In my Inspire paper, I wrote about how Xenogenesis demands that its readers re-evaluate their preconceived frameworks of hegemony in imagining and enacting social change. More specifically, though, I’d like to revisit this subject in the context of sexual power dynamics prevalent throughout the trilogy.
The hybridized, inter-species relationships Butler envisions in Xenogenesis are directly related to sexual hierarchies, for reproduction and mating are among the most crucial sources of conflict between Oankali and humans in each novel. The resounding issue of conflict in Dawn arises out of human antipathy towards mating with the Oankali and the demonization Lilith faces for her decision to do so. By extension, in Adulthood Rites, Akin is born into a conflict between Oankali and human resisters who resent the alien species for genetically modifying their infertility. Both texts are rife with instances where readers, like the fictional human characters, must reconsider their own preconceptions of sexuality (for both reproductive and erotic purposes). In Dawn, the initial sexual encounter between Lilith, Joseph, and Nikanj is both pleasing and repulsive:
Nikanj focused on the intensity of their attraction, their union. It left Lilith no other sensation. It seemed, itself, to vanish. She sensed only Joseph, felt that he was aware of only her. Now their delight in one another ignited and burned. They moved together, sustaining an impossible intensity, both of them tireless, perfectly matched, ablaze in sensation, lost in one another. They seemed to rush upward. A long time later, they seemed to drift down slowly, gradually, savoring a few more moments wholly together (162).
Here, Nikanj occupies the role of enhancing an erotic experience between Lilith and Joseph. I’ll admit that, initially, I found this scene intensely uncomfortable. Like Lilith, who initially recoils at the sight of Nikanj’s “ugly, ugly elephant trunk of an arm” (161), I was repulsed by Nikanj’s presence in a sexual encounter between a human couple. The scene is also confusing—if Ooloi-incorporated sex points towards a more inclusive sexual encounter, why does Nikanj seem to “vanish” and disappear as it erotically pleases Joseph and Lilith? Indeed, it was not until I finished Xenogenesis that I began to accept the ooloi as a being that sexual pleases its mates on the basis of giving and receiving pleasure, despite the fact that Butler repeatedly stresses the pleasure Ooloi give its mates during their sexual encounters (292). In fact, as Jodahs notes: “we [ooloi] exist to make the people and to unite them and to maintain them” (622). In light of this definition, I grew to understand the role ooloi play in reinforcing more inclusive, united societies. To borrow from Saidiya Hartman, their central mission of promoting growth makes ooloi a vital component of care as the anecdote to the violent encounters prominent in each novel.
Of course, sexual pleasure is not without its own nonconsensual implications on the part of the Oolois–who, from the earliest pages of Dawn, exert their agency over humans by means of drugging them and manipulating their genes. Sexually, the ooloi compel humans by manipulating pheromones to induce attraction in ways too subtle for human detection. The Ooloi seem to disregard verbal expressions of consent or non-consent in favor of what they Perceive in humans. Regarding the erotic encounter I cited above, Nikanj tells Joseph “I left you no choice” (188). To be candid, I found instances like these between ooloi and human blatantly disturbing. I was especially disturbed by Jodahs’ efforts to mate simultaneously with Jesusa and Tomás, two human siblings who initially adamant reject such encounter given their (and mine!) cultural aversion towards incest. However, in an added layer of complexity, Imago positions ooloi as distinctly vulnerable. In particular, Butler stresses the need ooloi feel for attachment; human refusal to fulfill such encounters causes significant harm to oolois as well as a weakening in their control over their abilities. An extreme example of this is Aaor, who without human contact “had no control of itself…its body ‘wanted’ to be less and less complex” and it nearly dissolves into a slug (682). I’m not suggesting that such vulnerability excuses non-consensual manipulation, and of course, I only cited two major examples of many instances in the trilogy where readers are forced to reckon with sexual non-consent. I do feel, however, that Butler’s first-person narration of ooloi thought processes allowed me to more deeply understand their choices in Imago. I now recognize oolois as beings who take on make themselves vulnerable for attachment and, simultaneously, absorb vast quantities of suffering in their mission of generative renewal.