I sat on the cheap plastic chair and tried to stop shaking. I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn’t get my head around what the woman was saying, although she’d been saying it for some time now. I’d managed to grasp she was a scientist though, the ill-fitting lab coat and science fiction t-shirt were a bit of a giveaway.
“So… the world isn’t real?” I tried.
She shook her head at me, her face a picture of impatience. “No, not THE world, just YOUR world.”
Another wave of nausea… don’t vomit, don’t vomit. “And I’ve been living my whole life in a computer?”
“A simulation.” She said it slowly, like she was talking to a dim child. She kept on, “you remember your parents dying in the car crash when you were three?”
I nodded. “Afterwards I went to live with my grandmother?” I’d started the sentence confidently but ended it as a question, a note of pleading in my voice. It’s hard to be sure of anything when you’ve just been told your world isn’t real.
“Yes and no.” She tried to look caring, but failed. “You were brought to us as an orphan, we took you in and placed you into our research programme. I’m afraid your grandmother didn’t exist in the real world, from that point onwards you were living in our simulation.”
I vomited all over the floor.
She jumped up and out of her chair, then backed away from me, no attempt made to hide the disgust on her face. She gestured towards the one-way mirror for someone to come in. I heard her muttering something about ‘hysteria.’
A male assistant entered carrying a mop and bucket. He looked so absurd I did an actual double take when I first saw him. His face was plastered in makeup and the neckline of his t-shirt plunged so low it looked comical. He flashed me a vivid-pink lipstick smile of brotherly solidarity, and I felt a bit better. I was sorry to see him leave once he’d finished cleaning up my vomit.
“Let’s try again shall we?” The scientist sat back down across from me, leaned in, and placed a sympathetic hand on my leg. She left it there slightly longer than was comfortable. “The virtual world you’ve been living in was exactly like the real world… except for one major difference, we swapped the gender roles.”
“You did what?” I didn’t understand.
“In your world men acted like women and women acted like men. Men were historically the dominant sex, not women, the opposite way round to the real world.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense.” I concentrated on my nether regions, verifying they were still as expected. “How can men give birth? We don’t have the right equip…”
She cut me off with a wave of a hand and a look of exasperation. “Don’t be silly, obviously women still give birth in the real world, and breast feed too. But once that’s dealt with, you men step in and take over all the childcare, at least traditionally.”
I thought back to the evolutionary biology I’d studied, my mind was numbed by shock, I was struggling with confusion, but that definitely didn’t make sense. “But don’t women usually do most of the childcare because they can’t have as many children as men, because reproduction is so much more costly for them? I mean, a man can conceivably have hundreds of children, even thousands, but women can’t can they? Doesn’t that make women naturally more devoted to their children?”
She shook her head at me. “Such barbarian ideas. You forget we’re a monogamous species, that we form pairs. You think men can simply run around impregnating women without consequence? Men have to spend time forming a lasting bond with a partner. And naturally men want to find the best partners, so they make themselves attractive and develop their childcare abilities. Then women compete aggressively for the best fathers. It’s obvious, it makes perfect sense.”
She kept on. “We accidentally left clues in your simulated world too, we forgot to reverse the other monogamous apes, in all of those the males provide the parental-care. Frankly I’m surprised you bought that ridiculous version of evolutionary theory we pedalled you, men being competitive and women being passive, complete balderdash!”
Maybe she was telling the truth? Maybe this wasn’t some awful dream? It made no sense, but it explained a lot, like the bizarre appearance of the male assistant, and the absurdly tight shorts and pink t-shirt I found I was dressed in. Had I really spent the last thirty years of my life in a fake reality? Maybe I had, but why? “Why did you do this to me?” I said it so quietly it was almost a whisper.
She look startled, her eyes blinking rapidly. “Why? For science of course. We wanted to understand if gender roles are biological or cultural. If women are naturally competitive and aggressive, and men caring and emotional, or if these are cultural expectations? People have been arguing about this for thousands of years you know, but there was never a way to actually test it. Until the development of realistic computer simulations that is.”
She fixed me with a defiant stare. “You should be very proud young man, the experiment was a resounding success, you’ve been part of something historic.”
“That’s a huge relief.” She acknowledged my sarcasm like a windshield acknowledges flies. “So what did you find?”
“A bit of a shock really. Turns out it’s entirely cultural. We found no evidence that gender roles have any biological basis, turns out it’s all cultural myth.”
She focussed on me more intently. “Don’t look so upset young man, I’m sure you’ll find reality to your liking, the real world is refreshingly free from prejudice, we’ve achieved an astonishing level of equality.” I caught her looking down my top as she said it.
“But what am I going to do now?”
“Don’t worry, there are plenty of jobs for men in science these days. We might even be able to get you something at the university. Maybe a part-time postdoc position? I imagine you’ll be wanting to start a family soon after all.”
This story is based on my belief that men and women aren't biologically that different. It's not intended as any kind of attack on women, it's mean't to show that our traditional gender roles could easily have been reversed if history had happened differently.