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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 10/15/2016 |



Let us start from the premise that sex is indeed a taboo in almost all human societies. In her cover story Lipika Dey talks about the evolution of human society and how gradually sex became a taboo almost in every human society. I shall not therefore go into that again. In this article I want to ask two basic questions – why are we so bothered about this particular taboo while a host of others exist in the modern society and what would be the possible result if sex wasn’t a taboo.

Taboos vary from one society to another, often originating from the religion practiced – beef is taboo to Hindus, pork to Muslims, pork and shellfish to Jews. The way the food is prepared plays a vital role too – halal meat for Muslims, kosher food for Jews. These are probably the simplest ones, though in modern day society it sometimes becomes difficult to understand why such taboos are perpetuated and with so much violence, sometimes leading to lynching and death as was the case in India not so long ago.

Then there are certain taboos that can be considered universal, resulting, I think, from what can broadly be termed as basic human perception of good and evil. Here I use the definition of taboo in its broadest sense – ‘a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice…’ In this sense, certain things are taboo in almost all human societies – murder, adultery, matricide, patricide, pedophilia, incest… It is interesting to note, however, that incest was largely accepted and widely practiced in ancient Egypt and not unknown in ancient Greece; pedophilia in ancient Greece was very common, often deriving from the concept of platonic love, involving both girls and boys. Over time, as the dangers of co-sanguinity started becoming evident, incest was proscribed by almost all societies. The history of pedophilia is more complex, but I shall not attempt to deal with it in this article.

Another category of taboos, present in all societies in varying degrees, is related to our bodily functions that today includes defecation, flatulence, urination and anything to do with our genital organs. We avoid talking about these unless totally necessary, during a medical checkup, for instance, and even then with a lot of difficulty. Our forefathers were probably less sensitive than we are, but the taboo was always there, particularly for women. But the taboo that has existed throughout ages and in almost all societies is menstruation. It seems that humans, both men and women, were totally in awe of this natural manifestation that heralded the magic of sexuality and birth in women. Girls changed to women almost overnight, and with that came the power they could wield over men, if allowed. Ancient man feared nature, unable to control the natural phenomena and disasters. In the same way, they were somewhat afraid of this manifestation of the reproductive forces through women. In many ancient societies, women were separated from the rest of the household during this period – the practice still continues in some tribal societies today. I think that the taboo relating to sex started the day when man fully realized the power of women – the power to give birth that ensured the continuity of the male blood line. A continuity that ensured right to land, goods and property rights from one generation to the next. Maybe that is when the idea of sanctifying sexual relationships and resulting births through marriage took root in human psyche. Menstruation, however, remains a taboo even today, with women trying to hide the fact from everyone, aided and abetted by millions of advertisers who ‘help’ women to face the discomfort and the shame by using miraculous products.

Another notable example of taboo that have spilled a lot of ink in all sorts of media also have to do with the natural bodily function – that of breast feeding infants either in public or in the presence of other children. I find this extremely interesting – it is totally acceptable in a so called repressive society like India but seems to be inadmissible in western societies like Great Britain. Feeding mothers are considered to be aberrance while there seem to be no outrage about the practically non-existent clothing favored by a large number of women in the same country. Try as I might, I have not been able to understand this particular instance of prudish behavior – after all, what can be more beautiful than a mother feeding her child? A lot of British citizens are amazed by the free and easy attitude in other European countries where no such taboo exists.

The third category of taboos, almost universal too, is directly related to sexual behavior and sexual preferences. As the human society became more and more civilized and normative, as man started decreeing what was good and fruitful for society and organized religion, different types of social and religious norms were implemented and often imposed. Thus it was deemed unfit that men and women should have sexual pleasure that was not directed towards procreation. Anything else was ‘unnatural sex’. Masturbation, homosexuality, and any relationship outside the institution of marriage became totally taboo, and has not changed that much in spite of growing tolerance in many societies. The courtesans, who played an important role in ancient and not so ancient societies, not only for satiating male or female sexual desire but also for upholding a certain type of culture where men and women were almost equal – be it in the arts, poetry, music and more recently, political intrigues, were relegated to the role of prostitutes, living on the fringes of society. As the social norms became more and more strict, the status and condition of women who did not have male protectors – fathers, brothers or husbands, became increasingly precarious. Easy prey to their own natural instincts and the lust of men, which thrived in spite or maybe because of the increasingly strait laced societies, these ‘fallen’ women lived a life of shame and poverty in almost all societies across the world.

As human societies prospered and progressed, so did the quest for happiness and normality in men and women. The majority followed the prescribed path and any deviation was regarded as abnormal and suspect. A subliminal witch hunt was underway almost everywhere, and those found deviant were hounded and punished mercilessly, either by law or by the society itself. Homosexuality was decreed as a crime in a lot of western societies. Abortion was illegal, and scores of women died in the hands of quacks trying to get rid of a child conceived outside wedlock. Mental illnesses were taboo as well – the unfortunate patients kept hidden and sometimes in captivity, without proper medical care by their own families. The mental asylums, considered as last resorts, were often worse than prisons in their indifference and brutality to the patients. This state of affairs continued well into the first part of the 20th century, and the vestiges remain even today. How many women have the courage to talk openly about an abortion, unless it was for a medical reason? How many people own up to having a serious mental illness, either for themselves or for any member of the close family? What is our usual reaction to a suicide, for instance, decreed to be the ultimate sin? Horror and judgment, before and above all, which may or may not be followed by pity and sadness. These are the social taboos that we have inherited, that rage unabated within us and in the societies we live in.

Yes, society is becoming more and more tolerant. We have learnt to use politically correct language for softening the impact of each taboo. We still have difficulty in accepting everything that is ‘abnormal’ - physical deficiencies, mixed race couples, unwed mothers, same sex couples, transsexuals – to name but a few. It is far easier for us to close our eyes to domestic and conjugal violence, child abuse and other heinous crimes as long as they take place within the ‘normal’ family. We have learnt not to talk about racism, though it is blatantly present at all levels of the society. We don’t talk about slavery anymore either, or of colonization or white supremacy or the master race – these are our new taboos, designed to highlight our tolerance and in the process suppress an important part of human history.

Which begs the question, why is sexual taboo considered to be so important? Why is this more important than the other taboos that I have described above? Is it because the topics of sex, pornography, adultery, rape, incest etc. are more salacious than others? Or is it because it is really of primordial interest for the progress of human society? Or is it because this category is the ultimate weapon to preserve male dominance and perpetuate the patriarchal society?

Let us imagine for a moment that tomorrow, by some miracle, sexual taboos disappear. What would be the consequences? Will the entire social order, as we see it today, collapse? Will men and women give free reign to their sexual impulses irrespective of consequences? Will the institution of marriage disappear? Will the world population suddenly explode as sexual relationships, free from the stamp of shame and guilt, become ubiquitous? Will men and women fight and destroy each other trying to control the already rapidly diminishing natural resources? Will civilizations disappear as a result of this merciless war for survival? Will this be the apocalypse?

Or can we imagine an alternative scenario where sex and sexual relationships, free for ever from all misconceptions and taboos, will actually liberate men and women from preconceived notions and inherited prejudices and make them celebrate this primordial instinct? A society where men and women will play an equal role in all their choices, including all sexual relationships? Where sexual domination will not be used as the most effective means for subjugating women and erase forever the ‘second sex’ label? Where all sexual preferences will be respected without any prior judgment? A society where mothers will not kill the female fetus because girl children are considered unwelcome, will bring them up with equal care and commitment as the male children? Where young girls will not be sold by their own families to satisfy the male lust, used and abused till they prefer to take their lives? Where the sex ratios in emerging countries will not be so skewed that young men have to fight for women like in the ancient days? Where young boys, educated and brought up in the same way as their sisters, will grow up treating women as their equals and not as an inferior and weaker race that requires protection and hence domination? A society devoid of sexual repression that will not require the satisfaction of sexual urges by abusing children, family members or even total strangers? Will men and women, totally aware of the consequences of sexual intercourse and equal participants in the choice, procreate only when they want to, ensuring generations of healthy and wanted children? Will the new social and religious social norms finally make our societies equal and all encompassing?

Being the eternal optimist, I would definitely prefer the rather utopic second scenario, although it will not happen in a day, maybe not even in a century. Given the current level of intolerance rampant all over the world in all spheres of life – be it religious, cultural, social, political or economic, the vision is indeed utopic. But I firmly believe that somehow a utopia is sometimes necessary to stimulate the good that resides in each of us, to dispel the evil forces. I can feel the winds of change, though it is not more than a timid breeze right now. For the sake of our children and our future generations, I can only hope that it will gather force and sweep the dark clouds away before long.

[APARAJITA SEN]

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