Octavia Butler’s Dawn in the #MeToo Era

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Sexual Violence and Science Fiction

Octavia Butler’s Dawn in the #MeToo Era

Julia Lindsay

In 1987, social scientist Mary Koss published the first national study on rape and sexual assault. It revealed the harrowing statistic that one in four women on U.S. college campuses had been victims of sexual assault, a statistic that would prove consistent with the entire female population in the United States. [1] Despite federal legal codes that clearly delineate what constitutes rape and sexual assault, Koss’s research indicated that many women did not consider their individual experiences as rape, bringing to light a larger problem in public discourse. Most people, she found, did not understand that rape and sexual assault occur not only when an individual does not consent but also when they are unable to give consent.

That same year, Octavia Butler published Dawn, the first novel in her Xenogenesis series. In Dawn, nuclear war has rendered the Earth uninhabitable and has killed off large populations of humans and animals. A first-contact narrative, Dawn follows Lilith Iyapo, a Black American woman who wakes up aboard the spaceship of an alien species called the Oankali. The Oankali, who are able to read and manipulate a being’s genetic material, inform Lilith that it is their biological imperative to advance their species through “gene trades.” An agender subspecies of the Oankali, called the ooloi, facilitates their reproduction, penetrating the bodies of male and female partners with their sensory tentacle arm and mixing their DNA. Lilith learns that many other humans are in suspended animation on board and that the Oankali intend to gene trade with them and return to Earth—which would alter both of their species in the process. The Oankali then task Lilith with waking the other humans, serving as a cultural mediator between the two, and preparing them for this project.

Butler produced in Dawn quite a complicated and nuanced narrative. The two species cannot be easily split into heroes and villains or victims and aggressors. The Oankali can be seen as both saviors and captors, rescuing the humans from their deadly fate but exerting great control over them, leaving them with little choice but to go along with the Oankali plan. However, Butler also problematizes the destructive tendencies latent in human nature and their manifestations in the societies of the global superpowers. Thus, criticism on the novel is often split between hailing the Oankali as the embodiment of alternative or subversive episto-ontological perspectives or reading them as an allegory for slavery and colonization (Sanchez-Taylor). Yet while critical work runs the gamut of conversations on gender, sexuality, queer studies, and Deleuzian ontology/rhizomatic frameworks, scholars have paid very little attention to the novel’s problematic sexual politics (Bogue, “Alien Sex”; Bogue, “Metamorphosis”; Ackerman; Atterbury).

These issues were not given essay-length focus until thirty-three years after Dawn’s publication. In “Troubling Issues of Consent in Dawn” Joshua Burnett fruitfully highlights some of the key moments in the series illustrating that consent—sexual and otherwise—is a running theme. He suggests we “read Dawn as a parable for the need for affirmative consent in sexual encounters, particularly ones which transcend barriers or break taboos” (Burnett 119). Such a suggestion is in line with the analytical moves Burnett makes across the essay, a death-of-the-author approach that centered on tensions within the text and how they may be useful for readers in the present, avoiding a more direct criticism of the novel or Butler herself. My essay will examine three scenes in the novel which feature sexual violence and violations of consent, two of which occur between Lilith, her partner Joseph, and an ooloi named Nikanj. I contrast these with a scene wherein Lilith stops a human —who epitomizes toxic masculine aggression and entitlement—from raping a woman. I argue that the direct condemnation of rape in this scene reveals Butler’s own blindness to the fact that the other encounters are acts of rape and sexual violence. As Lilith and Nikanj conspire to violate Joseph’s body autonomy through drugs, physical force, and coercive strategies, Butler reproduces rape culture narratives to justify their actions.

The dearth of scholarship on sexual consent in the thirty years following Dawn’s publication undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that, as Koss recently lamented in an episode of NPR’s This American Life, the social impact of her research was minimal even though it garnered national attention (and yes, this includes reactionary backlash). Rape statistics remain roughly the same, and Koss’s work did little to ameliorate ignorance towards the definition and parameters of rape and sexual assault. [2] It is unsurprising, then, that Burnett’s contribution to Butler scholarship arrived in the midst of the #MeToo movement which not only brought the ubiquity of sexual assault back to the forefront of the public imagination but also shined a light on why such an epidemic continues.   

The #MeToo movement began in 2017 after actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet asking followers to respond “me too” if they had been victims of sexual assault exploded on Twitter. It bears repeating, however, that the first woman to use the me too slogan was Black American Tarana Burke in 2006. Before the days of Twitter, Burke used then-popular social media site Myspace to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual assault and to give women and girls—particularly women and girls of color—a sense of solidarity and voice (Burke). While the #MeToo movement shared this purpose, because it spawned from women in Hollywood speaking out against the ways they were coerced or forced into sexual activity by higher ups in this male-dominated industry, the #MeToo movement initially took the shape of a public reckoning. 

Victim-survivors outed major figures beyond the entertainment industry, pushing the public to examine politicians and business leaders with renewed scrutiny. With the genesis of the #MeToo movement centering on men occupying powerful positions in society, the #MeToo movement shed greater light on gendered power politics in the public arena than the campaigns against sexual violence that preceded it. In fact, systemic problems were at the heart of #MeToo. As Giti Chandra and Irma Erlingsdóttir write in their introduction to the Routledge Handbook on the Politics of the #MeToo Movement,one of the movement’s “greatest strengths” is its criticism of social systems, that it is “a reaction not to the individual, but to a system designed to fail those who have been subject to sexual harassment and violence” (7). However, as the movement shifted from its focus on affluent white women to include all genders and people of different sexual orientations of various economic strata, their contributions drew attention to #MeToo’s conflicting message. 

If the affluent women initially leading the #MeToo movement encouraged publicly speaking out or even naming the assailant or aggressor as the primary means through which to bring them to justice—implying that the force or threat of national visibility and widespread scrutiny would combat these systemic problems—they seem to have taken for granted their own immense cultural capital. Intersectionality marginalized people, in other words, played a significant role in highlighting the reality that “For the majority of survivors, legal recourse is not economically affordable, professionally feasible, personally possible, socially acceptable, or emotionally viable” (Chandra 9). The movement’s systemic approach likewise opened up discussion about the cultural effect of hetero-patriarchy. #MeToo insisted that our cultural narratives contribute to the ubiquity of sexual violence. The continued societal negligence in discussing the various forms that rape and sexual assault take certainly necessitated the movement’s particular emphasis on expressed verbal consent, and as the movement became more inclusive, it went on to spotlight myriad forms of sexual harassment with a vested interest in exposing coercive and manipulative tactics. Introducing the term “rape culture,” #MeToo clarified this cultural diagnosis, drawing attention to patterns in behaviors and ideas such as what we now refer to as “toxic masculinity” or “white male entitlement.”

The #MeToo movement has since directed critical attention to re-evaluating and problematizing contemporary cultural production and that of our not-too-distant past. It can be understood, as Chandra and Erlingsdóttir write, as “an archive of lived counter-memories that militate against what is deemed to matter in hegemonic historical narratives, highlighting its exclusions. It is a call for resistance and for breaking silences” (3). Science fiction critics are certainly answering this call. For my part, I will spotlight sexual scenarios in Dawn that mirror the very issues of power politics, coercion, and rape culture narratives brought to the forefront of public discourse by the #MeToo movement.

The Image of the Rapist in Dawn 

While the ooloi’s phallic sensory arm and its reproductive role between Oankali already provides an analog to penetrative heterosexual sex, the connections between the three parties that the ooloi facilitates by inserting its sensory arm into the spinal cords/nervous systems indicates that Butler means for this act to represent the emotional intimacy associated with sex, reproductive or otherwise, between partners. The oolio’s control of biological processes not only allows it to create intense emotional bonding between partners, it facilitates feelings of ecstasy that we associate with sexual release and satisfaction. Indeed, the first time Nikanj (with whom Lilith has already developed a consensual sexual relationship) joins together Lilith, Joseph, and itself, it recycles images of Joseph and Lilith’s previous sexual encounters, essentially creating a simulation of heterosexual penetrative sex in their minds. [3] This is an act of rape, however, as Joseph was unwilling and unable to consent.

Through her research, Koss realized that women were less likely to characterize sexual encounters they did not consent to as rape if they knew, were friends with, or were involved with the perpetrator. Attempting to broaden the public image of rape, Koss coined the term “date rape.” Today the word “date rape” is most commonly associated with drugs used by rapists to heavily intoxicate or render victims unconscious so they cannot physically resist. [4] The first of the three scenes this essay examines exemplifies both Koss’s original definition and the contemporary conception of date rape. When Joseph meets Nikanj, the first ooloi he’s ever seen, Nikanj shares its desire to build a friendship with him, offering up its non-sexual tentacle under the pretense of a friendly gesture—a greeting geared towards mitigating Joseph’s discomfort in the face of this alien form. Despite his great revulsion, Joseph builds up the courage to accept this gesture and touches Nikanj’s non-sexual tentacle. Emitting a biological sedative through its tentacle, Nikanj puts the deeply frightened Joseph to sleep instantaneously. Nikanj then peels off Joseph’s jacket, lays itself down against him, and penetrates his neck with its sensory tentacle.

Though Lilith initially protests, asking Nikanj if it drugged Joseph or if he fainted, she then “wondered why she cared” (Butler 160). In this moment, Lilith becomes a co-conspirator in assault, joining in upon Nikanj’s invitation. Butler concludes the scene with an erotic description of Nikanj’s penetration of Lilith, which, uniting all three, marks the full commencement of this sex act: “She felt it tremble against her, and knew it was in” (161-62). Lilith is clearly aware that this is a nonconsensual violation of Joseph’s body and that she played an active role in it, as captured in a passage soon after: “‘He might . . .’ She forced herself to voice the thought. ‘He might not want anything more to do with me when he realizes what I helped you do with him’” (164). Nikanj does as well, responding, “‘He’ll be angry—and frightened and eager for the next time and determined to see that there won’t be a next time. I’ve told you, I know this one’” (164). Lilith’s comment here provides important insight into her character and her perception of sex and consent, as Lilith refers to this sexual violence as something done “with” Joseph instead of to Joseph. This language and the erotic descriptions above reflect a problematic pattern in Butler’s presentation of these scenes. As this essay will continue to tease out, Butler naturalizes rape culture narratives by implying some form of participation or consent from the victim, and this contributes to the ways in which these scenes elide the horror latent in such overt sexual violence. As Nikanj predicts, Joseph will adamantly decline Nikanj’s advances, and Nikanj will again act against his wishes.

Sandwiched between these two assaults, however, Butler features a scene of sexual violence amongst the humans that she presents with far greater climactic urgency and which she treats with considerable seriousness. A woman’s scream brings a self-sequestered Lilith into a scene of chaos. Newly awakened Gregory and Peter, the leader of a faction attempting to subvert Lilith’s authority, are holding a struggling woman, Allison, between them and attempting to drag her into Gregory’s bedroom in order to take turns raping her. Lilith witnesses a group of people attempting to free Allison struggle against attacks by members of Peter’s faction. This already horrific mob violence snowballs as the fate of this woman’s body becomes a political battle with bystanders from the respective parties screaming at and over each other.

Peter’s faction justifies this violence under a contrived pretense that the survival of their species depends on reproduction. One member yells, “‘What the hell is she saving herself for?… It’s her duty to get together with someone. There aren’t that many of us left’” (Butler 177). One of Lilith’s most vocal dissenters, Curt, attempts to paint this “duty” as a burden equally shared between the sexes. When a woman tries to defend hers and Alison’s right to bodily autonomy, Curt “bellows, drowning her out,” “‘We pair off!… One man, one woman. Nobody has the right to hold out. It just causes trouble’” (177). It is, of course, clear that the patriarchal and misogynist American society from which they came informs the actions of Peter’s group. The language used (“holding out”) to justify sexual violence and socially sanction Allison’s choice not to have sex echoes rhetoric historically used against women. Butler here calls attention to the kind of male entitlement the #MeToo movement would later pinpoint as a defining trait of toxic masculinity and rape culture. When a male ally steps in to defend Allison, another co-conspirator responds, “‘What is she to you… Get your own damn woman!’” highlighting the longstanding treatment of woman as property and implicating it in acts of sexual violence (177).

In a climactic moment, Lilith intervenes, her rage and her enhanced strength allowing her to throw aside the attackers. She authoritatively tells the group, “‘There will be no rape here,’” continuing, “‘nobody here is property. Nobody here has the right to the use of anybody else’s body. There will be no back-to-the-Stone-Age, caveman bull shit!’” (178). Lilith’s powerful declaration and her physical domination over these would-be rapists may read like a triumphant feminist moment. However, Lilith’s characterization of this violence as a relic of a long-gone past—as a devolution and the antithesis of civilized, modern society—both reflects and contributes to the societal ignorance towards the prevalence of sexual assault Koss identified two years prior. Koss’s research found that many women did not identify their experience as rape because it did not cohere with the image of rape, or, more specifically, the image of the rapist in the public imagination. The popular narrative of the monstrous stranger lurking in an alleyway for a blitz attack obscured the fact that 70% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, preventing countless people from understanding the nature of the offense they’d been victim to or reporting it to the authorities. 

“I Know You Want It”: Rape Culture Narratives and Sexual Scripts

Perceptions such as these constitute what social scientists call “rape scripts,” a subset of “sexual scripts.” Sexual scripts “play a role in the creation of… rape scripts,” writes Amanda Denes in “Biology as Consent: Problematizing the Scientific Approach to Seducing Women’s Bodies,” defining sexual scripts as “schemas that dictate expectations for sexual encounters and ‘ways of knowing how to behave in sexually defined situations’” (Ryan, qtd. in Denes 413). In her study of rape and seduction scripts, Kathryn Ryan found that the majority of participants’ rape scripts mentioned aggressive acts. Their conceptualizations largely featured angry men, conceived as “low status”—participants variously described individuals with “’serious mental problems… and/or social problems’ such as being a heavy drug user, an alcoholic, or a social outcast” (Ryan, qtd. in Denes 413). Butler recreates this rape script in Peter’s angry blitz attack on Allison and in Lilith’s characterization of him as a “caveman” and a “fool” which together suggest social degeneracy and intellectual deficiency (Butler 178). Conversely, as Brian Attebury points out, “The action of the story represents [the ooloi] in terms of plentitude, power, psychic merging, sexual satisfaction, evolutionary advancement,” desirable traits that will ultimately aid Butler in casting Nikanj’s sexual violence as seduction instead of rape (145). If Butler crafted Lilith’s monologue to serve as a triumphant feminist moment, this strong criticism of rape only betrays Butler’s blindness to the overt violations of consent in the coming scene and how it replicates myriad forms of coercion common then and today.

Indeed, the following rape scene opens quite differently, as Nikanj’s flirtation, sexual innuendo, and seductive invitation piques Lilith’s sexual desires. Even as they lead Joseph, who is unaware of what is happening, into the bedroom—and which could therefore be just as easily cast as a predator trapping its prey—this moment borders on the erotic, even the romantic. Simultaneously acknowledging that the last sexual encounter between them was rape (though without using the word), Nikanj offers Joseph the illusion of choice, telling him, “‘I left you no choice the first time. You could not have understood what there was to choose. Now you have some small idea. And you have a choice’” (Butler 188). Realizing what is taking place, Joseph sharply responds “‘No!… Not again!’” (188). Nikanj however does not respect this explicit denial of consent, continuing to push for sex, it responds, “‘and yet I pleased you. I pleased you very much’” (188). When Joseph retorts that such pleasure was an illusion, Nikanj responds, “‘what happened was real. Your body knows how real it was’” (189). Ignoring someone’s explicit rejection of a sexual offer by attempting to argue with their reasoning is already a coercive strategy, and while this pressure may be comparatively less malicious, Nikanj’s response here sets the stage for a pattern of rhetoric both used in coercing victims into “consenting” and used to justify nonconsensual assault and forceful rape. Nikanj’s response, and the rhetoric it echoes, provides the basis of an argument that dismisses verbal denials of consent on the false premise that the victim clearly wanted it, that the body betrayed such a desire. “Privileging the body as truth,” Denes writes, aligns with the “rape culture sentiment that the bodily experience is more important than the rational, verbal experience, or more succinctly, that no can mean yes” (411). In other words, under this “logic,” the body’s “desires” supersede express denials of consent.

To be sure, the argument implicit in this first statement will become more explicit in tandem with the increase in Nikanj’s use of physical force. Immediately after Nikanj finishes this initial statement, it “caught [Joseph’s] hand in a coil of sensory arm”—the verb here already implying unwanted force just as the “coil” conjures images of bondage (Butler 189). Joseph recognizes the danger of this situation, pulling away and urgently responding, “‘You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!’” (189). Nikanj’s coercive routine intensifies, as it moves from grabbing his hand to taking greater liberties with his body: “‘You have, yes.’ It opened his jacket . . . and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. ‘You see, your body has made a different choice’” (189). This scene reflects a common pattern under rape culture—the perpetrator coolly attempts to persuade the victim into sex in a seductive or calmly playful manner, creating an illusion of choice. They touch the victim’s body, often in an accelerating manner, despite not receiving verbal consent. But they do not yet use extreme force, simultaneously maintaining a facade of innocence while demonstrating their physical power over the other. 

Another subset of sexual scripts, seduction scripts provide significant insight into cultural interpretations of consent and appropriate sexual conduct. Studies of seduction scripts reveal that conceptions about the shape of seduction vary, but perceptions of their nature usually fall within distinctly positive and negative camps. As Denes points out, there is disconcerting overlap between behaviors associated with rape and seduction (Berger). Citing a study by Littleton and Axsom, Denes writes, “These similarities included the woman having no prior relationship with the man in either script, the use of persuasion or coercion by the man in the scenario to obtain sex from the woman, and the woman engaging in sexual activity that made her uncomfortable” (413). [5] Since these warning signs of sexual violence have been normalized as quotidian aspects of seduction, an individual may feel conflicted about whether to firmly shut down this uncomfortable situation—or even to struggle or run away—lest they be accused of “overreacting” to a “harmless come on.” Responding firmly or taking physical action such as pushing an aggressor off may also come with social/economic consequences particularly when the victim knows the assailant. The vulnerability created by this catch-22 is then redoubled as the unwanted touch accelerates into staging, so to speak, the sex act—removing clothes, moving closer to the bed—and this may lead the victim into resignation, signaling sex is now inevitable.

Joseph certainly displays this sense of entrapment, uncertainty, fear, and resignation as the scene continues. Joseph begins to “struggl[e] violently for several seconds, then sto[p]” seemingly recognizing his own powerlessness in the face of Nikanj’s advances, as he asks, “‘Why are you doing this?’” (Butler 189). Nikanj continues its cool coercion, telling Joseph repeatedly to close his eyes even as Joseph plaintively continues to ask what Nikanj will do to him. He finally gives up his questioning, “[holding] his body rigid” as if accepting the inevitable (189). Though Nikanj does not penetrate Joseph in this moment, Joseph’s pleas and his final stiffening of his body horrifically echo of the stages of emotions rape victims go through in the moment they realize their bodies will be violated, trying to appeal to their attacker in order to stop the attack and preparing their bodies and minds for the violence they know will occur. Immediately following this moment, a calm, “patient and interested” Lilith reflects that this may be “her only chance ever to watch… as an ooloi seduced someone,” musing that Joseph is “probably enjoying himself, though could not have said so” (190). Nikanj’s unhesitating advancement does not concern Lilith, as she believes, though without evidence, that Joseph desires Nikanj. Lilith’s calm response to Joseph’s highly apparent fear stems from the fact that she too subscribes to the rape culture argument that the body’s (supposed) desires reflect the “true” will of the victim and negate their spoken refusal of consent. 

Moreover, the fact that Lilith is waiting “patiently” indicates her unfaltering belief, built on the premise that Joseph truly wants sex, that sex will occur. Pairing this fact with her characterization of this scene as a seduction, it is clear that Lilith maintains a positive seduction script. As opposed to the seduction script Littleton and Axsom studied which describes one party’s attempt to have sex with the other that leaves the recipient uncomfortable, Lilith’s seduction script is built upon the eventual culmination in the sex act of shared physical attraction or sexual desire. Positioning herself as a spectator not in Nikanj’s seduction but in an ooloi’s seduction gives further insight into her seduction script, as it suggests that Nikanj is enacting a seduction ritual shared by the entire species. Under this logic, her seduction script not only implies a fixed ending but also a predictable set of acts preceding it. In the context of this scene, Lilith’s ritual seduction script reduces Joseph’s refusal of consent by reading it as part of the “natural” progression to sex as he slowly gives in to his desires. 

This ritual seduction script results from a confluence of rape culture narratives, as it relies on the presumption that Joseph physically desires Nikanj and on the faulty premise that bodily desires indicate the will of the individual. It is no surprise, then, that Denes identifies this very seduction script in some of the more extreme communities produced by rape culture (her research focuses on the Pick Up Artist community whose rhetoric provides a textbook example of toxic masculinity and white male entitlement). Nonetheless, elements of the seduction ritual script are still fairly common across the gender and sexuality spectra, resulting, as I will soon unpack, from the narrative of “token resistance,” an assumption that an individual resists sexual advances but wants and ultimately plans on having sex. Seduction scripts built around a ritual back-and-forth between token resistance and sexual advances can be very dangerous. Lilith’s seduction script and the rape culture logic from which it stems not only allows Lilith to see Joseph as an (implicitly willing) participant, it assures this violence will continue. Lilith does not intervene as she did in Peter’s attack, watching, and even enjoying, the unfolding events despite Joseph’s obvious distress. 

As this scene progresses, it becomes clear that Butler did not intend for Lilith’s response to be read as a character flaw or as some symptom of indoctrination. Butler’s presentation of the scene itself supports Lilith and Nikanj’s view. Joseph falls asleep while lying beside Nikanj—a glaring inconsistency in character given the extreme revulsion, anger, and fear we’ve thus far seen. Allowing Joseph to fall into comfortable sleep, Butler implies that Joseph’s outward expressions do not cohere with his body’s response to Nikanj and its advances. Moreover, Butler, who has characterized Nikanj as a gentle and empathetic being throughout the novel, continues to reinforce the idea that Nikanj respects Joseph’s choice despite the pain it has put him through. When Joseph wakes and learns that he fell asleep on his own and wasn’t drugged, he asks “‘Why didn’t you… just do it?’” to which Nikanj responds, “‘I told you. This time you can choose’” (Butler 190).  In a chillingly casual reference to its previous date rape, Nikanj contrasts these two sexual scenerios as respectively nonconsensual and consensual. Despite the fact that Nikanj has touched Joseph’s body sexually without consent, Nikanj does not see its actions as a violation of sexual consent. This in part stems from its body-truth paradigm which Nikanj escalates when Joseph points out the obvious— “‘I’ve chosen! You ignored me’”—responding, “‘Your body said one thing. Your words said another’” (190). Nikanj’s definition of sexual consent therefore does not require an individual’s verbal permission. 

Given Nikanj’s body-truth paradigm, we can extrapolate that Nikanj would also see all of its actions in the scene preceding this moment as consensual. However, such justification would appear to be a moot point. Nikanj’s syntax “this time” and verbiage “can choose” suggests that Nikanj’s respect for Joseph’s “choice” only applies to the penetrative sex act itself. In other words, Nikanj feels the need to gain “consent” for penetrative sex alone. It only sees rape as a violation of sexual consent, and even that, as we’ve seen, it treats lightly. Butler thus presents an incredibly narrow picture of nonconsensual sexual activity. If Koss attempted to address large scale misconceptions about the definition of rape, #MeToo sought to do the same for consent, defining consent as strictly verbal permission and emphasizing that it is not only legally required for any form of sexual touch but that attempts to manipulate an individual into sexual activity through coercion also constitutes a violation of consent and sexual misconduct. Though Dawn is a product of its time, such a limited view of consent largely informs the novel’s problematic sexual politics and the reductive image of rape it presents. 

Nikanj then moves into the sexual position, telling Joseph, “‘I’ll stop now if you like’” (190). Whether or not Butler intended for this dialogue to reinforce Nikanj’s empathetic characterization by showcasing its continued concern for consent, reading Nikanj’s offer to stop in light of the seduction ritual script colors its gesture towards respecting Joseph’s choice as weak if not fully disingenuous: a performative tease rather than a legitimate concern for gauging Joseph’s comfort. In fact, given the development of this scene and its final moments, Butler may have included this dialogue to enhance its “erotic” nature. The scene proceeds to reveal that Nikanj was right about Joseph’s bodily desires from the start, as Joseph responds, “‘I can’t give you—or myself—permission [. . .] no matter what I feel, I can’t,’” a dangerous narrative to promulgate when for many, this is truly not the case (190). The body as truth rape culture sentiment can quickly snowball, as, under the premise that the individual actually wants sex, any vocal resistance can be understood as “token resistance,” or the practice of saying no even though you fully consent and plan to have sex. 

 The #MeToo movement emphasized explicit verbal consent largely in part to combat this narrative and, even more, to bring awareness to and validate the many reasons why an individual who does have physical desire for someone or might even desire to have sex would still not want to engage in it or feel the need to refuse it. Citing a study by Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh, Denes writes that in cases of resisting sex despite wanting it, women cited “inhibition-related reasons (i.e., ‘emotional, religious, or moral concerns; fear of physical discomfort; and embarrassment about one’s body’)” as well as “practical reasons (i.e., ‘fear of appearing promiscuous, situational problems, concerns about the nature of the relationships, uncertainty about their partner’s feelings, and fear of sexually transmitted diseases’)” (qtd. in Denes 416). Denes writes that another reason for an individual saying no when they might mean yes “is related to the loss of control that can emerge from showing uncertainty” (416). Pulling from a study by Shotland and Hunter, she concludes that the persistence of saying no in such cases, “is likely due to… beliefs that they must say no if they are unsure, and that showing uncertainty would result in increased sexual pressure from their partners” (Denes 417). In other words, Shotland and Hunter’s study brought to light a common fear that an admonition of desire would suggest to the other party that they should only try harder, or worse, that, should the individual subscribe to the body truth model, an admission of desire would lead to physical assault.

Butler unknowingly validates these fears, highlighting the regularity of such scenarios as Joseph faces this exact fate. Rather than respect Joseph’s wishes, Nikanj focuses solely on Joseph’s acknowledgment of sexual urges—Nikanj becomes more turned on, and this admission supplies Nikanj with the justification to use force against him. Nikanj moves in on Joseph once more, ignoring his call to let go of him by responding, “‘be grateful, Joe. I’m not going to let go of you’” (Butler 190). Again, Joseph realizes he is powerless, as Nikanj has stated its intent to use force against him. Again, Lilith watches him “stiffen” and “struggle” (190). She then sees him “relax,” concluding in her internal dialogue that she and Nikanj were right. Butler confirms this perspective; moving out of Lilith’s internal dialogue into a broader narratorial voice, she writes, “Now he was ready to accept what he had wanted from the beginning” (190). What any victim-survivor of sexual assault would view as the final act of rape, the horrific end result of forceful coercion, Butler casts as a cathartic moment of accepting desire. Nikanj’s final words, in the context of what we’ve seen so far and considering Joseph’s immediate response, should appear menacing and threatening, yet Butler discourages such a reading and minimizes the violence inherent in Nikanj’s actual threat of force. She instead presents it as romantic, ending the chapter with yet another erotic description: Lilith joins in and feels the “deceptively light touch of the sensory hand and [feels] the ooloi body tremble against her” (191). Concluding Joseph wanted sex all along reinforces the token resistance narrative central to rape culture by casting it as the correct conclusion. Though Joseph never gives verbal consent, Butler frames this final sexual penetration as consensual, and from a presentist perspective informed by the #MeToo movement, this sexual scenerio and its conclusion comes off as deeply disconcerting and provides a window into how entrenched these rape culture narratives were at the time of Dawn’s publication. As a Black woman and an author of SF, a genre particularly driven towards the social, Butler was more privy to abuses of power and more engaged in critically examining problematic social narratives, and yet even her work reproduces narratives that were particularly damaging to women. 

Yet it also proves necessary to examine the sexual politics in Dawn as it bears on our present social realities, cultural mores, and sexual scripts. Rape culture narratives are largely reinforced through media; films, television shows, and novels play a significant role in normalizing sexual misconduct. In another study by Littleton, Axsom, and Yoder, wherein they provided participants with an ambiguous sexual scenario (one in which it is unclear if it is seduction or rape), they found that, “When participants were primed to think about seduction, rather than rape… [they] were more likely to report characteristics in line with seduction scripts” (Denes 413). In other words, Denes writes, “Framing an interaction as seduction rather than rape appears to change the way that instances of forced sex are perceived. If something is framed as seduction, [an individual] may be less likely to call it rape” (413). Thus, Butler’s presentation of these predatory behaviors can impact readers now as much as it did nearly forty years ago.  Even in moments where the novel acknowledges the predatory nature of Nikanj’s physically coercive force, framing the scene as a seduction—both by using the term and in including erotic descriptions—directs readers to rewrite whatever ill ease they may have experienced during the scene. Not only, then, does the novel naturalize rape culture logic, it may make readers who are victims of sexual violence less confident in viewing it as such, or it may invalidate victim-survivors who have acknowledged the sexual violence committed against them. 

Octavia Butler is an institution, a pioneer, a strong feminist, one of the great authors of SF, yet no one is immune to internalizing problematic social narratives. From my, albeit presentist, perspective, the rape culture narratives here and the coercive and manipulative abuses of a man’s body are glaring. And while this fact shows how far we’ve come, it also highlights the reach and the pervasiveness of rape culture and the considerable steps we must take to scrutinize our cultural production and to keep the work of #MeToo going.


[1] Koss’s study only considers heterosexual rape and focuses solely on cis women victim-survivors. I want to acknowledge that all genders have been and are subject to sexual violence and rape, and this piece will primarily feature a male victim.

[2] According to World Population Review (2022), one in four people are victims of rape or sexual assault. The vast majority of these are women, making up 82% of juvenile victims and 90% of adult victims.

[3] It should be noted, however, that the feelings of physical and emotional intimacy and ecstasy in these acts are not dependent upon creating such simulations.

[4] These include sedatives, benzos, and tranquilizers such as the drug rohypnol from which the term “roofies” is derived.

[5] Littleton and Axsom’s study present the crossover between rape and seduction scripts in terms of male perpetrators and female victims. This is because these scripts are reflective of people’s associations with rape and seduction. Due to the precedents set in our heteropatriarchal society, seduction/courtship is associated with the man. Women also make up the majority of rape victims and men the majority of perpetrators, meaning rape scripts also revolve around male assailants and female victims. The predatory behavior described here in the crossover between rape and seduction scripts, however, is not exclusive to heterosexual men and can thus apply just as well in this scenario.


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Julia Lindsay is a Ph.D candidate in American literature at the University of Georgia. She is currently researching twenty-first century science fiction by Black American authors. 

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