The National Geographic Channel has recently been airing a series called Taboo, focusing on topics ranging from religious practices that involve extreme bodily pain (of course, having been taught by pre-Vatican II Catholics who often focused on graphic details in the passion of Jesus, not really that strange, at least to me?!) to obesity (why is fatness taboo?), to “strange love.” The one episode focusing focusing on “strange love” that has garnered some media attention is the real-life "Lars and the Real Girl" relationship, when a man in the United States falls in love with a sex doll (see http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/taboo/4599/Overview).
But I do wonder if, in this culture of sexual differentiation, we need to even rethink the words “strange” and/or “taboo” in attempting to define sexuality and sexual practices. Taboo basically means a prohibition; if one violates the taboo, one somehow disrupts the moral order of the specific society. In most traditional cultures, the social and moral basis for sexuality is procreation in the structure of heterosexual marriage. Anything that diverges from that norm is taboo unless, and I thinking of Catholic and also Buddhist monasticism, physical sex is denied in a quest for some form of religious goal. Thus, most taboos seem to focus on sex, obviously, as sex is a fundamental human dynamic, and the basis for human relationships. Even relationships that deny physical sex (I am thinking, as above, of a celibate monk and his relationship with God), are often defined by such denial and then often develop practices, such as flogging oneself, that can be interpreted as as a sublimation of (or, one might argue), an attempt to transcend sexual desires.
Given that in many Western societies, traditional sexual taboos, such as the one against homosexuality, seem to be gradually fading, how does on determine what is a sexual taboo in this pluralistic dynamic? A person taking the broad utilitarian view would say, “As long as what I am doing doesn't hurt anyone,” or a more libertarian one, “It's private and between consenting adults. Mind your own business.” Yet what used to be a private act (even that other sexual bugaboo, masturbation) is obviously now quite public, as anyone can post a video of a cowboy boot stomping a can for a specific sexual audience that shares this "stomping" fetish on youtube. (Basically a free-for-all!) How could one, even try to rank, in this situation, which one is perhaps “better” for or less “harmful” and to either the private psyche or the public good?
But perhaps one can posit something of a ranking or norm based even in a pluralistic potpourri. In this culture, we place a primary value on our sex/love relationships with another person; in fact, many of us define ourselves by that specific relationship. We don't usually tend to define that relationship in the context of a broader, ideological framework. Thus, today, a couple can live together and not feel compelled to marry (in fact, they tend to do so more and more in the West, and often even produce children, before marriage). As a result, it becomes more difficult to us to understand, as in the case of the man in love with the sex doll (or, on that other show, Strange Addiction, the woman in love with the Berlin Wall), that an object can become the focus of a sexual relationship, or that one can claim that their primary love relationship is with Jesus or God or Buddha or Mother Earth. These taboo relationships, interestingly, seem to be based more on a conscious ideology. Something of a reversal, perhaps, from the more traditional taboo dynamic?Continue reading