. Gender and sexuality are interests of mine, though not in
the deeply personal ways it is in some other people I’ve known.

4 This reminds me of people denying their physical sexuality due
to social/familial pressures.

5 In fact, I’ve received the criticism that by having characters
with a negatively charged viewpoint (ie – prejudice), especially the
protagonist, is paramount to endorsing the viewpoint.

Happy Thoughts

A friend of mine needs cheering up, so this update is for him. These are [some of] the links I look at when I’m in a bad mood. They’re all YouTube videos, SFW and in no particular order.

Personal Identity

One of my favorite characters on Heroes is Gabriel Gray. Sylar, his alter ego, is one of the most powerful characters in the show in terms of abilities. In a fight he can easily put down any of the other characters, with the possible exception of Peter. But Sylar isn’t the real character. He’s an aspect of Gabriel. Sylar is the manifestation of Gabriel’s ability, both the good and evil parts of it. It’s that struggle with his identity that makes Gabriel one of the more interesting characters.

Many people struggle with their identity. What got me thinking about this recently is the various news stories on my twitter feed about the It Gets Better project, among others in a similar vein. There’s been a serious outcry of support for LGBT and other similar crises of alternative identity Teens are struggling with.

Teens deal with this in less dramatic (and in some cases life-threatening) ways as well. Stories involving teens are often about finding one’s identity and fitting it in the large context of one’s life. But it’s not just teenagers that struggle with it. Most everyone I know does. I certainly do. It’s part of life. Right now I’m going to talk about the former, finding one’s identity.

One of the ways in which I have found a context for my own identity is through stories, and the stories that have the most impact on me are the ones that helped shape my identity. Writing is another way I shape who I am, and it is a context in which I can explore who I am not. The nice thing about stories is that they are safe, at least to some degree.

Francine from Strangers in Paradise deals with very human questions of identity. She grew up with one set of values, a very familiar set you will recognize from American 50’s culture. She expected to be a housewife when she grew up. The problem is that reality isn’t that obliging. The men in her life aren’t able to fit the role she needs. However, her best friend, Katchoo, is both able and willing. Francine’s quest for identity is one of the major plots of the series, and in my opinion the more interesting one. It is possibly the one that speaks to my personal experience the most and that may be why.

I could continue with examples. Calliope in Middlesex, Lou in The Speed of Dark, Xander in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. and so on. Trying to figure out who they are is a major point for all these characters, and what makes them interesting as characters.

I like to bring these questions of identity into the characters of my own writing as much as I can. I am not always successful, but it is certainly something I think about and becomes a major part of many of my more interesting characters. The Gods of Reed is about the search for Caleb’s identity by several people. Another story, NaNoWriMo from two years ago, is about a woman choosing between the hopes of her younger self and the identity she actually carved out for herself.

One of the aspects of character driven stories that I’ve often failed at is empathy for the characters from the reader. Most people who watch the show can empathize with Xander, the clumsy geek trying very hard to find a place socially, but largely failing. Francine, who’s desired identity is very familiar and understandable in our culture. It starts in a familiar place. Caleb, on the other hand, is the sort of person no one likes and becomes less likable as the character progresses. (Not to say this type of protagonist can’t work, but that’s a different essay.)

This struggle for identity hits us close because we’ve all gone through it, or perhaps are still going through it. It’s something we can identify with and latch onto. When we meet Sylar, we have no empathy for him. He is a monster, a bogeyman no one can stop. He becomes human when we are shown Gabriel, a man struggling with his own identity. That struggle has made him do terrible things, and still does, but that makes him no less human than the rest of us. He has power, but that power becomes a liability in his struggle for identity. This is what makes him interesting rather than merely a stand-in for Evil. It drives the character forward, hopefully toward a better understanding of himself, and he brings the audience with him.

Note that I have only talked about internal identity strife here. Another interesting aspect is applying one’s identity to the world at large. This is related, and often intertwined, but something I will talk about at another point.

Internet Identity

When I started my first website, back in the day, it was static. If someone wanted to tell me something I’d get an email.

Then: forums. Forums were the shiznit. Every small to medium sized website had a phpBB forum for a while. I had one. I had more than one.

About the same time, I started using Drupal for The Gods of Reed. The first few years, I built the site from text files and templates, stringing it together with Perl and uploading three static pages to the server on every update. If I wanted to change the header template, I used the script to rebuild the entire site. And then I switched to Drupal. Not only did this make the site easier to manage, it added the ability to comment on the stories.

I’m a fan of Drupal; I still use it. Both Drupal and phpBB gave me the ability to hear from the people reading my story and to respond. I liked my small community, even if it never quite got past being a small community. It was a separate little island, away from the rest of the internet.

“Little” is quite accurate. I didn’t connect to anything. Link farms were well out of date, and webrings were fading from popularity at this point. Web comics had Keenspot and the like to create communities and cross-pollination, and other communities did the same. And I’ll admit, I stayed off in my own little world.

Livejournal was big, but I wasn’t keen on LJ, or any of the other big social sites. Others came and went. I signed up for some, and at one point I had about a dozen logins to social sites and communities and general places to keep up with friends. At least, in theory.  In practice I had no real patience for them. It’s tiresome to have all these logins, and to enter your basic info at every site you sign up for. LJ, Orkut, OKCupid, Friendster, so on ad naseum.

This may be where my interest in connecting to any sort of social medium via internet was at an all time low. I will admit, it’s not my thing at the best of times, but signing up for fads took a toll on me. I still get emails from Friendster reminding me about birthdays, though recently it stopped showing me who’s birthday for some crazy reason.

And now there’s Facebook, which doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. (I’m predicting an LJ lifecycle on this one, as opposed to a Friendster lifecycle.) Facebook is gaining momentum, and somewhere in there it added one of those fabulous features that makes the future so much better than the past.

I know it’s not specifically a Facebook feature, or even something developed by Facebook. It’s just one of the more popular sites for it. I’ve given Facebook some amount of my basic information. The same info I’ve given out to dozens of sites now.

But, and this is the great thing, now sites don’t have to ask me for that info anymore. All they need is a button that says “Hey, let me grab your info from Facebook, ok?”.

That’s great for me, the lost boat on the internet traveling from one island to another. It means I can carry my identity with me, to some degree. (Theoretically this would allow me to have a central place at which I can enter personal info, or not, as I choose.)

It’s not too bad for my sites, either. I don’t have to be quite the island off in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have to wonder if anyone’s going to bother to sign up and comment or participate; there’s no signing up to do. It’s a hurdle people don’t have to go through. And it makes the programmer’s job easier (which, in this case, I am not). Echo Bazaar is a case in point; they didn’t implement any login logic at all. They used Twitter (and now Facebook).

It makes the social web a lot more social than it used to be. I like thinking back to the mid-90’s when the internet was young and consider the ways we tried to have these connections.

One of the things I’ve been having trouble with the last few days are the comments on this blog (which is premature, I know, but I ponder such-like). I, for one, dislike the idea of people having to log in to leave comments. But the alternative is entering the same information for every comment. It’s tedious fast. It was round-a-bout, but I discovered the connections to Facebook and Twitter.

This pleases me in a way the internet rarely does. Which is why, after adding these login options for the comments, I felt the need to relate why I am so pleased.


Your beginning is  important. It sets the tone. It draws readers in. It’s a taste of your piece, the first impression. Your readers will forgive a misspelled wrod or tow half-way through, but it will disgust them in the first line. They’ll stop reading. They’ll miss the meat, the importance of it. The journey is abandoned before it is begun.

The beginning is the most important thing in your story. It shows the reader why they should care about whatever it is that your writing. It brings them in as an observer. A participant. They become a piece of the story, an important piece, without which there is no story.

At least, this is the attempt I make in my writing. The story is important to me. The journey of my characters. Their growth and failures. I get emotionally tied into the stories I read, at least the ones I enjoy most. I laugh alongside them. I dance when they dance. I fall in love with them. I cry when their hearts are broken.

I also look at stories from the perspective of a writer. Why it works, or why it doesn’t. Structure and pacing.

The intent of this space is for my notes and thoughts on Story. I’ll be posting my thoughts and theories on the structure and intent of stories. There will also be some posts of my own work, mostly half-formed. With the arrival of National Novel Writing Month, you can bet there will be a lot of the latter.

And thus, my grand project begins.