Stories that take place in not-too-distant futures are hot right now. Whether it’s franchises like The Hunger Games, TV shows like The Leftovers, novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, or films like The Lobster, you can’t walk ten feet without encountering slightly off-kilter fictional worlds. Though their “what if” premises vary from “what if the government made teenagers kill each other on TV” to “what if Colin Farrell had a silly mustache and wanted to be a lobster,” they all have one curious common quality: sex in the not-too-distant future is weird.
I don’t mean the subjective kind of weird, like an unusual fetish. By “weird” I mean objectively peculiar to everyone across the board, for one simple reason: its lack of intimacy.
Take The Hunger Games franchise, for example. When we first meet Finnick Odair, he seems like a dime-a-dozen in YA character: he’s got improbably perfect tousled hair and abs, which we know because he tosses around quips while shirtless.
So far, so normal — if people in the real world were the way they are in YA franchises, we’d live in an alternate reality where all dudes are walking Abercrombie & Fitch ads spouting one-liners. But then in Mockingjay, we learn more about Finnick and why he’s such a flirt, and things get a bit weird.
“President Snow used to…sell me…my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.” That explains it, then. Finnick’s parade of lovers in the Capitol. They were never real lovers. …Secrets, I think. That’s what Finnick told me his lovers paid him in, only I thought the whole arrangement was by his choice.
Well, shit. That got dark fast. Are you sure this is meant for teens? But although teen dystopias are everywhere, many adults are taking the genre back, and unsurprisingly, they take it even further.
HBO’s The Leftovers takes it further. The show — centered around characters reeling after an unexplained event vanishes 2 percent of the world’s population — features a sex scene in its most recent episode that fans are calling the weirdest scene of the series. Weird sex might sound par for the course for an HBO show, but The Leftovers is an HBO outlier loath to reveal so much as a stray sideboob. And while it often dives into the uncanny, this scene was a big “what the fuck?” to even the most seasoned viewer.
In the scene, one of the protagonists, Tom, is kidnapped and handcuffed while a woman takes off his pants and has sex with him before dousing him with gasoline and holding a lighter near him. As even more of a mindfuck, the woman is Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She’s not the serene elf queen you remember.
Most people are calling it rape, and in clean cut-terms, it is. But when I asked the actor about it, he had a different take: his life experiences have given him such a warped idea of intimacy that to him, violation was intimacy. In the context of the character’s psyche — brought about by this not-too-distant future world — “it was a real moment,” he said. “And Tom hasn’t had too many real moments with anyone.”
And sure, this character has a complicated backstory involving cults that hopefully none of us have, and he lives in a world with extreme circumstances. But distilled in those words — “real” — it speaks to our increasingly blurred line of the “real” today.
The Hunger Games and The Leftovers have wildly different future worlds — one is more or less the same world we live in, only with more cults and sad people, and the other is a society where everyone looks like Lady Gaga if she got dressed in the dark.
But they share the same curious quality of throwing their characters into “intimate” situations in which the level of intimacy and consent are dubious.
Questions on the intricacies of consent are prominent in the cultural dialogue right now. Vanity Fair refers to our era as “The Dating Apocalypse” to The New York Times speculating about “the end of courtship” to New York Magazine discussing “the hookup culture” in a recent article series. Aziz Ansari wrote a whole book about it where he said, “Our romantic options are unprecedented and our tools to sort and communicate with them are staggering. And that raises the question: Why are so many people frustrated?”
Speculative fiction is a genre born from frustration and anxiety and hand-wringing; it takes issues we’re anxiously thinkpiece-ing about and magnifies them, letting us explore them in exaggerated ways — ways that allow us to say, “but their world is crazy, surely that’s not us!”
The Lobster in its absurdist dystopia makes it even easier to say, “that’s crazy, that’s not us!” It takes the “apocalypse” of modern romance, and runs in a far more [comedic]((https://www.inverse.com/article/6588-the-dystopian-absurdity-of-the-lobster) direction than The Hunger Games and The Leftovers.
The main couple communicates in stilted language even when they’re not talking in hand motions, and their main point of intimate connection is that they’re both near-sighted. But earlier in the film, when Colin Farrell’s character tries to have a relationship with someone else, their hilariously uncomfortable sex scenes consist of no eye contact and some very strange lap dances. It’s not as dark as The Hunger Games forced prostitution or The Leftovers’ highly dubious consent, but it’s the flip side of warped intimacy: the couples you see in restaurants who barely make eye contact and have nothing to say to each other. It’s the people today who look at their phones instead of interacting.
In The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood takes this lack of intimacy and communication a step further: She throws in sex robots. “These bots will cut down on sex trafficking,” she writes. “But that won’t be anything like the real thing, say the detractors: you won’t be able to look into their eyes and see a real person looking out. Oh, they’ve got a few tricks up their sleeve, say the boosters: improved facial muscles, better software. But they can’t feel pain, say the detractors. They’re working on that feature, say the boosters. Anyway, they’ll never say no. Or they’ll say no only if you want them to.”
In a later scene, two characters are discussing whether the sex robots will catch on:
“I don’t think they’ll ever replace the living and breathing,” says Gary. “They said that about e-books,” says Kevin. “You can’t stop progress.”
Atwood is a progressive writer, but she’s not afraid to probe at what the future might bring. That’s what speculative fiction and dystopia are about: the darkest possible answers to our present anxieties and “what if” questions.
It’s not that sex will definitely be weird in the future; it’s that our current era is filled with so much uncertainty and hand-wringing that the best storytellers of today can’t help but run with it. Don’t despair about shift norms around intimacy or love. Try instead to be entertained and provoked by these master storytellers delivering their takes on it.