Where do sexual taboos come from

Growing up in the 50’s it occurred to me that while most aspects of morality had to do with treating other people well, there were a whole lot of rules about sexuality that didn’t seem to serve any real purpose. I didn’t buy the idea that for some inexplicable reason supernatural powers were intensely concerned about our sex lives. Understandably we should want to avoid unwanted pregnancies and spreading diseases, but dread of sexuality went way beyond an expectation of “safe sex.” Some sort of puritanical sexual taboos seemed to pervade most cultures.

About the only explanation I’ve heard for where these rules come from is that is somehow relates to men wanting to control women, but that strikes me as implausible. As a heterosexual male, I certainly don’t feel that these taboos do me any good, and I’m pretty sure most of the men I know would agree with me. The last thing I want to see is women covering up their bodies all the time – men love it when women show off their bodies. The idea of women having their genitals mutilated so they don’t enjoy sex is particularly repulsive - most men enjoy sex far more if the woman is enjoying it. I think it’s great if women want to be promiscuous – while it might increase the chances of “my” woman having sex with somebody else, it also increases my chances of having sex with another woman, a tradeoff I’m happy with. Simply put, I don’t think most males would promote sexual taboos based on self-interest.

Not long ago I thought of a better explanation. Sexual taboos come from mothers with husbands or other long-term male partners passing down their attitudes over thousands of years.

The competition here isn’t between men and women, but between less attractive (older) mothers who have a male partner to help protect and provide for their children and more attractive (younger) women who are in a good position to steal those men away. The mothers have more than enough sex from one man to produce all the offspring they can handle, so they have little desire for access to other men and promiscuity doesn’t benefit them in terms of having more surviving children. Since they’ve often already had several kids which have taken a toll on their bodies, puritanical dress codes are fine for them since they mean the competition can’t show off it’s superior product. In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, older mothers don’t object to the practice since they’ve already had it done, but may benefit from it because it reduces the threat from eager younger women. Early arranged marriages also help protect married mothers from competition.

But did these women make the rules? Not the official ones (laws and commandments) which were made and enforced by males, but mothers were the ones who teach children their values. They would certainly emphasize the values that serve their purposes more than the ones that don’t. Even the priests and chiefs probably learned most of their values from their mothers. In addition, when women hang out together, they seem to spend much more time then men discussing the relative merits of people’s behavior. I suspect this is true across cultures and has been historically. So while men may make the rules and give the commands in traditional societies, it is the older women who teach children the values. This happens gradually over many generations, each generation taking for granted the taboos that went before and notching them up slightly. Having been indoctrinated by their mothers into seeing casual sexuality as bad, the high priests and kings may codify these ideas into laws.

Of course I’m talking about traditional cultures. In developed countries in recent times, with women having fewer children and decent career opportunities, mothers have much less incentive to promote such taboos, so (hopefully) prudish traditions are gradually fading out.

So is it a reasonable hypothesis that the historical reason for most sexual taboos is mothers protecting their own interests?

I think it’s a matter of ruthless people of both genders protecting their interests. “Traditional values” make a lot more sense from the perspective of someone ruthless. Having women kowtow to your every wish without contradicting you is a lot more attractive to a man who just wants a toy & servant than to someone who wants the companionship of a wife and cares about what she wants, for example. And being regarded as weak and stupid is a hindrance to a woman who wants to be respected professional, but great for a woman who wants to be able to commit a crime, then cry and say her husband made her do it without people rolling their eyes at her.

Your example of genital mutilation is actually an example of this. It has parallels in the animal world ( animals using more biological methods for the same result ), and each gender tends to push for mutilation of a different type. It tends to be the femals who push for the sort that makes sexual pleasure impossible, for just the reason of avoiding competition you mention. Males on the other hand tend to go for sewing the woman shut or otherwise making it impossible for her to have sex at all without permission; the goal in their case is to ensure that they are the father of any children.

Well, let’s think of it this way. You are a woman with a husband and kids. Your primary evolutionary drive is to promote the welfare of those kids so that your genetic info may be passed on. After a few kids, you’ve pretty much produced all the kids you will be able to. Now, your husband isn’t as limited. If he sleeps around all the time, he can produce a whole bunch more children. Unfortunately for you, though, that would mean the resources he can provide would have to be split up amongst all those children, since he too has an evolutionary imperative to provide for the ones carrying his genetic code. Thus, the woman may be in favor of sexual taboos because it helps maximize the resources that will be allotted to her own children.

On the flip side, suppose you’re a man with a wife. Despite what some may think, it is not always immediately obvious that a child is actually yours. You want to preserve your own genetic code, so you want to make sure that you haven’t been cuckolded. Sexual taboos help ensure that your wife hasn’t been sleeping around forcing you to spend your limited resources on a genetic stranger.

Basically, each sex has an interest in limiting the promiscuity of the other sex. Over time, cultures that have adopted these sorts of taboos will likely form a more stable society, because less effort will be expended ensuring that everyone’s kids are actually their own.

I’d guess that men have more to gain from sexual taboos than women do. While a woman will pretty much always know that a child carries her genetic code, a man cannot be as sure. Therefor, he benefits more from knowing that his partner has been faithful.

This premise is flawed from the get-go, for all that it seems to be widespread these days. Lots of people seem to think that “puritanical sexual taboos” have existed since the dawn of recorded history, and that it’s only since 1967 that personal desires have played any role in anyone’s sexual behavior. This, however, is false. Just read recorded history. Different societies have vastly different patterns of sexual behavior. Almost everything imaginable has been tried somewhere. The “age-old” sexual taboos that young people love to hate are a relatively recent development in human history.

Amidst this great variety, one thing has always been true. Complete sexual anarchy–the state where anyone has sex with anyone whenever they choose–simply does not work. It’s been tried everywhere from certain islands in ancient Greece to the Oneida community in 19th century New York to hippie communes, but every community that tries it collapses. To use the trendy word, complete sexual anarchy is not sustainable.

So why do we have the system of sexual morality that we currently have? I see no need to invoke complex conflicts between younger and older women or taboos gradually toughening over successive generations. How about this explanation: we have the current system because it works. The system where one man marries one woman and they stay married for life is self-perpetuating because it’s stable and produces good results for virtually everyone. Firstly, it allows everyone to pair up. By contrast, if one man gets multiple female partners then other men must get none. Second, it leads to family stability. If a couple stays married for life, it saves tremendous time, effort, and mental anguish. Thirdly, it leads to societal stability. In our current system, social roles are well-defined.

None of this is theoretical. The results can be seen anywhere you look. In America, the most anarchic sexual situation is in inner-city ghettos, where a majority of children are born out of wedlock and as few as a third of adults are married. The results are obvious in the form of high crime, failing education, and general societal collapse. In Asia, the social system has been upset because so many girls have been eliminated by abortion and infanticide. This creates an imbalanced society where many young men can’t get married, and the results are the same: high crime and social breakdown. On a worldwide scale, anthropologist Peter Wood has studied the effects of various sexual patterns in primitive societies and found “good reasons to defend traditional American family values”.

Speak for yourself. I’m a heterosexual male and I’m quite happy with our society’s traditional sexual morality. I wish we had more of it. I used to think that I was a loner in this regard, but then I started talking about it with my guy friends and found that they all agreed.

I suspect a lot more of it comes from men protecting what they see as their property. men in these societies don’t even give up seeing other women’s bodies, because they usually include a more or less accepted underground of pornography and prostitution. It is often the case that it is illegal to sell but legal to buy, and the powerful were often protected by the authorities even if their involvement became known. Things were set up so the laws would keep younger men away from the wives of the powerful, while allowing them access to younger, more attractive women.

Now, a man gadding about but still remaining a provider is less dangerous to a woman than him leaving (in these old societies,) so they kind of benefited also; but I don’t know how much power they would have had to change things in any case.

I read about this in Aayan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel where she describes this happening to her. A man did the sewing, but at the request of her grandmother when her parents were away, and against the wishes of both of her parents. Girls were apparently mocked in her culture if this wasn’t done, but there was no indication that the driving force was the men who were to eventually marry them. This was done before puberty and typically before the future husband was known. Obviously this is no protection to a husband once he is having intercourse with his wife, and if the future wife isn’t already pregnant when they marry, he doesn’t have to worry about raising other people’s kids. I can’t rule out a certain element of possessiveness by the males, but it seems that older females have much more to gain from this tradition.

As I understand it it IS typically pushed more from the men. Also, my opinion is influenced by the fact that it’s common in nature for males to “seal up” a female in some fashion, like a plug of semen.

For every male who gains from sex stifled by a taboo, there is a man who loses by having sex stifled by a taboo (the illicit lover), so for males, it’s a wash. But that’s only from the standpoint of parentage. Males in general enjoy sex regardless of whether it produces offspring, and seem to enjoy variety in sex more than females, so overall, males lose by sexual restrictions.

Older women (who are in a position to indoctrinate the young) clearly gain over younger women (who don’t), so I’d expect this to be the more powerful effect.

Which specific taboos are we talking about?

Because for example the incest taboo, which varies widely from culture to culture, seems to stem from the notion that some illnesses are more likely to happen if there’s interbreeding. That’s got nothing to do with power and everything with natural selection.

ITR champion

People tend to believe that the way they were brought up is what is naturally best. I don’t have a lot of confidence in researchers who go out and study other cultures and come back with the conclusion that their own upbringing is ideal. Could be, but there’s lots of room for bias there.

Clearly a stable environment for raising children good for a culture. Sexual taboos may help in some ways, but they do a lot of damage in others. Sometimes people are consumed with guilt because they let their natural desires overcome the demands of taboos. How many families have been split up, not because of unfaithfulness itself, but because of the bitterness that resulted following the violation of the sexual rule? Then of course there are the warped sexual restrictions common in the Muslim world.

Outside of isolated communities, I am unaware of many cases of cultures without sexual taboos. My impression of hippie communities is that they failed because of wildly unrealistic economics (they expected a middle class American existence while making a living doing primitive farming and arts and crafts) and serious drug problems. In addition they had all been brought up with traditional views and were embedded in a traditional society. Success is unlikely in those conditions. I don’t have the impression that kids raised by hippies turned out any worse than anybody else.

Even if we assume that committed couples are best for raising children, there are a lot of rules that make little sense in producing a successful society (masturbation, nudity, public discussion of sex), so I doubt cultural success has much to do with why we have these taboos.

There’s something to what you say in terms of powerful men using their advantage against weaker men, particularly when polygamy was the norm (they didn’t even need prostitutes). I can’t see pornography as much of an issue before the invention of photography (and prudish rules predated that by millennia) though prostitution certainly would be a factor. Still, it makes no sense for them to outlaw prostitution (even though just for the women) if that was a major outlet for them.

I think we underestimate the influence of women even in ancient times. They had little ability to improve their own situation, and no ability to enforce anything through threats of violence. But they did raise the children, and I suspect that they had far more influence on the way their offspring viewed the world than the kings and high priests who issued mighty pronouncements from time to time. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, virtually everyone, male and female, learned most of what they knew from their mothers up until perhaps age 7-10. This wasn’t some calculation by the mother to influence future culture, but it would reflect the mother’s likes and dislikes, and could be crucial in determining the culture’s direction.

Similar to the answer I gave in a reasons for homophobia thread, I’ll mention here that I think many are born of:

-Gender roles that often began for sensible reasons but became rigidly codified due to convention

-A misunderstanding as to what sperm is (it was not very long ago at all that it was believed the sperm was a homunculus, and it’s only been in the past two centuries that most people understood the role of both sperm and egg in fertilization and conception)

-Misplaced empathy- if I don’t like the notions of that being done to me then most people wouldn’t therefore I’m doing them a favor

-That’s just weird!- seeing things done that are not a part of/never occurred to your culture and therefore a certain xenophobic prejudice later becomes codified

-Aversion to a culture that practices this- for example, people viewed the Persian culture as decadent, Persians had sex with eunuchs and nobles often married immediate family members, therefore sex with eunuchs and incest are Persian are decadent are forbidden (not to say that bans on incest and eunuchs aren’t good ideas in general)

For the moralizing aspect there’s a strong element I think of “if I have no temptation to do that then it’s pretty certain I won’t get caught”. Example: I very rarely drink and I don’t do illegal drugs, therefore a prohibition on alcohol and a strengthening of punishments on illegal drug use would barely affect me at all, therefore if I were a moralizing demagogue I might choose alcohol as something to demonize since I’m clean.
The reverse is also true: if I’m a closet homosexual or closet pornaholic or closet alcoholic then I can throw sands over my tracks by denouncing said behavior very loudly and harmonizing to the auto da fa of those genuinely not tempted. Also, subconsciously I may be projecting my hatred of myself onto/punishing those who do what I’d secretly love to do and don’t hate themselves for it.

There are lots of taboos and other cultural traditions, and I’d be foolish to claim there’s a single explanation for all of them (and in fact any of them might have multiple causes). Offhand, I can’t see any reason mothers would be particularly concerned about incest, so natural selection seems like a more important factor in this case.

I think we need to specify what kind of taboos we’re talking about; otherwise we’ll just pontificate in all directions with vague generalizations and villains.

IMHO Many of these rules were put in by religious authorities for spiritual reasons, much of it preserves the power structures over the population.

It’s interesting that you use the word puritanical. Can you define what that means?

All social rules in any given society are about controlling behavior and ensuring that the status quo is protected.

Remove yourself from the equation for a moment. You don’t live in those societies that practice those customs so of course they won’t benefit you.

Are you talking about those specific taboos you mentioned or all sexual taboos? Because, I can assure you, that plenty of men support sexual taboos out of their own interest. It’s in my own interest to make sure that nobody’s going to plow my wife while I’m out plowing the fields. Therefore, a taboo against sex with married women who aren’t your wife is probably good for me. Likewise it’s probably good for the guy who wants to plow my wife. I won’t get jealous and possible harm him, abandon my kids because, after all, if she is a whore whose to say they are mine, and there’s no wider friction within the community.

:slight_smile: Congratulations, you’ve discovered culture. However, these institutional behaviors have a function within any given society. They serve a purpose of some kind.

I don’t think so. I bet you could maybe find some societies where this is the case but not the majority of them.


If it involves discouraging some behavior sexual in nature for reasons other than coercion, disease avoidance, or unwanted pregnancy, I’d probably call it a sexual taboo. Examples would be masturbation, nudity, premarital sex, incest, pornography, kinky sex, gay sex, prostitution, requiring women to be covered head to toe, not allowing women to speak to men they’re not related to, female genital mutilation, public discussion of sex (even in our enlightened society it would be inappropriate in casual discussion to describe what sex acts you performed with your spouse last night) and you can probably think of more. I’m not claiming all of these are necessarily the result of mother’s attitudes, only that some are, so a precise list shouldn’t be necessary. I’m not interested in debating whether these are necessarily harmful or whether these were handed down by God.

I think they are all caused by two things: Sexual jealousy, and the fact that children seldom find out what their parents actually did and guess wrong.

Actually those taboos make a great deal of sense. If a society allowed public masturbation, nudity, and discussion of sex (or outright allowed sex acts in public) then that would change the society quite a bit. Sexual privacy would disappear. Chauvinist pigs would pressure women in public. People who preferred privacy and modesty would feel scared and intimidated. Some people might avoid public situations just to get away from it all. The balance of power in public would shift away from women and towards men, because men have a stronger sex drive and generally feel more confident about expressing sexuality in public. For all those reasons and others, it makes a great deal of sense for a society to keep sexuality in private as much as possible.

Do we really have any evidence that reducing the taboos will reduce the guilt and bitterness? It seems to me likely that the opposite is true. You get minimum guilt when you have minimum misbehavior. If all of society acts as a support group that encourages people to remain faithful to a single spouse, there’d be less infidelity and thus less guilt. Plainly put, look around at our enlightened society. Have we ereadicated (or great reduced) guilt and bitterness, or are we swimming in a sea of them.

As for the warped restrictions of Muslim societies, all the more reason to stick to the traditional values of western society.

Who said anything about public masturbation?