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Human Sexuality Is Space Travel's Known Unknown

We know a lot about how the human body works in space: the way it succumbs to radiation, decalcifies, and compresses on re-entry. But we know startlingly little about how genitals function in zero gravity or what that might mean for future inhabitants of space ships and space stations. Sexuality beyond the atmosphere is an experiment in the offing. We know that it will be different — and we know that we don’t know exactly how.

Our ignorance on the topic is singular. NASA, Roscosmos, and SpaceX are, after all, not fans of known unknowns. But even as private and public work toward colonizing Cis-Lunar space and creating settlements on both the moon and Mars, little work is being done to discern how human sexuality might transition into a vacuum or onto another planet. 

This startling lack of inquiry is made additionally confounding because the sexual revolution didn’t change the strictly regimented culture aboard the shuttle or the ISS. Sex has remained separate from the culture of space and will remain so until astronauts actually have intercourse in space. Currently, there is no public evidence that has ever happened, and anyone asking about research done on the topic will likely receive disappointing answers.

“I get that question a lot,” laughs Kat Deerfield, a social scientist at Cardiff University who recently authored a thesis entitled “Gravity, Gender, and Spatial Theory.” “The truth is that there’s very little research on how gender and sexuality will be affected by space travel.”

Humble as she may be, Deerfield’s work offers a rare glimpse into how sexuality might evolve in the cosmos by providing a retrospective on how it has factored into our thinking about exploration thus far. The long and the short of it is that it hasn’t factored in very much at all.

Andromeda and the Milky Way getting after it.

Deerfield emphasizes that puritanical attitudes toward sex and restrictive ideas about gender held sway as the aerospace industry came of age in the 1950s. Only men were expected to go to space so the idea of zero gravity intercourse became the stuff of sci-fi erotica (quite a lot of it actually). Documents show that, for its part, NASA classified sexuality as a problem, then pretty much shrugged and moved along.

The agency’s complete lack of ideas was probably preferable to the notions circulated by the media as the space age got old enough to consider the birds and the bees. “Our first girl in space will probably be a flat-chested lightweight under 35 years of age, and married,” explained an article in the February 1960 edition of the popular bi-weekly Look magazine. “Her personality will both soothe and stimulate others on her space team. Her first chance in space may be as the scientist-wife of a pilot-engineer.”

Things did not improve rapidly. In 1971, the agency circled back and released a technical memorandum exploring “behavioral, psychiatric, and sociological problems of long-duration space missions.” NASA was concerned about the question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission. But the professionals basically wound up in the same place as Look’s faulty futurists, suggesting that a woman could go on missions specifically to service the astronauts. This space sex worker could keep the men happy and without taking up too much space if she weighed less than 110 pounds. It was either that or having NASA embrace a masturbation policy, but privacy would be hard to come by. And homosexuality? In practice, that would have been the easiest answer, but there wasn’t a lot of public enthusiasm for crew cut on crew cut cuddling. (Somewhat ironically, the first American woman in space was a lesbian and rumors circled about Russia’s first female cosmonauts as well.)

In retrospect, that memo was an embarrassing hash, but NASA had stumbled upon the core issue: How do gender roles work off-world? The conditions of life in space are such that traditional roles — deeply ingrained in the militaristic culture of space programs — cease to make any real sense. Deerfield points out that the technical constraints of space travel make the transition into the cosmos a natural opportunity to wipe the sexual slate clean. But the people in charge of that tradition haven’t traditionally been interested in propagating social change.

“There’s a lot of potential for other planets to be a place where we see real progress,” Deerfield says, adding that the best examples still come from fiction. “Of late, many narratives are very progressive and put women at the helm of colonies.”

A little bit of black hole propagation.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of technical hurdles standing between fiction and reality. Take bathrooms in space. When crews were all male, working in stereotypically cis-male environments, vaginas were forgotten.

“The design of a private toilet stopped women from joining the astronaut corps,” Deerfield explains. How so? The Apollo missions used a bag system to urinate. That worked fine for men, who could hit the target, but a woman? Good luck getting a female to aim into what Deerfield calls “practically a condom.” Eventually, NASA designed a toilet, but even that was made in a urinal style. For a long time, the John meant a Jane couldn’t possibly go into space.

Today it doesn’t, but the pressure to develop life-support technologies suitable for both men and women is no longer driven entirely by agency agendas. Private companies have arrived and, well, sex sells; sex in space? Doubly so.

World View Enterprises is launching a balloon buoyed space tourism capsule that gets up to eight people in space for a couple hours at a time. The company has made it very clear that high-altitude liaisons are encouraged, which makes sense given that it is, like Virgin Galactic, a recreationally focused company that specializes in high-end escapes. The question about sex posed by this sort of space tourism isn’t if but when — and how.

“We talk about up and down when it comes to sex, but in space, that doesn’t exactly work,” Deerfield points out. One of the earliest instances was 1968’s Barbarella, which involved orgasming with a nifty little pill and rubbing hands together. In 1978, Moonraker used James Bond to illustrate what absolutely won’t work (fast forward to about the third minute). By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Deep Space Nine brought back gravity but added robots and holograms to the sexual mix.

Get a room galaxies.

Futurologist Charles Ess says that those sexual machines are important to consider — in much the same way toilets are important to consider — when thinking about the development of human sexuality generally and, more specifically in the tight confines of underpopulated vessels floating in a vacuum.

“The pill was originally designed to do something for women and heterosexual relationships: Make them free to not be beholden to a man or not have a child if they didn’t want to,” Ess said. “But I’d argue it made gay liberation possible, because it helped people to no longer think of sexuality as a reproductive process, that sexuality could have more to do with building relationships.”

The pill dissociated sex and reproduction in much the same way new technologies could dissociate sex from social interaction. What Ess is saying here is actually quite revolutionary: Sex could be divorced from more than reproduction. If sex in space becomes something one can easily do alone or in pairs (or what have you) depending on preference, that would potentially chart a pathway toward increased sexual freedom. That might be particularly true during the period before children are born; the adults-only years of Mars colonization could turn into a real party.

But what about the children? Where would they come from? Given technological advancements, from three-parent babies to improved IVF treatments to CRISPR gene editing, it’s not hard to imagine that sex in space will have very little to do with baby making. And that baby making will, unless an eccentric billionaire leads the charge, have to be sponsored or encouraged by a government organization or a company. Someone, after all, has to pay for life support. Colonization and life outside of Earth, as brutal as it might sound, will make sex and reproduction obligatory. This won’t be without precedent. Countries with declining population, notably Japan and South Korea, are already engaged in natalist efforts to encourage reproduction. In a sense, the human occupation of space will start with a population crisis, so it’s natural that reproduction will be encouraged. Whether that means straight couples will be chosen for early missions or reproduction labs will be transferred to the Martian surface remains unclear. If it’s the former, more rigid sexual mores might arise. If it’s the latter, settlers will be operating without precedent.

There it is. That's the spot.

The open questions about sexuality in space and how it will develop touch on a lot of the unknowns about the future of sex on Earth, but they are compounded by the cost of liftoff and the ambition of the extraterrestrial project. But the exploration of the solar system provides an apt metaphor for the next stage of sexual expansionism. The only way to reach real understanding is to go there. One can say the same thing of sexuality in space that President Kennedy said of space itself: “Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind.”

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