The Sci-Fi Sex Scene That Changed My Life

Before I was old enough to fully understand I was transgender, I found Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn.

The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
Animation by Slate

Spark Notes is a recurring series about lightbulb moments in sexual development.

My parents were both readers, and they didn’t let us watch that much TV. By the time I was 11, books had been my primary source of entertainment for as far back as my memory could go. Getting my adult library card in sixth grade was, in that context, a milestone of tremendous importance, a first moment of awe at being inducted into the grown-up world. Wandering into the adult stacks for the first time, I remember seeing the name Asimov in the “A” section in huge letters across dozens of titles, and taking two or three of them down to check them out. I think my idea was that I would start with “A” and proceed in orderly fashion through everything the Bedford Public Library had to offer. Then I opened up The Robots of Dawn, and found a scene that changed my life.

Up until that day in the library, everything I’d read about sex had been morally instructive and geared toward young girls. I’d read these like an astronomer studying the movements of the unknowable stars, seeking whatever information I could glean about the world of girlhood. The lessons, as far as I could tell, were waiting until the time was right and not letting yourself be pressured by boys. Mostly, the details of what you might be pressured into were left out, but what was made clear was that sex changes everything. For me, an androgynous kid who was friends with girls and boys alike, I began to feel a profound sense of my own difference for the first time. I didn’t know how, or why, but I could feel a gulf opening up between my experience and that of the other girls, and so I studied their literature avidly in an attempt to pass myself off as one of them.

At that age, I had no concept of what a transgender man was. One of the weirdest things about growing up transgender is that a trans person can be socialized simultaneously as both a boy and a girl. In my case, the world certainly viewed me as a girl, and having no knowledge of any alternatives, I accepted my girlness as an unalterable fact. But I knew I preferred old-fashioned books by men for men (or adolescent boys), and I read these as if I were a native rather than a visitor to their world. This stood in contrast to the way I consumed girl culture: by trying to absorb and mimic the attitudes of straight girls, which I understood to mean crushing on boys, waiting to be noticed by boys, and sort of chastely desiring a kiss or a dance but nothing more. I was trying to play a part based on the adventures of the Sweet Valley Twins, but I could never get it exactly right.

In The Robots of Dawn, the third entry in Asimov’s Robot series, I found something else. Instantly and unthinkingly I identified with the protagonist: a married male detective struggling with agoraphobia who travels to a foreign planet, where sex is casual and monogamy nonexistent, to figure out who has destroyed a valuable humanoid robot. Sex is integral to the plot from the start, which felt completely new to me at age 11 or 12. For instance, an early break in the case occurs when the detective finds out that the robot’s owner, Gladia Solaria, not only had regular sex with the robot in question but even considered him a husband of sorts.

The detective, Elijah Bailey, desires Gladia. But because he is married, he doesn’t act on this. Then, when he is exhausted after a long day of gumshoeing, he dreams: “He was holding her again, as before. But there was no blouse—and her skin was warm and soft—and his hand moved slowly down her shoulder blade and down the hidden ridges of her ribs.” When he awakes, he finds that Gladia is really there, in his bed, giving him what he has desired without his even having had to ask. At the end of the book, he returns to his wife. What happens on casual sex planets stays on casual sex planets. There are no consequences, and no one is harmed.

Like the married Bailey, I also felt desire toward women that I was ashamed of and afraid to act on or even speak about. It was intoxicating to me when, in the book, Bailey’s desires and fantasies effortlessly become reality: Without his asking for it, sex came to him exactly as he imagined it because he was a smart masculine detective guy. I wanted that pleasure and ease and wordless understanding between the object of my desire and myself. And I found myself wishing that I could also have a penis—my penis—at the center of the act.

Already interested in robots, spaceships, and stars, I became a committed and lifelong science-fiction nerd that day. I read every book like The Robots of Dawn that I could find, and even got a subscription to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, which I read cover-to-cover every month. Not every story had sex, and I didn’t only read it for those parts, but I certainly lingered over them.

At night, when I was alone, I became a sci-fi hero out for sex and adventure, with women as secondary characters, either falling at my feet or following my lead. Although there were science-fiction authors whose worlds included gender bending and gender transformation, and alternatives to hetero sex, these were not the ones to which I found myself drawn. I think I actively preferred books without strong female characters, which made it even easier to completely identify with the male leads. When the women were too much in focus I felt an obligation to think of their characters as being more like me, to view the story through their eyes. But when the men were central, I didn’t have to reckon with the implications of feeling closer to the men. In this way, I absorbed the dangerous messages aimed at men and boys, particularly about being the desirer rather than the desiree: of proving oneself through sexual conquest and prowess, and of seeing sex as something to take when offered without any fear of emotional or physical harm.

I eventually put the word lesbian on my feelings, although fiction about lesbians never had the same effect on me that stories about straight men did. In fact, I avoided stories about lesbians for much the same reason I avoided strong female characters of any sort. The phrase I now have for it is gender dysphoria—I shunned any experience that sought to tie me to my female body, and in turn escaped that body by mapping my sexual fantasies onto those of cisgender, heterosexual men, in sci fi, in pornography, and beyond. I know that when I say I am a heterosexual man, this can seem ludicrous, incongruous, or false to some—but I don’t mean that I had the typical experience of a man, just that I absorbed media and culture largely through a man’s lens because it was the only lens I had. And through it all, I was still searching for a different lens, a way to make sense of the difference I felt but couldn’t explain. Another memory I have of being in sixth grade, far more bittersweet than my visit to the adult stacks, is of pretending to be a robot for weeks on end. With no gender, no emotions, no sexuality, perfect intelligence, super strength, and unthinking obedience to human rules, might I finally, finally find a place where I could fit? The other middle-schoolers answered: No.

I am still a science-fiction nerd today—but I have a more complicated relationship to the male authors and characters I once idolized. When I re-read The Robots of Dawn now, passages that I absorbed uncritically at the time are transformed into stumbling blocks. For instance, at one point Elijah Bailey is appalled that a woman enters a bathroom he’d assumed was only for men, and he reflects, “not all the conventions ever invented would have prevented him from knowing whether a person passing him was a man or a woman.” Without knowing I was doing so, I sought entry into a fantasy world that had no place for me or anyone like me, a world where men were real men, and women were real women, and robots were the closest you could come to something in between.