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Taboos: Why are we repulsed yet seduced by the forbidden and unspeakable?

According to Sigmund Freud, our revulsion at taboos is an attempt to suppress a part of us that actually wants to do them.
Credit: terovesalainen / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Taboos are those forbidden and repulsive things we call illegal, immoral, or disgusting.
  • According to Sigmund Freud, our revulsion at taboos is an attempt to suppress a part of us that actually wants to do them.
  • Freud might actually have been right: Our private Google searches and internet personas reveal a darker side to our psyche. 

There are things you will never talk of; perverted, grotesque, and macabre thoughts that stay tightly bound in your head. You will be shocked to hear them spoken by anyone else. You’ll gasp and clutch your pearls tightly, but, at the same time, your heart has a darkness to it that no one can ever see. Those unspeakable parts of ourselves also reveal so much. Revulsion tells us as much about who we are as the things we are attracted to. Disgust is one of the most powerful feelings we have, and yet few poems or songs are written about it. It guides our actions and forces our hand.

Both privately and publicly, those things that we cordon off as being the inaccessible and forbidden are known as taboos.

You know you want to

Taboos are more than simple prohibitions or social faux pas. To cheat on your partner is not a taboo in itself. But if you were to do so by sleeping with your sister or father, that would be a taboo. Eating roadkill or monkey brains might be disgusting to you, but it is not a taboo in the same way as playing with or eating excrement is, for example.

For Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud, taboos are a shadow image of what Emile Durkheim called “The Sacred.” They are those things which are so reprehensible and unthinkable that we have laws against them. We shun those who violate taboos, recoiling with such a fierce (and public) ferocity that it can feel visceral and unbidden.

Freud argued that the confusing thing about taboos is the conflict between our conscious and unconscious mind. He thought the disgust we experience with a taboo is so knee-jerk and vociferous because it serves to hide and deny a hidden, unspoken desire to perform that taboo. As Freud wrote, for most people there is “nothing they would like more than to violate [taboos], but they are afraid to do so; they are afraid precisely because they would like to, and the fear is stronger than the desire.”

We want to do the taboo. We want the forbidden fruit : to eat, drink, kill, or have sex with that we know is banned to us. Taboo is the tight vice of law and social pressure (the superego).

Everybody lies

In his 2017 book, Everybody Lies, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes the claim that we all lie about what we actually think or do. It’s a claim supported by a mountain of data and evidence.

Much of the book centers on what you might consider harmless lies — things which you always suspected were lies, anyway. For instance, “People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when they’re not.” But what’s doubly interesting is what the book reveals about our attitude to taboos. It is, as Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “somewhat Freudian.”

As he was researching for his book about these everyday, socially accepted lies, he was surprised to uncover “a shocking number of people visiting mainstream porn sites are looking for portrayals of incest. Of the top hundred searches by men on PornHub, one of the most popular porn sites, sixteen are looking for incest-themed videos.”

Incest is one of the most powerful and hardwired taboos we have. Early anthropologists like James George Frazer and Emile Durkheim, from which Freud took inspiration, argued that incest is one of the only universal taboos. Given the increased likelihood of genetic disease from incest, this is unsurprising: It is evolutionarily sensible to be repulsed by incest.

And yet, in Everybody Lies, we discover incest (blood incest, and not the “step family” type) is one of the most common internet fetishes there is. This is as true for both men and women. What’s more, Stephens-Davidowitz goes on to note that when we “consider all [Google] searches of the form ‘I want to have sex with my . . .’ The number one way to complete this search is ‘mom’.”

Freudian slips

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Freud was right. Just because people search about incest doesn’t mean they seriously entertain the idea. There’s no way of telling exactly what people are fantasizing about when they search those terms.

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It might be that the thrill of violating a taboo is itself the exciting thing. Taboos are so strongly condemned and forbidden, that violating or breaking them gives a certain thrill. Anyone who’s broken a law or done something immoral can tell you about the adrenaline rush of the moment. Perhaps breaking taboos is of the same kind.

Taboos are an interesting topic in their own right. The nature of taboos is that they make for cringeworthy, uneasy conversation, but you don’t have to be a Viennese psychoanalyst to see something to glean from them. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “You can judge a man by the quality of his enemies.” Perhaps it is that we can judge a person and a society by what they call taboo. When “the lady doth protest too much,” we should examine the why behind it.

When we avoid or hate a thing, we also establish ourselves as “not that thing.” We place all of our identity on the other side of that taboo. Taboos, and our disgust, define the borders of who we are.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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