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When you think of sex in science fiction and fantasy (also called ‘speculative fiction,’ although mostly by the hopelessly pretentious, and hereafter referred to as SF) no doubt your mind travels, as mine once did, to pointy-eared pneumatic babes in leopard-skin bikinis or tiny space suits. SF has traditionally been the purview of sweaty adolescent boys with imaginations proportionate to the breasts on Conan the Barbarian’s lady friends. Their fantasies were encouraged by authors of the same ilk, a little older but no less sweaty.

This is no longer the case. The advent of women and queer and like-minded writers meant that contemporary SF became much more complicated than in the old days. An important thing about speculative fiction is that it can be whatever you want it to be. And writing about aliens and elves is a great way to write about human sex and sexuality and gender under the radar.

Remember the first interracial kiss on television? That’s right – it was Star Trek.

One of my favorite SF books from high school revolved around the relationship of the main character (male, humanoid alien) with another male alien the approximate equivalent of a large, sentient snake. They were persecuted for their inter-species love – but they were soulmates! And so it was good and right that they should be together. (And of course they were in the end.)

Trafalmadorians have five different sexes (and claim that humans have seven.) Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about a cure for cancer-turned party drug: Reboot, which changes the patient’s physical sex. One of science fiction’s Greats, Robert Heinlein, wrote a time-traveling hermaphrodite story where the protagonist turns out to be both his mother and his father.

Not to mention it seems like everyone from elf princesses to tentacle aliens is into some pretty explicit kinky sex, at least according to the books I read as a kid.

SF offers more to awkward adolescents of both genders than just escapism. The genre presents a way of looking at the world that includes alternate gender identities and sexualities, far beyond their parents’ procreative sex, white picket fence, and two and a half kids.

And that’s a good thing.

(So give your kids Harry Potter and Ursula K. Le Guin; but once they start buying their own books you should probably knock on their bedroom door before entering.)