Taboos make their way to the mainstream

Darren D’Altorio

The wild and bizarre become social norms

Let’s say a married man who just got his nipples pierced decides to smoke a joint while having a threesome with another man and a woman, who isn’t his wife, after eating a gluttonous meal and imbibing potent alcoholic drinks.

How many taboos is this man embracing or violating?

It depends on a person’s social and cultural frame of reference. But adultery, body modification, drug and alcohol use, homosexuality and overeating are all considered taboos in various cultures, even here in America. And that’s just a minute fraction of the perceived taboos that exist in the world.

According to Gordon Marshall’s “Dictionary of Sociology,” the contemporary understanding of taboo is “a social and often sacred prohibition put upon certain things, people or acts, which render them untouchable or unmentionable.”

By default of human curiosity and a need to understand, that definition is being violated. Taboos have become a topic of scientific and social exploration, especially through documentary, anthropological and sociological studies.

Like many rituals and cultural practices throughout the world, what is considered taboo in one culture is wholly embraced in another culture. For example, in Asian and Pacific Island cultures, receiving a tattoo is a sacred ritual that is deeply rooted in their cultural history.

But, as I learned from a Rastafarian cab driver in Belize, tattoos are taboo for Rastafarians. He pointed to the ink on the inside of my right arm and told me that is not allowed for Rastafarians because Ja, which is the name Rastafarians use to refer to God, has blessed our bodies by creating them in his image. He said tattoos desecrate that image.

Throughout modern American history, tattoos’ taboo status has diminished, and they are being embraced by popular culture. Other taboo topics, like nudity and adultery, are still looming reminders that certain behaviors are still considered taboo in America.

According to a 2009 Gallup poll, respondents said extramarital affairs are more taboo and unacceptable than suicide, cloning, abortion and medical testing on animals. Ninety-two percent of people who took the poll said extramarital affairs are morally wrong. Coming in a close second was polygamy, the practice of having multiple marital partners. According to the same poll, 62 percent of respondents said divorce and the death penalty were morally acceptable.

Contrast that notion to previous American social ideals, where divorce was highly frowned upon and considered an extreme taboo. It illustrates that taboos, like language or societies in general, are living, shifting organisms that feed off and reflect societal norms.

Last summer, The New York Times published an article concerning nudity and children. Some parents said that in the unrelenting summer heat, letting children run around naked is a perfectly acceptable way to make them more comfortable. Others said it’s inexcusable and uncivilized behavior.

Uncivilized — one might wonder what a family who lives in the scorching Serengeti or the jungles of South America would say to this notion that nudity is equated with an uncivilized existence?

Exploring taboos has often led to this finger pointing. Look at the debate surrounding same-sex marriage in America. Some lawmakers and politicians speak to their constituents, citing Bible verses to defend the idea that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. At the same time, advocates argue against those notions, trying to dispel those ideas as being taboo in a progressive, modern society.

Because of globalization, people are finding it necessary to understand how other cultures operate. The world is not physically shrinking, but information sharing is redefining the idea of a community. This is affecting the existence of taboos.

National Geographic, in an effort to illuminate taboos across the world, has filmed a series of documentary episodes entitled, simply, “Taboo.” Topics range from drug cultures, prostitution and human sex trafficking, nudist colonies, body modification and obesity.

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Darren D’Altorio

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