Test question: when you’re having a conversation with someone that you don’t really know, what are two subject areas that you’re definitely going to avoid?
Hint: they’re both subjects which are completely taboo. They’re also the bookends to our lives as humans, and pivotal to our experiences and understanding of the world.
These two topics are, of course, sex and death.
We don’t talk about these subjects much in North American culture. While Mexican culture celebrates the Day of the Dead and countries like the Netherlands are open to discussions about sexuality, Canadians are generally pretty closed-mouthed when it comes to mentioning them. The topics instead become fodder for gossip, are actively repressed, and are hidden beneath facades of prudery. Literature picks up these rich sources of psychological stress and translates them into characters, morals, and fables (e.g. classic example: The Scarlet Letter, or the more contemporary example: Fifty Shades of Grey).
I recently watched a video in the Big Think series in which Rabbi Shmuley Boteach talks about the dying institution of marriage:
In cultures where people have disposable incomes and endless choices about how to spend their time, he argues, the taboo act of sex is unlikely to be high on their priority list. Marriage is seen as a stable state of being, rather than a passionate one, and consequently many people are choosing to live as singles or in ‘serial monogamy’ relationships. There is a lack of electricity in not only our bedrooms, but our lives, as a result of this nation-wide celibacy. Where has the passion gone? And why can’t we talk about it?
When it comes to death, we talk about it in hushed voices and use euphemisms to avoid directly mentioning the ‘passing’, the ‘loss’, of a human being. Death education is not something that is regarded as important for children – in her book on Helping Children Live with Death and Loss, Dinah Seibert identifies how shielding children from important life events (like death) can create unhealthy stress. As a culture, we are scared of death and not ready to have a “cultural conversation about what a healthy last chapter of life looks like” (Ira Byock, March 28th, 2008). Where has respect for the beauty, and final ending, of life gone? And why can’t we talk about it?
The social norm of avoiding discussions around sex and death should be reexamined, I think, for all of our psychological health. Tyler Tervooren, creator of Riskology.co, talks very intelligently about the challenging of social norms and the ‘reality distortion principle’ in this article. It would take time to openly discuss these taboos – talk about death is currently regarded as ‘morbid’, but it could also be beautiful, respectful, open. Talk about sex tends to happen more around negative events (e.g. Elliot Rodger), rather than encompassing the depth and complexity of this core element of our human-ness. (There is also an opposing, but pertinent, discussion going on around labeling potentially ‘triggering’ subjects in university classrooms – an issue discussed in great depth in the New Republic magazine here).
My own conversation (with myself) on these topics began when I found the perfectly-preserved woodpecker, pictured below, dead on the stone steps outside my doorway. I thought what an incredible creature he would have been in vigorous flight. Now, he is still and quiet. I gave him a respectful burial. Perhaps it was morbid to take pictures, but I thought of it as a testament to his beauty and unexpected death.
What deep truths about humanity and the world can we discover through conversations about sex and death? What are the cultural differences in our attitudes towards these subjects? Why don’t we talk about them currently? Would our lifestyles change if we did talk about them? All questions I wonder about.
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I am not so certain about sex, but I have certainly enjoyed that there seems to be an increased willingness to discuss issues of gender – and the nonbinary nature of same.
I agree on the Day of the Dead. Where I am working in Peru these days, there is a prehistoric traditions of chulpas – stone burial chambers where folks would come after internments for feasting activities with the deceased mummified individuals.
Ah! You are very lucky to have this view into other cultures. After writing this blog article, I was troubled by the limited nature of my own perspectives and background influences. I suppose I feel that, personally, I have not seen enough of these conversations taking place.
The issue of gender is an important one – performative actions and symbolic gestures made by individuals within their understanding of their own gender must have an influence on sexual activities. It is good to hear that there are critical evaluations of certain elements of our sexual lives and identities taking place!
Here is my story on gender issues. About 10 years ago i had a series of experiences on my own “gender” identification that I had a rather significant change of thought. I participated in an art workshop that lasted for a few months. I was the only male in the group. I responded to an announcement of a dream study group that would meet once per week. I was the only male in the group. I responded to a call for a study group around the book/movie What the Bleep. I was the only male in the group. I had started being uncomfortable with the situation. During the book study group it came to a head, in my own head. I thought – I don’t want to say too much in the group because I don’t want to come off as a “typical” male and dominate the discussion. I did not want to say too little in the group because I did not want to come off as a “typical” male and be dismissive of what women thought about a particular issue. At that point, I decided, F&$% it. I am going to respond as I think I should as a person, biology ignored. So, I have been doing that ever since. I am always surprised that in my Graduate Seminar each fall, Museum Practices, I usually have about 15 students enroll and in 7 years, have never had more than one male, and often none – by registration to date, that will be the case this fall.
I think the increased acceptance of LGBT and especially the increased discussion around transgender issues has certainly moved all of this discussion forward.
I don’t really understand a lot of this, other than I am reasonably convinced that the binaries of male/female and masculine/feminine really just do not work.
I agree completely – I have been called a ‘boy in a girl’s body’ in the past, and I often wonder what this says about the male/female binary you reference. Transvestites feel that they are not, externally, the person that they believe themselves to be on the inside. But I’m quite content with being female, and identify strongly with my own female-ness. However, I tend to spend more time with males than females, and I think that my outward mannerisms have taken on some stereotyped characteristics of the male gender as a result.
I wonder about the responses you’ve had to your conscious decision to speak up in discussions when you are the only male present – are your words and actions censured purely because you’re a male? This is what I find odd about our gender roles. If a woman were to speak up consistently and voice her opinions, other women might admire her spirit; when a male does it, it can elicit antipathy. When this attitude of one-gender-over-another is taken to the extreme, I think we lose a lot of cross-gender communication in the ensuing emotional distress and drama.
Strange that your course has so few male students. I can think of a few undergrad and grad courses I took which were similarly biased towards female students (in fact, I often wondered if there were more females overall in my programs). I have read quite a few articles arguing that the harder, STEM sciences are dominated by males, with the humanities and social sciences dominated by females. The message in these articles tends to be ‘we need more women in science’ – but I think it’s important to encourage both genders to pursue non-traditional forms of study and career.
Hopefully the discussions you mention continue! This is great stuff!
Hi again Robert –
I just started reading a novel which I think is pretty applicable to the thoughts we’ve been discussing here – it’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 book, “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Wikipedia describes it as the “most famous examination of sexless androgyny in science fiction” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness).
I’m not done reading it yet, but when I am I’ll probably write a review on it! 🙂