Sex and Taboos: Why are we drawn towards the forbidden?
by Simone Ejstrup
A taboo is something that has been proscribed by society as improper or unacceptable, and therefore it becomes “the thing that we don’t talk about”. Taboos vary from society to society and they change over time. Take the butt for example. Up until a year ago, I swear I’d only had my butt eaten out once and then boom: Suddenly I’ve dated three men in a row who’ve all been very into analingus. And I’m not even telling you about how many guys have asked me to stick a finger up their ass during a blowjob in the past year! Where does this come from, I wonder – Is anal play no longer a taboo in straight sex? Boundaries appear to be pushed all the time, and this is obviously a good thing, because it opens up new forms of pleasure, right?
It could seem that we live in a time when we are becoming increasingly accepting of alternative sex practices. Another example is BDSM, which has become so mainstream in recent years that most people now get that just because you’re into spanking someone it doesn’t mean that you’re a violent person in general or that you’re necessarily distinctly dominant outside of the bedroom – actually the opposite might as well be the case. But at the same time, we are witnesses to political scandals, as when BuzzFeed News published that unverified document suggesting that President Trump is into piss play (really, that would be the best thing I’ve heard about him so far). Why do taboos towards sex seem to be such an unavoidable part of almost every society, if we can all agree that it would be better if we just dropped our boundaries and pursued whatever sexual practices float our boat as long as they are consensual? What purpose do they serve?
Twentieth century French philosopher George Bataille was already exploring a vide range of perversions in his first and perhaps best known book, the pornographic novella Story of the Eye. And in his much later work Eroticism, Bataille actually (despite being unable to look beyond his own gender and (hetero) sexuality) proposes some very interesting theories about how eroticism is indistinguishable from the transgression of taboos.
To Bataille, the thing that differentiates human sexuality from animal sexuality is that we have an erotic intelligence, which can be described as our awareness of sex (which is linked to our awareness of death, but we’ll speak of that in a moment). Unlike simple sexual activity, eroticism is a psychological quest independent of the goal of reproduction. It is not something that we do; it is a space that we enter in our mind. Just think about when we masturbate – simply touching the genitals is rarely enough to reach an orgasm. Most likely we have to concentrate on an erotic fantasy simultaneously.
It gets a little more complicated when we look into how eroticism is inseparable from death. According to Bataille, we’re discontinuous beings yearning for a sense of continuity, and this continuity can be reached through death. While death marks an end to an individual life, it also opens up to continuity in a broader sense since new life presupposes death. In the end, we’re all lost individuals longing for a cosmic fusion. But what does that have to do with eroticism? you might ask. Well, eroticism can give us a glimpse into the cosmos, into continuity. We can experience a “little death”. Here I am not talking about a glimpse into the cosmos in an exaggerated romantic way, like “the sex was so good that it sent me right up among the stars”. Rather, this glimpse of continuity involves anguish, because it lays us open to the distressing image of death – a knowledge which deepens the abyss of eroticism.
So, what differentiates human sexuality from animal sexuality is our awareness of sex and death, and therefore we, unlike animals, have become restricted by taboos. Taboos were established in the first place to make work possible and maintain productivity by keeping us away from our animal nature – i.e. our desire to fuck all the time. But the “problem” with taboos is that the prohibition always ends up drawing attention to that which it controls. The fact that something is forbidden is what arouses the desire, which is why a taboo always entails a desire for transgression into the realm it excludes. A transgression is inevitable, because, as Bataille puts it: “The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.” In other words: The rules are meant to be broken.
But how much of our erotic life depends on transgressions of taboos? According to Bataille, all of it does: Taboos are what generate eroticism. Now, coming from a Christian Catholic background like Bataille’s (a background he later renounced), it’s not so hard to understand why it may seem that way – somehow religion and taboos towards sex seem to go hand in hand. While the question whether all eroticism indeed springs from the transgression of taboos is one that encourages discussion, we cannot deny that much of it does. Raise your hand, if you’ve ever slept with someone you weren’t supposed to because the wrongness of it excited you. Or if you’ve ever had a sexual fantasy about being raped or about tying someone to a bed and taking advantage of their body. Even letting loose our carnal instincts and acting lustfully in front of a partner can sometimes feel like overcoming a taboo.
But the transgression does not always have to be as scary as described by Bataille. Last summer I was dating this Norwegian guy. We had just woken up in his bed and lazily started to make out, when I suddenly I felt something sliding out of my vagina. The guy had literally just pulled out my bloody tampon by the string between my legs and thrown it on the floor. He just didn’t care. You’re crazy, I exclaimed, but really his casual approach was kind of a turn on. Crossing the line of what feels proper with another human being can actually be a very intimate experience, because according to philosopher and Youtube vlogger Alain de Botton we aren’t crossing it with just anybody. As he writes in his book How To Think More About Sex:
”Nothing is erotic that isn’t also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: at the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission.”
When sexual desires fall outside of what society has deemed proper they are sometimes labeled paraphilias. The word paraphilia is a combination of the Greek words para (besides) and philia (love), and can be defined as an intense and recurring attraction to anything outside ”the sexual norm”. Unfortunately, there’s little agreement on what the norm is. Basically, everything but penis-in-vagina sex in the missionary position within the context of heterosexual marriage has been deemed taboo to some degree at some point throughout history (according to Bataille, even sex within marriage is a transgression of a taboo, but the transgression is a regulated and permitted one, just like war is a permitted transgression of the taboo towards violence). As a result, orientations like homosexuality or a sexual interest in sadomasochism have been marginalized and treated as mental disorders.
Instead of pathologizing non-normative sexual behavior, shouldn’t we try to understand it? Perhaps the first step is to open up to the idea that other people’s desires might not be so different from our own. Maybe you’re someone who’d never dream of engaging in “watersports”, but if you sat down and listened to someone explaining the excitement they feel from being peed on, you might find that you’re able to relate to certain aspects of that excitement – this could be a desire to be degraded sexually or it could be the way a bonding experience occurs when two people consensually engage in “dirty” behavior. It might just be that you have found another way to express these desires, like maybe you are more into being slapped during sex or having your armpits licked…
I often hear people talk about how media sells you this idea that everyone else’s sex lives are so kinky, that it makes you feel like your own is just plain boring. Trust me, I get that feeling myself sometimes, so let’s be clear about something: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with vanilla sex! But it’s kind of like complaining about everything today being queer, when what’s wrong with just being a heterosexual, cisgendered man or woman? Basically you’re comparing the experience of marginalization and discrimination to the fear of just being basic – I know, the struggle is real but there is a difference.
Of course, there’s one question that anyone who’s preoccupied with breaking down taboos can’t help but ask themselves after an encounter with Bataille: If all eroticism really is evoked from the transgression of taboos, are we then in danger of making kinks less arousing by bringing awareness to the matter and thereby making them less taboo? To get a perspective from someone who daily meets people with all sorts of sexual desires, I asked Dr. Michael Aaron, a NewYork-based sex therapist and author of Modern Sexuality:
“I think certainly normalizing something that once felt taboo no longer makes it so, and for many, that would decrease the arousal that comes from engaging in it. Fortunately for those drawn to the taboo, I think there will always be limits to how far mainstream society can go in its acceptance of non-normative sexual acts. Studies have shown that a certain segment of the population has always held conservative, rigid, and authoritarian views, in part due to heritable, genetic factors.”
Aaron also reminded me that being accepting of something is not necessarily the same as actually wanting to take part in it:
“Most open-minded individuals tend to be more liberal intellectually than experientially, which means they are more likely to state they accept something, while personally still being too squeamish to try. As a result, at least for the foreseeable future, I think most taboo kinks are safe still being taboo.”
It doesn’t look like we’re in danger of sabotaging anyone’s piss games any time soon.