I recently attended a Café Psychologique meet-up-style discussion in Brighton: a good turnout of probably 30-odd people and a talk by local author / academic / researcher Katherine Johnson set a good scene. Ultimately though, my friend and I were unsatisfied all the way home with the depth of discussion and I find myself still wondering why.
Sadly I didn’t take notes on Johnson’s talk, so I can’t give a summary, much less any accurate reflections on how well or directly she actually spoke to the stated theme of the evening: Sex, sexuality and taboo. She was very engaging though and the ground she covered was naturally what is close to her own heart, issues relating to LGBT*+ research/experience and latterly work with trans kids. This leaves me with the uneasy feeling looking back, that as a group we were positioned to discuss sex and taboo/s, or sexual taboos, as if LGBT*+ issues are or have been the entire field of what is considered taboo in our lifetimes.
It wasn’t at all long before someone referred to paedophilia as an example of a taboo though. Before the evening I felt strongly that it might be a good context to begin a safe discussion on this topic – still scary, but not threatening. I was relieved and heartened when others did this, and I suppose, not surprised that the room didn’t all rally to begin a movement there and then to transform the way society discusses paedophilia. A few interesting points were made and I got my chance to bang on a bit when people got stuck at cross purposes and needed to be unhooked. A young guy at the back, very articulate and with interesting experience informing his views on a number of topics, put forward the view that paedophilia is not a type of sexuality, that it should not be considered listable alongside homosexuality, heterosexuality et cetera. Exploring this question properly would be fascinating and I may well do that in another post. What truth does any sexuality label express about a human being? Does listing by sexual object (same sex adults, opposite sex adults, children), confer legitimacy on that form of sexual desire? If so how, why and who decides?
However, while it is only one issue, not some kind of de facto pinnacle of sexual taboos (I’m pretty sure nobody mentioned bestiality, more’s the pity – suggesting it is more taboo), this fundamentally important topic was eventually made light of, which I could not understand. Yes, it might seem like a cliché to name paedophilia as a taboo, but that is because it’s taboo. (Almost) no-one wants to talk about it.
For me, attending was motivated by intrigue as to what/which taboos might be discussed in ways which could educate and enlighten me, and by a nebulous anticipation that I might somehow be unburdened from the struggle of holding in or suppressing some previously forbidden thoughts, opinions or feelings – in short, catharsis – nebulous because I was unable to tell myself what these might be. Yes, I saw a political opportunity to raise an issue which I still believe most people are just too squeamish to address head on, but it’s not one which fully belongs to me. Which taboos do? I didn’t find out. And are our intimate taboos only sexual?
Towards the end of the evening a little attention was given to the fact that what constitutes a taboo for a particular individual may not be at all these big flagged-up paraphilias but apparently tiny personal details, like the size of our bum or a desperate need to have our head touched. Things which we cannot say for fear, these are taboos. On reflection I feel the conversation could have got to this point much sooner, leaving time to explore the mechanisms by which taboos in real lives get created and maintained – and even more interestingly and importantly, how they get unpicked, challenged and de-tabooed, drawing on first-hand accounts. I suspect that could be emotionally transformative for many.
I’m not critical of the organisers, who did a grand job to get 30 odd people out on a cold, wet, January, Tuesday night and an interesting professional speaker. However, if I am complaining that it was a missed opportunity, without wanting to be critical, I ought to call it instead an opportunity: for an evening of discussion on sex and taboo/s which is curated to dodge the pitfalls. Taboo is both noun and adjective, both personal and cultural; all combinations are a tantalising pull for audiences; the organisers need to find a firmer but still flexible format which can deliver. It needn’t be a problem to have a broad discussion (only) about what is or is not a taboo in wider society, because the why is always going to be juicy. It’s just not quite what it says on the tin, especially if the general public still want to avoid the difficult ones.