Sex: the universal taboo
Sex is a taboo across the world, and was until very recently a significant taboo in the UK. The 1960s and the Summer of Love began to change peoples’ perceptions of sex and sexuality, but our Victorian, prudish sensibility still holds out in some places today. Despite the atmosphere of the heady love-laden days of the 60s, sex was off the mainstream agenda until the end of the second wave of feminism in the 1980s, and even then, it was a radical conversation topic.
But, like cheese hedgehogs and aspic, most people now seem happy to leave sexual taboos in the 1970s, where they belong. Older people are embracing sexuality outside of traditional institutions like marriage, statistics show, with a 2011 study exhibiting the lowest numbers ever of over 85s who believe sex outside of marriage to be ‘living in sin.’
The departure from sexual taboos in the UK is partly to do with increasing secularism. Modern taboos about sex are associated with religion in places,such as the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. Regardless of which religion we are talking about, it seems that wherever faith is strong, sex outside of structures like heterosexual marriage is considered wrong.
Sexual encounters between young couples must be kept under wraps in the Middle East, and you have to be particularly clandestine if you are homosexual. A rise in the number of ‘temporary marriages,’ which are not state-sanctioned and can last for short periods of time, attests to changing attitudes and a desire for more sexual freedom.
Sexual frustration as a result of continued suppression of men and womens’ sexuality leads to aggression – an Egyptian journalist, Ali al-Gundi, was arrested and threatened with a beating for having an unopened condom in his pocket when driving home with his girlfriend late at night. Alongside trends of modernisation and/or Westernisation in the Middle East, there are also trends of conservatism.
Many women are opting to cover themselves more fully in public, sometimes in response to increasingly overtly sexualised Western trends and imports, further exacerbating the cultural divide between men and women. Gundi says “oppression brings out perversion in people,” alluding to men’s fear of the “feelings women provoke” in the absence of acceptable interaction. It may be true that all this sexual tension leads to violence – many young men cannot afford to get married, after all, and it is often young male police officers that will arrest couples for suspected sexual activity.
Homosexuality is even more taboo than sex alone in many countries. In the Philippines, gay men have to posit themselves as camp caricatures, acting up to stereotypes in order to be accepted in society. Their sexuality itself, however, is not discussed; to contemplate the idea of gay sex is anathema in such a Catholic country, where only six months ago a bill proposing sex education and reproductive health awareness was shouted down by the church. It is something that tears many religious homosexuals apart – it can be hard to reconcile one’s faith with one’s sexuality in cultures where religion is very traditional and conservative, whether it’s Christianity, Islam or anything else. The issue is especially poignant with the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday and amidst a sustained campaign to highlight the homophobia of the Putin administration, as featured in last week’s edition.
Religion and sexuality are not mutually exclusive – indeed, even conservative clerics accept the notion of pleasurable sex within marriage, and there have always been periods of relative religious liberalism – it is all up to interpretation. Perhaps the progressive trends shown in recent years – the legalisation of gay marriage, increased debate about the rights of women over their bodies, abortion and sexual abuse, will continue to shape our perceptions of the ultimate taboo, in the UK and across the world.