By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Aldous Huxley talks about the humiliating pleasures of Brave New World. These pleasures are humiliating because they are designed to keep the members of the World State subjugated. The idea is to keep the citizens addicted to sex and drugs so that they have no time to question the society that they live in. But why is this encouraged, and what are the costs?
In Brave New World, the citizens of the World State are encouraged to have sex, and use drugs. The drugs are easy. In the brave new world, people are encouraged to use pharmaceuticals anytime they feel anything less than completely content. They’re also encouraged to keep an eye on their friends, to make sure others remember that pharmaceuticals are always available.
“You look glum, Marx,” says Henry Foster to Bernard. “What you need is a gramme of soma.” A gramme is better than a damn; a behavior control phrase drummed into the citizens. Overreliance on pharmaceuticals was a concern in 1932, when the novel was written; definitely is still a concern today.
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Sex and Knowledge
The sexuality and aesthetics in the World State of Brave New World are more complex. These topics tend to be more influential within the genre of dystopia. This is because, for some reason, sex tends to be associated with revolution. But why would sex be linked to revolution? Sex seems like it’s intensely private; kind of the polar opposite of revolution, which is fundamentally public.
To answer that, we can turn to Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. With this book, Foucault basically changed the way we think about sexuality, or at least the way we talk about sexuality. Interestingly, Foucault was articulating something that the classic fictional dystopias of the early 1900s were exploring years earlier.
Foucault says that sexuality is “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power.” Especially dense—what exactly does that mean?
Sex is a space where power relations get worked out in particularly important or influential ways. A sexual relationship of any kind opens up something new between the participants. You know the phrase “knowing someone in the biblical sense”? Well, there’s a reason the Bible uses the verb “to know” in referring to sexuality.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Controlling Sex in the Big Three Dystopias
Sex does allow people to know each other in a different way than any other kind of contact or communication. And, of course, knowledge is power. Foucault, by the way, has a book called Knowledge/Power, too. For most, maybe all dystopias, controlling people’s sexuality is a key to controlling their access to power, even their access to thinking about power. Different dystopias do this in different ways, but they’re all doing kind of the same thing.
In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, sex is a commodity to be purchased from other numbers through the use of the pink coupon. The state, therefore, tries to take the personal away from sexuality, categorizing it as a leisure activity on par with strolling, and thus unconnected from knowledge.
Within We, the containment of sexuality does not always hold, as we see in the illicit sexual relationship that develops between I-330 and D-503, with its very clear link to revolution. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex is strictly controlled by the state through the institution of marriage, and again we see unregulated sexual activity clearly linked to revolution.
Sexuality and Procreation
Brave New World treats sexuality in a quite different way. The World State, headed by the World Controllers, promotes what may appear to be a free and comfortable climate for sexuality.
In the World State, everyone belongs to everyone else. This is such an important precept in the World State, that it’s part of sleep conditioning, so people will hear this phrase 62,400 times by the time they begin sexual play as children and sexual intercourse as adolescents.
In this brave new world, sexuality is kept entirely separate from procreation, and is thus associated only with pleasure. At least that’s how the authorities frame it. Some people might find enforced sexual pleasure to be not that pleasant. In other dystopic novels, sex is a private act that needs a coupon, as in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, but in Huxley’s World State there are no pink coupons, no shades to be drawn.
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The Attractions of Dystopia
For teenagers, the sexuality in Huxley’s novel may seem utopian. Not the test tubes and the genetic engineering, of course, but the idea that people could explore sexuality with different partners, that sex would not be a taboo subject. That they wouldn’t be punished for thinking and talking about it any more than for experiencing it may be the fascinating. Maybe that’s part of why this novel, and dystopia in general, is so popular among teens.
Not just because there’s something attractive about the attitudes about sex—and drugs, actually—but also because dystopias often take them through an understanding of why these topics are so complicated. As young people are learning how societies function, how politics and economics and religion and culture work together, they may be at a moment of idealism—some might say naïveté—around the possibility of utopia. And also they might be slower to grasp the costs.
The forms of chemical and sexual control that are depicted in Brave New World are not only a reflection of the concerns of the world as it was—and still is, with respect to drugs—but also of how it could be, in the way in which uninhibited sexual behavior is shown to be used as a tool to control people.
Common Questions about the Humiliating Pleasures of the World State
In the Brave New World, people of the World State are encouraged to use drugs anytime they feel anything less than completely content. They’re also encouraged to keep an eye on their friends, to make sure others remember that drugs are always available.
The World State in Brave New World, headed by the World Controllers, promotes what may appear to be a free and comfortable climate for sexuality. In the World State, everyone belongs to everyone else.
Sex does allow people to know each other in a different way than any other kind of contact or communication. And, of course, knowledge is power. For most, maybe all dystopias like Brave New World, controlling people’s sexuality is a key to controlling their access to power, even their access to thinking about power.