When it comes to taboos, we love to laugh at the crazy practices of the past while ignoring the equally-crazy ones in the present. We look at how ancient people used to sacrifice goats, sheep, and parts of their genitals and laugh and/or cringe. Then, we go back to wearing our lucky underwear because we think it’ll help our favorite football team win.
The failure to see the irony in that sentiment reveals the power of taboos. I’ve talked about them before, but usually in a narrower context. Being an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’m naturally going to focus on the distinctly sexy taboos, as well as the overtly non-sexy ones. I doubt that surprises anyone.
However, taboos actually get much more ridiculous than what we can or can’t do with our genitals. You don’t even have to go back to the Bronze Age to see them. Some of those taboos happened within the past two centuries. Some of our grandparents were alive when they were popular. It’s kind off funny when you think about it, but it’s also kind of tragic.
Recently, our old friends at Cracked.com did a little article on some of the weird/crazy taboos we had in the past. They called it “15 Everyday Things That Used To Be Scandalous.” Today, they seem so innocent. Back then, though, they were a big deal. Breaking them meant social stigma, condemnation, or even arrest. These days, most people are just concerned about becoming an internet meme.
Make no mistake, though. A lot of these taboos are pretty ridiculous, even by non-21st century standards. There’s a damn good reason why they didn’t last or fell out of favor. We humans may be slow when it comes to embracing social change, but we eventually get around to it. It’s just never as fast as we’d like.
To give you an idea of how ridiculous those taboos were, here’s a quick sample from the Cracked article. Remember, they may seem crazy now, but there was a time when simply talking about it would earn you unwanted attention from the nearest constable, priest, or parent/teacher association.
I know. They are pretty ridiculous. I mean soda pop and reading at night? How could that possibly count as taboo? You can kind of understand why people would be a little reluctant about women in bikinis, especially in the days before internet porn, but soda pop?
Ridiculous or not, there are a few common themes in these taboos. If you go back far enough and look at some of the most overt taboos, you’ll notice how a lot of them deal with female sexuality, rebellious teenagers, and empowering poor people in any way. I know that all sound like stuff that angry rich old men whine about when they haven’t taken their meds, but it actually runs much deeper than that.
Taboos don’t happen in a vacuum. People don’t just make them up because they want another excuse to be a dick to each other. We already have plenty of those. There are reasons they often take the shape they do. It’s rarely due to some grand, patriarchal/communist/hippie conspiracy. A lot of it just has to do with people being weary of things they don’t see as “normal.”
I put “normal” in quotes because the very concept of “normal,” even in a legitimate scientific context, is laced with bullshit. However, there is something to be said about the unspoken social norms under which we all live. Those norms, as crazy as they might be, are an integral part of how we function as a society and a species. The fact those norms tend to screw up our sex lives is kind of a nasty side-effect.
The way it works uses a mix of both caveman logic, faulty brain writing, and skewed common sense. We, as individuals and as groups, tend to function better when there’s a sense of predictability. If we can be more certain of how people will react in certain circumstances, then that can help us create a system, of sorts, to carry out the various functions of a tribe or a society.
Think about it. The systems we have for standing in line, driving on the highway, and complimenting someone’s ass all have certain checklists of sorts that we go through in our minds. Not all of them are enforced by laws. Some aren’t even enforced by anything. It’s just one of those basic understandings that we all collectively acknowledge, albeit indirectly.
Here’s a simple example. When I was going through the soul-crushing process that was high school, there was this unspoken taboo on the bus. When you got on, you never just sat in the front seat. You always went to the back and filled it up from there. If you did dare sit up front, you got weird looks, as though you’d just rubbed your ass on the window. Nobody ever talked about why we did this. We just did it.
That’s a fairly simple display of how unspoken social norms manifest. Considering it happened in high school, it wasn’t even the tenth most awkward thing I endured. However, it does help put some perspective into these ridiculous taboos.
Now, take that perspective and add a little sex appeal to it. Suddenly, you’ll sense a few assholes tightening. There’s no getting around it. Even in 2017, we still have weird attitudes towards sex, especially when it comes to female sexuality and teenage sex. We have almost as many weird attitudes about the poor. As such, it makes sense that so many of our taboos are built around both.
To understand the ridiculousness behind those taboos, you have to imagine yourself in a society that’s very different from your own and operates under a very different set of social norms. That’s not easy for some people. Being an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I like to think I have more imagination than most.
You’re living by a certain set of norms and practices. They don’t always seem logical. Maybe you never wear red clothes on a Friday. Maybe you salute every pregnant woman you meet in public. Maybe you shave your ass every other Tuesday as part of some elaborate cleansing ceremony. It can be anything really. The key is that it just doesn’t have to be too detrimental to our ability to survive and reproduce.
By living with these norms and practices, they start seeming right. They seem like this is how society is supposed to function. Anyone who questions them might as well be promoting dead puppies on every street corner. You, and everyone around you, are convinced that these taboos have merit, even when they have no logic behind them.
That sentiment is understandable to some extent, but it’s when you inject sex and social class into the mix that it gets really messed up. As I’ve pointed out before, people have all sorts of weird hang-ups and attitudes about sex. Some of them have some merit, such as the real health issues that often come with sexual promiscuity. Others are more subversive.
The key to any successful society is some measure of stability. To have stability, you need some level of control over various social functions. Like it or not, sex is a major social function. Without it, societies can’t propagate. New generations can’t take over for those that die off. Naturally, people are going to put a lot of emphasis on it, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly.
This is why you get societies where most marriages are arranged and marrying for love is actually taboo. It’s also why controlling female sexuality is so heavily emphasized. They’re the ones who carry the babies inside them. They’re the ones who nurture them after their born. Since sex makes babies, people are going to want to control it to some extent, as fruitless an effort that might be.
It’s just as bad for the poor. In every society thus far, there has to be some sort of underclass that toils in factories, farms, and various low-paying, low-skilled labor. I say there has to be because, until we can get robots to do it for us, their work is literally the foundation on which civilization is built.
That puts the rich despots, kings, and business people in a tough position. They understand on some levels that if the poor knew how much they were being screwed over and how their toil subsidized the obscenely lavish lifestyles of the rich, they wouldn’t be too happy about it.
That’s why having taboos that discourage laziness, education, and questioning persist. That’s why there’s an entirely mythology around the “dignity of work.” They’re an indirect way of maintaining existing social norms and protecting whoever happens to be benefiting from them from the horrors of inconvenience.
Not every taboo can be attributed to repressing sexuality or keeping the poor in their place, but the dynamics are the same. They have just as much potential to be ridiculous, illogical, and even downright cruel, as many boys can attest. So long as our caveman brains keep using them to preserve our social norms, they’ll always be here. I just hope we can one day ditch those that involve mutilating our genitals.