Philosophy in the Laboratory: Sex, Sade and Science Fiction

Lindsay Hallam, University of East London |


The genre of science fiction brings us worlds of wonders and new possibilities, the discovery of new realms, meetings with new beings and organisms. Science fiction also presents us with new ideas, a setting for philosophical contemplation about what the ‘human’ is, and how we as a species can progress. In this search for enlightenment and the attainment of a higher state of consciousness, the body is often viewed as a vessel that must be transcended, the body’s urges seen as distractions from the evolutionary process.

Whilst the beginnings of the genrexistenz1e (in literature form) are often dated back to the beginnings of modernity with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein written in 1818, one can reach even further back to earlier works of speculative fiction which also engage with humanity’s relationship with technology and possible future societies and scientific discoveries. Although not in any way writing in a form that could be considered ‘science fiction’, the Marquis de Sade, similarly to later science fiction writers, melded fiction and philosophy as a way to explore the possibilities and limitations of the human experience. Unlike much science fiction however, Sade kept his focus completely on the body and its urges, since for him it was not a physical form to be transcended, but the only proven fact of existence. Along with philosophy, science was also incorporated into Sade’s fictional stories. Although Sade’s works are often described as pornographic, concerned primarily with outlining in specific detail all manner of transgressive sexual activity, there is a cold and clinical approach that Sade employs, almost a science to what he is trying to express. For his libertine characters, sex, in all its forms, is part of a system of experimentation, a series of acts that are performed and then analysed.

Therefore, the question can be asked: what can Sade tell us about science fiction? What can be gained from applying a pornographic philosophy to what is often viewed as a rather sexless genre?

In her article “The Virginity of Astronauts”, Vivian Sobchack argues that science fiction “[m]ore than any other American film genre… denies human eroticism and libido a traditional narrative representation and expression.” (1990, 103) The majority of science fiction films are populated with primarily male characters, who are “remarkably asexual” (as Sobchack wonderfully puts it, they are “about as libidinally interesting as a Ken doll”), while female characters (when there is one) are usually relegated to the traditional wife and/or mother role, or covered up in lab coats and uniforms (107).[i] The future projected in these films is a future where humanity as a species continues and evolves, but through the casting off of instinct and urge. Technology is the means through which this is achieved, wherein man can “make his own babies… without the hormones and flesh, without lust and arousal…” (108-109) Creation and reproduction are now acts that deny the body, they are not expressions of that body.

Therefore, in Sobchack’s view, biology and sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is repressed in the science fiction narrative, yet she does admit that this marked absence often returns in covert and displaced ways. Although Sobchack is working from a psychoanalytical perspective, Sadean philosophy can also be utilised in order to uncover the hidden and repressed sexuality of the science fiction film. In Sade, there are no limits to who, or what, can provide pleasure, and often completely ‘non-sexual’ acts and objects (crime, blasphemy, filth, theoretical discussions) can become erotically charged.

Alien_-first-look-at-spacecraft1When speaking of Alien, Sobchack states that “Nearly all of Alien’s imagery is organic and/or sexual, whereas the humans are not” (110). Obviously being referenced here is the work of H.R. Giger, who designed the alien and many of the sets used in the film. Giger’s works are prime examples of the erogenous underbelly of science fiction, the way that alien forms and even architecture and spacecraft can become items of erotic spectacle. The humans in science fiction may be stripped of sexual desire, but as Sobchack suggests these urges do not disappear, they are merely displaced onto what surrounds them. This is similar to the place of Sade’s libertines within the sexual scene, which is a product of strict planning and conducted within an intricately organised system so that no transgressive potential is missed: “let us put a little order in these revels; measure is required even in the depths of infamy and delirium.” (1965, 240) Pleasure and satisfaction comes from the knowledge that the situation has been used to its full potential, that no opportunity to transgress either manmade or natural laws has been unexploited.

In Sade nature is exalted and all desires and urges are characterised as expressions of nature’s will, which should be followed with no thought given to morality or legality. Yet, nature is also something to be conquered, especially the forces of procreation (hence the prevalence of other forms of sexual activity). Science fiction often explores procreation without sex, but in order to continue and improve the species, something that Sade was fundamentally opposed to. What is similar though is that this move away from heterosexual reproductive sex (for whatever reason) does open up new possibilities. In science fiction cinema there is the potential to continue Sade’s work in The 120 Days of Sodom, an unfinished novel that attempted to incorporate as many different sexual acts as possible, by exploring the new possibilities that arise from new technology.

The films of David Cronenberg come to mind here, from the new organs and orifices in Rabid and eXistenZ, to the image of James Woods caressing and then deliquescing into his television in Videodrome. Technology and the media have now entered into our sex lives, creating new biological material that changes our bodies and realities. The progression and evolution of the body is a central concept in many of Cronenberg’s films, as they hypothesise about the future of the human body. Many of these changes are precipitated by technology and science, but Sade is still invoked through the manner in which the narratives coldly and clinically explore bodily transgression.

ExistenzAs I stated in my book Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film, Cronenberg’s films can be viewed as a continuation of Sade’s cataloguing of all bodily possibilities, as his films examine how technology has created new opportunities for experimentation with the body and forms of pleasure. (2012, 92) As Cronenberg’s first feature Shivers demonstrates, technology can be a means to unleash the baser instincts, rather than repressing them. Contact with technology is often a catalyst that sparks a course of experimentation with new ways of sexual (and violent) expression. Like the Sadean libertine, Cronenberg’s characters in Shivers, as well as in Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Crash, enter into a process whereby they clinically and systematically explore their “new flesh”, and its capabilities for pleasure and satisfaction.

Moving away from representations of the human though, the robot and the alien have also become potent erotic figures within science fiction, from the ‘pleasure models’ of Blade Runner, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and the television show Real Humans, to the permanently in heat maneaters of Species and Queen of Blood. The erotic science-fiction film is a small sub-genre, including Flesh Gordon, Spermula, Femalien and of course, Barbarella. While most of these films still unfortunately present sexual relations through predominantly heterosexual couplings, there is the capacity here to subvert traditional paradigms of gender and sexuality. A Sadean approach to science fiction would certainly take the genre to darker places than usual, but would result in a wider encompassing exploration of how technology has changed our desires, bodies and relationships.

Certainly there is more to be explored here. Further study involving Sade and science fiction can uncover how the genre, rather than ignoring or marginalising human sexuality, actually presents an opportunity to free it from traditional normative categories and expresses it through forms, objects and acts that are not usually perceived in a sexual way. Additionally, Sade is useful in that his philosophy confronts the dark, disgusting and violent aspects of human nature, aspects which must be acknowledged in order to then reach for the transcendence that science fiction promises.


Hallam, Lindsay Anne. (2012) Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film. Jefferson, McFarland.

Sade, Marquis de. (1965) Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (eds) New York, Grove Press.

Sade, Marquis de. (1987) The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (eds) New York, Grove Press.

Sobchack, Vivian (1990) “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film” in Annette Kuhn (ed) Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London, Verso, pp. 103-115.

Bio: Lindsay Hallam lectures in Film at the University of East London. Her book Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film was published by McFarland, and she also directed the documentary Fridey at the Hydey.

[i] Of course, this is a very general view of the genre and Sobchack acknowledges that there are exceptions, such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet and The Stepford Wives.

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