January 27, 2016

SEX ON THURSDAY | Why is Sex so Taboo?

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Sex is arguably the most ubiquitous and important behavior across the entirety of the human race. Without sex, humans would literally cease to exist. Both men and women think about sex many times every day, and the focus on sex can be seen in a huge variety of contexts, from clothing advertisements to the hordes of single college students who pack themselves into sweaty bars, clubs and frat parties. But despite the ubiquity of sex and sexual thoughts, many people are extremely uncomfortable talking about sex, even with those close to them. Frank discussions on topics related to sex remain taboo in many areas of our society. It seems strange, right? Why is a topic so fundamental, so important, still so taboo in many cultures? As it turns out, there are many perspectives on this question, ranging from sociology and evolution to psychology and the effects sexual thoughts can have on our mental state.

Despite what Ken Ham would have us believe, we are all products of our collective evolution. Humans were not always the kings of the food chain — on an evolutionary timescale, it was not long ago that we found ourselves crawling out of the primordial ooze and struggling for survival just like every other animal in the world. In this context, it makes sense that we (like most other animals) have fairly strong sex drives. This strong sex drive worked well for our species when child mortality was high and life expectancy was very low. But sometime in the recent past, human civilization evolved to the point where it was possible to have more kids than one could support. Is it possible that aspects of human culture evolved to control the frequency and framework of sex? Many of the largest world religions impose strict rules on sexual behavior, usually teaching people to have sex only when they have entered a committed, monogamous relationship. Could these rules actually be a form of evolutionary adaptation? Could premarital sex and promiscuity be so taboo because children born out of stable family situation have a lower chance of passing on their genes to the next generation? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but they are fascinating questions to ponder nonetheless.

A slightly different (and somewhat bizarre) idea of why our society considers sex so taboo comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to Becker, sex is so taboo because humans have an inherent fear of death. Crazy, right? It sounds really strange, but after unpacking Becker’s theory we can start to see how it might make sense. Humans are constantly concerned with mortality and death, so we develop coping mechanisms by thinking of ourselves not as earthly, mortal beings, but as immortal, spiritual beings (e.g. a belief in some form of afterlife). But engaging in earthly, animalistic behaviors such as sex reminds us that we’re just bags of chemicals doomed to decompose when our time on earth expires.

While the theory may still sound a bit wild, Prof. Jaime Goldenberg, psychology, University of Southern Florida, has actually examined the relationship between thoughts related to sex and thoughts related to mortality. His findings seem to indicate that people more preoccupied with thoughts of death show less interest in sex. Other studies have found that sexual thoughts actually increase the mental “accessibility” of words related to mortality and death. In one study, participants were given a fragment of a word as if they stumbled upon an unfinished game of hangman, and were asked to complete the word. When given a word fragment like “g r a _ _”, people who were made to think about sex beforehand are more likely to complete the word as ‘grave’ instead of ‘grape.’ While more research would certainly have to be done in order to conclude anything for sure, it seems as though Ernest Becker’s theory may actually have some merit.

One fascinating aspect of the study results dealt with love and intimacy. The results of the aforementioned study were actually significantly different depending on how the sexual descriptions given to the participants were framed. When Goldenberg and his colleagues repeated the study, they framed the sex described to the participants beforehand as loving and intimate instead of physical and animalistic. Shockingly, when they introduced sexual thoughts in the context of love and romance, the increased thoughts of death actually vanished. Ernest Becker’s theory stated that sexuality ignites our natural fear of death. But perhaps by placing the act of sex in a uniquely human, spiritual perspective, our natural fear of mortality is erased. In other words, we may finally have found definitive evidence that love literally conquers death.

Dong Burgundy is a student at Cornell. Comments may be sent to dong.burgundy@cornellsun.com. Afternoon Delight appears periodically  this semester.

One thought on “SEX ON THURSDAY | Why is Sex so Taboo?

  1. Becker was not just trying to explain why sexuality is taboo, but also why, among all species, we mystify it with endless courtly rituals and stories of love, soulmates, etc. It is as if this “spiritualisation” of sex provides us with the psychological permission we need to go ahead and engage in what is at root a basic biological act of species reproduction. He drew parallels between this “permission” granted by spiritualisation with another type of “permission” that emerges in the sexual perversions in the form of fetish objects, s/m punishment rituals, and so on. Becker would say not that these things “erase” our mortality anxiety. but rather that give us temporary justification to ignore it, like an athlete playing through the pain, and get the job done!

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