Is sex a taboo? Or is talking about sex a taboo? What exactly is a taboo? Why is sex a taboo? Questions galore crowded my head. Though I knew the answers to all these questions in an amorphous way – the moment I sat down to write this article – I realized the need for more knowledge to answer each of the above questions unambiguously. Surely there must be scholarly, well-researched answers to all these questions! So as we always do these days – I googled – “Why is sex a taboo?” Google, like the serious librarians of the days of yore came up with hundreds of thousands of documents that contained answers to my questions. But lo and behold! The moment I clicked on a link – a secret agent sitting on my laptop – generated a report – “You are trying to access a Pornography site. Please contact your webmaster!”

Oh yes! This laptop has been issued to me by my office. I carry it with me to all parts of the world - to check mails, to work, to present my work and also write and share photographs from all over the world with my friends! I was aghast! This report might also go to the Webmaster – then to my Boss – then to many more “incident managers!” Though I do feel like laughing while trying to imagine their faces while dealing with this incident reported against a senior associate – I couldn’t also help sit and ponder – am I a little embarrassed too?

But why? This is a silly sensing agent that could not distinguish between a scholarly article and a pornographic site content – generated this report just because it encountered the word “sex” – why am I embarrassed about it? Is it because of the word “sex” or “Pornography” or both? If this is not due to the deep-rooted taboo inside me that says – good women are not supposed to be discussing sex – or google it – then what is it?  This incident added one more question to my repertoire – are sex and pornography synonymous? Someone somewhere surely thought so! And thus created this action that would classify any site containing the word “sex” as a pornographic site!

Coming back to the main track now – via a circuitous route of accessing scholarly articles on sex through a digital library, and not Google - I tried to organize my thoughts around a few basic points. What is a taboo?The dictionary definition of taboo reads as follows: - “A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies.”

So there we are – with clarity on one point! Taboo is not an inherent belief of a human being  – it is an imposed belief – one designed to intimidate. What is particularly notable are the presence of the terms “vehement” and “ordinary individuals” – which instantly hint at power, exploitation and discrimination. So why is it that such a basic and natural act like sex – which existed in all forms of life much before humans started walking on this universe – in fact something that is precursor to life itself and led to the very birth of the human race was subjected to this taboo? Interestingly, while sex existed forever – humans are the first species in the line of evolution that associates platonic pleasure to the corporal act of sex. Romanticism, love and sex are definitely not synonymous – but that they are deeply intertwined can hardly be denied.

As a matter of fact, it is not only sex; humans have associated much more purpose to each of these activities than their basic forms as reflected in earlier beings. Such associations often elevate many aspects of these tasks from the mundane to exotic.

Thus eating is not only about satisfying hunger but also about satisfying the taste buds. Eating today is intricately related to the art of cooking and presentation – thereby making it much more than the act of ingesting food for survival. Communication is not only about exchanging information but also about sharing thoughts. Similarly sex to humans is not only about procreating but also much more – it is about love, fantasy, enjoyment and also about power and dominance.

As history tells us, at the dawn of civilization, when social structures were still at their infancy, the act of sex was not a taboo. It was indeed an eclectic mix of pleasure and instinct – which satisfied the self and also fulfilled the basic purpose of reproducing to help in the continuation of the race. However, things changed with time. Curiously enough, while different societies thrived at different parts of the world with differing norms and cultures, a common thread that runs across human history is that of mortification of sex – a byproduct of chaining the free human soul and turning it into a social object.

Unlike other bodily acts that ended in the act itself, sex led to procreation. As civilization progressed, the hunting humans became gatherers and nurturers. Farming became a way of life. With farming came ownership of land. Groups or herds that shared activities and produces were precursors to the modern society. Though higher number of offspring within a group did mean greater number of helping hands, it also meant sharing of limited resources among larger number of people. With groups also came the struggle for power. Ownership of land led to ownership of all who benefitted from the land – and thus gradually the weaker elements of the society came to be owned by the stronger elements. Women became properties of men. They kept homes, they bore babies, they reared children and domestic animals and also entertained their men.

The theory of simple economics soon made it obvious that there had to be a restriction on the number of children within a group in order to ensure fair living for all. Each man wanted to restrict the number of children produced within his territory – and thus laid down restrictions on the process of giving birth. A restriction on birth obviously does not extend to the act of sex. Where there exist males and females - sex is a natural phenomenon. Thus the concept of sex had to be contorted. Sex could be enjoyed but not lead to precreation. Biologically men controlled the process. Thus it became a tool for oppression for women – with which the owner could intimidate the owned. Men sowed the seeds. But the woman gave birth. While the act of sowing could be a very private affair – the acts of bearing a child and giving birth were not so. Thus the subject of sex was made into a taboo to shame the woman – who obviously could not hide the aftereffects of the act of sex. Thus males continued the act of sex unabashed – it was for the women to bear the brunt in the form of social stigma, taboo and sometimes ostracization. Thus women were not treated or taught to be equal partners in sex. Over time women became objects of desire and playthings in the hands of the power-yielding female.

Alongside dealing with the process of civilization, colonization and refinement in life-style, from time immemorial humans were also plagued by several questions whose answers evaded them. Mortality and nature’s fury were subjects that they failed to comprehend. Mortality, though inevitable was disturbing and scary. It was difficult to reconcile to the fact that one had to leave behind all the hard-earned treasures – land, wealth, family – and disappear into an unknown space without any idea of what awaits there. Humans took recourse to spirituality to understand mortality.

From the dawn of civilization, belief in super-natural has been the predominant way to deal with any inexplicable phenomenon and also to face many of life’s hardships with stoicism. In ancient times, when humans could hardly fight the furies of nature, they took recourse to worshiping as a medium to appease anything that was unfavorable. It has to be admitted, that even today, while science has clarified knowledge about nature to some extent, it has not really been yet able to answer the human question of “what lies beyond life?” very convincingly. Thus spirituality still reigns supreme while humans try to deal with their mortality. Spirituality leads to condoning of anything that gives pleasure. It has been observed across all societies that growing rise of spirituality invariably leads to stigmatization of sex.

According to social scientists, making the subject of sex a taboo was the easiest way to restrain people from indulging in sex. But then a natural phenomenon like sex can be hardly suppressed forcefully. Forbidden things are also more alluring – both for men and women. Thus while sex flourished – discussing or accepting sex as a natural phenomenon was forbidden – thereby converting sex into a universal taboo. In India and other countries where young widows were not permitted to remarry became regular victims of this taboo. Minor girls all over the world who knew nothing about the act of sex have been victims of this taboo. Even young boys growing up in orphanages worldwide have been victims of this taboo. Society did not give them a chance to present their cases as a victim even when violated.

All this while artists universally celebrated sex. The human body has been the muse for artists of all ages, all places. But while art celebrated the exotica of sex, sex itself gradually became an object of taboo. In medieval India, this had a very interesting manifestation. The obsession with sex was captured in stone sculptures – the act of sex became frozen poetry in blocks of stones in the hands of sculpting artists. Eroticism on stone adorned the outer walls of temples. The believers were to see these, experience their sexual arousal and when satiated leave them outside and then proceed to the sanctum sanctorium to meet the Supreme Being. I am not sure whether such depictions helped the believers, but these works of art have definitely enriched our culture. Moreover, it is an open submission to the fact that sex and thoughts of sex were rampant and hence the need to eschew them in the name of spirituality.

Restrictions on sex invariably led to rape – very often by insiders – with women playing the roles of silent victims. Being raped or violated was not to be talked about – they were skeletons that were to be locked behind public view. As if being raped was not enough, the burden of guilt also had to be borne by the women. A very circuitous logic was and is perhaps still played very subtly by the social heavyweights while dealing with rape. Women are held responsible for inviting this forbidden act of sex that has been perpetrated on them – by “attracting” the males towards them – be it by their “reckless” dressing, be it by their attitude or be it by the simple fact that the victim happened to be a woman. Most sex-crimes have thus always been double-edged swords for women. Being a taboo – women are not even supposed to be talking or complaining against the crime – rather accept it as their fault with shame and humiliation. Society has never encouraged women to stand up against this heinous crime – rather let it flourish with indulgence. Rape has become a vent for all kinds of male frustration – not only related to sex – and the women bear the brunt of it.

It is only fair to say that women themselves have also played their roles in handing down these taboos to the next generation of girls very successfully. For centuries, women have believed and still try to propagate the belief to the next generation that ignorance and submission are the keys to a happy life. While this debate invariably leads to another man versus woman controversies – it is better to admit that women have to accept their own roles in keeping alive the taboo around sex and atone for their sins by understanding the roles that they should play in future.

Thankfully, times change. In the Western world, where individuality was embraced earlier – individual’s choices hailed over social norms and practices. Thus women started having a greater say in the acts of sex. Age-old taboos do not erase in a day or a year – it takes ages to wipe them out. But the process has definitely begun. Since sex-related taboos were a manifestation of several other processes of exploitation of the weak by the powerful – there are other barriers like financial equality, social equality etc. which are also to be achieved before sex becomes completely free from the shackles of taboo.

The advancement of medical science and technology has also obviously played a great role in erasing the taboo of sex. Contraception techniques, though not favored by religious sects, who prefer to hold their forte by instilling into the minds of the believer the fear of God, has definitely played a big role in this. Reining pregnancy under control has given more power to the women. With female contraception methods becoming mature, painless and available easily – women are at last in control over their own bodies. The enjoyment of sex now does not come with the additional fear of earning the wrath of society for enjoying sex with partners who are not socially sanctioned.

Thus we see the walls of this taboo breaking away.

The urge to have sex is as natural as breathing and eating – dictated by the hormones. Since humans are not animals, talking freely about sex provides a free and open atmosphere that allows men and women to treat sex knowledgeably. A known devil is thousand times better than an unknown devil. Thus educating all and sundry on sex is a must for demystifying sex and viewing it in its true light. Teenagers today are not as clueless as their predecessors who so often became hapless victims to circumstances while experimenting with sex. They are somewhat ready to communicate about sex with peers. And if not, then also there is the whole web of knowledge out there with certain disclaimers. Not withstanding the faux pas faced with my query, I am quite sure that the Internet plays a crucial role today in debunking myths and also answer questions that humans are still too embarrassed to ask fellow humans. Following the Internet, all advertising channels have become bold and are freely advertising contraceptive products and sex counseling. All these are definitely positive signs - for with information comes knowledge and with knowledge alone the mind can destroy taboos. Women all over the world today are much more equipped to fight irrational prejudices thrust upon them. While the fetters of sex, the primordial taboo still exists and is still far away from complete eradication – the signs of a new beginning are clear and definitely raises hope.


1.       Why is Sex so Taboo – Nathan A. Heflick, http://www.psychologytoday.com
2.       Why is Sex Such a Taboo Subject in Families – http://www.ldsmag.com
3.       Shuster’s Shtick: Why is Sex Taboo? Scott Shuster, http://scottshuster.blogspot.com



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