Let’s talk about sex…in space! I’d be willing to bet your mother never sat you down for this one.  At this year’s SXSW festival, I sat in on a panel discussion that included some unconventional-and-on-the-rise research fields like astrosexology, space sexology, and space sexual health research, to unpack the expanding discourse around human reproduction in off-world environments. 

Presenting on the panel were some of the top leaders of these studies from around the world, including members of the Kinsey Institute, SpaceBorn United Inc., the Astrosexological Research Institute, and the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences along with the Orbital Assembly Corporation. This included industry pioneers from the first research company in the world for IVF in space! I felt confident I was sitting in the most forward-thinking panel possible of all the SXSW programming. For certain we had the best innuendo…they could have gone all night.

If you’re like me, you’ve never considered these concepts before, and the 13 year old in you is intrigued by the title alone. But given the cocktail of cultural cruxes that are encroaching on our Earth-bound species, these are in fact exceptionally relevant and timely considerations. I was perked up in my seat and listening attentively, along with every other attendee in the packed out room.

The experts shared past research and results from experiments on reproduction in space, and the obstacles we face for expanding these studies in national space programs. Despite a slow societal acceptance for such research, there is an urgent need for more information as humanity grows beyond this particular planet. There have been five known mass extinctions on Earth over the course of history, which means we currently have eight billion eggs in one floating basket. In other words, not the best odds. If we expect humanity to survive as we know it, these experts argue that we need to become a multi-planetary species.

From the physical act of sex itself, to the ethical implications of sexual relations, there is much to analyze. Along with the question of, who even gets to go to space in the first place? A primary challenge is modeling–the (known) sex in space has been four Japanese fish. Even caught on tape, mentioned with a wink. For obvious reasons, this is not the best reference material. Other topics up for discussions include, but are not limited to: extraterrestrial extramarital affairs, fluid physics for intercourse in 0G, logistics of pre and post-natal care, healthcare in space, and interpersonal crew dynamics. Sex is not all about reproduction–we must also consider things like breakups, consent in small spaces, relationships amongst crews on long-missions, and so on. The power dynamics around consent, especially on a spaceship for years on end, demand consideration for safety. And if something goes wrong, it’s hard to get help.

Maybe by now you’re starting to understand why this research is so critical. But what happens with limited resources, and why are we so behind on this research? As it stands, most of our research and spending is dedicated to the military and science. Both fields of which are male-dominated, conservative, and funded by taxpayer money.

There are big research gaps because it is hard to replicate trials and adapt experiments in real time. These studies are extremely isolated, remote, and confined, and ultimately multiplied by time. We don’t even have sexuality all figured out on Earth–so it’s a lot more complicated beyond. 

The experts agreed that in the next couple of decades, there would likely be no sex in space, at least for the purposes of reproduction. And we really shouldn’t want to, given the innumerable challenges that currently exist (though eventually, the goal is to make this possible through assistive reproductive technologies!). But they believe sex plays a role in space mission performance and mission success criteria. So how do we optimize it?

The brilliant and good-humored panelists were urgent, but optimistic. For sex and reproduction beyond Earth, we must acknowledge the risk, estimate how likely it is, and if it occurs, determine how we mitigate it. 

“Sex in space is not about going somewhere else to have sex; it’s ultimately about expanding beyond our immediate neighborhood, into a Universe to which we belong.”

Vanna Bonta 

We must be able to research safely, soundly, and ethically if humanity expects to have a happy ending.