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Similar to this question, but with major differences.

The set-up is that past-humans implemented, through biological engineering, the ability to switch between male and female in everybody. However, their society collapsed, and later humanity rebuilt civilization from the ground-up. And retained the ability to switch sex.

The switch takes place over a period of approximately 6 months, and is reversible at any point. You need to want to switch, though you don't need to think about it all the time -- a subconscious desire will work as well. You can get pregnant in the female form, and switch back in the early stages of the pregnancy, which "suspends" the fetus's growth. If you're in the late stages, however, you can't switch back until you give birth. It's also possible to stop the switch part-way through, if you want, which will leave you with hermaphroditic features.

So what would be different this time around?

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  • $\begingroup$ You say I can stop the switch part-way through for hermaphroditic features, which I assume means a mix of features. Does force of will determine which mix of features, or would it be (say) 70-30 over the range of primary and secondary sex characteristics? $\endgroup$ – Lori Jan 12 '15 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Ever read the Culture novels? This is a feature of the citizens of the Culture (along with a few other additions like regrowing limbs etc). I'm pretty sure it becomes a plot point in the second (?) book. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 26 '16 at 21:46
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Society has long relied on the role differences between genders. How useful are they? 100% of societies have them, with only a scant few new cultures (like ours) trying to see what happens as we break them down.

Why are they useful? Consider what happens when you ask a 5 year old what they want to be when they grow up. The answer is usually something like "an astronaut" or "a firefighter." That answer will change over time, so its not really worth giving a 5 year old astronaut training (other than that, perhaps, its fun as all heck for the 5 year old!)

Now, consider a role which benefits from lifelong training. A culture which begins training at 7 is fundamentally 7 years behind a culture that trains at birth in such a role. Now consider if there are diametrically opposed roles, where it is terribly hard to be good at both. There would be an advantage to artificially dividing the culture in half and giving each half training from birth.

Societies have shown that, with the presence of biological sex, that division is incredibly beneficial in a remarkable number of situations. Only recently have we explored whether giving individuals more choice and less sex-driven roles is beneficial for society or not (and the experiment is still running!).

So, in your case with a fluid biological sex, the answer is less obvious. It could be that this results in a society with fewer roles being forced on us, and more choice for individuals. This is the utopia side of things. It's also possible that it is tremendously difficult to keep up without such a split of roles, and society crumbles under it (the distopia side of things).

More likely, however, society would not crumble. Society dislikes doing things like that. More likely, if it needed a division of roles from birth to succeed, it would develop a new method of division. Perhaps birth gender might be tatooed on you. Or perhaps society would divide on hair color. Or perhaps a powerful caste system world form that divides the world into two castes that always intermarry.

This is what I find incredibly exciting about the recent shifts in women's roles. We, as a society, actually have absolutely no clue what the result will be. All we can do is go down a path, and see what the answer is. Hopefully we can go at a pace which allows us to retain balance as we go!

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Sexism as we know it would disappear. No more "woman in the kitchen" stereotyping; no more "man at work". Since people would have the opportunity to experience how both sexes work and operate internally, there would be greater understanding between people. To put more bluntly: women would understand being kicked in the nuts, and men would understand bleeding from your nether regions every month.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say there may also be a fairly significant number less suicides. Since sexuality-related discrimination would be far rarer, teenagers especially would feel they don't need to conform as much, and thus if they can't they wouldn't feel pressured into ending their own existence.

However, this would, as bowlturner says, open up the market for "selective employment" based on physical qualities. Since men are generally stronger, construction companies might choose to only employ men; if a woman wants to work in construction she can change herself to a man.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would sexism disappear instead of drastically intensifying? Sex is now a choice, with the added ability of being in a range of in-between states. Those who actually choose one or the other may be seen as exceedingly weird - everyone 'normal' may be somewhere closer to a 50-50 split (with the exception of during pregnancy, though how hermaphroditic can you be and still give birth? and pregnancy is a tiny portion of your lifespan). Being at one extreme or the other could be strongly discouraged socially. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jan 13 '15 at 14:02
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Interesting question. I would say most of our issues about sex and gender inequality would be gone. At least our current issues. I'm sure we would find other ways to discriminate against each other.

I would expect that more people would want to actually bare their own child, at least once, which would make 'fatherhood' a very different issue. This would likely put any custody cases back to the 'mother' by default unless she proves to be unfit.

Since anyone can honestly 'choose' which gender to be, I would expect some jobs would truly become sexist, 'only men can apply for this...' only women can apply for that... and if you want one of those jobs, you will make the effort to change.

This also make me wonder about the sex of a child until puberty, I'm guess they have no sex organs, and will develop them later in life?

What kind of teenagers would we have? now they are hormonal bundles, but each side gets a different cocktail of chemicals. What would happen, here? is there a default sex? Female? or each person leans one way or another? Or do they fluctuate back and forth in the 'hermaphrodite stage until settling in one direction or the other? Because much of our sexual identity starts here.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ever read Seuss' "The Star-bellied Sneetches?" It'll turn out like that. $\endgroup$ – Caleb Woodman Oct 28 '15 at 21:51
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Ursula Le Guin (who else) has written a book which involved just this thought experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness Highly recommended reading. It's especially interesting because of how it also explores how gendered humans (or at least one particular man) would act and feel in such a society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Book recommendations are useful, but can you please add an example of how it addresses the issue? What kind of changes does it posit? $\endgroup$ – Bobson Jan 13 '15 at 16:37
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First, the problem with restricting jobs to men only or to women only would vanish, because anyone who wanted such a job could simply switch. We currently condemn such discrimination because it keeps people in the unemployment line, but with the ability to switch sex, only those who refuse to make the choice are kept out of any particular job.

There would also be the turmoil of people who want to switch, but are in a relationship (whether marital or parental) with people who want them to remain as they are. If you're a man who prefers women, or a woman who prefers men, you won't want your spouse to switch without a very good reason.

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A considerable proportion of the population would be male, for the most part, only becoming female if they have need of it. Being female habitually rather than male would mean that you'd have to experience periods, less muscle growth and strength, etc.

Prejudices would no longer be about what your sex was, but if you had some kind of defect that didn't allow you to change it.

Abortion rates would decline, because women who decided they weren't ready for a baby would be able to become male until they decided they were.

Certain sports it would be habitual to transition from one sex to the other while playing, new games and sports would come about that require you to transition while playing, as a handicap, to show that you're on the other team, etc.

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