(This started out as a reply to two separate posts, but got rather long and wandered off a bit on its own argument, so I'm posting it independently, but referencing the posts that inspired parts of it where applicable.)
In reply to CZ and his assertion that the Oankali are definitely alien in his comment to roseblack's post --I'm not going to argue that there is a direct correlation between every aspect of the Oankali and humans. Lacking my own tentacled ooloi, I'd be a bit hard pressed. I will, however, argue that there are many parallels to be drawn between them and us, particularly pertaining to gender. That is, if I can be trusted to not be apparently inherently manipulative self.
As CZ stated in own blog, the Oankali are not in the moral right they wish to see themselves inhabiting (a self-delusion to which humans themselves are prone). Taking the argument one step further, they themselves are a hierarchical society, both internally with the submission of the males and females to the ooloi, and in the way they treat humans, who they claim they want as partners in an *equal* trade, instead treating the humans as pets, as Lilith herself explicitly notes when Nikanj first shows her off to the other Oankali its age (54). One would be hard pressed to argue that the Oankali do not treat the humans as lesser beings than themselves. There's a clear power dynamic present, in favor of the Oankali. Power dynamic implies hierarchy.
So how does this seemingly inter-species conflict translate to gender?
In many respects, it doesn't. There is a whole lot being said about race here. The different races of the humans are mentioned, but not dwelt on because there is such a huge gap between human and oankali. But there are clear parallels to gender within the power dynamic.
Before I get into that, though, I would like to point out that Butler was born in America (right here in LA, actually), and lived here during her life, and she specifically sees her work as commenting on the Western construct of race, and implied, greater Western societal situation. I will point you in this direction as a starting point into her biography and what she has to say about her work.
Roseblack brought up the idea that, while less graphic and traditionally violent than our society's concept of rape, or the flat-out rape attempts portrayed in the book, Nikanj rapes Lilith when it impregnates her in a comment replying to Count Zero's comment to the original roseblack post.
First some etymology. In Middle English, rape meant to do something hurriedly. By the fifteenth century, though, the word took on the meaning "The act of taking anything by force; violent seizure (of goods), robbery" (noun) and "To rob, strip, plunder (a place). Also used with a group of people as object" (verb) (OED online). Fundamentally, rape isn't about sex. It's about exerting power over another individual against the other person's will, power over that person's body, somehow objectifying that person, and doing this through a means that, nowadays, involves sexual organs.
Back to the book. Regardless of how many different individuals' genetic material Nikanj manipulated and melded and modified to impregnate Lilith with some "perfect" embryo, it is Nikanj who decides that Lilith should be impregnated, without her knowledge or consent, taking control of her own body away from her for its own purposes. Additionally, this happens just after the humans have realized that, without their knowledge or informed consent, the ooloi have taken away the humans' ability to have any physical contact with one another without extreme discomfort and revulsion. Additionally, they have rendered the humans sterile without their consent. The ooloi have manipulated the humans so that the ooloi have complete and utter control over the bodies of the human, control over the humans as objects, and they manipulate the objects sexually.
When Lilith fends off the attempted rape of Allison, she says "There'll be no rape here...Nobody here is property. Nobody has the right to the use of anybody else's body...We stay human. We treat each other like people, and we get through this like people" (178).
The oankali, especially the ooloi, do not abide by this. The rhetoric of Nikanj made my skin crawl. It says to Lilith, when discussing the problems that occurred by bonding with the humans before they were sent to the proto-forest, "'But most of us couldn't wait'...It wrapped a sensory arm around her neck loosely. 'It might have been better for both our peoples if we were not so strongly drawn to you'" (202). Nikanj is placing the blame for fucking up the humans ON the humans because the humans were just too damned attractive to the Oankali for their own good. Were the humans all running around in short skirts, asking for it, too? The Oankali see themselves as indisputable superior to the humans (again, in creeps hierarchy), and thus somehow, the failings of the Oankali are not entirely their own fault. Later, when Joseph is killed, it's because the oankali underestimated humans. There's an implication that humans, without anyone to moderate them, and too impulsive, violent, and weak-willed for their own good.
Additionally, the second time Lilith, Joseph, and Nikanj have sex, Joseph says "No!...You said I could choose. I've made my choice!" to which Nikanj replies "'You have, yes.' It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. 'You see. Your body has made a different choice'" (189). Um, rape much?
And it's not something inherently male or female, either on the victim or victimizer's side of the equation. In our own society, yes, there's a tendency for certain genders to act against others, but it's not a rule, and there are certainly cases of women raping men, men raping men, women raping women, transgendered people raping and being raped by other transgenders, men, and women. It's not something inherent to any specific gender. Certain types/pairings get more coverage and/or happen with more frequency, based on population size, societal expectations that people live down to, the comfort in acknowledging what happened as rape.
So what makes the ooloi male in this instance?
When push comes to shove, however much we want to skirt around it, when it comes to humans, you're sterile, you have functional sperm, or you have functional eggs and a functional womb. As far as the propagation of the species goes, this is it. While the oankali have their own system of procreation, when they interbreed with the humans, they adopt and must work with certain aspects of human procreative anatomy.
Could the ooloi be seen as a neutered medical professional? I don't think there's much of a movement to brand fertility specialists as rapists, or inherently male. The oankali assert throughout the text that they use organic matter the way we use machines. So why aren't the ooloi just cold, clinical medical professionals, using internal labs, probes, and turkey basters instead of synthetic ones?
It's because they do not give their patients/hosts/victims a choice in the matter. And, ultimately, in taking the genetic material, blending it, and then placing it in the womb, the ooloi are serving a function that, while more complex than traditional male fertilization in humans, achieves the same end. Without the presence of the ooloi and the embryo it creates and then plants into the womb, a woman cannot bear a child. Without the presence of sperm, the gumball's just going to roll right out the machine at the end of a woman's menstrual cycle. Is the maleness of the ooloi increased by the sensory arms? Yes. The imagery is certainly there to be interpreted as phallic at will. But we don't know exactly *how* the embryo is inserted. It's after Joseph's death, so not during sex. The implication is that Nikanj implanted it sometime after Lilith had healed it and was herself recovering. Again, kinda sketchy.
It could be argued that, because it creates the embryo, the ooloi is actually functioning more as a female. Really long fallopian tubes, maybe. It just doesn't ring true for me. I think what really drove the masculinity of the ooloi in procreation home for me was, on page 246, when Nikanj tells Lilith she's pregnant--"I have made you pregnant with Joseph's child. I wouldn't have done it so soon, but I wanted to use his seed, not a printâ€¦And there's a limit to how long I can keep sperm alive." This passage struck me far more as Nikanj being a conduit for the passage of sperm, taking the place of Joseph (male) because Joseph and Lilith were no longer able to touch one another.
Also, CZ said, in response to roseblack, "It actually designs the genetic code for its offspring, and as an afterthought returns that design to the female's body." The fact that, even though it has the genetic code, it CANNOT go through gestation, sets it up as male, compared to our base of knowledge and underlying biases going into the book. It's not so much an afterthought as an apparent inability.
""You're going to have a baby and there's nothing you can do about it." (roseblack)
'Now that is a far better point, but less directly male. The Ooloi do serve the role of determining birth time (as men did before the advent of birth control in more developed countries, and still do in less developed ones) but it is a subtle, finely tuned, and ultimately stronger dominance than simple penetration.'(CZ)"
So we're arguing that the ooloi are hyper-male, super-male? Unless there's something I'm missing. And while, yes, birth control can prevent birth, on the flip side, some aspect of a man is still necessary to *create* a baby if a woman so desires, so it really is rather impossible to completely remove one gender or the other from procreation.
Also, not to be discounted, there IS a history of patriarchy in our society, like it or not. On some respects, the ooloi are neutering the men and turning themselves into hyper-men when it comes to the process of procreation.
In the beginning of the second book, it becomes explicitly clear that the ooloi have rendered the "pure" humans sterile to force assimilation with the oankali, or die out as a race. They say, though, that they have given humans a choice. It's not much of a choice, though. And it completely disempowers humans as individuals, taking away their ability to create their own future. This has both racial and gendered overtones to it, but seemed worth bringing up at this point.
Are the ooloi always male? No. Compared to how humans are portrayed in the book, all of the oankali have impressively fluid personalities, independent of gender. I was actually rather struck by how abnormally black and white the treatment human gender was, comparatively. Perhaps it's more that there ARE gender distinctions among the humans, whereas they oankali are portrayed as more of an overall group, perhaps because they are the Other.
BUT, in the particular instance that roseblack initially spoke of, directly regarding the ooloi's role in reproduction, the ooloi is given a role of dominance over every other type of creature in its society and human society. In this specific act, the ooloi is treated as male, when seen through the filter of our own society.