Mind Matters | What is seen as taboo is a sign of the times

Mind Matters | What is seen as taboo is a sign of the times

I am reading a book about the Rolling Stones rock group. I was surprised to learn that they were barred in the 1960s from singing on TV the original lyrics of their hit song Let's spend the night together. Instead, they sang "Let's spend some time together." Premarital sex was taboo back then.

That taboo has faded over the decades, although some religious groups still promote it. Many other taboos have faded also. These involve homosexuality, same-sex marriage, inter-racial marriage, divorce, and co-habitation.

I also just read that actor Ellen Page now goes by Elliot Page, after coming out as transgender. Page could safely announce that change because the taboo about being transgender is fading.

All these taboos involve sexual orientation or behaviour. Freud would have much to say on the subject if he were still alive. He thought sexual inclinations and attitudes were the root of many psychological problems.

Not all sex taboos are declining fast. Incest is still out. So is child molesting. However, the underlying urges are not viewed as bad by experts, who condemn only the behaviour. Public opinion may eventually follow the experts - or not. Some taboos may be getting stronger.

These are against violent and hateful behaviour: spouse abuse, child beating, hate speech, and coward hitting. Killing is out; soldiers are exempted, but war crimes such as killing prisoners for no good reason are still taboo.

Other taboos seem up in the air. What about cannabis use? Australian society seems more tolerant now about cannabis but still disapproving due to the health risks of use.

Meanwhile, the United States is moving speedily to legitimise recreational cannabis use. Suicide is another taboo behaviour that may become socially accepted in certain situations. Public opinion on cannabis use and on suicide might be changing at the same time.

How do you explain the switch in taboo focus from sex to harm? You do not need a degree in psychology or sociology to have an opinion.

Before you bemoan the fall of civilization, think of all the formerly-taboo individuals who have benefitted from reductions in public loathing of them.

It might be that some taboos have declined in potency in part because of the psychological harm the taboos cause.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.