The Dune Universe And Sexual Violence: An Ongoing Struggle

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Sexual Violence and Science Fiction

The Dune Universe And Sexual Violence: An Ongoing Struggle

Eyal Soffer

Frank Herbert’s Dune was first published in 1965 and quickly became a best-seller; on 18 June 2022 it was the number one on the Washington Post’s list of mass market paperback bestseller list. It takes place ten thousand years in the future, telling the political struggle between Great Houses over the Emperor’s throne. As is the case with many of the thought-provoking ideas presented in the Dune series, such as ecology (Gough, Parkerson), technology (Grazier), and messianic passions (Mulcahy, Minowitz, List), so too does the treatment of feminism (Hand, Carrasco) and sexual violence push the boundaries of its contemporary concepts. Herbert published Dune in 1965, but the final two books in the series, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, were published almost twenty years later, in 1984 and 1985, respectively. During this period, Herbert reflected upon his initial ideas and developed them further. First and foremost, as he proclaimed in interviews, Herbert intended to warn the public of all-too-powerful leaders (O’Reilly, Timothy, and Herbert). [1] However, this is one of many issues around which the series revolves. [2] Secondly, Herbert’s correspondence with Asimov’s Foundation series (Grigsby) garners similar scholarly attention. As Grigsby claims, Herbert opposed Asimov’s belief in technology and imagined war against thinking machines (the Butlerian Jihad) as a central tenet for his story. Following the Jihad, humans had won the war thousands of years before the story begins. This victory set humanity on a path of relying on human abilities and improving them to almost supernatural levels. Some examples are the Guild Navigators, who use the Spice Mélange to see the future and twist time and space, and the Mentats, the human computers.

More importantly, this estranging device enabled the fictional creation of the Bene Gesserit in the first novels and added the Honored Matres in the final two novels. These matriarchal organizations train their women-only members to exert supernatural control over their bodies and minds. These supernatural human characteristics, while setting them apart as a subset of women, also add meaning to sexual violence, exploring it in rearranged social constructs. In the tradition of ‘what if’ questions that lead many science fiction writers, the Dune series asks “What if women could subdue men? Would sexual violence still exist? What would it look like?” Taking into account that up until 2012, the FBI defined rape as “forcible rape” (Freedman 1), the rapist’s physical dominance is seen as an indication of carnal knowledge against one partner’s will. When one person can physically force him- or herself against another person’s will, then it is rape or sexual violence.

Liam Murray Bell, Amanda Finelli and Marion Wynne-Davies discuss theoretical perspectives, literary history, and textual analysis of sexual violence in literature. They firstly focus on how accounts of rape in culture, from ancient myths to popular culture, normalised rape, framing it as “a quest to achieve victory” (Wynne-Davies et al. 53). Next they show how women try to move away from the victim position to a more powerful position of agency, where their voice is heard in texts written by men (Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth) or women (Carter and Bell). They analyse two texts (Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Ever (1977) and Liam Murray Bell’s rubber bullet, broken glass (2011)) which host various manners of sexual violence perpetrated by men and women. Their conclusion is that “at times that attempt to attain independent subjectivity leads to women becoming perpetrators of sexualized violence themselves” (Wynne-Davies et al. 67). They question whether women truly gain indepedence by perpetrating sexual violence, a question the Dune series engages with also. This text explores this question in three scenes from the series.

The first one is Jessica and Paul’s escape scene. After being defeated by Harkonnen and Imperial forces, the Atreides lose control over the planet Arrakis, Dune. The Duke is captured, and Jessica, his concubine, and Paul, her son, are taken to the desert to be killed and gotten rid of. In this scene, Jessica exhibits one supernatural attribute which every Reverend Mother among the Bene Gesserit masters, but which no man should obtain: The Voice.

Even though the Bene Gesserit are a secretive organization, some of their abilities are acknowledged and appreciated, such as truth saying and The Voice. The latter refers to the ability to command without resistance through a “direct access to another character’s subconscious” (Mack 44). That is, a Reverend Mother can voice command anyone who is not a Bene Gesserit and they would obey without hesitation, as in the following: “the deaf one, Jessica thought, studying the scarred face. The Baron knows I could use the Voice on any other man” (Dune 195). And so, when Jessica and Paul are taken to the desert to die, her mouth is gagged, fearing that she would order the guards to release her and Paul. Moreover, one of the guards is deaf who can read lips, to act as a safeguard against The Voice.

The first hint of sexual violence appears in the guards’ conversation on the flight to the desert: “Sure do seem a shame to waste a good-looking woman like this,’ Scarface said. ‘You ever have any highborn types?’ He turned to look at the pilot” (Herbert 198). The two guards continue this conversation. Scarface is the deaf guard who holds a gun to Jessica and Paul, and the other guard is the pilot.

However, Jessica has trained Paul in the Bene Gesserit ways, one of which is the use of The Voice. She is concerned about whether Paul can use The Voice correctly and this is tested in the climactic moment where the earlier discussion of sexual violence comes into fruition: “Czigo [the pilot, the other guard who is not deaf] tuned, said: ‘Ah-h-h look.’ He reached out for Jessica’s skirt. ‘Remove the gag,’ Paul commanded” (Herbert 199). Once this obstacle is taken out of the way, Jessica’s hidden talent is exhibited. She says “Gentlemen! No need to fight over me.’ At the same time she writhed sinuously for Kinet’s [Scarface] benefit” (Herbert 200). She continues and makes sure that Kinet, the deaf guard, can read her lips, “Is any woman worth fighting over?” (Herbert 200). The narrative immediately answers this question: “By uttering the words, by being there, she made herself infinitely worth their fighting” (Herbert 200). In doing so, Jessica encourages both guards to fight over her, and while Kinet strikes first, Czigo is prepared for his attack and stabs him in the chest.

At this point, Jessica and Paul’s hands and feet are still bound, and the deaf guard is dead. Jessica convinces Czigo to let Paul run to the desert with his hands still tied, explaining that she would be more receptive when she knows her son is alive. Czigo complies and once he releases Paul’s legs, Paul kills him with a kick to the heart.

Sexual violence is apparent here on several levels. First, after being condemned to death by the sandworms in the desert, the guards/ executioners realize that, in addition to her life, they control her sexually. Moreover, raping her elevates their social status because she is highborn. In addition, because she is condemned to death, they would not have to worry about any repercussions resulting from her rape. Lastly, Susan Brownmiller identified the fascination with rape as a way to achieve victory (“when a man ‘conquers the world, so too he conquers the woman’ (Brownmiller 1975: 289)” quoted in Wyvnne-Davies et al. 53) , and so it seems almost self-evident to the guards that they should rape Jessica.

Jessica, for her part, seduces them with The Voice and even hints with her behavior that she prefers the deaf guard, Kinet, by writhing towards him. Czigo gets her hidden message and is prepared to kill Kinet once the opportunity presents itself. Here Jessica begins to turn the tide on sexual violence, utilizing the promise of sex to eliminate her would-be attackers. After Czigo kills Kinet, she manipulates him with the promise of being more receptive to him if he lets Paul go. Knowing that she trained Paul to kill just with his feet, as she herself can do, convincing/ordering Czigo to unshackle Paul’s legs means Czigo’s own death sentence.

This scene hints at the transformation in the power structure between men and women in Dune. Men rape after battles, but in this case, this concept and the Bene Gesserit’s mental and physical superiority results in the death of the would-be attackers. Still, Jessica’s behavior, while reversing her own death sentence, perpetuates the view that women are part of the spoils of war for men, since most women do not master Bene Gesserit’s skills. Being so unique in their powers highlights the powerlessness of other women.

I would like to juxtapose this scene with a scene from Heretics of Dune, which explores similar issues from a different perspective. In this novel, two matriarchal orders, the Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres, compete over universal domination. The Honored Matres are stronger in force and numbers, and the Bene Gesserit know they fight a losing battle. Their plan is to use a ghola, a replicated mentat and warrior who was the emperor’s closest advisor for more than three millennia, Duncan Idaho, to fight against the Honored Matres. The scene I would like to focus on occurs towards the end of the novel, and is also an escape scene. The Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, Lucilla, and the Bene Gesserit army general, Burzmali, need to disguise themselves as a ‘playfem’ of the Honored Matres and her client passing through a city on their way to the escape spaceship. Some truths about the Honored Matres are revealed in this scene. First, they have sex with men for money. Thus, Lucilla has to have sex with Burzmali, who is disguised as a manual laborer, so that her disguise as an Honored Matre would be authentic. Moreover, it is explained that each sexual act has a different price according to the Honored Matre training level (Herbert 362).

This scene ends with Burzmali standing naked behind Lucilla, waiting for her to undress and join him. “Filling Lucilla’s thoughts was an angry realization: “This should be the ghola here now!” (Herbert 365)  Lucilla is angry because she was tasked to seduce the ghola, Duncan Idaho, and imprint him with loyalty to the Bene Gesserit. An additional planned result was awakening the dormant memories of the ghola. As the narrative explains, each replica of Duncan Idaho is raised from infancy to adulthood without having memories of previous lifetimes, and a significant event or trauma, awakens these past memories. Lucilla’s task was all that in addition to guarding Duncan, since previous gholas were assassinated.

This scene exemplifies several sexually violent acts. Before addressing Lucilla’s position, I would like to point out the origin of the ghola. A nation called the Bene Tleilax offers the service of generating newborn babies out of dead people’s cells. This process is secret and no foreigner is allowed to witness it. Moreover, the only Bene Tleilaxu characters in the narrative are men, and the absence of Tleilaxu women is highlighted. Eventually it is revealed that Tleilaxu women are birthing tanks, used for pregnancy and delivery by demand (Herbert 446). They are reduced to a single position, wombs, and that is done mechanically with genetic engineering. They do not even exist in name as people but are dubbed Axlotl tanks. It is an extreme act of sexual violence where women are erased, dehumanized, and treated as tools and not as independent members of society.

Bene Gesserit Imprinters and breeders, like Lucilla, are similar in some ways but also different in several important respects. They are Reverend Mothers, whose genetics are signaled by the Eugenics Plan of the Order. This plan spans over thousands of years and its goal is to produce the perfect man who will redeem humanity. The genetics specialists who manage it task specific Reverend Mothers with seducing specific men. Reverend Mothers can choose the gender of their child according to the genetics experts’ requests, and after delivering the baby they give it away to be raised by other members of the Bene Gesserit. Darwi Odrade, for example, is said to have birthed fourteen children for the order. However—and this marks a huge change from Tleilaxu women—Odrade becomes the Mother Superior of Bene Gesserit, which means that she is not seen as only a breeding force for the order, but as an active and valuable member who offers all of her talents to serve her matriarchal organization.

And so, Lucilla is bred and trained for this position, seducing men for the eugenics plan. She aspires to do that because she believes it would better humanity. She is willing to give up her free choice on whom to sleep with and whose children to have, let alone choosing whether to raise them or not. This is sanctioned because her organization is matriarchal and as such should promote and protect women, but when regarding these forced sexual choices, they are acts of violence. Lucilla’s anger at being forced to sleep with Burzmali instead of Idaho only highlights her indoctrination as a sex worker in the guise of promising humanity’s future. Later on, when she contemplates being ushered into sleeping with Burzmali, she realizes that she hates Burzmali and the planet: “It galled her to feel dependent. She was a Reverend Mother! She was trained to take command in any situation, Mistress of her own destiny” (Herbert 433). These reflections point to her own understanding that even with her supreme training and physical control, she still ends up serving men’s sexual pleasures.

Estelle Freedman shows how seduction in the nineteenth century was considered sexual violence because it usually involved men who seduced young women to sleep with them (Freedman 35). These women’s reputations were tarnished and they would end up on the fringes of society. As a result, lawmakers constituted several laws against seduction and breach of promise, which were different than laws referring to rape, which was defined as a criminal act, unlike sededction which was defined as a civil offence (Freedman 38). At some point in the 20th century, these laws were expunged. While the Bene Gesserit seduce men for the sake of their eugenics plan, the Honored Matres openly claim they do it to control men. The following scene explores this process, when Miles Teg, a Bene Gesserit army commander, is captured and brought to be interviewed by a senior Honored Matre.

She demonstrates their use of sex as a means of control on the local Honored Matre general on Gammu, the planet Lucilla, Duncan, and Teg are trying to escape. She calls herself a banker, and after another Honored Matre had sex with the Honored Matres’ general Muzzafar, she describes it as making a deposit. Teg has met Muzzafar at the beginning of the scene, and when Muzzafar enters again, Teg notices that he looks as if he is drugged. The Honored Matre then elaborates: “In essence,” she said, “power such as ours is allowed to become the substance of survival for many people. Then, the threat of withdrawal is all that’s required for us to rule” (Herbert 472). When she asks Muzzafar whether to ‘withdraw’ their deposit, he wishes it would continue and trembles as if he is a drug addict being denied his drug.

Thus, for the Honored Matres, sex becomes a currency with which they control men. While they enslave men they also enslave themselves in this perpetual cycle of aspiring to achieve more political power through sex and selling their bodies for that. As with Bene Gesserit, no one is forcing them physically to have sex with men; they choose to do so. But the system in which they operate, their matriarchal organization, employs subtle forms of sexual violence. No one forces a young woman to join the Honored Matres, and once she joins, no one forces her to sleep with men for money. It is the social-cultural norms of their society that set her on this path where a woman’s worth is measured by her seductive and sexual skills. Thus, even in this advanced imagined universe where subsets of women exhibit supernatural abilities, women are still the subject of sexual violence, regardless of which gender rules.

These three scenes follow the paradigm of sexual violence discussed at the beginning, where women move from the victim’s passive position to the active perpetrator. In the first, Jessica begins the scene in the most passive position possible, bound and gagged, and ends it when the two would-be attackers are dead, one killed by the other and the last one killed by her son. In the second scene Lucilla is an omnipotent Reverend Mother who, in her attempt to escape death, assumes an identity of an Honored Matre who performs sex for money. Lucilla is coerced to sleep with Burzmali to support her disguise, and so, even though no one can physically force her to have sex with Burzmali the social constructs of her disguised identity lead her there. In addition, her identity as a Bene Gesserit Imprinter implies that as an official seducer she performs sexual violence by seducing men. The last scene signifies the far end of the sexual violence scale women perform to men, when an Honored Matre exemplifies how she subdues Muzzafar, an army general, with sex. In this final scene women are the active agents—the Honored Matre who narrates the situation and the Honored Matre who imprinted Muzzafar. 


[1] “I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell eventually into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, society or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?”

[2] Herbert stated that he read more than 200 books as background before writing.


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Eyal Soffer holds a BA in Hebrew and English Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an MA in English Literature from Tel Aviv University, and has submitted a thesis to Ben Gurion University of the Negev about the Machiavellian roots of Frank Herbert’s Dune. He is in his third year as a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, in the English Department. Mr. Soffer was a high school teacher for 15 years and is currently teaching EFL at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

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