Anyone who has watched even a fraction of Hollywood’s sci-fi offerings is primed for a mind-boggling future of interstellar travel, superpowers, and brain uploads. And yet, when it comes to sex, science fiction almost always circles back to two dreary, retrograde options. Either we’re in a Jetsons world of traditional nuclear families with flying cars or a Logan’s Run dystopia of hedonism and early death. It’s as if everything in the world is going to transform, but sex will be stuck in the 1960s.
And yet it’s clear today that the evolution of sex shows no signs of slowing down. Marriages once unthinkable in the United States — between people of different races, or two people of the same gender — are currently sanctioned by the federal government. Those not in a marrying frame of mind can arrange for sexual encounters that had no name a century ago, using apps invented last year.
Over the next century, we’ll be redefining ideas as old as humanity itself. Marriage will fragment into many kinds of committed intimacy, gender will prism into a spectrum of identities, and humans will bring robots into the bedroom (possibly in ways that actually improve our human relationships). But a deeper current of change runs beneath all that: We’re witnessing a shift in the ways people form families and make intimate bonds. Though they will certainly enjoy cutting-edge tech for bed hopping, the romantics of tomorrow will more likely be inventing new ways to settle down.
Over the past two decades, gay marriage has revolutionized an ancient institution once reserved for “man and wife.” And marriage is going to keep changing to reflect a population that’s more mobile and lives longer than ever before. Entering into a monogamous relationship forever simply won’t be pragmatic.
This is already obvious to many millennials, who don’t necessarily regard monogamy as the only way to find love. “Dating as a late twentysomething and early thirtysomething, it’s increasingly common to see someone who isn’t looking for one person,” says Jae Steinbacher, a nonbinary writer and administrator at Clarion West Writers Workshop. “They might say, ‘I have a person and I’m looking for something else.’ There’s a sense that you don’t have to shack up with one person for the rest of your life who meets all of your needs for the foreseeable future.” Steinbacher, who works with young science fiction writers at Clarion, adds that all their favorite new novels are like N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth series, which features a powerful love story between three characters.
Carrie Jenkins, an ethical philosopher at the University of British Columbia, believes that new forms of commitment like polyamory could also change the way monogamous people view their relationships. “Even if you go down a traditional path, it makes a big difference if you’re doing that because you’ve chosen it, versus having it be the only thing you’re allowed to do,” she says. “Making nonmonogamy acceptable makes monogamy itself more valuable, because it’s chosen rather than enforced.”
In a nonbinary, nonmonogamous future, kids’ lives could be full of many loving caregivers.
Kim TallBear, an anthropologist in indigenous studies at the University of Alberta, agrees that choice is a major part of what makes polyamory a potential game changer for love. A descendent of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, TallBear views monogamy as a colonial imposition, a white settler idea of sexuality forced on her ancestors, along with other European norms. “I come from a nonmonogamous people,” she says. “My great-great-great-great-grandfather on the Dakota side had four wives.” TallBear views nonmonogamy as part of a larger political movement, a “decolonization project.” For her, nonmonogamy is about reclaiming older cultural choices — especially ones the U.S. government denied to indigenous people, as well as other groups, such as the descendants of African slaves and religious minorities like Mormons.
As future populations grow more diverse and postcolonial, it’s likely that they will regard monogamy as just one choice among many. People may choose nonmonogamy to break away from tradition or to rediscover it.
Beyond Binary Gender
Over the next generation, gender will also be more varied. Transgender people are now more visible than ever, offering a challenge to the idea that you have to live with the gender you were assigned at birth. As we look to the future, we’ll more see people rejecting the two-gender model entirely, opting for identities that are nonbinary, gender fluid, bigender, or gender nonconforming. Already, the glossy online magazine Them celebrates these identities and is helping popularize the idea that gender is a continuum rather than an either/or proposition.
Accepting the existence of nonbinary gender will have unexpected consequences for our sex lives. Whether you’re straight or queer, it’s likely that your sexuality is oriented around a specific gender — and that gender is male or female. What happens when your sweetie’s gender is in between, or neither? S. Qiouyi Lu, a nonbinary writer and translator, says that their transition included some unforeseen turbulence. “I had a friend break up after she realized she identified as a lesbian and had a crush on me,” they recall. “I told her I am more nonbinary than a woman, and it ended up being a messy thing, because she decided she couldn’t have a crush on me because she was misgendering me. She thought lesbians couldn’t be attracted to nonbinary people and vice versa.” Lu describes another friend, a gay man, who questioned whether he was still gay when he fell for a nonbinary person.
If Lu’s experiences are any guide, the nonbinary gender future may require us to rethink sexual orientations. Recently, actor/musician Janelle Monae came out as pansexual, meaning she’s attracted to people on a spectrum of genders.
In 50 years, when kids are growing up with pansexual grandparents, bisexuality may seem outmoded. Or maybe it will apply only to a subculture of people who are attracted strictly to male and female. Pansexuality is likely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to identifying new sexual preferences. We’ll need names for people who prefer nonbinary partners or partners who switch between genders on a regular basis. Dating sites are going need a lot more checkboxes.
Gender fluidity will have an effect on family structures, too. Steinbacher says that their transition to nonbinary has also meant questioning the way women are expected to desire motherhood. They don’t want to bear children but could imagine helping to rear a child in a group of several other adults. TallBear echoes Steinbacher’s sentiments. She was raised by nonbiological aunties and grandmothers and never felt that she needed a biological mother to make her life complete. But it’s not just that women and nonbinary people are redefining motherhood. A number of transgender men are bearing children now, demonstrating that men can take on a role once reserved exclusively for women. The mommy-daddy-baby family is just one model for child rearing. In a nonbinary, nonmonogamous future, kids’ lives could be full of many loving caregivers all across the gender spectrum.
If pansexuality sounds strange, what about digisexuality? University of Manitoba philosopher Neil McArthur uses the term to describe people whose sexual orientation includes robots or other technologies. In the aptly named anthology Robot Sex, McArthur and other contributors explore their hopes and fears for a future where robots are sexual partners and perhaps even romantic companions.
The immediate worry, McArthur says, is that robot sex will leave us even more lonely and isolated than ever before. On top of that, our always-eager robotic companions may not prepare us for the messy ambiguity of sex with a human. Humans say no, but robots don’t. Will robots teach us to be even less respectful of human sexual boundaries than we already are?
While these are legitimate concerns, McArthur strongly believes that robot sex will be good for us overall. “People shouldn’t be afraid to say sex is important, and we as a society should care about people’s access to sex,” he argues. “We’re not talking about lonely men. We’re talking about disabled people, or people living in places with skewed sex ratios. They may be in remote areas. They may not fit society’s image of what counts as sexually attractive.” For these people, a sex robot or VR sexual experience could be emotionally and psychologically healing.
TallBear suggests that we may ultimately stop defining ourselves in terms of identities like “queer” or “man,” but instead in terms of our relationships with each other.
Robots could also allow people to have relationships that aren’t complicated by sex the way they are now. Perhaps two people who are deeply in love want to stay married, but the sex is no longer exciting. Having a no-stress sexual outlet could save their relationship. Or it could help people maintain long-distance relationships by adding a physical component to video chat. Using technology, we could decouple our desire for intimacy from our sexual needs. We might find that we make better choices as a result.
When we imagine a future full of sex robots, we also need to get beyond the fembot trope from Ex Machina and Westworld. “What I would predict is that people are going to quickly imagine themselves beyond just humanoid sexbots like you see in the movies,” McArthur says. He recounted a conversation with a friend who has a dental fetish. “She suddenly realized she could have a robot that looked like a toothbrush and was enraptured.”
Why is romantic love supposedly so much better than deep friendship or kinship bonds? Why are we supposed to commit our lives to people we desire sexually, rather than to people we care for as brothers? Arizona State University philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake calls this set of assumptions “amatonormativity.” It’s the idea that, as she writes, “everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.” And yet we know this isn’t true. Many people remain happily single for their whole lives, and there are asexuals who devote themselves to romance without sex.
There are also people who identify as aromantic. They may adore their friends, but they simply don’t feel any desire to join the amatonormative masses in the quest for that perfect romantic someone. Just like gender and sexuality, romanticism exists on a spectrum. Some people prefer lots of romance, while others couldn’t give a hoot about it. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, wanting to have romances with some people but not others.
“As we get a more nuanced understanding of attraction, we’ll split it on many axes,” Lu observes. They imagine Hollywood might come up with more movies that feature an “aromantic endgame,” where the two protagonists become lifelong friends instead of falling in love. As we move further into the future, we’ll have more ways to describe what we want from each other and more ways to make it work. Imagine a nonmonogamous person who has an asexual romantic partner and a committed sexual friendship, with occasional aromantic flings with a robot.
TallBear suggests that we may ultimately stop defining ourselves in terms of identities like “queer” or “man,” but instead in terms of our relationships with each other. “I’d like to see less focus on ‘I am this’ and more on ‘with whom am I in relation,’” TallBear says.
In a sense, all this complexity leads back to a very simple place. It returns emotional connection to the center of our lives, without suggesting that emotional connection needs to take a particular shape or form. Once we have many options for how to care for each other, maybe we can escape the idea that somehow the “best” kind of relationship is romantic. Oddly, we may be a lot less lonely in a future where romantic love is just one option out of many.
Updated: A previous version of this article misstated the relationship between TallBear and her relative with four wives.