Sex Without Gender

Coming of Age in Karhide

by Ursula K LeGuin

‘Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge.’

Readers of LeGuin’s masterpiece sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness will probably get the title. A supreme piece of world-building, Left Hand is set on the planet Gethen, where the population, though “human”, is neither male nor female but capable in the right circumstances either of fathering or of giving birth.

You will also be familiar with the terms kemmer and somer, LeGuin’s own inventions, the first signifying a period of sexual awareness and activity, the second being the dormant phase.

In the short story Coming of Age in Karhide (a region or province of Gethen), Sov Thade, the narrator, is a young person entering puberty and about to experience kemmer for the first time. It seems Gethenian society regards this growing up as an excuse for a celebration. They all dress up and the kids go down to the kemmerhaus for their first sexual experience (or several experiences). The first person they meet sort of determines which gender they settle into during this important initiation.

‘ “It’s stupid,” Sether said. “…. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections.” ‘

Le Guin doesn’t draw back from either explicit decription or explicit vocabulary. Written more than 25 years (1995) after the publication of Left Hand, Coming of Age in Karhide supplements the story told then (1969) with the carefree pseudo-lightheartedness (so it seems to me) of a woman who has made her mark on the literary world and doesn’t have to worry too much about a surfeit of ‘fucking’ among her characters.

Not that there is anything dirty or perverted here. The author simply imagines a society where happy lovemaking and the kemmerhouse are righteous. This is a story that makes us think about and perhaps redefine the meaning of normality.

The first story in a collection entitled The Birthday of the World, Coming of Age in Karhide is recommended for anyone who likes Le Guin’s work and who loves The Left Hand of Darkness in particular.

In the next day or so, I’ll tell you about another of these stories, set on a quite different world.

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