None of us are unscathed by shame-y ideas about sexuality. Even in the most liberal of households, we’re still exposed to popular culture, which offers up a bevy of mixed messaging around sex. Women should be sexy, but not sexual. Men should always want sex, and women probably don’t want sex. Vibrators are addictive. Porn is addictive and will ruin your life. Gay men are promiscuousI. There is no end to the messed up, and decidedly untrue, things we hear.
With all of this messaging comes one very clear idea: Sex is taboo, and exploring it freely puts you in the minority.
Again, this is false. Sexuality is only taboo because we’ve decided it’s taboo. Wanting sex and to explore sex is not wrong. And what about those who go beyond exploring ‘vanilla’ sex? What about people who engage in consensual kink or role play or pain play? Are we all going to hell?
Kink, once something relegated to fringe sexual culture, has blasted into the cultural zeitgeist thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey and subsequent kink-focused shows like Bonding and Sex Life. With the popularization of BDSM, it’s important to understand the “why” of our sexual desires. If you don’t understand why you find something sexually arousing, you run a risk of infusing it with sexual shame and negative messaging around sex.
There is a need to explore the reasons we want what we want during sex, because so many of us are lacking information and are therefore left feeling alone in our desires. That isn’t a comfortable place to be. Many of us might admit, at least to ourselves, to being drawn to darker desires. Humans are hard-wired to want things we cannot have.
Why do we automatically turn the taboo into the titillating? Let’s explore the science of so-called “sin.”
What Makes “Bad” Things Erotic
Throughout human history, we’ve flocked toward things that were prohibited. Prohibition didn't stop people from wanting to drink in the 1920s. When diet culture tells you cookies are bad, it doesn’t stop people from eating them. Abstinence-only sex-ed has never succeeded in stopping teenagers from having sex. People have been exploring kink for as long as sex has been around (well, probably)—no matter what the Catholic Church says about sex.
People want what they want—especially if they’re told they can’t have it.
But what makes something perverse? This idea is not born from nothing. Sexuality is not inherently bad. It’s “bad” because we, as a culture, have decided it’s bad. Fringe and taboo sex acts are only fringe and taboo because that’s the label they’ve been assigned. We need to question the very foundation for our thinking.
“Whenever somebody says, ‘That’s not natural!’ ask them what makes something ‘not natural.’ It is usually a reflection of the values they were brought up with,” Lucy Rowett, a certified intimacy coach and clinical sexologist, tells TheBody. “The human erotic imagination is infinite, and despite many attempts by many cultures and religions to squash it down, it always escapes.”
The taboo is sexy because it makes us feel naughty. There is a scientific explanation for this. What we find sexually arousing and what we find disgusting are actually quite closely linked. Our fear response and sexual responses are related to one another. Take, for instance, people’s fascination with horror movies. They find pleasure in being afraid. It’s exciting for them. The same kind of frightening/exciting feeling can happen when it comes to sex. “When you are aroused, the part of your brain that registers disgust actually switches off, hence why you are up for doing things when you are horny or aroused that you would never consider doing when you’re not,” Rowett explains.
Why We Want Taboo Sex So Much
The science of sin has no easy explanation. Like all things human, it’s complicated AF.
Our development is not solely a result of genetics; rather, it is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon. “We are all a product of our biology and our psychology and how we are socialized,” Rowett says.
On a psychological level, you may have been brought up with certain “off-limits” activities that now bring you sexual arousal. It’s the very nature of that “no” that we find exciting. Our desires come from many unique avenues. “Some comes from religious upbringing and being forced to think of sex as something dirty or sinful as children. Some of it comes from boredom or wanting to liven up a relationship,” Daniel Saynt, founder and chief conspirator of the New Society for Wellness, tells TheBody.
On a physiological level, someone may have a low sympathetic nerve response when they’re at rest. “It is hard for them to feel excited or aroused because their nervous system tends to rest at a sort of relaxed level, so to speak. They may then need the extra anxiety and nervousness that comes with participating in activities that are perceived as dangerous in order to feel aroused,” Kenneth Play, sex hacker, international sex expert, and sex educator, tells TheBody.
It’s important to note that this is a bit of a generalization, of course. Everyone wants different things during sex, and not all taboos might be appealing to every person. Making room for differing levels of sexual interest in certain things is necessary when exploring human sexuality. After all, if people didn’t want more “vanilla” sex practices and decide to make everything else “wrong,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
How We Can All Get Over Shame and Be More Sex-Positive
The key to normalizing sex is more education. The more people know about something and understand it, the less scary it becomes.
This requires a shift in what we consider taboo, removing shame and stigma so that people can feel free to be the sexual beings they want to be. Play says that how we feel about sex depends on how closely our desires match our values. If our sexual values don’t shift toward more sex-positive thinking, we will continue to live in a cycle of never-ending sexual shame. It won’t stop people from wanting what they want, but it will leave them tormented. “It’s a release of the perpetual tension that restrains all those impulses. In some circumstances, this can lead to deep shame, in others it is funny or enjoyable—it all depends on how far apart your desires and values are.”
With that being said, sometimes things remaining in the shadows is what makes them so erotically charged. If everyone started tying each other up and we were super casual about it, it might not be as sexy to the people who enjoy it. Again, this isn’t true for every kink-loving person, but it’s a legitimate concern.
Maybe there is a balance to be found in expressing our shadow selves without being shamed. Whatever the balance may be, there is nothing wrong with liking what you like. As long as a sexual act is happening between consenting adults, it’s really no one else’s business.