My world was called Earth but for reasons that will become clearer later I will call it Silphium. I was born there in a male body; for reasons I will never understand, one morning, the week that Watchmen came out (both I and, I gather, the previous inhabitant of this body were looking forward to our universes’ respective versions), I awoke in a female body here.
I’ll skip over the Wikipedia binging and the constantly pinching myself and the sudden, horrified realization that I will never, ever see my family again; my fellow extradimensional visitors understand it without my description, and those born in this dimension (I hope) never will. Instead, I will talk about the thing that startled me most when I landed here.
Everyone is constantly talking about their genitals.
Back home, in Silphium, one’s sex is a private matter for one’s doctor and one’s sexual partners. I mean, obviously you can guess: the linebacker is probable male, the large-breasted waif female; but you certainly don’t ask for confirmation. It would be as gauche as asking whether someone took it up the ass.
It is impossible to say a sentence of English without revealing the gender of the person you’re talking about, and the situation is worse for other languages. Singular ‘they’ to refer to a person of unknown gender is controversial. The honorifics are gendered. Etiquette is gendered. Virtues are gendered. Clothes are gendered, so you don’t even have to talk to someone to tell them whether you have a cock. Any stranger passing you on the street will immediately decide whether they think you’re packing a vulva or a penis, and if they’re confused they will get mad at you for being confusing instead of themselves for being invasive of others’ privacy.
Even children are gendered! It would be almost understandable as some sort of bizarre society-wide sexual fetish, but why involve children? And yet their playing pretend, their interests, their books, are involved in this bizarre, nigh-pedophiliac genital obsession. I was so disgusted the first time I saw the Aisle of Pink at a toy store that I nearly vomited. It was as if there were Baby’s First Vibrator.
This is particularly strange combined with Earth culture’s hysteria around childhood sexuality. A commonplace Silphian statement like “many children have kinks” or “sometimes children explore their sexuality with each other” is anathema on Earth.
I mean, I had known that there were civilizations with gender before. They had been colonized, their sick, sexual ways used as an excuse to destroy their traditional ways of life. Christian missionaries taught them that there was no male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. And nowadays New Agers taught people how to “get in touch with their gender” using the techniques of native peoples who were attuned to their bodies and sexualities, rather than disconnected like modern civilization.
In college, I discovered the existence of nonbinary people and almost immediately became one. I knew there had to be some option in this stupid dimension to not let everyone know what your genitals were immediately after they met you.
As I read about nonbinary genders to better pass as a nonbinary Earthling rather than a dimensional traveler, I stumbled across descriptions of bodily dysphoria: the discomfort people had with their sexed body parts. To my shock, I discovered I experienced this feeling. In my current, female body, I was dysphoric about my breasts; in my previous, male body, I had been dysphoric about my deep voice and body and facial hair; in both, I had been genital dysphoric.
I knew, of course, about endogenous sex hormones. They were covered in both DARE and in sex ed. Some people had sexual fetishes, we were told, for being a different sex. As a fantasy, it was healthy, but just like other harmful fantasies like rape and public sex, it had to be kept in fantasy. Endogenous sex hormones were illegal, punishable by up to a decade in prison if caught; hormones were dangerous and could lead to liver failure and poisoning from counterfeit drugs. Most terrifyingly, regular hormone use would destroy your ability to have children.
I had never known about surgery. Silphium didn’t have it, or if it did it was in the same unsanitary conditions as illegal abortions. The idea that I didn’t have to stare at the mirror and hate my body… that it was legitimate suffering, and not just a sexual fetish… I began to wonder if swapping universes had been not a curse but a blessing.
Worse, as people referred to me with nonbinary pronouns, I found that they made me happy. It wasn’t just that my privacy was no longer being invaded, although it was that. It was– as if I valued being seen as a particular gender, over and above how I was treated as that gender and my sexed characteristics and my sense of privacy. This emotion feels somewhat like betraying my Silphian home. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s Earth germs.
My readers may be asking if Silphium had a higher rate of bisexuality. My answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know how many of my friends were only attracted to females, in the same way that I currently don’t know how many of my friends are only attracted to blondes. It is acceptable to break up with one’s lover for sexual incompatibility, which presumably genitals you don’t like would fall into, and of course no one would marry someone they couldn’t have children with. I suspect Silphium has far more bisexuals, but it’s impossible to know.
Lovers and spouses is another difference between Silphium and Earth. I had, like nearly all Silphian teenagers, had had sex. Promiscuity was accepted among teenagers (although by no means mandatory) and looked upon as childish fun. Monogamy is only required during the childrearing years: from the time you start trying for children until your last child goes to school. And even then it’s only sexual monogamy. No one would expect me to break up with my lover just because I’m in the childrearing years.
In Silphium, AIDS was called the teenager killer and mostly targeted upper-middle-class suburban teens with plenty of free time and private bedrooms to fuck in. I’m uncertain which dimension had the higher death toll. Far more Silphians contracted AIDS, but condom use was implemented much more quickly and HIV medications were discovered sooner because of the pressure from parents. We certainly have the worse tearjerker YA novels.
I knew that Earth was not nearly so accepting of promiscuity, particularly for women, like I had become. But I was young and in my prime and did not intend to be (horrors) celibate until I could find a more reasonable social group. I had to have sex in the back of cars instead of in my bedroom, but on the other hand I could give a blowjob without a condom without worrying about contracting HIV, so sexually it was a wash. I understood that on Earth all relationships are like marriages during the childrearing years, but that wasn’t too bad. It was probably why Earth had such a lower rate of STIs.
And then, after sex, I mentioned a perfectly ordinary crush on a pretty person in our class, and my lover blew up. How dare I say something like that to him, didn’t I love him, if I loved him how could I have eyes for someone else, if I had to have eyes for someone else why did I tell him, didn’t I know that it would hurt him, he certainly had never been attracted to anyone else but me…
My proposal that he become sexually attracted to someone besides me, so it would be equal, did not go over well.
When, a few years later, I discovered polyamory, an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders. For the life of me, I did not understand Earth norms about monogamy. When did a friendship become an “emotional affair”? When did a flirtation become a betrayal? When was a crush acceptable, and when was it not? I truly did not want to hurt my monogamous partners, but I was constantly doing so.
Polyamory, however, merely has the unusual feature that I am allowed to have sex with people even during the childrearing years. The first time I fucked a father gave me a delightful kinky frisson which (unfortunately) I could not explain to my lover. I think when I myself bear children, I shall become monogamous; I know my parent Alys is in another dimension, but I still don’t want to shame them.
Childbearing brings us to the third difference: the emotion which would be loosely translated into English as “baby hunger”. Earth humans go through puberty in their early teens and begin experiencing sexual desire. Silphium humans do as well, but in their twenties they acquire a similar, stronger drive: the craving for a baby. Schools always are overflowing with volunteers, and it is rarely difficult for a parent to find a babysitter. Many Silphian mothers with well-behaved children make a fair bit of extra cash at “baby cafes”, where they let twentysomethings play with, read to, sing to, and cuddle their children.
My baby hunger began right on schedule, when I was 21. If I were on Silphium, I would be getting married right now and moving in with either my or my spouse’s parents, who would help financially support us during the time-consuming child-rearing years. But on Earth you have to be financially stable before you have kids. Looking at my friends, it may be another three or four years before I wed, and even longer before I can bear children. I am reading a lot of parenting books.
On Earth, there are many childfree people. Not so on Silphium: the willingly childfree are a minority as small as asexuals, and perhaps smaller. If someone doesn’t have children by the time they’re twenty-seven or so, it’s assumed they’re infertile, and they are alternately pitied and reviled. Infertility is an accepted reason to divorce your spouse, and infertile people have a terrible time getting married to anyone except another infertile person (Silphium’s version of Dan Savage says they shouldn’t inflict themselves on normally fertile people). For this reason, adoption and surrogacy are even more in-demand on Silphium than they are on Earth.
I suspect this relates to the point of divergence between our worlds, and the reason I named my homeworld Silphium. On Earth, silphium was a somewhat ineffective contraceptive which was driven extinct. On Silphium, it was much more effective, and the Etruscans domesticated it and traded it everywhere in Eurasia. The Roman army had silphium-using female soldiers, the Gospels condemn divisions based on sex, and by the end of the Dark Ages gender no longer existed.
An effective contraceptive also explains the increased level of sexual freedom: there’s no particular reason not to fuck around if it won’t give you kids. We must have somehow evolved baby hunger in the last two thousand years (can a complex drive evolve that quickly, even under considerable selective pressure?). This difference explains also Silphium’s smaller population: we have three billion humans, rather than seven. I’m not sure how we weren’t wiped out in the past two thousand years, since our medicine wasn’t any better than yours: I guess even a few hundred years ago females still needed to bear children to work on farms, and a lower population would cause fewer famines and wars.
So that’s my story. My commenters should feel free to ask questions about Silphium; later this week, I’ll gather all my answers into a new post.