The Left Hand of Darkness in Light of #MeToo

In 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin published her now-classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, depicting a world without sex or gender as we know it. I revisited the novel in the wake of her death this past January, four months after #MeToo broke headlines and social media feeds last October. As I read her novelistic thought experiment re-evaluating the relations between the sexes, I found myself wondering, what if we could imagine our way into another way of being human? One where power and sexuality don’t make such a potent and problematic combination? Isn’t this, at last, what #MeToo (and its companion #TimesUp) asks for, a utopian vision of equality between the sexes? A paradise where the differences that divide us are no longer relevant?

The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on the frigid plant of Gethen, which translates as “Winter.” On Gethen, the human settlers (assumed to be the descendants of a genetic experiment now thousands of years forgotten) evolved into an androgynous, ambisexual version of our species, lacking the division into sexes that so vexes our current moment. The picture Le Guin paints may look at first like a kind of #MeToo paradise, and some scholars have in fact seen The Left Hand of Darkness as a utopian novel. Le Guin tells her story primarily through the eyes of a human male named Genly Ai, the Envoy from an interplanetary group of 80-odd human-settled planets known as the “Ekumen.” On Gethen, the natives view Genly’s single-sex body as a “perverse” anomaly, and through Genly’s eyes, we learn about how gender operates in a distinctly non-sexual society.

Without the natural division of humans into male and female, society on Gethen looks considerably different from what we know here on Earth (known in the novel as Terra). Every month, humans on Gethen enter a several-day period known as “kemmer” and become sexually active, developing the physical sex characteristics of males or females based on the available partners. “Kemmer,” although compared most properly to the term “estrus,” sounds more closely like the frantic days of an animal in heat, with all the sudden sexual drive that a monthly onslaught of hormones would provide. By contrast, a person spends the rest of the month in what’s called “somer,” characterized by complete asexuality.

Before I go much further, a parenthetical note is in order: Le Guin’s novel, which was published in 1969 to critical and fan acclaim, emerged before our more contemporary untangling of the relationship between physical or biological sex and gender identity. For all the interest generated by Le Guin’s androgynous and ambisexual residents of Gethen, the human society from which Le Guin drew protagonist Genly was largely bifurcated into male and female, with effectively no consideration of trans or biologically intersexed individuals, or presumed need for things like nongendered pronouns. Interestingly, Le Guin at the time insisted on using “he” as the universal human pronoun, but she later reversed course, experimenting during public readings with alternate pronouns or using “she” as the default gender. She related in the essay “Is Gender Necessary” (first written in 1976 and then updated, with italicizes marginalia in 1988) that she had come to regret the “certain timidities or ineptnesses [she] showed in her explorations of an androgynous humanity, including the use of ‘he’ as ‘the generic pronoun, damn it, in English’” (cussing in italicized marginalia).

If we can forgive Le Guin for writing in an earlier decade, her portrayal of an androgynous, ambisexual society is remarkably instructive: “Consider,” she writes, “there is no unconsenting sex, no rape […] Coitus can only be performed by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible.” Consider: the worst offenses by the #MeToo perpetrators simply would not exist.

Le Guin clarifies in “Is Gender Necessary,” that yes, she means what she says: there is no rape on Gethen; no rape of the earth and no rape of each other. Sexuality operates far more freely on Gethen than on earth: “In kemmer, one must have a partner, it is imperative […] Gethenian society fully accepts this imperative. When Gethenians have to make love, they do make love, and everybody else expects it and approves of if.” They are not — during the right time of the month — a planet of sexual prudes.

The sexual dynamics of Gethen have an immediate impact on the structure of society. No one half of humanity is tied to the rhythms of childbearing and child-rearing; every human has the equal potential to emerge as a man or a woman during the kemmer period. Everyone therefore has an equal chance of becoming a mother, the (“parent in the flesh”), with consequences for how families are structured, children are educated, and adults pursue their lives. Any woman or mother in our society who’s struggled or thought about balancing the euphemisms of “work” and “life,” or the earnings gap after having children, or the revolving door that seems to push women out of the workforce will likely be curious about such a society, such a humanity.

Le Guin voices her own curiosity in these questions through the eyes of an “Investigator,” Genly’s predecessor on Gethen. This human representative studied Gethen, scoping it out for potential inclusion in the worlds of the Ekumen. This Investigator, a woman, writes in her report: “Consider: anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.” She adds, “there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.”

On Gethen, sexuality as relayed in #MeToo stories does not exist. Imagine: there’d be no Harvey Weinstein, no Larry Nassar, no presidential sex scandals, and no hush-money-coverups. On the more ordinary level, no one would suffer catcalls from passing strangers — just reminders to go ahead and get to the “kemmerhouse,” which sounds like a cross between a monthly ritual as regular as menstruation, and a well-appointed bathhouse without any secrecy or social stigma. Gethenians would suffer no ass-grabs from passersby. Teachers, students, bosses, subordinates, and any others in a relationship of differential power would simply find the other person sexually irrelevant (as hard as it may be for us to believe), unless both were entering kemmer. No one would be accused of “asking for it” with their manner of dress, because no one cares about asking for it — unless they are in the kemmerhouse, where nudity is the norm.

Gethen, refracting sex through its sexless lens, makes it clear that our #MeToo moment refracts sexuality through the lens of power, male privilege, and patriarchy, placing these issues at the root of sexual assault or harassment. Men (some men, that is) assume they can do things to Earthly women — that their power, prestige, or something nameless of which they’re hardly aware, gives them this right.

Gethen, with its lack of males or females, invites us to imagine what our earthly society would look like if we faced the full implications of a world made for and by men. This is the beauty of science fiction and other speculative genres, after all: they allow us to explore other ways of being human without the impractical messiness of trying to live those other lives.

Imagine: There’d be no women’s right’s movement — first or second wave — no 19th Amendment, no historic women’s colleges, and no Betty Friedan or consciousness-raising sessions. No announcing “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl!” at birth. No “‘atta boy!” or “what a beautiful girl!” and therefore no reminding ourselves to call our girls “smart” and our boys “sweet,” and worrying if we’ve veered too far in one direction or the other. No feminists, no Women’s Marches, and no essays about why we comment on Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits but not the sartorial choices of her male opponents. No telling our startled daughters that once upon a time, she would take her husband’s last name at marriage not just because of custom, but because of the laws of coverture, according to which her very identity as a separate person became subsumed under the presumed dominance of the husband. No fairy tales or Disney movies as we know them: No evil female witches, no princess and the pea, no frogs-into-princes, no man rescuing the damsel from the dragon or the castle or her own worst nightmares — and no glorious revisionist fairy tales where it matters when the women do the saving, the talking, the fighting, and the rescuing.

None of this long, subtle cultural fabric that gives shape and texture to our lives would matter on Gethen. Without sex or gender, so much of our shared history unravels, and Gethen’s paradise reveals itself in all its utter incomprehensibility. On Gethen “one is respected and judged only as a human being,” the female Investigator notes. “It is an appalling experience.”

What she means, I imagine, is the utter difficulty of imagining our lives without some sort of gendered lens. Gethen, even more than #MeToo, challenges our fundamental ways of understanding each other as human beings. If it’s a paradise, it lives up to the incomprehensible unknowability of that word — a place beyond what we know in our earthly lives.

Just as we find the imaginary Gethenians incomprehensible, they didn’t know what to make of Genly’s steady sexuality: in the Gethenian’s eyes, he must be perpetually in kemmer — a notion that the Gethenians regard with something between disgust and amusement, as if Genly were a hypersexed teenager bent on intercourse at any opportunity. His sex organs (rather than emerging during kemmer as the hormones of available partners determine female or male sex organs) are perpetually exposed and visible, which is not only a perversion of their normal, but also rather uncomfortable or even dangerous in Winter’s harsh climate.

If Gethenians viewed Genly with suspicion, the idea of their society as a paradise bears more thought, as well. Le Guin later described her novel as a “thought experiment,” not a viable solution, of course, to the difficulties of gender in our society. Her work asked: What might be different if men and women were equal because we never were different? What would society be like if humanity had evolved in only certain latitudes, so that differences in skin tone were minor enough to be entirely inconsequential? Can we truly imagine life without racism or sexism? Le Guin’s own struggles to write her characters — in the confines of a language restricted to male and female pronouns — reveals the difficulty of imagining the society she depicts.

For all the complexities of Gethen, I’m left wondering what it’s like to fall in love on Gethen, when sexual desire only sometimes comes to play. Le Guin describes a couple in kemmer, holding hands, “eyes only for each other,” but what would keep their eyes turned towards each other when not under the spell of hormonal intensity? The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t offer specific suggestions of what makes a good partner for kemmer or a longer, lifetime vow, or what it’s like to fall in love with a human where softness of breast or strength of muscle aren’t commonly desired features. Maybe a potential partner has a nice-sounding voice, in a world where voices are not so deep or high in pitch. Perhaps a partner has an excellent sense of humor, treats others well, as well as a lovely slant of shoulder and a well-formed face — but Le Guin never tells us exactly what these desirable characteristics look or sound like to a person for whom sexuality changes by the month. Gethen, as Winter, is not just a planet of frigid temperatures, but of a temporary chilling of the heat that passes between human partners.

Gethen further reminds us that in a society without sexes, some things might not be so different. Le Guin’s idea, as expressed in “Is Gender Necessary” — that if we stripped away gender, “whatever was left would be, presumably, simply human” — explores this society-beyond-gender. The inhabitants of her fictional world feel human emotions, and their societies experience different political structures and sharp differences of power between different individuals. She even invented a word, shifgrethor, which she defines as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority.” Without distinctions between people based on gender or race, shifgrethor reminds us that power, prestige, and influence persist, with or without sexual differentiation, as a plague on human societies.

It’s hard to relate to society on Gethen as solution to the difficulties of #MeToo. Part of being human means having some relationship with our gender or sexuality, and as fraught or confusing as it may be, it’s a constant part of our lives. The true value of Le Guin’s thought experiment comes through, then, not as possible solution, but as a clarifying reminder that if we fix the specific problems of sexual assault and harassment descried by #MeToo, we’ll not yet end up with a utopian paradise. Sexuality itself is not the sole problem facing the #MeToo movement — the problem is also power.

As Gethen’s sexless society reminds us, differences of power and prestige remain even when people are truly, unavoidably equal on the basis of sex. #MeToo aims beyond a world free from the worst offenses perpetrated according to gender and sex; it aims, in fact, at a world where sexual violence is not possible and where power is not merely dispersed based on what we care to perform of our genders and sexualities. As a utopian vision, the #MeToo movement aims at new ways of relating between the sexes as well as new ways of thinking about power. As we struggle to imagine ourselves towards these new ways, perhaps it’s their actual alienness to established trends that lie in our way. Perhaps, for all its comparative familiarity, an earthly #MeToo paradise may as well be the stuff of science fiction.