In almost every news story about sex, someone declares that we’ve “broken down the taboo of” a sexual practice or sexual device. Breaking down a taboo is always assumed to be a social good. The implication is that once we break down all the taboos we’ll live in peace and harmony in a mesmerizing sexual utopia. However, not all taboos should be destroyed. Some taboos are needed for our imagined sexual utopia. The problem with our discussion of taboo is our failure to distinguish between types of taboos. We conflate social taboos with sexual taboos. The former needs to be destroyed; the latter needs to be savored.
A social taboo involves shunning those people whose consensual sexual or relationship practices differ from the norm (whatever that happens to be at the time). Social taboos affect groups as wide-ranging as gays and lesbians, the BDSM community, plushophiles, and the happily non-married. This type of taboo can and should be destroyed. Historically, non-procreative sex has always raised suspicion, but we should be enlightened enough in the 21st century not to ostracize people for engaging in sexual acts that make us uncomfortable. What people do with their genitals should be irrelevant to their social status. We’re making a lot of progress on this front. That nine states have legalized gay marriage is a start, but we need to stop thinking in terms of having gays and lesbians conform to heterosexual ideals and actually allow them to make their own space.
In contrast to the social taboo, the sexual taboo should always remain. The sexual taboo is the I’m-doing-something-wrong-and-it-turns-me-on taboo that leads to the eroticism of such practices as anal sex, double penetration, and rim jobs. Because it heightens sexual pleasure, the sexual taboo should never be destroyed. There’s something erotic about violating rules. Sex is dangerous, and there’s no reason we should pretend that it isn’t. The possible complications of sex are serious, from the physical—unwanted pregnancies and STDs—to the emotional—soul-crushing blows to self-esteem and unshakeable heartbreak. Of course the possible benefits outweigh the risks: sex can bring you the most acute pleasure that the human body is capable of. And, there’s a particular euphoria between two people that can only come from a sexual relationship. The taboo that says that sex is dirty needs to stay. It is this taboo that brings us love and happiness.
We get into trouble when we conflate the sexual and the social taboos. We start to believe that both must be destroyed for sexual minorities to achieve acceptance. We do not need to normalize acts from the dark depths of our sexual imagination in order to make the doer of such acts socially accepted. That a man gets off on wearing a latex pig mask while being flogged by a woman dressed as a zookeeper should not prevent him from getting a job as middle-school teacher. The sexual taboo surrounding this zoo play should remain, as it is a part of what makes this sexual practice erotic. The man’s social standing, however, shouldn’t suffer just because of his porcine perversions. The two are unrelated. For some reason we feel that sexual behavior is an indicator of character, that sexual fantasies are a barometer for social worth.
The variety of human sexual behavior is extraordinary. It’s unlikely that all (or even most) of its permutations turn you on. But before you ostracize somebody because they get aroused by things that disgust you, it’s worth remembering that, out of context, all sex is sloppy and weird and animalistic, missionary-style heterosexual sex included. —Hallie Lieberman