Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What We Lose When We Dismantle Taboos

Suppose I told you that my husband sometimes goes hiking alone with another woman. She's beautiful and just a few years younger than he is. He also has been known to call her and talk at length about what is going on in his life and hers. You might be concerned for the state of my marriage. However, you would be missing an important piece of information. She's his sister.

That sort of information makes a huge difference, doesn't it? It's the difference between appropriate and inappropriate. It's the difference between concern that an affair is brewing and totally normal and acceptable interactions. But why?

The difference is the cultural taboo on incest which allows us the presumption that close family interactions are platonic rather than sexual. Most people think of a taboo as a negative thing, but they are really positive because they are protective. The taboo against incest makes it unthinkable to inject a sexual note into family ties, and this gives us the freedom to interact with family members in close and intimate ways without fear or shame or innuendo or temptation. The taboo protects our family relationships so that we can enjoy one another's company. My husband can go hiking with his sister without needing a chaperone or coming back to an upset and suspicious wife precisely because of this taboo. She's not just another woman. She's his sister. Sisters are not objects of sexual attraction.

Taboos are important for the flourishing of human society. They are not optional. They are vital. What happens when we undermine and break down useful taboos that have been long established is that we diminish our own freedom and the freedom of those around us. We make ourselves more suspicious, more encumbered, and make all our interactions more complicated and tense. In the end, we break down society.

Let's take a look at one such example - the acceptance of homosexuality. In times past, homosexuality was taboo. It was unthinkable for the vast majority of people in society. If people engaged in such behavior, they did it secretly. This shame and revulsion around homosexual behavior has been claimed as wrong and harmful and even repressive, but in reality it was freeing. A taboo against homosexuality allows for the assumption of platonicity in all same-sex interactions. It allows men to be friends with other men and women to be friends with other women without injecting a note of sexuality into those friendships. When we accept homosexuality as normal, we destroy not only the taboo, but also the presumption that same-sex friendships are platonic which derives from it. This breaks down our ability to form and maintain close friendships with others of our sex.

It has long been noted, and sometimes lamented, that men and women cannot be platonic close friends. The question of sex is always an element, no matter how much we might like to avoid it or deny it. Even if the people involved have no sexual attraction to one another at the moment, there is always the possibility that it will develop later and always the concern that other people will misunderstand the relationship or that signals will be misunderstood as sexual cues. This forms a serious barrier to male-female friendships.

Yet when we normalize homosexuality, people of the same sex are no longer seen as being off limits as sexual partners and this has implications for all our future interactions. It produces the same distance and barriers between same-sex friends as men and women have been dealing with since the dawn of time. If homosexuality is normal and acceptable, then same-sex friends have to contend with sexual elements appearing in their friendship. If they do not wish to send sexual signals, it takes a lot more effort and care to avoid them. Once you destroy the presumption of platonicity between people of the same sex, it places distance and caution between them lest other people misunderstand. It makes things more awkward. Every word, every gesture, every expression of affection becomes a potential minefield of complications and misunderstandings. In the end, we usually seek distance to relieve the tension and stress and it leaves all of us more disconnected, isolated, and emotionally poorer.

Our society is breaking down and our people are becoming more isolated, sad, and lonely at least partly because we have been breaking down the taboos that protected us. We tore down the fence without first asking what it was there for. The Sexual Revolution was a society-wide experiment with human nature, and it has failed miserably. The aftershocks are still causing damage. And they're not over yet. Not only is homosexuality becoming more and more accepted and normalized and transgenderism is well on its way, but there are movements beginning to normalize pedophilia, incest, bestiality, and more. Not satisfied with the damage already done, some are attempting to "fix" society by destroying all the rest of the taboos we have left. But rather than the utopian paradise they think they are ushering in, they will produce an utterly broken, dysfunctional society full of absurdity and loneliness. If you want to fix something, you need to have an idea of how it's supposed to work and the limits of what you can do. Neither have been addressed adequately.

One way that we can help to counter this current toward the cultural abyss is to stand up and boldly proclaim that taboos are good and useful because of the boundaries they produce and the safety and clarity they foster - not just for those who are "normal," but for everyone. We have had taboos in place against deviant behaviors to protect us. They provide guideposts to shape our choices and our behaviors. They provide freedom to ignore some options as unthinkable. They foster clarity of communication, without mixed signals and misunderstanding. When we have good taboos that rule out harmful and immoral behaviors, society flourishes. When we tear them down, we descend into madness.


  1. I agree with this and in the context of the debate on the Transformed Wife blog can I add that there used to be a taboo against the use of birth control, because it was a sin, because it perverts the natural purpose of intimacy, because it 'sexualises' women in an un-natural and ungodly way and because it promotes promiscuity.

    The loss of that taboo has lead to the whole anti child, anti life agenda ! Susanne

  2. This is a very astute observation

  3. Dear Lindsay, terrific article. Yay you :)