The Social Construction of Sexual Taboos

The idea of sex has often straddled the line between “nature” and “civilization”, with some cultures extolling the importance of sexual intercourse as a natural way of life, and many others placing labels of “impropriety” onto conversations with sexual overtones or onto the act itself. Sigmund Freud contributed to the popular Western view that the attainment of civilization is necessarily by repressing and regulating our natural instincts, in particular sexual instincts. This construction of sex and sexuality as a social taboo is also observed in many other parts of the world, such as in some Chinese and Indian cultures where a girl’s chastity or virginity is highly valued, revealing the social norms of sexual restraint. While sexual taboos may be naturalized in many societies as a “normal” code of conduct, making cross-cultural comparisons expose its socially constructed bases.


Chastity is a complex culmination of the idea that sexual instincts have to be repressed, particularly in women. This reflects the gendering of sexual intercourse, codifying the different attitudes each gender (assuming a binary system of male and female) should have, reinforcing the widespread idea that men and women are distinctly different. It is interestingly noted that in societies such as America, there has been a trend for “purity balls” and “chastity clubs”, where many of its almost-all-female constituents feel that it is a way of liberating themselves from being viewed as sexual objects by men. An irony this poses, is that chastity is both a product and perpetuating factor of patriarchy.

By playing up the need for women to deny their sexual instincts and urges (the same ones as their male counterparts), they are inadvertently subjecting themselves to further repression. The origins of advocating chastity were for a male-oriented purpose, where an otherwise “promiscuous” woman is thought to bring dishonor to her father, and especially her husband. Promiscuity in a wife brings about uncertainty of the father of her offspring, the implication being that the father risks spending his resources (since fathers in most patriarchal societies are the “breadwinners”) on a child that is not his. As mentioned in lecture, the social institution of marriage has economic significance, be it in the form of hxaro or bride service amongst the Dobe Ju/’hoansi, or inheritance. It may be over-sweeping, but I do observe a trend where increased importance placed on material assets is accompanied by a higher degree of patriarchy. The Dobe Ju/’hoansi (as of 1960-70s), for instance, were considered an egalitarian society, where principles of equity and utilitarianism helped to support it. In the later years when their economic system drastically changed, so did their gender system, though more gradually.

The idea of chastity also involves the abstinence of pre-marital sex, which some cultures follow strictly, some “tolerate” its non-adherence (most urban societies), and some do not even see the point in such abstinence. The Onge of Little Andaman celebrate the Veerabadran’s festival which ends with a performance whereby boys choose which girl they like and engage in sex, only solemnizing the marriage after. In this example, pre-marital sex is in fact the norm. Also, sexual experimentation amongst unmarried youths was done with almost no restraint amongst the Ju/’hoansi (aside their joking/avoidance relationship rules).

With respect to the socialization process, unlike western societies where it is largely taboo and both parents try to shirk the responsibility of educating their child on the “birds and the bees” (such a euphemism itself reflects the avoidance of its explicit mention), a Ju/’hoansi child or native Eskimo child learns of sex directly by watching his/her parents engage in it. Such stark contrast shows how socially constructed the repression of sexual urges is, and how chastity is a socially ascribed “virtue” to women in patriarchal societies.

A possible explanation for such polar attitudes towards how “natural” or repressed sexual urges should be lies in several social factors such as housing patterns and social capital, which culminate in the idea of privacy with regard to sexual patterns and attitudes.

The level of privacy depends on a given space that a society shares and subsequently divides into public and private realms, largely according to the level of social capital or how much of a moral economy is shared. The Ju/’hoansi shared a tightly knitted moral economy where their houses were moderately distanced and faced each other, and social visits were made on a daily basis where resources were constantly being passed from one house to another. With the “doors” of their houses constantly open, they had little conception of privacy, and hence were more inclined to embrace sex as a natural act involving little or no shame, rather than the common urban notion of it being a strictly private affair between two adults that is only done “behind closed doors”. For the Ju/’hoansi, as for numerous other tribes like the Luguru of Tanganyika, sex was often engaged in out in the forests or bushes, further exemplifying the “openness” of the act in both the literal and symbolic sense.

While only a select few topics were discussed in relation to the concept of sexual taboos, we can adequately conclude that taboos are social and cultural constructions of the biological and universal act of sexual intercourse.

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