Taboos: Why people don’t talk about them, and why maybe they should

Posted: May 10, 2013 in General, Writing
Tags: , , ,

ta·boo adjective \tə-ˈbü, ta-\

1 Forbidden to profane use or contact because of what are held to be dangerous supernatural powers
2 Banned on grounds of morality or taste <the subject is taboo>
3 Banned as constituting a risk <the area beyond is taboo, still alive with explosives — Robert Leckie>

There are many subjects that are taboo, topics that people just don’t talk about. Taboo subjects aren’t universal either. Everyone has their own preferences due to their own experiences and upbringing.

I've never seen it, but Dexter is one of those shows that people may be uncomfortable with, given what Dexter does.

I’ve never seen it, but Dexter is one of those shows that people may be uncomfortable with, given what Dexter does.

In fiction, horror specifically, dismembering bodies and killing innocent people isn’t the best thing in the world, but more than likely we’ve all read a book or two that contains a graphic scene. But even those books don’t breach certain topics. I don’t want to even type them here because they’re so undeniably wrong. Perverse acts that involve the deceased or children tend to be on the other side of that invisible line we all know not to cross.

(This is, of course, a generalization. There are sick people out there that enjoy these things. There are people out there that might not see a subject like necrophilia as taboo as the average person, but those are the outliers. We’re ignoring them for the sake of our own sanity.)

The world is ever changing, and different cultures have their own special circumstances when it comes to taboos. When I was in Italy, visiting Pompeii, there was a stand selling little mechanical dolls. When you moved the trigger up and down, they would come together and fall apart in the act of sex. As an American, we were pretty shocked and embarrassed. Can you even imagine someone selling that on a street corner over here? But the guy, in broken English, laughed at us and said, “It’s funny! It’s a joke!”

And, of course, time changes taboos too. A few decades ago no one talked about sex or menstruation. Now? Sex is all over the radio, and I see about thirty commercials a day for feminine products. We’re much more comfortable with certain topics these days than we were back in the ’50s, for example, and that’s going to keep changing and keep evolving.

But should it? It’s an honest question, not because I feel uncomfortable talking about certain taboo subjects – in fact, I find the idea of some of those subjects being taboo completely ridiculous – but because you have to think of the whole picture. You have to think of other people.

Over on Hypable, one of the other staffers wrote a brilliant article titled, “Breaking fandom taboos: Let’s talk about slash shipping.” For those that don’t know, slash shipping is the pairing of two characters of the same sex. This might just be who you want to see get together in a show (your “OTP,” or “One True Pairing”), or it might be who you decide to pair in your fan-fiction.

Dean and Cas Supernatural

The Dean and Castiel (“Destiel”) pairing from Supernatural has a huge following.

In the article, Selina talks about what happened at a Supernatural panel and the followup explosion that resulted from it. It’s an interesting read, and I suggest you read both the Hypable article and the Daily Dot article she sources. It really is fascinating to see fandom coming out into the daylight and walking around in the real world. It has some interesting consequences.

The question here is, should these subjects stay taboo? Should they stay in that dark corner of the internet we call Tumblr? Or should we talk about them, bring them out in the open, and normalize them?

I’m of the opinion that the more we talk about these uncomfortable subjects, the less uncomfortable they’ll be. Acceptance of certain subjects in pop culture can lead to their acceptance in real life, and in some cases that truly is a wonderful thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Some subjects should be taboo. Some subjects are just plain wrong. I’m not talking about those.

50 Shades of Grey

Love it or hate it, this book has done a lot for the erotica category.

But, to bring this back around to fiction, as I know most of you here are writers, it makes me wonder, what can we be doing to help normalize the topics that have not quite stepped over that invisible line yet? Shows like Teen Wolf make homosexuality a complete non-issue. Books like The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices by Cassie Clare have insanely popular and likable characters that just happen to be gay. And this is just one topic in a long list of topics that are beginning to be addressed in popular works.

To give you guys a more relevant topic, I feel as though erotica is just touching down on the other side of that invisible line. Some people still don’t like to talk about it. Some people still giggle or side-eye you when you say you’ve read it, but a lot more people are accepting it as okay. And whether or not that’s your thing, I think acceptance of any person and their preferences – save for the truly twisted, of course – is a wonderful thing.

What do you think? Should taboo subjects stay taboo? Are we becoming too open and too comfortable with certain topics? Or do you think accepting people with open arms as they are will bring us all together in a more positive light?

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Comments
  1. Azevedo says:

    Why not accept the truly twisted? As long as they do no harm to a fellow sentient being, acceptance should be equally bestowed upon them. They’re only twisted to common perception. In the words of Orwell “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”
    And no subject should be taboo. Not a single one. Just look at the difference between societies with taboos embedded in them and those free to question everything.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think accepting the twisted is a fine line. At what point can we say, this is no longer healthy? This is no longer *right*? Then, of course, we have to ask, what is “right”? That of course depends on the person. But no one ever said this topic was an easy one. Life isn’t easy, and answers will always be difficult and complicated. But when I did mention the twisted, I was referring to those practices that harm other people.

  2. Jess Witkins says:

    I think it comes down to reader’s choice. If you want to read it, read it. I’m totally against banning books! But it should be up to parents and teachers for creating guidelines about age appropriate materials. I wouldn’t want to restrict my child from reading elevated books, but then I would want to discuss the material with them. I think it was Kristen Lamb at the DFW conference who was talking about this in terms of our kids being robbed of their childhood. Kids are growing up faster and doing things faster, and then you have the “childification” of adults later where it’s adults wearing superhero tee’s and collecting “action figures.”

    I just find the whole thing fascinating, and there’s no easy right or wrong.

  3. ddog13 says:

    Great post. I feel like talking about our personal lives and personal successes have become taboo. For many, talking about your past experiences to a nice island or cool lavish experience is to be avoided, because you come off as arrogant.

    We also avoid talking about out problems to people in school and work settings, because we try to blend in and display a false facade of happiness. Very thought provoking post!

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s a great point! I’ve always felt that talking about our personal successes is taboo. It’s like we should be ashamed of being proud, which is silly. Excessive pride is not a good thing, but taking pride in your work is completely normal. It’s definitely something I struggle with.

  4. I think what’s taboo is going to vary with time and changing culture, to some extent – though there are some obvious universal wrongs that everybody shares. I think the fastest shifts are associated with language – acceptable and unacceptable wording. Here in NZ, Germaine Greer was arrested around 1970 for publicly uttering a word that means male cow dung. Now it appears in book titles. This last week I watched a small group of protestors march down a Wellington street, flanked by police, chanting that very word. Nobody seemed to care.

    As for the “Fifty Shades” genre – well, it tests the bounds of sensibilities, and I think that’s part of the appeal. But to me it’s just bad literature by any measure (and would be, I think, whether it was salacious or not).

    • Karen Rought says:

      Language is actually one of the most fascinating aspects of this phenomenon. I’m wholly intrigued by the idea of reclaiming words. I was brought up feeling uncomfortable about using the term ‘queer’ to describe someone who was not straight, and now it’s used in the gay community as a sort of umbrella term for anyone whose sexuality isn’t easily defined. And I love that. I love that a word that was once derogatory has now been given a positive power. It’s a great thing to see, and I hope we do see more of it.

      And I agree about 50 Shades. From what I’ve heard, the writing is poor and the fact that it’s just bad fan-fiction doesn’t help either. I’ve read some erotica that was both incredibly well written and beautiful. It’s too bad 50 Shades has to give the genre a bad rap when so many other authors have some really great works out there under the same category.

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