The way “Bloodchild” dealt with non-consent bothered me. The way Clay’s Ark dealt with non-consent bothered me. The way Fledgling dealt with non-consent bothered me. As Dr. McCoy said at the end of class on Monday, patterns are emerging.
At the root of my discomfort, I think, is the model that each text creates in dealing with need. I mentioned in class the week before last that I saw a potential metaphor for sexual assault or rape in Clay’s Ark, but as we read further into Butler’s texts I’m realizing the problem is endemic. In each of the texts we’ve read so far, there is a group that at some point subjugates the desires of other sentient lives to their own. In “Bloodchild,” the Tlic herd the Terrans together on the Preserve and require at least one member of each household to regularly give violent birth to their offspring; in our glimpses into the world outside the Preserve, humans appear to be regarded with “desperate eagerness” as “necessities, status symbols” (5). In Clay’s Ark, the members of the commune kidnap humans and hold them against their will on the desert compound until they’ve been infected or killed. In Fledgling, the Ina ultimately collect humans with varying degrees of compassion by sucking them (pun kind of intended) from their former lives into the Ina communities. Again, this is all framed in the specific language of a need; T’Gatoi claims that she “must [impregnate] someone” (27), Eli claims to “[need] the company of other people almost as badly as he [needs] water” (458), and Shori describes herself as “unable to think about anything else” at the sight of fresh blood (11).
And this subjugation of others’ desires, which is uniform in the way that the Tlic, the Ark members, and the Ina interact with humans, is fundamentally non-consensual. Although Butler very skillfully edges her readers into situations where the contextual meaning of consent might not be clear, we can stay sane if we rely on Geneseo’s “Definition of Affirmative Consent” as our so-called life saver and allow it to evaluate these relationships for us. In “Bloodchild,” for example, although Gan and T’Gatoi’s relationship is nuanced and murky, we can see very clearly from Gan’s acute awareness of T’Gatoi’s role as the one who “stood between us and the desperation that could so easily swallow us” (5) that their relationship contains elements of coercion and therefore, according to our life-saver, is not capable of being consensual. In Clay’s Ark, too, consent for infection with Proxi Two is never “given by words or actions” in the majority of the cases that we see. Even in Fledgling, where we know that certain Ina like Iosif and (to some extent) Shori try their best to obtain consent from their symbionts-to-be, we can also see that at some point the consent of the symbionts can no longer “withdrawn at any time,” another fundamental component of our school’s definition. This makes the bonds between Ina and symbionts at best (as Katie put it) misguided consent, and at worst a bond that is incompatible with consent altogether.
I think what makes me squirm—literally squirm—when I’m reading though has more to do with the way that the texts seem to regard this model once they’ve created it. The rabbit hole opened by the question of “What does this book want me to think?” is dark and scary, so I’ll try to avoid it as much as possible. To stay out of that rabbit hole, I’ll focus on what it makes me do—and so far each text has made me regard the characters who very seriously violate the right others have to affirmative consent as… good people. From discussions we’ve had in class (re: Katie’s comment that she doesn’t want to like Eli) and from some blog posts I’ve read, it seems like other people feel similarly. It’s understandable, I think, when we as an audience are shown a character struggling to satisfy their needs—something we can all empathize with—to put ourselves in that situation and justify it.
But it’s important to remember when we discuss what a need can justify that, to some degree, the very notion of a need is constructed. To use the language of the online definition for “need,” I think what’s required for our physical or psychological well-being is always a matter of negotiation with ourselves and with the world around us. Paradoxically, what’s ultimately deemed necessary is in many ways a kind of choice. For example, the UN has announced repeatedly that internet access is a basic and necessary human right, and I do honestly think that if I and many people I know were deprived of internet we would struggle to retain our sense of well-being. But that has nothing to do with any inherent component of the human condition—rather, that “need” is a very clear consequence of the reality we as a nation and, to some degree, as a species have built. Many common “needs” are built this way, and, as a result, the common usage of the word “need” has fluctuated throughout history/throughout the planet. It’s also often very tempting, I think, to classify our mere desires as “needs” because the consequences of living without some things are inconvenient—though not fatal—to our well-being. An example (and this is what I had in mind when I originally brought up rape in Clay’s Ark): as described by Susan Brownmiller, neo-Darwinists have been arguing for decades that men raping women is the result of their biological “need” to reproduce, which has trickled down into common sayings like “boys will be boys” and ultimately functions as a need-based justification for those actions.
There are also similar examples of need-construction in the three works we’ve read so far. As I’ve already alluded to in Clay’s Ark, the idea that reinfection is a “need” for the Ark members is something they’ve all simply decided upon within the reality they built out in the middle of the desert. We never see anyone try to go cold turkey on scratching healthy humans or see if they can’t survive on just infecting non-sentient animals even though we learn that on Proxi Two the “organisms [were] in almost every animal species alive there” (607). Similarly, it never occurs to any Ina in Fledgling that they might survive on animal meat and blood even though we know they can digest it. They never even try to find sources of human blood that don’t involve physically and fatally addicting someone to their saliva. Shori takes it for granted that Ina “need not only [humans’] blood, but physical contact with them and emotional reassurance from them” (270) regardless of how that ultimately affects humans.
Despite all my arguing though, I will concede that there are probably some “needs” in these texts and in all of our lives that are absolute; in other words, there are some things that Tlic, Ark members, Ina, and humans would die without. I’m also willing to concede that the most efficient way to fill those essential needs is sometimes at the expense of another sentient creature in each fictional civilization and even in our own. But I guess I’ll end this essay with what I think is my most controversial claim: if a person’s life is maintained solely by the utter subjugation of other sentient beings, the only acts I regard as ethical are changing that life or ending it. Although those absolute needs that the Tlic, Ark members, and Ina experience are explanations for the way they non-consensually bend humans to their will, they are not and will never be a justification.
Octavia Butler’s greatest talent as a science fiction writer is perhaps her ability to humanize the dystopic. She writes such well-thought-out monsters that we’re tempted to treat them as heroes, and there may be some truth to the idea that the only thing separating a monster from a hero is a sliver of empathy. As Dr. McCoy has told us again and again, she’s trying to push us. I don’t mind being pushed, having to look at the world in a new way, having to adjust my most fundamental ideas. In fact, I enjoy it. I guess to Ms. Butler, though she’ll never hear me, I’m asking her to acknowledge that there’s risk in pushing a partner, and to anyone else reading her works I’m asking them to consider respectfully pushing back.