Visitation and Violence: Gender and the UFO Phenomenon
CW: sexual violence
I had to research and write this essay exclusively during the day. For me as a kid, there was nothing more terrifying, or more twistedly fascinating, than the UFO phenomenon and the prospect of alien abduction. As Leila and I have nervously joked many times, I’m still not 100% convinced that the truth isn’t actually out there mutilating cattle, hence the broad-daylight workflow. But ufology, the study of the UFO phenomenon, and other similar research endeavors like paranormal investigation and cryptozoology are important areas of study for the history of science.
At the heart of ufology is a struggle between narrative and eyewitness accounts, and a need to prove itself as a legitimate scientific discipline through the rational and objective analysis of often absent material evidence. We have shown many times before that these two categories of evidence have historically been coded feminine and masculine respectively, associations that ufology often leverages to prove its credibility. It is in the structure and content of abduction narratives that the field’s underlying assumptions about women, gender, and generation lie--assumptions borrowed from modern science and medicine.
At first glance, ufology and other ‘fringe’ sciences look to me like the ‘lady science’ that we seek out and analyze in this publication. Both are marginalized forms of inquiry that have been forced to the periphery of an insular and often hostile male-dominated scientific establishment. Both are accused of ‘softness’ in the face of an establishment that demands ‘hard’ facts. In many regards, ufology is as ‘feminized’ in the eyes of the scientific establishment as the ‘lady sciences’ that the mainstream has historically scorned. Yet, a closer look reveals that ufology actually behaves just like mainstream science with regard to how it deals with issues of women investigators, gender, generation, and technology.
Lack of visibility and credibility is what ufology and other ‘fringe’ sciences fight against. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to ufology becoming mainstream is its lack of material evidence. In the absence of actual alien spacecraft or bodies, researchers are left with photographs, videos, and personal accounts. Personal accounts as evidence are the most problematic for ufology because mainstream science all but completely discounts anecdotal evidence in favor of material evidence and instrumental data. This is the soft evidence that prevents ufology from taking a hard science approach to its phenomena.
Ufology attempts to counter the perceived softness of its evidence, and the subsequent feminization of the field, by identifying categories of credible witnesses whose testimony can be taken more seriously than others. The ultimate credible witness is probably the astronaut. As rational, skeptical, and scientific observers, astronauts appear to be less prone to imagination and fantasy. The popular image of astronauts as ideal citizens speaks to their trustworthiness, and their military and government service presumably means that any accusations of government conspiracy are not taken lightly by astronauts. Other favored witnesses include pilots and scientists. All of these professions, as we have often argued, are coded male, and at times in history, they have actively excluded women from participation.
To push into the mainstream, ufology tries to stiffen its soft evidence. But as prominent Australian ufologist Sheryl Gottschall argues, the male-dominated model of science that ufology emulates cannot account for the “softness” of the evidence, regardless of who presents it; the field should take seriously what she calls “the esoteric.” Gottschall contends that the gender imbalance of researchers leaves ufology unable to take full advantage of the necessary perspective on this type of marginalized evidence because more women in the field would help diversify its methodologies and expand its scope and effectiveness. One thing that ufology borrows from mainstream science is its treatment of women investigators and its preference for certain kinds of evidence.
Ultimately, however, naivete about the history of science, not ‘softness,’ prevents ufology from breaking into the mainstream. Abduction and contact narratives conform to a surprisingly small number of types, almost all of which involve recognizable methods of modern scientific or medical practice implemented by the alien beings. The history of science shows us that the familiar modern version of science, with its inductive and observational practice, reliance on high-tech instruments and materials, and its professionalized and specialized medical practice, has only been the norm for a little over 100 years at most. One of the ways that history of science demonstrates that science hasn’t always looked the way we expect is by studying ‘fringe’ sciences that were once the mainstream, like alchemy and astrology. By investigating scientific traditions from outside the West, and indeed, the science of ladies and other marginalized investigators, the identifiably 20th century Western science supposedly practiced by aliens upon abductees implies a scientific and technological determinism and universality that is simply not plausible.
Even if I were able to overlook ufology’s assumptions about what counts as science--after all, mainstream science is certainly not innocent of this—I cannot overlook the dangerous and disturbing ideas about women that are embedded in abduction narratives. In general, these narratives describe invasive medical examinations by the alien captors, which for women involve examination of the reproductive system, and most horrifyingly, impregnation and subsequent removal of the hybrid human-alien fetus. Many abductees report that they have been assigned a mission by the aliens that will ultimately save humanity from destruction. In the case of women abductees, this mission involves the responsibility of bearing children, usually without consent. Thus, one of the central bodies of evidence for ufology is a narrative text that involves the abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of women under the pretense of global salvation. Abduction narratives in which the aliens practice modern science act as a cultural text that reveals assumptions about the nature of modern science with a perspective of women and generation that are deeply disturbing.
Ufology’s understanding of the science it seeks to emulate is flawed, but in an important sense, this understanding itself is borrowed from science’s image of itself. Mainstream science makes some of the same missteps as ufology because both are working from the same script of reason, objectivity, positivism, and the priority of physical evidence. Even worse, they both share troubling ideas about what women’s bodies are for and what the scientists and medical practioners of this world—or another—are allowed to do with them.
Stephanie Kelley-Romano, “Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives,” Communication Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, (2006) 383-406.
Roger Luckhurst, “The Science-Fictionalization of Trauma: Remarks on Narratives of Alien Abduction,” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1998), 29-52.
Image credit: Aerial shot of crop circle art, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons | CC SA 4.0)