How do aliens have sex?

Sure, we wonder because we’re just horny, but envisioning how extraterrestrials do the dirty has allowed generations of writers to expand the parameters of human sexuality.

All the hubbub raised this year by new reports and studies on UFOs, and by the meme-gone-wild “Storm Area 51” saga they spawned, has made it abundantly clear that many of us are deeply invested in the question of whether or not aliens have been, or could soon be, in contact with earth. Media coverage and conversation around these developments has  also made it clear that many of us are equally invested in the question of whether said aliens might be, or might find us, fuckable.

This fascination may feel like a distinctly 2019 phenomenon, fueled by increasingly open sexual dialogue and modern digital media’s eternal search for fun and often low-key trollish new hot takes on the news. But humans have actually been thinking about sex with aliens for ages now, so much so that these pairings have been a noteworthy recurrent element in, or focus of, science fiction stories for more than a century. Yet our depictions of these theoretical trysts — the shape and flavor of our fascination — have shifted over time. And those shifts reveal quite a bit, not just about how we perceive extraterrestrials, but also about how we perceive other humans, both sexually and in general.

Hints of humanity’s interest in alien sex and sexuality crop up in the first (retroactively labeled) recorded sci-fi story, the second century CE writer Lucian of Samosata’s True History, a satirical take on ancient myths and histories of humanity’s early days. It tells the tale of an explorer swept off to the moon, where he meets an alien civilization — and spends a chapter dwelling on how these all-male humanoids procreate. The ninth century CE Japanese proto-sci-fi fable The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child also spends a fair amount of time talking about how unusually desirable men find said Moon Child, a woman who falls to earth as a baby, thanks to the allure of her profound and unearthly beauty.

But these stories are anomalies, largely because extraterrestrials as we think of them simply don’t feature in many novels and fables until the early modern era (1500 - 1800 C.E.). Early parallels to modern sci-fi, as Karma Waltonen of the University of California – Davis pointed out in a 2015 article, tended to focus on human relations (including sex) with fantastical creatures on earth, or with divine/demonic beings from metaphysical planes of existence beyond our own universe.

Extraterrestrial beings start to pop up more in stories from then on, as scholars the world over started to learn more about the actual features of other planets and imagine what it might be like to live upon them. However, most early modern sci-fi stories, like Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1608) and Voltaire’s Le Micromégas (1752), focus more on the ecology of strange new worlds than their people. Early authors often assumed, due to religious motives, egocentrism, or a simple lack of imagination, that intelligent beings on other planets would look, think, and act like humans — albeit perhaps these space humans would be taller than us, or have different concerns.

That assumption stuck well into the early 20th century, when sci-fi stories started to get sexy. Genre protagonists like John Carter from the 1910s, Buck Rogers from the 1920s, and Flash Gordon from the 1930s all romanced, and implicitly slept with, alien women who paralleled human women as depicted in contemporary comics and pulp fiction. (Granted, Carter’s Martian paramour, Princess Dejah Thoris, did birth their child by laying an egg.) They did so not because their authors wanted to say something about aliens or humans through their encounters, but because they were escapist fantasy stand-ins for boys and young men in a genre that cultural gatekeepers and state censors usually ignored, allowing for more risqué images and tales, albeit not for explicit sex scenes. This is why early sci-fi films, like the 1936 Flash Gordon, got away with featuring some of the era’s skimpiest outfits on screen, and why sci-fi served as one of the main mediums for the birth of legal softcore porn. It is also why tales of human women having sex with aliens were shockingly rare as late as the ‘70s.

Our tendency to use aliens as mirrors for our own experiences and hang-ups puts hard limits on our ability to envision truly alien sexual experiences.

Near-human aliens remain staples of escapist fantasy sci-fi to this day, but also of more thoughtful sci-fi movies and shows. Suzie Silver, a visual artist who has turned her eye to sci-fi from time to time, suggested this historically may have been more a matter of practicality than ideology. “It was easier and less expensive to have aliens that looked humanoid,” she said, “rather than having to create elaborate puppets, costumes, and special effects.” Even when shows and movies can make a puppet or a convincing CGI creature, they may opt for something humanoid out of what is by now convention, or, if we are meant to connect to the alien on a human level, to visually enable that.

Yet as early as 1920, argues sci-fi historian Eric Rabkin, hints of more interesting visions of alien sex started to crop up in the genre — notably in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, where two earthlings travel the world of Tormance. They encounter beings with more than two genders and entirely unearthly bodies and sexualities. The humans do not have sex with these aliens, but they do spontaneously sprout new organs from their bodies and experience unfathomable sensations.

This burbling trend of engaging with truly alien bodies and sensations took a leap in 1952 in Philip José Farmer’s The Lovers, where a human linguist falls for an insectoid alien woman and has what many credit as the first explicitly depicted sexual encounter in sci-fi with her. Farmer followed it up with a slew of inventive sexual stories, but more importantly he opened the floodgates for gobs of sexually explicit sci-fi, much of it exploring erotic desire and interactions between humans and utterly inhuman extraterrestrials. Stories like Ursula K. Le Guin’s  The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), with its sex- and gender-fluid aliens, force their human characters to confront their feelings for beings that don’t align with normative earthbound notions of biological sex, gender, and sexuality. Tales like Gardner Dozois’s Strangers (1978), in which a human modifies himself to be with his alien beloved only to realize their union will result in her death, force their earthlings to question the imposition of their own sexuality and romantic assumptions onto others. Sketches like Larry Niven’s comedic Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex (1969) even bring some of this true alienness back to near-human extraterrestrials like the Kryptonian Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent or Superman, envisioning his ejaculation as a head-exploding cum geyser.

These more complicated and rich visions of alien bodies and sexualities slowly leak over time into not just edgy sci-fi, but mainstream media. This is apparent in the Star Trek franchise alone. A 1991 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, introduced the J’naii, a race of people who have no gender. A 2001 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise features a Xyrillian, a species whose males become pregnant through physical contact that seem innocuous to humans, getting close to a human crew member.

Some of this opening stemmed from the slow collapse of underlying assumptions that alien life must mimic human life in form and function — from an interest in exploring the idea of the truly alien on new planets. More of it, genre fiction and sexuality studies professor Jonathan Alexander suggests, stemmed from “the post-Kinsey era” and growing popular awareness of and conversation on more expansive ideas of human sexuality. (Links between alien sex and human sexual liberation are quite clear in works by authors like Poul Anderson and Theodore Sturgeon, who use aliens as blunt allegories for, and defenses of, human queerness.) Yet boundary-pushing alien-human sexual imaginings “didn’t get widespread,” he added, “until the ’60s and ’70s — largely, I think, due to feminism and female writers in the genre who were really interested in deconstructing gender and sexuality.”

Stories about human-alien sex were fertile grounds for exploring human sexual diversity, Rabkin argues, because of the same cultural devaluation of the genre that allowed escapist fantasy authors to get a little racier than their peers. “You could do this in science fiction,” he said, “because, well, these aliens have this strange sexuality,and we just have to explore that” for the story. That’s how someone like Sturgeon got away with clearly sympathetic depictions of gay men, via aliens, around the same time that Alan Turing was being chemically castrated for his sexuality. Alexander also suspects that aliens served as a useful “distancing mechanism so that we [the readers] could explore interracial or same-sex intimacy and more” through them, gently grappling with sexual and gender diversity without having to do too much explicit or rapid self-exploration and questioning.

This points to the reality that, no matter how inhuman an alien might seem it is almost always “just a twist on the human,” as Rabkin puts it. Its apparent physical or psychological differences are merely prisms used to refract and deconstruct elements of our own sexual selves. As such, Alexander argues, depictions of human-alien sex vary wildly by how a given author or the culture around them feels about others — other cultures, genders, sexualities, and so on.

This is why, parallel to the use of human-alien sex to deconstruct human gender and sexuality, we get a ton of media using these encounters to manifest a profound fear of the other. As far back as 1933, C.L. Moore’s Shambleau depicted an alluring femme Martian being that used sexual ecstasy to lull its (typically male) victims into complacency as it slowly drained their life force. Later movies like Lifeforce (1985) spawned an entire sub-genre of films and TV episodes about sexually aggressive female aliens whose advances are inherently dangerous or outright murderous. Critics have also long picked over how the face-huggers in 1979’s Alien are basically rapacious foreign penises, and its xenomorphs an unstoppable and incomprehensible force that will rip through humanity if given half a chance — now a common genre trope. Stories like Robert Silverberg’s The Way to Spook City (1992) and films like They Live (1988) also play on the idea of aliens who appear entirely humans, and use their passing nature to trick us into sex with them.

“We’d spend all our time just trying to make the most basic connection with the aliens. Sex would be out of the question.”
sci-fi/sexuality historian Lewis Call on a hypothetical alien encounter

Few of these paranoid visions do a good job of explaining why aliens would travel across the universe just to sexually prey on us, save perhaps presenting the idea that we’re just food sitting in their cosmic path. (One prominent exception being the works of Octavia Butler, whose explanations for aliens' sexual interest in humans are inventive, compelling, and deserving of much deeper analyses.) More often than not they just use sex to crank our lizard brain fear that different might be dangerous up to 11 — to deconstruct, manifest, or stoke fears of, say, migrants destroying or displacing the cultures they move into, or sexual minorities sneaking into and degrading, normative, mainstream cultures.

Our tendency to use aliens as mirrors for our own experiences and hang-ups puts hard limits on our ability to envision truly alien sexual experiences. Scientists like Clifford Pickover often point out that aliens could have evolved in such radically different contexts to humans that they might not even be fleshy and carbon-based. For all we know, they could be sentiment hive-mind beings of vapor that reproduce asexually, or by transmitting genes, or an equivalent, between each other in manners that might not look sexual to us — that might be intangible data transfers. Most human-alien sex in sci-fi doesn’t even come close to equaling the full diversity of sexual experiences among organisms on earth, Silver and others argue. Beings that reproduce either sexually or asexually, that change their genders spontaneously throughout their lives, that rip open their membranes and let DNA leak back and forth between each other, feature prominently in numerous scientific journals and nature documentaries, but not in many sci-fi properties.

A few artists like Silver believe we can move past these roadblocks to develop truly alien visions of sex. But Alexander, Rabkin, and others have their doubts that we can ever depict humans getting sexual with such completely alien beings. At that level of foreignness, said sci-fi and sexuality historian Lewis Call, “it would be like Arrival. We’d spend all our time just trying to make the most basic connection with the aliens. Sex would be out of the question.”

That’s why stories that do present very non-human aliens and focus on sex, like some of Butler’s, find ways of smoothing out even limited incompatibilities, establishing connections through genetic or bodily modifications and/or non-verbal forms of communication. “Stories are about understanding,” Alexander said. “There’s always a taming effect that goes along with that.”

Or, they play an unbridgeably different entity’s sexuality as either disconcerting, or enticing yet dangerous. Alice B. Sheldon’s (a.k.a. James Tiptree Jr. or Raccoona Sheldon) And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side (1972) is perhaps the archetype of this sort of cautionary tale, featuring a space port engineer telling a journalist about travelers’ obsessions with alien entities and the physical and mental trauma that result from it.

The abstract alien is the ultimate blank slate other onto which we can paint any differences we feel we might enjoy.

While it is clearly a rich vein, there has been less human-alien sex in sci-fi since the early 2000s. The genre experts I spoke to for this piece all suspect that’s because we’re less repressed than we used to be, so we don’t need the allegorical power of these depictions as much anymore. “They are still the other, but sexuality is no longer such a salient, loaded aspect of the other,” Rabkin said. “There are now other questions, like the economic significance of the other,” that sci-fi is using aliens to explore. We are also obsessed now, Alexander said, with how technology is changing the way we related to each other and to sexuality — so human-robot or -AI sex is now a more evocative dynamic to flesh out.

So why, if we are basically tapped out on human-alien sex as a concept or tool in art and culture, do we still seem so obsessed with it — in our fan fiction and erotica works and in our responses to news like the recent UFO revelations and the Store Area 51 meme?

In most cases, suggests sci-fi historian Farah Mendlesohn, this just reflects the fact that “we have a basic drive to fuck the other.” We can find differences as compelling as disconcerting. And the abstract alien is the ultimate blank slate other onto which we can paint any differences we feel we might enjoy — new parts that might yield interesting sensations or foreign psychologies that might lead to an exhilarating experience of sex without assumptions. The thrill and potential of the unknown and the new is a big part of aliens’ rising appeal in erotica, authors claim, especially over by-now predictable vampires and werewolves. That appeal is eternal on a personal level, independent of wider cultural uses of alien templates.

All of that suggests we will never stop wondering whether aliens exist and what sex with them would be like in near equal parts. Until, that is, we end up encountering aliens, if indeed we ever do. Then their power as a blank sexual symbol will almost certainly break in the face of their likely utterly ineffable and un-eff-able reality. But if that ever happens, we can just port all our fascination in human-alien sex over to a new focal point. Human-eldritch horror sex, perhaps.

Mark Hay is a freelance writer, covering food, politics, and sex. He previously wrote about how dating apps are actually changing our sex lives for The Outline.