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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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In The Handmaid's Tale, one of the main goals of the Gilead Regime seems to be to control and regulate sex and sexuality. Do you think they succeed? Are sexual relations more ordered and "normalized" under the new regime?

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In answer to your questions, I would argue that no, the sex and sexuality is not necessarily more regulated and normalized under the regime than it is in our modern society. That said, I would also argue that the goal of the regime is not to actually control and regulate sex and sexuality, but merely to keep up the appearance of it being fully regulated.

To elaborate on my first claim, even with clear and strict laws about the hows and whys of sex, many citizens of Gilead still find ways to engage in "immoral" and illegal activities. Offred is amazed when the Commander brings her to the Gilead version of a brothel, but it should come as no surprise. Ever since societies have had taboos around sexuality and sexual behavior, people have found ways to break them. The purpose of sex is for reproduction, and in Gilead, no more noble or important purpose is possible, with the extinction of the human race from infertility seemingly on the horizon. Still, with the strict regulation of sex (and most everything) in Gilead comes the increased need for some sort of rebellion. Readers see this all over the novel, from Offred rubbing butter in her hands to simulate lotion to the Commander's illicit Scrabble games with Offred. Sexual relations outside of the prescribed attempts at conception would be impossible to quell completely, and the laws and authorities of Gilead do not succeed in doing so.

This brings us to my second claim: not only does Gilead fail at stamping out illicit sexual behavior, but it is questionable that this is their goal to begin with. Indeed, it seems that the illusion of controlled sexuality is more valuable to the powers that be of Gilead than actual control and strict regulation. As established above, the small private rebellions are a way for the citizens of Gilead to have a breath of fresh air, so to speak, under an oppressive regime. Additionally, it is important to consider that, though the focus of the story is female oppression, men are oppressed as well, especially sexually. With restricted access to women and specific, limited ways to lawfully engage in sexual activity, both men and women look for ways to rebel against the strict guidelines. As long as these rebellions are private and secret, the authorities of Gilead would likely be content to allow them to continue, with the occasional warning against any larger actions by the men hung up on The Wall. A few personal rebellions aren't going to hurt the structure of Gilead, as long as they don't grow into anything more organized. In fact, they can benefit the state ultimately, as subjects who can get away with a few minor rebellions are likely easier to control in the long run. 

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