Why fighting to retain sexuality's innate perversion is the only way to save it from certain death-by-normalizaton.
Everyone watches porn. Everyone uses sex to sell. Every TV show features 20-somethings experimenting with rim-jobs (Girls), swinging (Californication) pegging (Broad City) or semi-public prison sex (Orange is the New Black). Road head? Done it. Acted out your favorite scene from 50 Shades of Grey? Meh. Threesomes with morally numb yet tantalizing twins? YouPorned it earlier, thanks for asking.
In today’s culture of supersaturated, in-your-face sexuality, sex is no longer special. Not in a “kids are having the sex before marriage” kind of way, but in a way where it’s losing its edge. It’s conventional. Through a massive cultural push for sex positivity and widespread acceptance of all things erotic, sex has become normalized.
I’m not going to pretend an open dialogue about sexuality isn’t progressive and necessary. It’s good for sexual health and education, it’s good for eradicating slut shaming, and it’s good for thinking openly about those who have different sexual interests than our own. Talking about sex makes us more in tune with what we want and need, and that’s great.
But there’s a flipside to that. Normalized sex tells us what we want. It sets standards and averages that rob us of the ability to find ourselves through discovering the “wrong” side of sex.
Wrong sex is perverse. It’s S&M, group sex, deception porn and other acts that exist within the realm of sexuality society typically refers to as “taboo.” But taboo is not something to eradicate in the name of sex positivity; it’s a gift that teaches us about ourselves. It helps us develop identity, set boundaries, and seek out the kind of sex we really want.
The more we use media to shove hypersexuality in our own faces and push for its normalization, the more flaccid the above benefits become. Without the presence of wrong sex, we lose sight of what feels best for us.
Taboo is therapeutic
“The benefit of taboo sex is rebellion,” says Athena Lennon, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping couples improve their sex lives. “It challenges the norm.”
No one understands the deep-seeded psychological reward of taboo better than a sex therapist. From a therapist’s perspective, there’s an obvious need to demystify sex. After all, one of the goals of sexual therapy is to make people feel secure about their actions and desires. Because of this, it’s one of the few situations where sex is extremely over-talked, the point being to work through trauma and towards self-improvement. But even in a therapeutic situation, the notion that sex should retain a degree of “wrongness” remains pervasive.
That’s exactly what it should do; that’s how society progresses forward. Hello birth control. Hello abortion. Hello gay marriage. If all sex is socially acceptable, it challenges nothing and stagnation prevails.
Athena works with sex addicts and alcoholics, many of whom she says must be confronted with something heavy like a taboo to realize they’ve gone too far.
“The whole point of taboo is to set up boundaries so you can know how far you can push yourself, and if you want to go further or take a step back,” she says. “A taboo is a small crisis, one that you have to overcome. Crisis creates opportunity. You need challenge to grow.”
In her practice, Athena occasionally recommends that a couple experiment with sex they consider to be taboo. Porn, toys and open relationships are all possible prescriptions — not because they’re normal things that couples who don’t need therapy do, but because overcoming the taboo of them leads to personal growth. Having to work around the delicate issues that a taboo sex act brings gets the couple communicating about their boundaries and needs, and injects a much-needed sense of novelty into the relationship. Without gently and safely suggesting her clients try something they might see as “wrong,” she can’t encourage them to get out of their comfort zones and evolve as both individuals and partners.
When I asked her whether she thought society’s ever-increasing obsession with sexuality helped or hurt her clients, she felt that although it can be dangerous not to talk about sex (STDs, unwanted pregnancies, confusion about consent), it can also be dangerous to over-talk it.
“I think a lot of women, especially younger ones, put themselves in compromising situations that they normally wouldn’t because of the way sex is thrown in our faces,” she says. “When you normalize sex, people start to do things they wouldn’t naturally want to because it’s part of the larger fabric of what culture considers ‘normal.’ Many young girls I’ve seen have done things they wouldn’t ordinarily want to do because of how prevalent it was in media and online.”
If our culture overtalks sex to such an extent that the taboo fades away, people can get the wrong idea about what their own sexuality means. Keeping sex wrong gives people more of an opportunity to explore their own sexual boundaries. If everything is “right,” there’s no basis for discomfort, no theoretical reason why someone should speak up and say “I don’t like this,” or worse, “No.”
Getting away with something is a good thing
Another person who deals with the balance of wrong sex and its normalization is Tom Hayward.
Tom makes casting couch porn for Net Video Girls and Casting Couch HD. You know the kind where the girl shows up for a modeling audition and gets duped into having sex with the talent agent? Tom is that talent agent. He makes a living luring viewers into the deception, making them believe that said girl really bit off more than she could handle with this modeling thing. Of course it’s scripted, but even if a viewer knows that deep down, he’ll return to the site because he imagines himself as the talent agent: a guy who got away with something.
The whole point of Tom’s career and sex life is deception: someone’s getting away with something “wrong.” You can argue all you want that porn paints an unrealistic picture of reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are rabid, dedicated fans who follow it because their desire for something wrong overwhelms their desire for something safe. Perversion allows them to express their sexuality in its most unencumbered form. Anyone with eyes who has sought out porn knows how much truly weird porn exists; the things people do to each other aren’t normal. That’s why we want to watch.
Oftentimes, watching taboo porn like the kind Tom makes is how we find out what is and what is not arousing for us personally, something that’s useful when it comes to developing our own unique sexual identities. I’m not saying you need to do something most people consider dirty to figure out who you are between the sheets — but when was the last time you got to know yourself better by having missionary sex with your partner of two years? Maybe you realized “this is boring” or “this feels amazing,” but an observation of sensation isn’t quite an identity.
Tom has a solution to this. “Porn helps expose you to the types of sex that don’t conform to the norm,” he says. “Maybe you’re into them, maybe you’re not, but that should be your decision, not society’s.” Porn, he agrees, is a vehicle for resisting normalization because the sheer quantity and content diversity of it helps develop sexual personalities that are no one’s but ours.
Plus, the ease of acquiring porn is driving people to even more experimental sex just to get turned on because normal sex is no longer exciting. If we kept sex at a manageable level of wrongness, you wouldn’t have to get into giant octopus hentai.
Taboo sex is about what you want
Audrey Holiday is an expert at managing optimum wrongness levels. She’s a professional switch (dominatrix and submissive combo deal) who works at a dungeon where her clients either come to punish her, or be punished by her. She is constantly confronted with accommodating people’s bizarre and occasionally dark fantasies, which she serves as an outlet for.
“Nobody wants their secret world bombarded,” she said about the portrayal of sex in culture and the media. “If there’s something you really want to explore, you seek it out. It’s a different thing when people who might not necessarily like something do it because it’s something they think people want. That’s not what sex is about. It’s about what you want.”
That’s the crux of the argument against fully normalized sex: it creates a prefabricated sexual palette for you without considering the vastly idiosyncratic needs and desires which transcend that design.
Wrong sex is in your DNA
So far, everything I’ve laid on the table are people’s subjective experiences. However, work on this has also been done in more objective realms. Recently, scientists have looked into taboo sex to try to uncover the roots of our infatuation with it, and they’ve discovered that humans actually evolved to thrive off taboo.
In the Psychology Today article “The Secret, Taboo Aspects of Male Desire,” sex researcher Leon F. Seltzer, P.h.D zeroed in on taboo’s ability to heighten sexual risk. Desire, he found, allows us to behave in ways that are physically and socially risky, which is the very thing that turns us on about them.
There’s a biological reason for this. Sexual risk triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system which, in addition to contributing to fight-or-flight responses like increased heart rate or deepened breathing, controls the orgasmic response. Even the fantasy of a risky sexual behavior can elicit an arousal response because of our body’s reaction to the potential “social danger.” Our human interest in wrong sex, it seems, is encoded into our DNA in order to help us feel turned on, and there’s nothing scarier/more panty-soaking than the prospect of being negatively judged by society for your fetish.
Even though sex positivity is absolutely something we should strive for, and we should continue to talk about rampant, varied coitus for the sake of fun and education, we should take care to allow some of its taboo mystique to remain. After all, wrong sex does so much for us: it builds identity, helps develop boundaries, improves your sex life, and is part of your genetic directive. To be beneficial to us in these ways, sex has to stay wrong.
How do we accomplish that? By portraying it accurately in the media, refraining from over-analyzing it when it’s not necessary to do so, and by following our intrinsic desires and fantasies, not those of others.