This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
You’ve almost certainly heard this phrase before. If you’ve been paying attention to sex in society and popular culture, anyway. You may have read it in a political debate; a conversation about porn; even a movie review.
“(X) is the last taboo.”
Now here’s the weird thing, the thing that should be making your bullshit meter go off with clanging alarms and flashing lights: You’ve probably heard this phrase used to describe half a dozen or more sexual practices.
You might have heard that homosexuality is the last taboo. Sadomasochism. Incest. Bestiality. Necrophilia. A very quick Google search on the phrase “the last taboo” adds scatology, pedophilia, sex among the elderly, and even virginity to the list (along with a wide assortment of non-sexual topics, including atheism, abortion, cannibalism, menstruation, death, consciousness, anti-Palestinianism, money, mental illness, and the discounting of business-class seats on airplanes).
Okay. Reality check number one: Not all of these things can be the last taboo, can they? At the very least, doesn’t one of them have to be the next- to- last taboo, and another one the next- to- the- next- to last, and so on? Unless every one of these taboos is miraculously falling at exactly the same time… in which case I suppose they could all be the last taboo. But that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?
Reality check number two: Does anyone actually believe that any of these sexual preferences and practices is the last taboo? Does anyone really think that the taboo against, say, sadomasochism is truly the last sexual taboo in our culture? That if the taboo against it fell and we completely and casually accepted SM, our society would then, for better or worse, be a sexual free- for- all, entirely devoid of any sexual taboos whatsoever?
Have any of the people using this phrase taken a look around them? At, you know, the world?
The world is full of sexual taboos. Loaded with them, up one side and down the other. And I’m not just talking about the big ones like necrophilia or incest. We have taboos against having sex in public. Having sex with someone much older or younger than yourself. Having sex with your best friend’s ex. Leaving your porn out on your coffee table. Discussing the details of your sex life with anyone except your partner, your therapist, and your very closest friends. Interracial sex is now less taboo than it once was (although the taboo is far from gone)… but sex with someone of a radically different social or economic class is still a forbidden thrill. Etc., etc., etc.
And it’s not like taboos come in a limited supply, a cookie jar that’ll be empty once we eat them all. One taboo can disappear, only to be replaced with another. We have, for instance, a disappearing taboo against sex before marriage… but we also have a new taboo that we didn’t used to have, a taboo against being a virgin past the age of, say, forty. In fact, some things are now considered taboo that were once not only accepted, but positively endorsed. Marrying your brother’s widow would now be considered kind of icky, not flatly incestuous but not exactly showing the best boundaries in the world. But if that widow was childless, then in the Old Testament days this was not only accepted, but actually required.
And, of course, old taboos can come roaring back again. The permissiveness of the Roaring Twenties was followed by the restrictiveness of the Boring Fifties. Ditto the legendarily free-spirited Sixties and the equally legendary Reaganite Eighties. Pendulums swing back and forth.
I once read an anthropologist (I canât remember her name — I really should have smoked less weed in college) who wrote that, when it comes to very large, important aspects of human life that have a tremendous impact on us — sex, food, drugs, that sort of thing — the mere fact of having taboos is more important than what the specific taboos are. Having taboos is what makes us feel like we have a modicum of control over these huge, powerful things. The ability to sort sex (or food, or drugs, or whatever) into the Good Kind and the Bad Kind gives us the feeling that it’s us whoâs in control of this stuff… instead of the other way around. And whether a taboo is rational, whether it helps us reduce potential harm that might be caused by sex or drugs or whatnot, is very much a secondary issue.
Now, I donât agree that all taboos are created equal. Some taboos do have a basis in reality, are guided at least somewhat by genuine ethical or psychological concerns. Others are so irrational as to seem almost completely random. (Drug taboos, for instance, bear almost no relationship with how much harm the drugs in question can do. If they were, marijuana would be available at every corner store, and the possession of alcohol would be what got you time in the hoosegow.*)
And the fight against totally irrational taboos is not a pointless fight. The last fifty years or so has seen an incredible rollback of a whole host of stupid, none- of- anybodyâs- business sexual taboos: from contraception to masturbation, oral sex to pre-marital nookie. And that’s largely been the result of a sustained public relations campaign on the part of people who insisted, loudly and repeatedly and in defiance of the prevailing winds, that these taboos made no sense.
I’m just saying this: Sexual taboos will always be with us. If my anthropologist is right, then as long as sex is a viscerally powerful force in our lives, human beings will feel the need to gain control of it — or the illusion of control, anyway — by sorting it into boxes marked Naughty and Nice.
So I’m going to issue a taboo of my own.
I very rarely issue edicts and insist that everyone stop doing what they’re doing and instead do what I tell them to. But I’m going to do it now. From now on, at the risk of incurring The Wrath of Greta, everyone has to stop using the phrase “the last taboo.” Especially when it comes to sex. It’s sloppy writing. It’s sloppy thinking. It’s a cheap way of bringing melodrama to your topic. And it’s simply not true. If you need to bring cheap melodrama to your topic, come up with a different way. I don’t care what sexual taboo youâre talking about. Whatever it is, it’s not the last one.
*For the record, Iâm not advocating the criminalization of alcohol. Iâm just saying that it demonstrably does much more harm than marijuana, and that having it be a legal and relatively taboo-free drug while marijuana can get you actual prison time is a perfect example of drug taboos bearing no relationship to reality.