“Symbionts” – Consensual or Not at all?

In Fledging, I found the concept of “symbionts” a little strange. Although symbionts love their Ina, I find that love to be somewhat false. Clearly, the feelings that exist between the symbiont and the Ina would not exist if it weren’t for the Ina venom. If the human loved the Ina before the bite, and knew what he/she was getting into, then their connection after the bite would feel more genuine and more consensual. It seems as though the symbionts are stuck in that position, whether they want to be there or not. This is not true for all of them, however. For instance, the character Joel always knew that he wanted a female Ina to settle down with. He knew all about the life of being a symbiont before he chose to be one. Wright did not. In fact, I remember Wright complaining several times in the story that he didn’t know what he was getting into when he got involved with Shori. His line on page 161 stuck out to me: “We let them [take over our lives] because we have no choice. By the time we realize what’s happened to us, it’s too late.” Author Octavia Butler, in Conversations with Octavia Bulter, says, “The position of Wright…is an interesting one. He’s not that unhappy about where he ends up, but it’s not something he chose” (203).

“It’s not something that he chose.”

Wright had picked up a small girl on the side of the road who seemed like she needed help. That was all it took for him to go spiraling into the world of Ina and symbionts. It wasn’t by choice. He chose not to leave Shori after some time, but is that choice truly genuine when he is under the spell of her venom? He certainly did not like being involved in a sort of group marriage situation later between Shori and her other symbionts, but he knew that he still couldn’t leave. The question of whether Wright is truly consenting or not to live this kind of life is a good one. If a person had a lot to drink, for instance, are they truly consenting to have sex with another if their mind is so heavily under the influence? I would argue no. And I believe that a similar question applies to humans and Ina venom.

When Shori found Theodora, Theodora was willing to enter this new life, for she felt that her current life was no longer fulfilling. Even though Theodora was fully accepting of the life Shori would give her, unlike Wright, Theodora still did not consent to the original couple of bites. The first time that Shori bit her, she had snuck into her room. Yet, I recognize that Shori and other Ina have to feed on human blood, and there’s no possible way for every human they bite to know exactly what they are getting into.

Certainly Octavia Bulter understood that her book would raise many questions on the true meaning of consent through the concept she created of “symbionts.” It is true that she came up with this term through the word “symbiosis,” which is when two individuals have a mutually beneficial relationship. Although Shori and a few of her symbionts share pleasure through bites and enjoy their lives together, it is questionable that the relationship is beneficial to the symbiont when he/she is forced into the situation.

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