The New Sex Taboos:
What We’re Not Supposed to Discuss Now

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In every generation there are sexual things that people are not supposed to discuss or even see.

When I was young, polite people never said “menstrual cramps” or “period.” On TV, married couples slept in separate single beds, and you couldn’t say “pregnant.” On the beach, seeing pubic hair sticking out of a woman’s swimsuit was thrilling, but everyone had to pretend it didn’t exist. Medical school textbooks (and all school sex-ed books) omitted the clitoris. Hollywood films were forbidden from showing tongue-kissing or even implying the existence of oral sex.

Now, of course, none of those words or images are off-limits. We’re allowed to see and hear them.

But today there’s a different set of new sex-related words and ideas considered so dangerous that they must not be discussed. Professionals and academics who try to merely examine certain sexual ideas lose their jobs; non-professionals who do so are labelled transphobic, rape apologists, homophobic, altogether bad people whose voice must be stifled—physically, if necessary.

Today we’re told that simply discussing certain sex-related ideas is a form of violence—itself an incredibly dangerous idea.

A quick look at history reveals that many sex-related ideas we today find acceptable—in fact, necessary—were at one time considered “dangerous.” These include:

~ BDSM (the Marquis de Sade was jailed for simply writing about it)
~ Homosexuality (Oscar Wilde was jailed for discussing it; Hollywood and sports careers were jeopardized if anyone suggested that being gay was acceptable)
~ Birth control (Bill Baird was jailed for displaying contraceptives on college campuses)
~ George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words (various cities jailed Lenny Bruce for saying them onstage; later, the federal government forbade their airing on radio or TV)

What sexual conversations are taboo today that will in the future be considered not just acceptable, but even necessary?

Let’s look at some sex-related ideas that we are NOT supposed to even talk about today. Reasonable, differing arguments can be made by different people, so remember—the problem is not that some ideas are controversial; it’s that they are increasingly considered dangerous and undiscussable.

~ Why am I expected to announce my pronouns in public?
In more and more situations (email footers, conference announcements, ads, corporate meetings), people are expected to announce their pronouns. The ostensible reason is so that people whose preferred pronouns are not obvious to others can state that without being outliers—because everyone is making their own announcement.

A second reason is to signal that one is “supportive” of transgender and non-binary people.

But we are increasingly expected to do this in situations where we are not expected (in fact, it would be inappropriate) to announce our religion, race, economic status, or trauma status (“Skye Jones, rape survivor;” “Chazz Ricci, orphaned at birth”). And yet any of these might be a far more important aspect of someone’s identity than their gender.

The pronoun expectation assumes that your gender identity or your sexuality is the most important thing about you. For many people it isn’t. And it supposes that the people you most want to “support” are people for whom gender identity is essential. What if you prefer to announce your “support” for religious minorities or atheists (“Akal Singh, Sikh;” “Jackson White, non-believer”)?

Most importantly, why is the mere discussion of this question prohibited in workplace or academic settings? I’ve heard a few people say that such a discussion makes them feel “unsafe,” and it reminds them of the violence that some trans people experience. I would reply that learning to differentiate between actual threats and discussions of issues is an essential skill for successfully functioning in a complicated world.

~ Who is consent for?
No one should exploit anyone. No one should have sex if their partner hasn’t consented.

But say two adults jointly relinquish their ability to consent—say, by getting drunk together. Should they be legally allowed to have sex? Say they do agree to have sex while both are drunk. If one person afterwards says “I wasn’t capable of consent, I was violated,” can the other say “I was drunk too, I couldn’t consent either, and you had sex with me, so I was violated, too”?

Assign genders to these two characters and you get a complex real-world situation that has no easy solution. But attempting to analyze this issue dispassionately shouldn’t get someone labelled a rape apologist or misogynist. Indeed, NOT talking about this can’t possibly lead to better outcomes.

And why aren’t more people discussing the common phenomenon of young women getting drunk as preparation for going to fraternity parties–and then regretting the outcome? Surely one reason is that anyone who brings this up risks being labelled as victim-blaming. Interestingly, no one applies this label to people who are hurt in car accidents who don’t wear seat-belts.

And no one says that people researching this are in favor of aggressive drivers maiming other drivers.

~ Is “asexual” a sexual orientation?
Can anyone simply declare their personal configuration an orientation? What if a bunch of people claim the same personal configuration an “orientation”—what’s the threshold of social acceptance for a new “orientation”? The same can be asked about “demisexual,” “graysexual,” and dozens of other new alleged orientations.

What is sexual orientation, anyway?

Sparked by the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the very nature of sexual orientation was publicly debated continually. Is bisexuality real, or just ambivalence or self-rejection? Can you be a feminist and enjoy being spanked? The very conversations were seen as signs that these issues were being taken seriously, not as an existential threat. No one back then dreamed they’d be told to stop asking questions.

~ At what age should kids be taught about gender?
Intelligent, caring people disagree about this. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a collaborative discussion about it?

Instead, some trans activists and their allies have taken the position that even discussing this amounts to rejection of transsexualism. Some trans activists who have no expertise other than their own pain have rejected experts in childhood development who aren’t themselves trans as being inevitably prejudiced.

Are there any disadvantages to teaching kids about gender too early? People who are willing to examine data and generate hypotheses about this should be treasured, not tarnished.

~ Doesn’t rejecting male or female gender identification reinforce gender stereotypes?
I’m sympathetic toward anyone who feels constrained by the roles traditionally assigned to “men” and “women.” The feminist movement of the 1970s re-set society on a path toward more equal opportunities and more psychological equity.

We’ve all learned that women can be astronauts, men can cry, and listings for job openings don’t need to be segregated by gender (yes, they used to be). Women can marry women, men can adopt children, and a growing number of states (currently 15) don’t require a gender listed on your driver’s license.

While we still have a ways to go, most Americans have enjoyed the benefits of radically reduced social expectations based on their (perceived) gender.

So if a “man” can be anything and a “woman” can be anything, one might wonder why someone who rejects the constraints of traditional gender roles needs to free themselves from the category of gender.

One could even argue that if you want to finish the social project of destroying gender roles, include as many different kinds of human in “man” and in “woman” as possible—and soon the two categories will have no meaning beyond genitalia, which is what many of us desire.

It’s worth discussing, isn’t it?
The rigidity of “no one should discuss these things” has turned off a large segment of the public, who don’t have a strong position on most of these issues.

And rejecting the expertise of people who have spent decades thinking about one or more of these subjects is a mistake—even if (especially if) their thinking isn’t informed by ideology.

Important, complex issues deserve the perspectives of people other than those who feel marginalized. Being marginalized is NOT the only source of expertise in discussing any issue, and sometimes provides no expertise at all—only personal experience, which is not the same thing. Pain does not confer expertise, only opinion.

Ironically, the very question of what constitutes expertise is one that some people think should not be discussed—that only marginalized communities get to define expertise about issues they value. History shows that such narrow-minded taboos don’t lead to smart thinking or safety for anyone.

Meanwhile, careers are being destroyed, knowledge is being discarded, and fear is undermining intellectual institutions. Just as physicians are increasingly declining to perform abortions, researchers are increasingly declining to study exactly what society needs to understand better.

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