Poly and "the Uncomfortable Reality of Sex in Space"
Regina Lynn, the "Sex Drive" columnist for the geek-chic magazine Wired, takes an unusually clear look at what NASA faces in addressing sex and romance in space — now that long-duration moon bases and Mars flights are on the drawing boards. Polyamory needs to be out on the table, Lynn suggests. Because sealing a group of people into a small can for years is likely to put it front and center.
...The space agency is almost 50 years old, and while it likes to think it's a leader in exploring new frontiers, it has yet to shake off the fetters of its childhood when it comes to sex, romance and relationships.
..."We will have to address crew compatibility, sexuality issues, whether there is a necessity for sexual activity," says David Steitz, NASA senior public affairs officer.
He had the grace to laugh when I interrupted with a "Hell, yeah!"
But I was serious, too. We cannot expect astronauts to spend three years in a spacecraft and not have sex — of some kind. Probably with each other, and likely in more than one combination.
...It's [not the biology but] the touchy-feely bit that the agency will need to consider seriously. Blindly applying Earth-bound standards that astronauts cannot follow under space-voyage conditions will only lead to guilt and shame.... How do you handle love, sex, romance, heartbreak, jealousy, hurt, unrequited longing, crushes, loneliness and twitterpation when you're 18 months away from Earth and perhaps unsure whether you'll make it back?
You cope with it the way you do everything else in space. You rely on your intelligence, your commitment to the common good and your training.
If NASA invites me to take part in discussions about sexual standards in space — it could happen — I will suggest sending all candidates into the adult internet for a year.... They should participate in different types of adult communities until they become comfortable with the wide range of human sexual relationships.... They can observe and experiment with sex without possession, partnership without monogamy, sexual pleasure without expectation of roses or breakfast.
They can discover group love, bond with a special someone, or both. They can try letting go of jealousy and fear, figure out how to protect themselves from other people's drama, and develop healthy ways to cope with desire, love and rejection.
Some astronauts might discover they are comfortable with polyamory or bisexuality while others might reaffirm their commitment to monogamy. The important thing is that they practice living and working respectfully with others regardless of who is sleeping with whom.
We need to acknowledge that humans will bring our sexuality with us into space and that includes all the complexities of relationships as well as the relatively simple matter of bodies. NASA cannot avoid confronting those complexities, especially now that the public knows even astronauts sometimes confuse obsession with love.
"How long can humans go without sex?" is not the right question.
I don't care if you have a same-sex crew of great-grandparents who have never had a flicker of sexual desire in their entire lives. Lock a group of humans into a ship, sail them through space and time, and it won't take long for that deep, ancient need for touch and intimacy to surface.
Read the whole article (May 18, 2007).
The issue of how to handle love and sex on a long Mars flight will strike many polys with deja vu. A seminal book that helped to launch the polyamory movement was Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).1 It begins, "The first human expedition to Mars was selected on the theory that the greatest danger to man was man himself." A fictional space agency decides that four married couples would be the stablest crew configuration. But the mission ends in murder and catastrophe due to the captain's in-flight affair with another man's wife. Born of that affair is the hero of the novel: a baby who is raised by unisex Martians, returns to Earth in adulthood, discovers human male-female love, rejects jealousy and possession, founds a polyamorous society of Martian-speaking initiates to be the next stage of human evolution, and goes to a Christ-like martyrdom to spread the group's message of love unbounded.
My own view, after thinking about it for decades, is that sealing a group of people into a small can for years will require either (1) complete voluntary celibacy, perhaps by choosing the crew from the few percent of the population who are genuinely asexual, or (2) the crew being ready to adapt to all romantic and sexual developments in very close quarters. In other words, being good at handling poly. This takes knowledge and training — and frankly, we're the experts. NASA, take note.
NASA is not yet acting like grownups; the fairly serious book Sex in Space (2006), by space-program journalist Laura S. Woodmansee, apparently threw NASA authorities into a moral panic. With long-duration International Space Station stays now routine, and with rumors of couples who've tried it in zero-g, NASA remains scared of the issue. But as a National Academy of Sciences committee report warned in 2005/06:
"Whereas the committee recognizes the task-oriented nature of both the crew and the mission, it concludes that ignoring the potential consequences of human sexuality is not appropriate when considering extended-duration missions. Areas of concern for the 30-month Mars mission include the potential psychological and physiological consequences of sexual activity, consequences that could endanger life, crew cohesion, performance, and mission success."
Lastly: remember Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit? A man and two women, one a lesbian, arrive in Hell, where they get sealed up in a hotel room together forever. The play's classic line: "Hell is other people."
Sartre, and his partner Simone de Beauvoir, had a lot of experience with MFF threesomes. The play seems (to me) to say that the characters' only chance at redemption is to make this sealed-up hell a heaven, by grace of doing what none did in life: truly loving one another. (Here's my essay on No Exit as a poly fable.) Maybe there are lessons here about what people will face being sealed together in a can for long durations.
1 Nearly a half century after Stranger was published, and even a little after the years in which the story takes place, Josh Wimmer has written (on io9.com) a thoughtful examination of its continuing place in science fiction and the wider culture (Jan. 31, 2010).