Q&A

How Do I Keep My Nonreproductive Immortal Race From Being Problematic?

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 I’m interested in having a race of immortals that doesn’t reproduce (after all, it isn’t necessary and it could lead to overpopulation). I’m interested in the idea of having this race be without sex or gender, but I’d like to know what I should consider from a social justice aspect.

  •  Is it better to divide them into genders or not?
  • Is it better for them to be able to have sex or not?
  • If beings of immortal race are “female coded,” and there’s also romance-like relationships between two of them — is there a risk of “queerbaiting”?

– Anon

Hi Anon,

As I mentioned in my post on giving non-humans marginalized traits, any kind of marginalized traits or just unusual traits you give them in regards to sex, romance, and gender would help fight erasure, and be a plus. So if you want to make them all sexless and genderless, go for it.

For the most part, I think you can do whatever you want with their bodies, gender, or lifestyles. However, it would be strange if these immortal people who only reproduce rarely were all straight, cis, and monogamous. Like if all the immortal women get married to the immortal men and then change their last names to match their husbands… I think you get the idea, it would be unnaturally traditional. But maybe some do that, and others are totally different – every population has diversity, and a population of immortals who are free to express themselves might be super diverse. There’s nothing wrong with having traditional lifestyles in your story, but other lifestyles should be included too.

As I mentioned in my post about non-humans, I do think there’s something off about having a genderless race/species that are all coded as women. Most stories where this is the case are clearly written by men for the purpose of making a bunch of sexy ladies other men will appreciate. Feminine gender is defined as the opposite of masculine gender, and so having it exist by itself doesn’t make much sense.

Having a society that’s all men or all women makes it feel like the storyteller simply isn’t willing to abandon traditionally defined genders. If you’re going to have a single-gendered society, it’s a great opportunity to have characters who are actually gender nuetral.

Besides what traits you decide to give this race, how you explain these traits could be problematic. So let me just warn you against certain concepts, lest they make it into your story’s exposition or dialogue.

Overpopulation

Focusing on overpopulation as a reason for these traits can be pretty problematic. Not that overpopulation isn’t a real thing or never causes any problems, but emphasizing it as an issue doesn’t create good outcomes. Women of color are always the ones blamed for having too many babies, in fact, in the US we have a real problem with forced sterilizations of women of color in hospitals.

Plus, the threat of simply running out of resources has never come to pass – technological gains can easily allow us to create more resources. People starve because resources aren’t distributed equally. Focusing on women’s empowerment creates better results in a population than focusing on how people are reproducing too much.

So instead of making these immortals sterile, consider making it so they rarely choose to reproduce. Today a lot of people are pressured about having kids, so it could be really refreshing to see a culture that doesn’t go for that. If they are sterile, provide a reason other than that they have to avoid overpopulation.

Tying Sex and Gender to Reproduction

It’s really problematic to say that gender, sex, and romance shouldn’t exist without procreation. By that same logic, if people in the real world engage with those things for purposes other than procreation, it is considered less legitimate. This line of thinking is used constantly to discriminate against queer people, as well as a variety of non-traditional lifestyles. So watch out for that. This definitely doesn’t mean your immortal race must have sex, gender, and romance, but I wouldn’t say they don’t have them because they don’t procreate.

Assuming Sex and Romance Have to Go Together

It is not queerbaiting to have two women in a romantic but nonsexual relationship. In fact, there are many queer asexuals who would love to see this. A romantic relationship without sex is as legitimate as a romantic relationship with sex. Sexual relationships without romance are also completely legitimate. Queerbaiting happens when the behavior between two characters is coded as romantic, flirtatious, or sexual, but explicitly the characters are just friends. If they have an explicitly romantic or sexual relationship, it’s not queerbaiting.

As I said, I think you have room to do a lot of different things with these immortal beings. You can decide for yourself what kind of culture and identities they have, whether to divide them into multiple genders or not, etc – most options are equally valid.

Happy Writing,
Chris

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Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Seems to me that “female coded” could mean many different things. Maybe the immortals are slender and look graceful to human eyes. They might therefore look “feminine” to us, but that doesn’t seem weird to me. On the other hand, if they’re all some kind of feminine stereotypes, that’s weird in a society without sex and gender, and it’s REALLY weird if they have big sexy boobs.

    I’ve read sci-fi stories with ordinary humans, but they’ve somehow arranged things so that sterile is default and you have to actively do something to get pregnant. I think a lot of us short-lived humans would find that kind of arrangement convenient, and maybe the immortals could be like that too, and mention it as being “convenient”, without dragging talk about over population into it at all?

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, female-coded can mean different things. There are men who are considered feminine for their build and, perhaps, other factors (such as long hair or a finer bone structure of the face). The Japanese Bishonen (beautiful boy) is an example of that. Yet, not all Bishonen are feminine in their actions (quite some manga/anime villains fall into the Bishonen type and are anything but effeminate).

      One possible solution for low reproduction rate is indeed making all or most people of a species sterile or make it the default which needs work to be overcome.
      Another would be to give the species the choice to reproduce at will, meaning no cycle, for instance, but only the option to become pregnant, if they wish. I’ve used something like that for werewolves in a story I’ve written – the females decide if and when and with whom they want to propagate, which means no period and that rape doesn’t work to subjugate them (because there’s never a threat of unwanted pregnancy and, them being werewolves and equal to the males, a set of claws ripping the rapist to shreds).
      Another one could be a long reproduction process (after all, pregnancy in elephants is two years and, on the other hand, the Great White Shark needs 30 years to grow into reproduction age). Even on our planet, there’s a lot of different ways to handle propagation, from very regular to parthenogenesis (pregancy without a male party being involved).
      It would also be possible for the aliens to be hermaphrodites like snails on our planet – which means every alien can both father and conceive. Mythology says that the Jötun, the oldest race in Norse Mythology, was like that, too.

      Reproducing rarely can have several reasons, too. A natural one would be a rare need for mating and a long pregnancy, so the aliens simply can’t produce that much offspring. A cultural one would be that only when one of the alien dies another might take their place. A medical one would be that becoming pregnant is highly difficult for them and the rate of pregnancies carried to term is extremely low. There’s probably more I could come up with, if I devoted a few hours to thinking it over.

      • Amaryllis

        “and that rape doesn’t work to subjugate them (because there’s never a threat of unwanted pregnancy and,”

        Rape is bad because it is an extreme act of violence against a person. Even if there is no threat an unwanted pregnancy, it can still be used to humiliate and subjugate. I’d like you to avoid such an argument, because it’s used to downplay rape of men.

        • Cay Reet

          That is not how I meant it – if it came across like that, I apologize.

          It is a fact, however, that getting female prisoners of war or female civilians of a captured area (town, city, country) pregnant played a role in far-reaching waves of rape during war situations in the past (and today). It has devastating impact on society, especially if the women are forced to carry to term. That doesn’t mean rape against men (through other men or through women) doesn’t happen or is less horrible. Rape is a complex and very abhorrent thing which, unfortunately, still is a reality today.

          In my setting, raping a female werewolf is not an efficient strategy for two reasons: she will not become pregnant and she will, as an apex predator, be able to take revenge (which means most people will think twice before even attempting it). The same, of course, would go for a male werewolf, making males and females more equal to each other.

      • Ikke Spør

        Just so a note, the jötunar weren’t hermaphrodites…. Ýmir was, in a way, but that’s a creation myth, it isn’t intended to work logically. Also, the Æsir, Vanir, and Jötunar were all descended from the same being, that is, Ýmir. They’re just different tribes, not different races or species. There are also multiple legends were all three tribes intermarry. Skáði, a Jötun woman was married to a Vanir god, and there are others, but I probably shouldn’t start listing them….
        I could go on for a very long time, but I doubt it’s called for. I study Old Norse and Old English, everything else is just a hobby.
        Also, I don’t mean to negate any of your points, they all seemed quite valid to me.

  2. Amaryllis

    Thanks, but I also think that as I call it, “alternative reproduction” is worth mentioning. What if immortal beings are produced in a way that very differs from sexual reproduction or parthenogenesis. New immortals could also be created by some natural force. (like in Houseki no Kuni).

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, that is also possible and would eliminate the need for those immortal beings to propagate in a regular way (be it sexual reproduction through two or more genders or parthenogenesis). They might not even have a concept of this kind of reproduction, at least until meeting up with species who do reproduce sexually.

      It would be interesting to see what kind of society comes from this. In human society, reproduction plays a big role, especially in how gender roles are defined. A society which doesn’t reproduce (and, maybe, even is genderless and sexless) might look completely different.

    • N

      That could be great if authors took it to its logical conclusion, instead of just defaulting to heterosexual monogamous relationships. The Bone Season series actually does this: the otherworldly species there reproduces asexually – and yet they seemed to all fall neatly into human sex and gender binaries, including heterosexual monogamous marriages. (That part was probably to give the heroine a masculine love interest, though, gay non-protagonists notwithstanding.)
      In the Bartimaeus trilogy, too, djinn do not reproduce sexually, and they don’t even have corporeal bodies unless they are summoned into the human world. Yet nearly all the important djinn are male, and the main djinn makes some jokes along the lines of “men are from mars, women are from venus” (e.g women being obsessed with their appearance even when saving the world), which is a stereotype that should at least exist in a different form for this kind of species.
      Like, I understand that sex and gender are absolutely not the same, but some authors do not let go of gender binaries even if they ditch the idea of sex. I’ve yet to find a book that goes the asexual reproduction route and actually pushes boundaries with it.

  3. Bubbles

    About the definition of female – it is possible for femaleness to exist without maleness, but probably not the other way around. This is because “female” is defined as those who bear offspring (or lay eggs). All-female species can reproduce through parthenogenesis, but all-male species simply wouldn’t happen because they couldn’t reproduce and would die out.

    However, we are in a speculative fiction setting here, so perhaps a nonreproductive race could exist. But then, no member would ever have to die, which seems unlikely (and if there’s no possible way that they could die, this might cause story problems by letting conflict be solved too easily).

    This is a better reason to not make them sterile than social justice issues about overpopulation. The thing is, while what Chris said about overpopulation is basically true in the real world, it does not necessarily have to be true in the fictional world, depending on the traits of this world. (Although note that arguably, technology/magic would have to be very low-powered for some reason to allow for overpopulation causing the problems on its own, so this might also not be the best solution).

    Note: even if every member of this race is, say, female in this biological sense, they almost certainly should *not* resemble female humans, particularly stereotypes of them! This is pretty much the best advice here.

    About sex, gender, and romance being tied to procreation: The thing is, while those things do *not* have to go with each other either, things such as romance originally did evolve for the purpose of facilitating procreation. A race that did not need others to reproduce would not evolve romance or anything like it (although if they were social, they might evolve something like friendship – although some claim that sociality originated from relationships with mates that were expanded to others). If the race was created by a non-evolutionary process, they could have romance, but then why would the creator give them romance if they didn’t have it already?
    (Incidentally, some parthenogenetic creatures need others to facilitate the reproductive process, even though those others don’t contribute genes to offspring – so perhaps, in that situation, something like romance could evolve).

    • Cay Reet

      Romance connected to reproduction is actually pretty new. The idea of romantic marriage isn’t much older than about 150 years.

      For early humans, women often looked for males who were good providers to have children with them. And couples didn’t necessarily actually live together – children were often raised by a tribe or enhanced family, not by what we know as a core family today.

      In patrilinear societies, men looked for women with a high chance of having many healthy children (mostly women from very fertile families). Infertility of a woman could be (and has in history been) a reason to undo a marriage.

      In addition to fertility as a such, wealth often played a role, as did class. Marrying outside the own class was rare for a long time (albeit more likely for women than for men, because the class a family belonged to usually depended on the class the man belonged to). Marriage were often arranged between the families with the actual groom and bride having little say in things (although the groom might have more of a say).

      Marriages between people on all levels of society were often more of a business than of anything else – land, shops, and other valuables would be traded through marriage, such as two farmer families bringing fields together, merchant families bringing profitable trade routes or shops together, noblemen enlarging their own country.

      Among royalty, marriages were political more than anything else (kings always had ways to introduce children with a mistress into the official bloodline), which led to many incestuous marriages in Europe (where the pool of possible candidates got smaller and smaller with each marriage).

      Well into the 20th century, the class or wealth or possible dowry of a bride were an important part of the choice of a bride. Romantic marriages became a theme during the era of Romanticism in literature, where marrying for love and no other reason was used as a topic pretty often.

      Romantic marriage as a such became a thing only once society opened up more. The first people being together for something else than monetary reasons might have been the workers in the factories (but many of those couples weren’t married, because marriage was expensive – they just lived together and had children).

      After WWI, romantic marriages instead of arranged ones became more of a topic in Europe, but even during the time when my parents were young (1950s), quite some women considered the financial and social position of a man just as well as their feelings for said possible groom – and, perhaps, also the other way around.

      • Bubbles

        That’s some interesting history. But what I’m saying is, romance and procreation are different things, certainly, but they are (or were) at least, related to some degree. For a race in which an individual is capable of reproducing without any assistance whatsoever, what would be the difference between romance and friendship?

        • Cay Reet

          The difference between having a close relationship to someone and having a soulmate who understands you in every way and whom you never want to be without, I would guess.

          We do link romance and procreation these days, but our very phenotype (the way male and female bodies look overall) suggests that we are not a monogamous species by nature. Male and female bodies differ enough so we can see at first or second glance whether another person is the same (potential rival) or the opposite (potential mate) sex (switch for homosexual humans). Monogamous species (like swans or ravens) show little difference in male and female phenotypes (it is very pronounced in birds, on account of birds often showing their sex through their plumage, but also goes for other kinds of species).

          The same goes for our behaviour – human couples cheat on each other a lot (not everyone, but a lot of people). The rate would be much lower, if we were monogamous by nature and only few humans felt the need to switch mates over time.

          Procreation has to do with sexually desiring someone (our sexual desire seems to be oddly specific and aimed at people we are highly compatible with genetically), whereas romance also exist for asexual people (aromantic aka. ‘not interested in romance’ and asexual aka ‘not interested in sex’ are two different things). You can sexually desire a person, but feel no romantic tension, or romantically desire a person, but feel no sexual tension.

          It’s society which is linking romance and procreation, and linking it more for women (who are supposed to only sexually desire those whom they also desire romantically) than for men (who get that ‘boys will be boys’ leeway for straying in a relationship or visiting a prostitute).

  4. greg

    The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin is a book about a race of humanoids with only one gender that encompasses male and female. Not exactly gender-neutral, but excellent reading for guidance on how to do something that challenges the norm.

  5. Leon

    Heres some questions to ask yourself, about the female coded thing.

    How would a “non female” single sex species produce and raise children?
    Breast feeding is obviously a fantastic survival strategy. Every type of mammal has retained the ability to breast feed (even the platypus produces milk), and evolution is very quick to remove traits that aren’t optimal. As well as being the best way to get the most calories into the baby, it also creates strong social bonds that you don’t see in reptiles or birds – It would be hard to explain why a social species, does not nurse their young.
    Bottle feeding has the same effect of course – but if there was no breast feeding there would be no bottle feeding.

    Likewise, the mammalian genitals are not the norm. Even some mammals (marsupials) have a cloaca (reptiles don’t work like mammals, its quite weird, I recommend googling it).
    Captain Kirk, probably would have been hard pressed to find an alien woman who was interested in his weird little front tail.

    Finally, try to imagine how child rearing would work, from Sexual Selection, through sex and pregnancy, and infancy through to adult hood. When you map out each step, it’s surprising what you miss, and what opportunities might have gone unnoticed.

    No matter how immortal your species is, they will eventually have to make noobs.

    – Some body mentioned females producing clones this is a good survival strategy, used by whip tail lizards, because it allows a species to spread very quickly. However, the this is only part of the survival strategy, there are still males, with whom the clones can mate, which is important, because clones can’t share their adaptations with the rest of the species, bloodlines need to merge and split.
    I have actually modded a space fairing species of mine on whip tail lizards, the asexual reproduction means no chance of inbreeding among tiny populations, as well as the ability to expand rapidly (one of their nations is quite evil, and really into eugenics – most are regular garden variety jerks like us).

    • Cay Reet

      You do have a point about how a non-female species would raise children, but there are two points which I’d like to make myself.

      First of all, only mammals breastfeed, so any species which is descended from fish, reptiles, birds, or amphibians instead would not even consider breastfeeding a problem or a topic at all. As long as a female being from such a species can produce either an egg or an infant, there’s no problem. Also, breastfeeding demands the milk production, but not a femal body shape – human breasts serve other functions than milk production as well, most other mammals merely have teats. So not being female-coded in looks or actions doesn’t mean the female aliens aren’t able to produce and dispense milk.

      Second, here we’re talking about a species which doesn’t reproduce sexually at all and thus doesn’t have to be shaped by reproduction, neither in body nor in society. If magic were involved, children could just be grown outside a body, so the body itself wouldn’t have to perform any work by itself. Even if we’re talking marsupials, the actual ‘birth’ wouldn’t put that much strain on the mother, because the baby is so tiny when born (unlike the strains of a rather big baby for a human mother), and it could be nursed in other ways during the growing process. A species where where new members merely ‘happen,’ doesn’t need a female or male body … they could be androgynous, they could switch physical sex at will, they could be anything the author wants, because there’s no limit through ‘they will have to reproduce somehow, so put in some genders and all which comes with those.’ Yet, there is a certain danger that they’d turn out female-coded for some reason, hence the warning.

      • Rose Embolism

        If we’re going by purely biological reproduction, there’s always budding. Which, for a human sized creature could be a very slow process.

        Also borrowing from microbiology, if we want our creatures to exchange genetic information, there’s always conjugation, which bacteria use to transfer genetic information. For a larger creature, that could result in gradual changes in the phenotype of the creature.

        So there we could have a species with a very different view of reproduction and physical intimacy. Reproduction would be regarded as a major hassle as one gradually splits into two people. Physical intimacy on the other hand, may be considered a major deal, as it would involve two or more people taking a little of the other inside them, and possibly changing physically.

        • Leon

          That could be a really cool idea for a species with a rotationally symmetrical body plan. I could imagine all 5 segments becoming their own person and getting quite fed up with being attached to each other toward the end.

      • Leon

        One more thing. Cay, you said that human breasts serve other functions than providing milk. This is actually a strong argument for most upright standing critters having human like breasts. A trait that appears for sexual selection is not likely to vanish unless it becomes a liability or irrelevant (and it would not evolve away in immortals because immortals can not evolve).
        I don’t think the behaviour of female mammals would change much if males were removed (a woman’s existence doesn’t revolve around men does it?). Courtship behaviours would have new targets but the factors that make a woman attractive wouldn’t change (most of us have sisters so “mystery” is a myth).

        Again, if it’s all magic, all discussion is pointless. The species in question would obviously be whatever they consider to be sexy, which would obviously be what the author likes or thinks is appropriate for the species, which would obviously offend somebody.
        So, to Anon, write whatever you like mate, no matter what you write somebody is going to be unhappy about it. So you may as well write something that makes you happy. You need to put the genuine you on the page.

        • Bubbles

          Um, kangaroos, for one, are upright-standing mammals that are subject to sexual selection and live in social groups – and they don’t have breasts. For giving milk in general, I don’t think that would be absolutely necessary for strong social bonds. After all, many species take care of their offspring for some time even without nursing. There are even non-nursing methods that rely on something coming from the mother’s body, such as regurgitation (by some birds, for instance), or eating the mother’s skin (by some caecilians, although they are amphibians). Plus, some birds, at least, do live in complex social groups.

          As you say, if magic is involved, biological considerations may not apply. However, there could still be real-world problems if this immortal race resembled a stereotype, say, of women. Plus, from what I’ve heard, there are lots of races in fiction that all look like human women, so it’s simply cliche and authors might want to think about doing something new and more exciting.

        • Cay Reet

          The fat-bolstered breasts of human women are an oddity among mammals. You won’t find breast on primates, which are closest to us. It’s been suggested that the breasts are part of our sexual dimorphism (ie. a way to easily spot whether another human is male or female). They do not serve our upright walk – quite the opposite, large breasts can very much ‘unbalance’ a woman physically and they can lead to severe back and shoulder troubles. If they were for keeping upright, men would have something similar, after all. For feeding our young alone, simple teats would do.

          Humans have evolved breasts, our early ancestors didn’t have any, so it’s not ‘an immortal race wouldn’t evolve past having breasts,’ it’s more of a ‘an immortal race would never evolve any breasts, because they’re not necessary.’

  6. Tifa

    Oh, The Left Hand of Darkness. I was going to mention it, but you beat me to it. I should try reading it again sometime.

  7. Sedivak

    If you are interested there is a novel that expores the topic of an immortal nonreproductive society in great depth: “Futu:re” by Dmitry Glukhovsky.

    It is about near-future human society that has found a medical cure for aging. Overpopulation is rampant and procreation – while possible – is a horrible social and legal stigma on both the parents and the child.

    It is very well written and captivating but I must warn you that it is not light reading. I felt dirty for days after reading it. I would still recomend it to everyone who dares.

  8. Tifa

    So does the re-occurrence of female-coding mean that things like Land of the Lustrous and Steven Universe are bad, and that no one should ever watch them? I was really excited about watching them, but then I read this article and now I feel guilty.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I haven’t seen Land of the Lustrous, but for Steven Universe at least, you don’t have to worry. While the gems all use she/her pronouns, they avoid all the sterotypes that are typical with an “all female” alien species. Some gems are fem, some are masc, some are neither. Really it seems like they’re the gems don’t have gender at all, and they chose feminine pronouns because they liked them better.

    • Chris Winkle

      I’ll just add that one of my issues with races that are all coded as women or men is that nonbinary people are erased. But Steven Universe is also one of the very few shows with a canonically nonbinary character. No show is perfect, but you definitely don’t have to feel bad about watching it.

      • Amaryllis

        Haven’t watched Steven Universe, but watched Land of the Lustrous. I wonder, how to have a non-binary character, if society has no concept of gender at all?

        • Chris Winkle

          If society has no concept of gender, and you successfully depict that without coding in a gender binary, everyone is nonbinary.

  9. Amaryllis

    Also, I would like to ask how to handle transformation of human being to immortal sexless being, if such transformation is possible in the setting. What can possibly go wrong?

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