I would like to take a moment to return to the Xenogenesis trilogy because I’ve come to a little more clarity about an issue that I struggled with while reading Lilith’s Brood. The question I could neither escape nor answer while we were reading Xenogenesis was, does rape (or some other form of sexual violence), as a metaphor for what happens between the Oankali and humankind, obtain? I am concerned with the metaphor of rape primarily as it applies to two levels of human-Oankali interaction. First, I am concerned on the macro scale: did the Oankali force the humans into the gene trade, were their actions as a group morally defensible, and were the principles of consent violated by the Oankali? Second, on the level of the individuals as prefigured by Kahguyaht’s removal of Lilith’s cancer in Dawn and played out over and over for the rest of the trilogy: do the individual Oankali (and especially the ooloi) honor the humans’ right to give or withhold consent in the specific interactions between individuals we see in the books?
Thomas Foster’s article “‘We Get to Live, and so do They’; Octavia Butler’s Contact Zones” was the principle source that shaped my thoughts on this issue, though he deals more with metaphors of alien invasion and chattel slavery. It is interesting to note that on first contact, the Oankali’s perception of the humans fits neatly into Lockean terms: to the Oankali, humans are “quarrelsome and covetous,” and in fact that fits nearly perfectly into their main criticism of humankind, that we are “hierarchical.” However, as Foster notes, the novels do not closely follow the trajectory of European imperialism. He notes that the Oankali’s relationships “are always established through exchange, negotiation, and mutual compromise, rather than direct coercion or domination,” and I believe that he is correct in ultimately rejecting imperialism as a metaphor for what occurs. Is rape different?
The circumstances of how the Oankali came to Earth at exactly the time humanity nearly destroyed it are not given in detail in the novels. We do know, however, that they had known enough about humankind to be attracted to us, and that in the post-nuclear-crisis Earth, there was no way for the Oankali to calmly discuss the merits of a gene trade with the humans, and no organizational structure left by which the humans could have given affirmative consent. As a lifeguard, I was taught that if the victim is conscious I had to obtain consent before providing care. However, if the victim was unconscious and therefore unable to provide consent, I was legally required to provide care. This is what the Oankali did: they saved the human species from death by nuclear winter and asked questions later. Furthermore, As Nikanj points out in Adulthood Rites, the human rejection of symbiotic relationships such as the gene trade is futile: we depend on bacteria to digest our food and run our bodies, and within each cell in our bodies exist dozens of mitochondria, which evolved as a separate organism (p.427). So the Oankali acted to save humankind as a species, they could not save us without also entering into a trade relationship with us, and the relationship they offered was nothing new to us whether we pretended it was or not. It’s not the cleanest way for them to engage in a relationship with us, but on the macro scale they do not seem to be guilty of any wrongdoing, especially once they created the Mars colony and allowed our species the chance to continue independently, as their Akjai would.
On the individual level, the Oankali’s behavior sets off many alarm bells. Here is a description of the way the ooloi in particular conduct themselves, from Imago, page 553 of the omnibus edition:
“‘You’ll stay with us for as long as you want to stay.’
…Humans tended to misunderstand ooloi when ooloi said things like that. Humans thought the ooloi were promising that they would do nothing until the Humans said they had changed their minds – told the ooloi with their mouths, in words. But the ooloi perceived all that a living being said – all words, all gestures, and a vast array of other internal and external bodily responses. Ooloi absorbed everything and acted according to whatever consensus they discovered. Thus ooloi treated individuals as they treated groups of beings. They sought a consensus. If there was none, it meant the being was confused, ignorant, frightened, or in some other way not yet able to see its own best interests. The ooloi gave information and perhaps calmness until they could perceive a consensus. Then they acted.” (Imago, p.553)
Lockean imperialism is justified by supposed “laws” that the “quarrelsome and covetous” have violated, which Lockean imperialists would say the “quarrelsome and covetous” have agreed to by tacit consent. According to SUNY’s definition of Affirmative Consent, “consent is active, not passive. Silence or lack of resistance cannot be interpreted as consent.” By talking about forms of unspoken consent such as “gestures” and “bodily responses” as valid, the Oankali show that they have an idea of tacit consent similar to Lockean imperialists. They think that they know better than other beings what is good for those beings, and that gives them the right to act. The problem with having an outside party make a judgment on someone’s feelings and desires is that the outside party almost certainly weighs the myriad internal factors and forces differently than the individual would himself/herself/itself. That is why we humans, among ourselves, respect the judgment of the individual on matters internal to him/her/it.
Furthermore, the Oankali alter individuals’ decision-making chemically. They “give calmness” and make humans more inclined to mate with the ooloi than they would ever be otherwise. This is a serious subversion of affirmative consent. According to SUNY’s definition of Affirmative Consent, “Consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated. Incapacitation occurs when an individual lacks the ability to fully, knowingly choose to participate in sexual activity. Incapacitation includes impairment due to drugs or alcohol (whether such use is voluntary or involuntary), the lack of consciousness or being asleep, being involuntarily restrained, if any of the parties are under the age of 17, or if an individual otherwise cannot consent. Consent cannot be given when it is the result of any coercion, intimidation, force, or threat of harm.” It is true that human decisions are sometimes affected by chemical changes – a woman’s neurochemistry changes significantly during pregnancy – but we still consider interference with another individual on that level to be a violation.
By the human definition, we must admit that the Oankali have violated affirmaive consent and committed sexual violence. However, as with everything in Butler, the convictions and definitions we come in to the text with are problematized.
The problem with consent issues on the individual level is that in the novel, the Oankali truly are capable of perceiving other entities’ internal environments. If you say “I don’t want to mate,” they understand what you mean, whether it’s that you don’t think you would make a good parent, or that you have a medical condition that would make mating painful, or that you’ve been culturally conditioned to despise Oankali mating. Human beings can’t do that, so we’ve developed a tool to approximate it – affirmative consent. As our protocols in life-threatening situations such as water emergencies show, we humans would rather do what’s best for another entity if we can’t know what he/she/it would want than do nothing. What we struggle with isn’t that consent is being violated – consent is violated from the moment sperm meets egg, because at no point did the entity that will grow from that union explicitly consent to the rules of the world it is being born into. What bothers us about the situation in Xenogenesis is that another being might understand us better than we understand ourselves, even able to manipulate our minds without our knowledge. But is the chemical suggestion that the ooloi give to humans so different from the social pressures we exert on each other to get our way? Is it so different from the way we excrete pheromones to attract our mates, as Laura noted in her blog post “The Scentsy Sex”? There are levels and levels of the human experience that the Oankali understand in ways humans would never be able to. It is well documented in the texts that the Oankali are better in control of themselves than humans are and more likely to do what’s best for other entities than humans are. In cases such as when Jdhaya offered to kill Lilith, and in the case of the resistors, the Oankali show that they ultimately will respect an individual’s right to choose as long as it doesn’t harm him/her/it or any other entity directly.
While it must be admitted that the Oankali’s conduct would constitute criminal action among humans, it would be as unwise to hold Oankali to human standards of justice as it would be to hold them to human standards of gender. Their conduct on the individual level does more good than harm by allowing the humans, constructs, and Oankali to live together, and the paradigm of consent does not apply to them.
Lastly, I want to try to ground this discussion in the real world. As Shantel Perry writes in her article “Cultural Plagiarisms,” “Cultural appropriation is the espousing of specific aspects of one group’s culture by another, usually the dominant group. Is this a crime in the normative legal context? No. But it is a crime against minorities and marginalized groups as they exist within a context of a White privilege and a society built on White supremacy.”
Perry uses the example of Kendall Jenner wearing cornrows and argues that this is an example of a dominant group taking aspects of a marginalized group’s culture without consent for its own purposes. She views it as an act of violence, but I would argue that cultural appropriation is a sign that society is recombining, advancing, evolving. It is a sign that we are becoming something new together. I understand the outrage over the establishment’s response to Kendall Jenner’s hairstyle, but I think we should consider the fact that she did it all a positive thing. It’s easy to view the integration of society as one more way for the privileged group to take advantage of those that are marginalized, but the reality is far more complex. Kendall Jenner is a teenager, and while she was certainly trying to be trendy, she chose to wear cornrows because she liked them, because she thought they were appealing. They show the soft power of black culture, they show an identification with and an influence from black culture, and I find it impossible to think of that as a completely bad thing. The tricky thing about cultures is that on the one hand we want to preserve them because they are only useful as a source of identity if they remain recognizable across time and distance, but, on the other hand, they have to change to accommodate new places, new times, new people, and new situations. While the history of black culture is important, and black culture is an important source of identity for millions of African Americans and others of the African diaspora, African Americans at least have to occupy the same space as dozens of other cultural groups; we all have to live in this world together. Hopefully we can do as the Oankali would, and embrace difference, and as practitioners of Earthseed would, and embrace Change.