Sex and Cultural Taboos

Sex is an important part of life. It gives us physical pleasure and babies. It sometimes expresses love beautifully. Sex leading to children is the only way for the species to survive and for most of us to achieve a form of immortality–of living beyond our death. Although simple, fun, and necessary, sex is restricted by a complex set of morals, social customs, and taboos. Any drive that is so strong and valued, yet so controlled and prohibited, is going to generate stressful, ambivalent, confusing feelings. After an abusive past, particularly sexual abuse, negative issues and thoughts hinder adult survivors lead a fulfilling and positive sex life.

Part of the confusion about sex comes from the church. It may surprise you, but for centuries until the 1800’s, the church fathers thought and taught that women were over-sexed and had poor impulse control, i.e. were easily seduced and prone to act out (wow, is that projection or what?). As women gained more power in the church, an implicit agreement evolved: women would be viewed more favorably by the church if women would deny their sexual interests and become the moral caretakers of the flock (Baumeister, 1991). That is still our “understanding” of gender roles today, but we must remember that women in our Western culture were seen as very sexual (and inferior) creatures only 150 years ago. It was men’s fantasies about women having sex with Satan that lead to witch hunts (in the 17th and 18th centuries 500, 000 women were burned at the stake, not just a few). We are still sorting out sexual myth from reality. For example, to what degree are current women’s sexual “gatekeeping” and insisting on love before sex a reaction to centuries of life-threatening sexual accusations by religious males? Or, are women’s sexual inhibitions based on practical interpersonal politics (males say “why buy the cow if you are already getting the milk?”)? Or, have women learned and/or evolved over eons to be more interested in love, intimacy, and security than in carnal sex?

Acceptance of our sexual feelings

We are sexual beings; there is no escaping it. Infant boys get erections. Little boys and girls like to rub themselves “down there.” One of the great mysteries for most of us as a small child is “How are babies made?” Another is “What do girls/boys look like?” There are good books to read to little folks and books for maturing teenagers (Madaras, 1988a, 1988b).

If you were abused as a child the chances are your feelings will be confused. Your innocence would have been taken a way at a very early age and your body would have experienced mature feelings well in advance of your minds ability to cope. The best thing you can do is take your time. If you are having trouble in the bedroom department – don’t be ashamed. Time is on your side, relax and work things through with your partner by communicating. If you can seek help from a professional therapist then we thoroughly recommend it.

If you ask a college class to anonymously write down a secret, something they are ashamed of, the response is frequently about sex. Things like, “I had an abortion,” “I masturbate,” “I went out with a married man/woman,” “I had sex with someone I didn’t love,” “I had oral sex with my boyfriend,” “I’m attracted to my own sex,” “I’ve had sex with a black,” “I’m attracted to large penises/breasts” and so on. For a culture that thinks of itself as sexually liberal, we have a lot of hang-ups, a lot of guilt.

[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0060959649]

On the other hand, since 1960 there has been an explosion of sexual activity, some of it foolishly impulsive and inconsiderate of one’s partner. Many teenagers get pregnant (see later discussion). In fact, some studies find that 60% to 90% do not use a contraceptive during intercourse the first time. Other reports say 2/3’s of teens use contraceptives the first time but only 17% use condoms all the time. Many college women forget to take their pill 3 or 4 times a month. In any case, more than one-third of all sexually active teenaged women become pregnant before they are nineteen (Maier, 1984). In the late 1980’s, college students were becoming more sexually active but using contraceptives less. This helps explain the large number of abortions in this country. It seems as though guilt and personal shame about sex doesn’t prevent intercourse but does prevent the advanced planning necessary for the prevention of pregnancy. Also, our general emotional discomfort with sex may reduce the use of condoms and increase AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The sex taboo is the notion that sex and love are so important that we must pretend that they are unimportant and so emotionally loaded that they are dangerous to think about.
-James Weinrich (1987)

Teaching that sex is taboo

In our society, sex is taboo from birth to the mid-teens–don’t play with yourself, don’t use “dirty” (sexual) words, don’t read “filthy” (sexual) books or see R-rated movies, don’t have sex until you are older and in love. But when you decide to have sex, you are supposed to immediately function perfectly, i.e. the virginal male is supposed to instantly be a wonderful, considerate lover and the virginal female immediately aware of what to do and how to be orgasmic. What foolish expectations (under those conditions). Everyone knows it can’t work that way if young people aren’t taught about sex or are taught that sex is bad. Yet, starting with infants, hands are removed from the genitalia. At age 4 or 5 we are still being told not to touch ourselves “down there.” Weinrich (1987) gives a delightful example of this prolonged early sex training:

Mother sees her 4-year-old rubbing his penis through his pants and asks, “What are you doing?” (She knows what he is doing! But, yet, she asks.)
The boy replies, “Nothing.” (He knows what he was doing! But even at four, he knows to deny his actions.)
Mother totally ignores his lie and denial, saying, “Well, stop it!”
The boy indirectly admits the truth by responding, “Okay” and, with little apparent reaction, goes back to his play.
This interaction might occur in any home but notice the lack of frank, overt, explicit communication here. The boy has already learned and is over-learning that rubbing his penis in front of mom is so awful, at least in mom’s eyes, that it is unspeakable. They totally avoid discussing why he is touching his penis or how good it feels. Mom doesn’t admit she has done it privately. Mother doesn’t make it clear that other people–including her–might be upset by his openly pleasuring himself in front of them and, thus, he shouldn’t do it publicly, but it is fine to do it alone. Instead, this little 4-year-old boy is forced to figure out on his own these subtle, confused or mixed messages from mom (or dad). Actually, even though he stops rubbing himself, we can’t be sure what his interpretation of the interaction really will be. Perhaps he will think: rubbing my penis is a bad thing to do. Or he may say to himself: it’s okay, if I don’t let anyone see me. Or, perhaps: mom (and other women) thinks my penis is disgusting. Or, maybe: I’m bad and do nasty, weird things that other boys don’t do. Taboos and silence create secrets–sometimes delightful secrets, sometimes disturbing secrets. A little honest talk would be helpful.
Abused children are forced to keep the sexual intimacy a secret. They therefore know what they are taking part in is wrong and they associate there sexual feelings and urges with this ‘bad’ secret. These messages are ingrained into our subconscious and are very difficult to wipe.


It is easy to see how silence becomes a powerful but unguided form of “sex education.” Consider how we deal with little girls. They have a vagina and a clitoris, both of which produce feelings. Yet, many women are never told anything about their vagina–not its location, not its functions, and not how it feels–until blood starts coming out of “their bottom.” We parents are even more secretive about the clitoris. Since its only purpose is to feel good, we seem to be especially careful to say nothing. Are we afraid? ashamed? unsure of what to say? But by saying nothing, we only add confusion and fears to their wondering about where babies come from, what do other people look like, how do people make babies, is it all right to touch myself and tingle “down there” where my pee comes from, etc. Thank goodness for the explicit children’s books about sex (Madaras, 1988a, 1988b).

If the young person going through puberty has never been told “it’s okay or even healthy to masturbate,” the implication is that such acts are too naughty for mom or dad to talk about. Indeed, many people still think masturbation is bad. For centuries the Catholic church has condemned masturbation as sinful; this church still calls it a “seriously disordered act” (sounds like a mental illness!). Twenty years ago about 50% of Americans actually said “masturbation is always wrong” (Levitt & Klassen, 1973). That’s amazing! But that percentage may not have changed much. Surgeon-General Joyce Elders was fired, in part, because she advocated including information about masturbation in sex education courses. We must remember that only 60 years ago our society still believed the medical “science” of the mid-1800’s, namely, that masturbation caused insanity, mental retardation, apathy, fatigue, poor memory, blindness, headaches, etc. No kidding! This negative attitude towards a wonderful aspect of the human body is a major problem. An innocent, harmless act which relieves sexual tension, helps control sexual impulses, increases sexual self-confidence, and provides great pleasure somehow becomes seen as negative or bad by 57% of female adolescents and 45% of male adolescents (Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, 1985). We are doing something wrong.

Don’t knock masturbation. It’s having sex with someone I deeply love.
-Woody Allen

A Playboy (1976) survey showed that 75% of college males masturbate at least once a month (in addition to 72% having intercourse), 80% say they like to masturbate, and only 10% say they refrain altogether. Other surveys show the average 16-year-old male masturbates about three times a week. College females are less enthusiastic about it, about 54% have masturbated sometime and liked it, 13% have tried it and didn’t like it, 8% haven’t but would try it, and 25% have never masturbated and don’t want to. More recent surveys found about the same results, namely, 60% to 80% of females have masturbated at least once sometime in their lives. Masters, Johnson & Kolodny (1985, p. 366) say men masturbate about twice (other researchers say three times) as often as women both before and after marriage (about 70% of husbands and wives masturbate some). Masturbation and intercourse do not necessarily replace each other.

People who enjoy masturbating are more likely to have climaxes later in life (Kinsey, et al., 1953) while making love. Men usually ejaculate easily but women frequently have trouble climaxing. One reason for this is that men masturbate by grasping and stroking the penis with one hand. This is similar to the movements and sensations during intercourse, so for men masturbation is good training for intercourse. Women often masturbate in ways that are unlike intercourse: light strokes on or near the clitoris (48%), vibrator on or near clitoris (26%), squeezing the legs together (4%), running water on the genitals (4%), stroking the breasts, having sexual fantasies, and so on (Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, 1985). (They rarely masturbate in ways similar to intercourse, i.e. inserting something in and out the vagina.) If one learns to have a climax in only one way and if that way is incompatible with intercourse, e.g. by squeezing the legs together, it may be difficult to achieve an orgasm when having intercourse with a partner. Thus, many women have to deal with two problems: (1) having little or no past experience with climaxing via masturbation and/or (2) having masturbatory experience that doesn’t transfer well to intercourse. Women need to research these matters. It seems like it would be best for women to learn to enjoy masturbating by stimulating the clitoris in several ways (unless their religious or moral beliefs prohibit it).

There is another aspect of masturbation worth noting. If you marry a 22-year-old person, who has been a moderately active masturbator, even though he/she may be a virgin, he/she has already probably had over 1500 orgasms, each probably with an imaginary sexual partner. That is quite a sex life (for a “virgin”) already. My point is: this sexual experience may be good–it may reflect a healthy drive and a positive attitude towards sex. Contrast this “history” with an inexperienced person who doesn’t like to masturbate at all or with another person who masturbates two or three times a day fantasizing only about prostitutes. Which of these three “histories” sounds healthiest to you? It is amazing that researchers and we as a society know very little about the implications of our past masturbatory-fantasy sex life for love-making with our marriage partner. This ignorance is another result of our avoidance of sex, of our moral inhibitions–our sexual taboos.

A Forum (1973) advisor claimed that 90% of non-orgasmic women did not masturbate regularly when younger. For this reason and others (e.g. fun, healthy, normal, creates a more positive attitude towards sex in general), several highly respected authors have prescribed masturbation and even given detailed how-to instructions. If you are just learning, try Blank (1996) or Heiman, Lo Piccolo, & Lo Piccolo (1976). If you are a female, try Barbach (1975) or Blank (2000). If you are a seasoned practitioner, try Litten (1996). Older but still good references are Comfort (1972), Dodson (1974), Seaman (1972), Ellis (1974, 1988), and Smith, Ayres & Rubinstein (1973).

For more information on dealing with sexual problems see our section on Exploring your Sexuality.

[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0897934652]

A good way to look at sexual issues is to take your time. Talking to your partner and allowing them to do only a certain number of sexual advances gives you control over the situation. For example, one night just lie and hold each other, set the rule that no touching is allowed. Do this until you feel comfortable, then try just allowing touching around but not on the ‘sensitive’ parts (i.e. not genitals or breasts), then when you are comfortable with this try only touching the upper body, slowly working through until you are comfortable with touching all over. If at any stage you find it unbearable then have a pact that anyone can say STOP. But if you use your STOP option then don’t just leave it, try and talk about it and work out what bit was uncomfortable and why. Take a step backwards on the program and go back to the previous nights touching, that way you can slowly build up to making love. It will take time though, so be prepared for a long wait.

Comments are closed.