In a World Without Taboos (We’d Just Be Jerking Off)


“When, they ask, are things going to get dirty again?

“If you want an answer to that question, ladies and gentlemen, let me propose one. In 2010, the only sex that’s truly dangerous and unbounded is solitary.”

In response to Granta’s latest Sex Issue, Guardian UK takes a provocative, one-handed stance.

Personally, I find this reassuring for it completely justifies the entirety of my adolescence (and twenties) as an audacious experiment in taboo-breaking.

But I also hope and pray that not all taboo is shattered. Which brings me to a considerable tangent. 

Where would a world without taboo leave us? Probably a lot like the ultra-onanists in the underrated Idiocracy. Or like the amoral aristocrats in de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (which I had the good fortune of reading and getting out of my system in high school).  In this sense, the eradication of taboos only leaves masturbation which becomes neither exciting or dangerous but merely involuntary and compulsive, an alcoholism of the imagination.

Taboo is a fascinating, fertile concept because so much of our day to day life has to do with negotiating things we think are taboo, things as seemingly trivial as over-long eye contact with someone we don’t like, or accidentally brushing too close against somebody in an overstuffed train.  But then throw race, class, sex and gender into it and those already awkward interactions become even more laden with uncertainty, guilt, shame and potential violence. And yes, also excitement and possibly even joy and humor.

Yesterday, I saw a white woman’s dog frantically barking at a black male who was homeless and talking to himself.  Her guilt at her dog’s behavior was ten-fold because the man accused her and her dog of being racist “just like everyone else in my neighborhood.” It was a moment almost over-saturated with taboo and left me feeling saddened and weird.

Perhaps such an overabundance of taboo, both real and imagined, has a lot to do with the high amount of American binge-drinking which is always tantamount to breaking every taboo imaginable.

Much of what our cultural discourse labels as taboo is also loaded with the most odious and strangely long-standing hypocrisy.  Can you imagine, for example, a different version of Lolita entering the cultural canon where the pederast’s prey was a beautiful twelve-year old boy?

Our society is way too comfortable with the eroticizing of little girls to even fathom the notion of doing the same thing to a little boy. (It’s funny that the Guardian would label masturbation as the last taboo because, at least in the United States we are a nation of chronic self-abusers, constantly jerking off to the latest technology, celebrity scandal, American Apparel ad and Lady Gaga video.)

Taboos also crystallize from the accumulation of endless guilt. And guilt, of course, comes in so many different guises that it would take a rugged taxonomist to name them all.  In some places, i.e. San Francisco, I’ve discovered what I can only call “identity-guilt” which is feeling guilty for being just what you are and not having a bewildering array of creative and professional personae to hang your psyche on. This guilt is extremely minor compared to class guilt which makes it impossible for someone with money to talk responsibly about people who don’t have money.

I guess where I’m going with all this is where I always tend to go: the precarious responsibilities of the writer, artist, and culture jammer.  I go there because it’s the one thing that remains constant about my own psyche.

Taboos should be the subject matter of all cultural creators but not just as prohibitions that need to be transgressed or violated or shattered. True enough, many taboos need to be broken but others, many of them unconscious simply need to be recognized and discussed in ways that are honest, forthright and open to permutation.  Community arises when taboos are recognized and negotiated. Perhaps even better communities come forth when dusty, old taboos are broken and new, more lax ones are put in their place.

The possibility of violence, if that’s any consolation is always open and pending.  (I believe Cormac McCarthy’s whole output has made that abundantly clear.)  But in a world without taboos, or  in a relationship or household or church group or sexual play party without them, what could be inevitable except boredom, banality and the most unthinkable violence?

I pride myself on not knowing even half of my lover’s secrets, while remaining convinced there will always be something we have yet to do that we are slowly and ambiguously moving towards.  I don’t know what she thinks about when she masturbates and I doubt she can imagine half of the ludicrous scenarios that play out in my head when I also “traffic with myself.”

And by not knowing and by not doing, something surprising always finds its way into our lives.

In that sense, maybe an improbable opposite of taboo is mystery? Yet they are also somewhat analogous.

What we haven’t done, and what we haven’t known or found out, what we’ve restrained ourselves from,  keeps mystery alive.

It’s up to us how much of that mystery we want. But no matter how many taboos we break, the simple mystery of being alive is insoluble and permanent and we might as well embrace it until it kills us.

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →