Sexual Taboos (Part One)

For my next few posts, I will be responding to a collection of essays that can be found in a book called Intimacies: Love and Sex Across Cultures by William R. Jankowiak.   These essays brings up many unique perspectives on sexuality and sexual relationships that I feel are often ignored in mainstream discourse.  For example, one essay discusses polyandry (when one woman has multiple husbands) and another essay discusses “the performance of love” in sex work.  The book also talks about many things that are considered taboo within the realm of sexuality, such as extramarital affairs and female sexual pleasure.  After reading these essays, I was left wondering how and why certain things are considered taboo within certain social contexts but perfectly acceptable in others.

For example, in Sosua, a small town in the Dominican Republic, sex workers put on a performance of love for their foreign customers.  Even when the clients are not in town, they maintain a relationship by communicating via fax and telephone.  This is done in hopes that the foreigner will send them money wires, assist them with obtaining a visa, or marry them so that they are granted citizenship in the client’s country.  The idea of marrying for love just emerged in society recently, but other types of marriage in the West are now considered obsolete, even inappropriate.  However, the sex workers in the Dominican Republic also make this distinction and often have two partners: one for money and one for love.  The relationships they have with these foreign men is simply a business transaction.  The money they earn is often used to pay for their children’s schooling or to start their own business.

Children are forced into the sex trade all over the world. These pictures are from China, Cambodia, and Mexico.

This brings up another taboo: sex work.  There is no universal consensus regarding sex work because of conflicting ideas about religion, gender, and sexuality.  Although prostitution has been around forever, it is interesting to acknowledge that it is still not accepted by most societies.  The concept of exchanging sex for material compensation does not seem problematic at first.  If an individual is fully willing to become a sex worker because of personal interest, I do not think that there is anything wrong with it essentially.  However, many people have a problem with sex work regardless of the circumstances.  In an attempt to understand why people have negative feelings towards this model of utopian prostitution, I looked to Google.  Here are some of the answers I found: “Because it creates competition for married women,” “Because they are dirty,” [It] tends to attract other unsavory elements of society such as violence and drugs.”  There were many other answers that followed this same trend.  I found the first two answers particularly interesting because of the assumptions that were made about sex workers and married individuals.  The first response, also marked as the website’s “best answer” assumes that men are not sexually satisfied with their wives and are unable to control their desires to have sexual relationships with sex workers.  I found the second response to be very telling of the way that our society looks at prostitution.

Looking at sex work in reality, there are many problems with the industry that explain why it is looked down upon.  Many of these problems stem from the fact that prostitution is illegal and has ultimately been forced underground.  The majority of sex workers are not working because of personal interest and choice; there are many contributing factors such as high unemployment, criminal history, and lack of education.  In “Love Work in Sex Work (And After), the article about sex work in Sosua, Denise Brennan explains this predicament.  “With so many financial demands on them as single mothers… and so few well paying jobs available to them, Dominican sex workers in Sosua who perform well at being in love have much as stake” (180).  Without any other opportunities, sex work is often the only “choice” for many people (I put choice in parentheses because I feel that these outside factors hinder one’s ability to consent to sex work.  When you are left with only one option, you do not have choices.)  Also, many women and children are trafficked into the sex industry.  Clearly, this is a violation of their human rights and they are not given any choice at all.  Usually, their travel documents are taken away from them, their pimps dehumanize them with threats, rape, and physical violence, and the money they make does not actually go them.  Instead, the pimp or trafficker sees this money as a way to pay off a “debt” for the woman or child’s clothing, travel, housing, food, etc.  Another problem is the average age in which one enters the sex industry.  In the United States, this age is thirteen; according to different state laws, the required age for consent in sexual relationship ranges from sixteen to eighteen.  In some parts of the world, one cannot legally consent to sex unless they are married.  Although consent is something personal that is influenced more by maturity than age, it is important to recognize that a large number of sexual relationships between sex workers and clients are actually cases of statutory rape.  Each of the points that I bring up here may explain people’s negative feelings towards prostitution, but in my next post I will provide another explanation that I feel more accurately explains this.

Intimacies also provides many anthropological accounts of cultures where monogamy is not the norm.  For example, many married men in Southeastern Nigeria have extramarital affairs.  Although it “is often shrouded in secrecy,” these relationships are quite common in Southeastern Nigeria (224).  However, the only ones that society permits to have these types of relationships is men.  If wives find out that their husband is having an affair, they are forced to accept it.  Marriage is a sacred institution in Nigeria and divorce is rare.  The author of this essay, Daniel Jordan Smith, provides numerous explanations for why married men have extramarital affairs: prolonged periods of absence from their wives, “desire for forms of sexual intimacy that were absent or impossible within marriage,” and a longing for their masculinity to be acknowledged and respected (235).  In other essays in Intimacies, readers are introduced to polyandrous societies and swinging in the United States.  All three of these are considered taboo within society because they go against the ideal of monogamy, but why is monogamy considered ideal?  Some explanations for monogamy is that marriage is based on love and you can only love one person, greater chance of reproductive success, or a more intimate relationship.  However, I do not find any of these reasons to be convincing.  An article by Satoshi Kanazawa and Mary C. Still called “Why Monogamy?” argues that polygamous relationships are actually most beneficial for women if there is great resource inequality among men.  If this theory is true, than monogamy would actually be detrimental to women.  To read more about their theory, click here.

Kirby Dick directed the film that exposed the restrictions on movie ratings.

Another sexual taboo that was not mentioned in Intimacies is female sexual pleasure.  Recently, I watched This Film is Not Yet Rated, which discusses how a movie is given a certain rating.  Interestingly enough, every movie that featured female sexual pleasure was given a rating of NC-17.  This is particularly fascinating because movies with extreme violence and/or male sexual pleasure rarely receive such harsh ratings.  Again I found myself asking why this would be considered a taboo.  In our society, women are often placed in a double bind in regards to their sexuality.  The media teaches girls from a young age to be “sexy” but they are not supposed to be sexual because it goes against traditional ideas about femininity.  Perhaps female sexual pleasure makes some people uncomfortable because it challenges gender norms, but I feel this is not the real reason behind this.

In this post, I have talked about various things that society considers taboo in relation to sexuality and love.  I have provided arguments that people often use to justify their negative feelings about such things, but in all honesty, I do not agree with the majority of what I wrote.  In my next post, I will provide a completely different perspective on how and why certain things are considered taboo in our society.

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