On the Use of Sex in the Dystopian Society of Shinsekai Yori

Maria and Saki in Shinsekai Yori, From the New World

Shinsekai Yori stands out, not only as an anime series, but as a piece of dystopian fiction.  The aspect of it that initially struck me was how its society used the sexual intercourse of its individuals to benefit itself as a collective.  This has been done before in dystopian writing, but the manner in which it is done in Shinsekai Yori is unique (or at least rare).  Here, I discuss the use of sex in Shinseaki Yori by comparing it to its uses in the dystopian societies of Plato’s Republic and Huxley’s Brave New World.  Then, I offer some concluding remarks on the use of sex in dystopias in general.

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Young Galaxy “The Angels Are Surely Weeping”

Saki and Satoru in Shinseaki Yori, From the New World

In the first half of Plato’s Republic, the character Socrates is concerned with conceptualizing the ideal city.  Ancient Greek cities were much more like independent territories with their own individual cultures than what we know as cities today.   So, we can think about what Plato is doing as laying out his blueprint for a utopian society.  The ideal city has a class of citizens known as the guardians who are responsible for all aspects of city management.  A sizable chunk of the Republic details how the lives of the guardians will be regulated such that their ability to protect the city as well as their devotion to it are maximized.

Sex is naturally one of the items that is heavily regulated.  Guardians can have sexual intercourse only during certain annual festivals and at no other time (and only with other guardians).  The children born from these unions are taken away from their mothers almost immediately.  Offspring of Plato’s ideal citizens are to be raised by the community, rather than by the nuclear family.  This arrangement yields guardians without a loyalty split between the city and the family; the city is their family.

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World features a dystopian society which treats sex quite differently.  Recreational intercourse is considered a virtue by the World State.  Monogamous or romantic relationships are seen as outmoded; thus, sex has become this communal activity.  One of the many mantras of the citizenry is, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”  While there are deep implications here concerning the World State’s attitude towards individualism, for our purposes here we can simply think about it in the context of sexuality.   To bluntly drive the point further home, there is also a mantra exclusive to the made-for-TV movie version of Brave New World that declares, “Promiscuity is a citizen’s duty.”/

Pregnancy is a non-occurrence in the world of this novel.  Sexual acts and the reproductive process are conceptually and actually split.  This idea is so endemic (like all ideas in this society) that a popular fashion accessory of the women of Brave New World is a belt for holding contraceptives.  Children are “decanted” rather than born in the World State.  They are engineered in Hatcheries and educated in Conditioning Centers.  As in Plato’s Republic, the society in Huxley’s Brave New World shuns the nuclear family.

Satoru and Saki in Shinseaki Yori, From the New World

Now we come to Shinsekai Yori:

When stress or conflict arises, bonobos resolve it through sexual contact.  The sexual contact occurs not only between mature males and females, but also between immature bonobos and those of the same sex.  Necessity dictated that human society quickly become a ‘Society of Love’ like the bonobos.

The event that altered the course of history in the world of Shinsekai Yori was the coming-to-be and subsequent increase of people able to use psychokinesis (PK), roughly one thousand years before the story’s main character was born.  Unfortunately (inevitably?), PK was brought to the attention of the world through its misuse by a mentally disturbed person to wantonly slaughter innocents.  A brutal history of PK-infused warfare ensued shortly thereafter.  When the human race was on the brink of destroying itself, a group of  PK users established a society for their kind (it is unclear from the anime if the society is global or localized) based on the principle of genetic modification in order to prevent any PK user or group of users from being able to wipe out humanity.

This is where the above quote comes in.  Those who crafted the new society were looking for a means of diffusing any violent desires or instincts,  so they conceived of the idea to alter human genes so that stress and conflict trigger sexual urges rather than violent ones.  Humans were engineered to function in groups as bonobos would.  As you might imagine, such alteration entails its share of consequences, especially for the youth.  Add the “bonobos modification” to the mixture of hormones raging independently of stress/conflict, and you get a people with a hyper-sexual adolescence.

Middle school hallways are practically dripping with lust, as young couples share looks and caresses between classes.  Of course, these urges and their resultant trysts are encouraged by the superstructure of society.  Professors are cool with the grope-fest, so long as it doesn’t go on in class.  As the characters grow older, get married and start families, these displays calm down significantly.  However, the anime never addresses the obvious question of infidelity.

Shinsekai Yori distinguishes itself from other dystopian fiction in its use of sex.  Clearly, the purpose of sex is quite different in this society of PK users.  We see it employed as a chiefly procreative device in the Republic and as a solely recreational one in Brave New World; however, in Shin Sekai Yori, though child-bearing is a benefit of sexual union, the main purpose of sex is to prevent humanity’s destruction.  Sex will save us, basically.  The introduction of both psychics and genetic modification creates a use of sex that is unique in dystopian fiction.

Graphic illustrating how the dystopias contrast one another

The Republic‘s is the only society of the three that does not allow homosexual union (at least among its guardians).  I suppose this is partly the result of the fact that, in the 400s B.C., Plato lacked the inspiration for the kind of sci-fi conceit required to bring children into the picture  in some other way than natural childbirth.  Go easy on the guy.  While Shinsekai Yori agrees with Huxley’s work on the matter of homosexuality, it diverges from it on the matter of the family.   That its inhabitants  feel the love of the family unit seems to be important to the PK society, for safeguarding not only the society but also the human species.  Unlike Plato’s guardians, PK users are raised to feel devotion to persons (Mom, Dad, sibs) prior to loyalty for  society itself.  Likely, the idea is that love for concrete individuals, rather than abstract concepts, reinforces the genetic re-wiring away from violence.

The authors of all three works rightfully consider sex as an important part of human life.  Though Plato thinks it part of humanity’s lower nature, he is well aware of the power of sexuality as a motivating force.  Any kind of plan for a monolithic, controlling society just has to account for sex in some way, especially because of its obvious relationship to the family.  Sexuality cannot be left alone or allowed to “live unchecked” in a dystopia.  Thus, despite differences in each society’s’ attitude toward sex, the fact that there is an official stance on it and prescribed actions regarding it in all three societies speaks to its (perceived and actual) importance.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, I think it is worth point out that none of these dystopias “work” permanently.  Plato’s has yet to be implemented, Huxley’s is revealed as something that won’t make people happy and the society of Shinseaki Yori ultimately falls apart.  There are certain, essential parts of human beings that can only be controlled for so long before there is some violent reaction; sex is one of those parts.

You might be thinking: “Sure, Plato’s dystopia oppresses sex, but in Brave New World and Shinsekai Yori, you get to have sex with whoever you want, however often you want.  How is that controlling?”  Well, the level of promiscuity practiced by these societies is achieved through mind control or genetic manipulation.  These processes are dehumanizing ones.  Also, sexuality is something that is tied to the self in some deep and mysterious ways.  The “more sex” dystopias sort of take the freedom of choosing sexuality (certainly degree and maybe also kind) and sexual partners (you may have been more discriminating or even monogamous under natural circumstances) away from individuals.  Again, this seems like a process that strips away human dignity.  Think about the title of this post, “On the Use of Sex.”  Sex doesn’t strike me as something to be used, certainly not for anyone other than participants;  rather it strikes me as something to be given or experienced by choice.

On the Use of Sex in the Dystopian Society of Shinsekai Yori

19 thoughts on “On the Use of Sex in the Dystopian Society of Shinsekai Yori

  1. Just pedantic nitpicking: “Use of sex”? I think you mean like, the role of sexual activity between people as a means to [insert idea here].

    Couple thoughts.
    1. Irony here is that Japan is a pretty sexually active society but in the very opposite way it distinguishes childbearing and sex for recreation. The consequence of this separation can be partly seen in its biggest looming social ill–the rapid decline of its population and young people.
    2. I kind of agree with your rationale about how this is actually demumanizing. In Shinsekai Yori it is spelled out–reducing humans to bonobos. But I think that is a consistent thing in the show to treat humans as some kind of neutral biological agent.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      Pedantry is A-OK in my book =).

      I chose the word “use” fully conscious of what it means/sounds like. “Sexual activity between people” (or at least the human desire for this) is a tool being used by the three monolithic societies in question to exert some degree of control over their citizens and/or to serve some grander purpose for the society as a whole. They manipulate people’s sexuality to get a desired effect.

      When thought of at the level of the two persons being intimate, and their intentions, your rewording is applicable. I am talking about it from a different point of view, one from outside the sexual relationship itself (at times, even from outside the show itself). However, perhaps a rewording of some kind is necessary for the sake of clarity.

      Wasn’t thinking of the current social conditions in Japan and how this facet of SSY might relate. Nice observation. Also: poor Japan.

      1. I think I get what you’re trying to say. It’s as if you are implying the elemental/deconstructive view that someone creating a SF world would, as someone who is well versed in SF worlds and want to add some kind of element for interpersonal sexuality in this context would, thus “use” or “apply” said element.

        Or at least that’s how it feels like.

        Speaking more in terms of biology and SF-ness, that was one aspect of Shinsekai Yori that I’m not entirely happy with–a major cause of human strife is screwy interpersonal romantic relationships. This “society of love” thing seems to promote more strife as well as an outlet for aggression/stress, to rephrase a 2D otaku argument. Actually this was a cause for conflict in Shinsekai Yori as well…

        1. That’s it exactly =). Well put.

          You have touched on a flaw in the logic of SSY that I haven’t thought of before. This is very interesting…It certainly seems like those who built the society in SSY are counting an awful lot on people’s ability to separate sex and love. This is quite the sucker’s bet. Sex will always lead to relationships, at least without taking further measures with the genetic tampering. And, as you point out, relationships entail conflict, which, in this society, leads to sex, which results in relationships…Ladies and gentlemen, we have found a vicious circle!

          I know I’m being a bit simplistic here, but at least some adolescents are going to get caught up in this sort of thing. I suppose we need look no further than Satoru and Shun.

          BTW, what do you mean by “2D otaku argument?” Guess I’m a bit out of touch, here.

          1. I was kind of joking by the 2d otaku comment, but the idea is a 2D Waifu is better than “3D” for various reasons, one being that they can’t betray you etc.

            It seems in Shinsekai Yori the adults behave like typical, conservative Japanese adults though.

  2. kuromitsu says:

    Just a correction: the “bonobo” thing in Shinsekai yori is not a result of genetic modification, it’s a different attitude to physical intimacy and sexual behavior. From a very young age children are encouraged to indulge in skinship, touching and increasingly sexual intimacy. The genetic modifications were the blocks on aggression/killing other humans.

    1. Thanks for reading!.

      Are you getting your information from the novels or the anime? In episode four, the False Minoshiro makes a statement, “Necessity dictated that human society quickly become a “Society of Love” like the bonobos. I suppose I inferred from the words “necessity” and “quickly” that the change to a society of love was facilitated by genetic tampering. I don’t recall the anime going into definite detail about just -how- the society learns to react like bonobos (though your account is quite plausible). This is the reason I ask if you were getting this info from the novels. My only source is the anime.

      1. kuromitsu says:

        It’s described in detail in the novel, but even in the anime the first time the fake minoshiro mentions genetic modifications is in connection with the aggression/killing blocks. Also, later on we see Mamoru being so dead-set on Maria that he shows complete non-interest in all the sex/love fest going on around him, which he wouldn’t be able to do if he was genetically compelled to join in.

        As the fake minoshiro says (in the anime as well as in the novel), the ancestors saw that with PK powers being as dangerous as they are, even in such a “society of love” a single rotten apple can cause wide-scale destruction. Hence they resorted to genetic manipulation to install the anti-aggression and anti-killing mechanisms which render PK users physically incapable of harming another human.

        That said, the “society of love” aspect is still very important because aside of providing a non-violent, positive way of releasing tensions, it also helps creating stronger bonds between individuals which further reduces violent urges toward one another. (And of course there are the particularly strong bonds between groups of people, such as Saki’s Group 1.)

        1. Ah, OK. Your point about Mamoru is a very strong one and basically makes your case. Thanks for setting me right. I will tack on a correction/addendum at some point soon.

          Both the Society of Love concept and the fact that the society did not abolish the nuclear family (a trend in dystopian stories) do indeed work together to create and strength bonds between individual persons, as opposed to between a person and an ideal, which, as you say, further reduces violent urges. I found the construction of the society in SSY so fascinating because its particulars called fora different sort of societal structure than I had seen before.

  3. I love how you brought in A Brave New World and The Republic for this topic. One of the things I love about anime is how it can be surprisingly philosophical or literary even, which one tends not to see on American TV.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I agree. I think that the founding fathers of the medium studied film directors that valued these sort s of qualities in their movies. That and the freedom of animation makes it a favorable medium for science fiction, which is an inherently thoughtful genre, IMO.

  4. Shinsekai Yori does set restrictions to sexuality. After some years the school promoted opposite sex pairings and Maria doesn’t seem to want to pursue a relationship with Saki because they couldn’t have children (which is curious since the scientists were able to tamper with all these genes).

  5. An interesting post! But I think I interpret SSY’s ‘use’ of sex a little different. As kuromitsu noted, the idea that humans reciprocate like bonobos is merely a connection, not a genetic modification. I don’t think Shinsekai’s treatment of sex, or its advocacy is actually a part of the dystopian control. In fact, I’d argue that nearly everything else was purposefully created in order to drive home the sense of ‘community’ over ‘family’ (the idea of educating children at a very young age and constantly monitoring their behavior, the creation of groups of five, etc). Sexual activity is encouraged in Shinsekai’s society as a way of release. Just as bonobos use sexual activity to end conflict, Shinsekai’s PK User society determines that sexual activity is a recreation that should be used to release emotions of stress or tension. It’s important to note however, that sexual activity does not stem from these emotions alone. Episode 8 clearly shows that Shun and Satoru have an emotional and sexual interest in one another, and that is one of the few relationships that is not skewed or manipulated through the community itself. In fact, it is because Saki and Satoru (along with the rest of the group) share a connection with Shun that eventually they have their memories erased.

    Which brings me back to the conclusion that sexuality is a way of establishing connections with other people. Out of the two sexual relationships we saw, both actually proved to be emotionally beneficial, by introducing ‘love’ to these characters (then again, the only sexual activity we saw in SSY was connected to emotional resonance, so we never saw examples where people engaged in sexual activity for the sake of it). I wouldn’t also say that SSY’s view on sexuality was forced? It’s not like Satoru was forced to engage in sexual foreplay with Shun, as with Maria for Mamoru. They were allowed to choose whomever they liked. The only control factor was the upbringing of children and monitoring/controlling their environment (making sure they didn’t turn into karma demons/fiends). The result of Maria’s son becoming a fiend had nothing to do with sexual activity; it was nurture. Besides, if sexual activity was used as a tool as you say, wouldn’t it be logical to only enforce heterosexual relationships for propagation? That’s why I see SSY’s use of sexuality to be anything but controlling. The genetic modifications? Yes. The monitoring of behavior and PK powers? Absolutely. But sexual activity – ironically, that was a way of creating individuality and forging solid bonds between partners, and not for the ‘sake’ of a community (as Brave New World and Plato would have it).

    1. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.

      We do disagree on our interpretations of certain parts of SSY. You’re absolutely correct that the bonobo-like behavior was not a genetic modification. I was wrong about that. However, I think it is a pretty clear instance of top-down control over the citizens of the PK society. For starters, resolving conflict through sexual contact is not natural human behavior; it is bonobo behavior. Through conditioning (rather than genetic manipulation) children are taught to respond to situations as bonobos would do. This is dehumanizing because, well, it is teaching kids to resolve things not as human beings would (a myriad of different ways including argument, avoidance, fighting, crying, sex, etc.) but as monkeys would. This seems a clear case of dehumanization to me.

      The reason I say that the sexual behavior is forced is that all the kids are behaving with an sexuality cranked up to eleven. I know teenagers are hormonally-charged, but it seemed unnaturally excessive in SSY. They are this way because they are taught to be this way, not necessarily because it comes naturally. Perhaps, as I stated in the post, their natural tendencies would have lead them to be asexual, monogamous or, at least, more deliberate in picking their sexual partners. Remember Satoru’s new boyfriend post-Shun? He immediately picked up a new plaything because that was the thing to do. They seemed to be in a relationship “for the sake of it.”

      I’m not sure how sovereign children normally were regarding their choices. They are being pushed quite hard, both by nature and nurture, into sexual relationships that perhaps they do not have the degree of control they otherwise might. I’m not saying that the kids didn’t develop genuine feelings for each other. I am saying, though, that the society conditioned its children’s sexuality and used that sexuality to preserve itself by keeping the anger of PK users in check. You’re right that sexual activity establishes connections, and this is another way in which the society hoped it would exert a degree of control. Sex was not just for conflict resolution, but it created bonds that tied citizens to their communities. Sexual activity can be used as a tool without being used solely for procreative purposes; it happens in SSY and Brave New World.

      1. There’s no way of evaluating whether their society is more free than ours though, in regards to sexuality. They could very well look at our society and say we’re socially conditioned to be monogamous (and we are, what with slut-shaming etc.) and we are being repressed from making decisions humans want to make. It’s extremely difficult to call another society’s teachings as wrong without being seen as culturally insensitive to some degree.

        1. Thanks for reading, Wodes.

          My claims about the freedom of the society in SSY are not comparative ones. Their veracity, or lack thereof, is wholly independent of the state of our own culture. While one could plausibly argue that we are conditioned to practice monogamy, that supposition is a red herring as far as whether or not the PK society in SSY takes certain freedoms from its citizens and is ultimately dehumanizing. They practice genetic alteration and mind control on their citizens to engineer an effect they desire. Such practices can be judged as morally reprehensible regardless of the sexual mores of the judge.

          Also, I don’t agree that criticizing fictional cultures is insensitive :).

  6. So when I first saw Shin Sekai Yori I mostly understood the ‘control’ aspects of human sexuality through the lens of Focault’s notion of biopower (personally, I think the entire story is based on Focault’s theories) under which it makes sense why their society promotes promiscuity. In what sense did you feel that this society had collapsed though? I felt the ending was a very clear message of how this society was able to persist in spite of its evils.

    1. It has been a little while since I’ve thought about the show, but IIRC the ending alluded to the rules and structure of society changing. So, perhaps a better statement would be that the first version of the society failed.

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