This chapter, titled “The Question of Sex,” is from the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong, an Investigator who explored Gethen forty years before Genly Ai began his journey as Envoy. In it, she describes her observations of Gethenien sexuality. Ong Tot Oppong hypothesizes that Gethenian sexual physiology, which has no clear adaptive value, is the result of a genetic experiment.
This chapter, which reads almost like a scientific or academic text, presents Gethenian sexuality from the point of view of an outsider encountering it for the first time, thus translating it for a similarly unfamiliar audience.
Ong Tot Oppong describes the sexual cycle, which lasts twenty-six to twenty-eight days. For twenty-one of these days a person is “in somer,” has no sexual interest and presents as totally androgynous, and then for the rest of the days a person enters kemmer. In isolation, or with other people still in somer, sexual intercourse is impossible, however, if another person is in kemmer at the same time, one partner will become male, and the other female, until they are able to copulate. This phase of kemmer takes between two and twenty hours.
To Oppong, as to readers, the Gethenian sexual cycle is alien and unfamiliar. Although a deep understanding of the phases of kemmer is not necessarily essential to one’s enjoyment or understanding of the novel as a whole, Oppong’s detailed scientific account provides useful context for the later unfolding of the narrative. It also gives a sense of the ways in which Gethenians truly are different from Terrans, not in a way that implies they are better or worse, but simply that their lives are necessarily different because their sexuality is vastly different. This examination of how sexuality affects society is then a crucial part of Le Guin’s “project” in writing the novel.
During kemmer, Gethenians sometimes present as male, sometimes as female. In Karhide individuals seem to have no preference, but in Orgoreyn sometimes hormones are used to induce one or the other.
While Terrans often derive much of their identity from their gender and sexuality, on Gethen individuals do not, as they are both male and female (and thus something different altogether), and only present as a single gender for a fraction of their lives.
Descent is matrilineal — children are attributed to the parent who was female at time of conception and carried the baby to term. This parent is referred to as “parent in the flesh.” Oppong speculates that because anyone can become pregnant, parenthood is less of a burden, and everyone has more empathy.
Gethenian society is shaped by their unique sexuality. Parenting is different based on whether a person gave birth to a child or not, but unlike with most bi-gender societies, there is no single gender of mothers and a single gender of fathers, instead, anyone could potentially become pregnant.
Kemmer sometimes happens in pairs, sometimes in group settings. Some individuals choose vow kemmering, which is essentially the same as monogamous marriage. It has a social and ethical, but no legal meaning. Ong Tot Oppong hypothesizes the structure of society in Karhide—which consists of Clan-Hearths and Domains—is made possible through these monogamous family units.
As with the rest of humankind, Gethenians treasure the bond between parent and child, and the bond between lovers. These connections, in fact, are the glue that holds society together on Gethen as well as on Terra, despite the vast differences in sexuality between the two worlds.
Ong Tot Oppong observes that, as fascinating as the Investigators find kemmering, it “dominates” Gethenians even more. Every aspect of their society revolves around the kemmer-somer cycle, with every person taking a holiday once a month during kemmer. She relates, “Everything gives way before the recurring torment and festivity of passion.”
Ironically, Oppong comments that the Gethenian sexual cycle dominates and shapes their society. However, she seems to overlook the ways in which Terran gender and sexuality also influence every aspect of their society as well.
Ong Tot Oppong makes a note to herself to include certain facts in her final report for the Envoy. She warns that is important not to see Gethenians as men or as women, as they do not see themselves that way. She also justifies her use of the male pronoun. In Karhide there is a “human pronoun,” but in English, Ong Tot Oppong feels that he, him, and his are the closest to universal pronouns. Ong Tot Oppong herself dislikes being “respected and judged only as a human being” as opposed to as a woman. She continues, “It is an appalling experience,” and warns that any Envoys will have to discard any pride they attach to their gender.
Here the reader is reminded that this chapter is an informational report intended for Genly Ai or another Envoy. Oppong provides a grammatical suggestion (the male pronoun), which is used throughout the novel, and provides a warning as to how difficult it is, as a person with a gender, to adapt to a genderless society (and language). On Gethen, no one considers their gender, as it is the same for everybody. In contrast, visiting Terrans like Oppong and Ai want to be acknowledged as men or women, which they’ve been socialized to see as huge components of their identity, and will have to learn to live as someone whose gender is irrelevant.
Ong Tot Oppong notes that Gethenian society is not divided into male and female. By extension, she sees no division of strong and weak, active and passive. She observes that there is no war on Gethen, and wonders if that is because war is a masculine activity, a “vast Rape.” Although there is competition on Gethen, and murder on a small scale, it never escalates. Perhaps, she considers in her final paragraphs, the weather on Gethen discourages aggression. Maybe “the dominant factor in Gethenian life” is the frozen planet itself, which seems to discourage placing any stock in the “victory or glory” of conquest.
Oppong’s theory of how Gethenian gender shapes society explains many Gethenian laws and behaviors. The lack of a strong and weak half of society prevents one group from trying to dominate anyone else, which means there is no gender discrimination, but also no war. However, more than anything else, more even than the Gethenian sexual cycle, the Gethenian weather likely influences the lives of the planet’s inhabitants. Because they are constantly fighting the inhospitable cold, they have little time to fight with each other.