The idea of sexual transgression as sin is in the founding article of Christianity, Eve eating the forbidden fruit. It’s also embedded within our contemporary secular culture –shame is often accompanied in acknowledging our sexual kinks. And yet, nothing quite fuels sexual desire like the idea of breaking taboo. Interrogating those taboos can reveal that society’s limits on sexual behaviour can be arbitrary and oppressive – if no one is being harmed, why shouldn’t we give in to desire? The safe breaking of taboo, as in BDSM, can be a way to own our desires, push shame aside, while still knowing that what we’re doing is considered naughty, and therefore hot. Good taboo sex is liberating, writes Victoria Brooks.
The question is as old as time – why do we find it so hard to resist the delicious allure of the forbidden when it comes to sex? Why do we want to bed that married person; or to ravish that particular body that we’ve been warned against touching; why have we always coveted that threesome; why do we want to do that kinky thing we suspect others will think is weird; why are we inclined to edge ourselves closer and closer to (and sometimes completely across) the line and revel in the debauched delights of taboo?
Transgression as an act means to ‘cross-over’ from being on the ‘right’ side, where we maintain moral order, into the wrong side, or to be specific – into an immoral state of chaos. Transgression means to overstep the line that keeps us all, basically, in line. So what is it about transgressing into an immoral state of sexual chaos that’s so irresistible to us? The answer is not because we’re irredeemably bad, but because we’re searching.
Our transgression is, you’ll be relieved to know, inevitable. We are set up to transgress, right from the beginning, or even before our beginning. The Judeo-Christian idea that we’re born with sin means that from childhood, particularly girls, are taught that their moral goodness is redeemed by resisting the devil and reinstating their purity; or otherwise by maintaining vague standards of virginity and general sexual ‘goodness.’ As French philosopher Michel Foucault argued, this idea resulted in the creation of a ‘mystique’ surrounding virginity. This ‘mystique,’ or virginity fetish, then ensured sex was framed in Western thinking as inseparable from morality. This mystique persists into modern times, but has morphed into a vaguer form of sexual propriety, for example women should not be too slutty. As Jessica Valenti argues, the centrality of virginity to ethical rightness has wrought centuries of sexual and spiritual violence, and needless shame, upon girls who have been taught to attach their worth to their failure to meet impossible and ill-defined standards of sexual purity.
Eighteenth century French philosopher, sadist and fierce critic of morality, Marquis de Sade, famously said that “in order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”
Surely none of us can shake ourselves free of the story of Adam and Eve and their forbidden fruit. As children, we would have sat, wide-eyed, as our teachers told us the story from Genesis of naughty Eve sinking her teeth into that swollen pink peach of knowledge adorning Eden’s tree. We would have all imagined the juice as it drips from her chin, representing befallen innocence, as the two lovers are exiled from god’s garden. This is a powerful metaphor for a child to learn which is robustly reinforced by seductive imagery. If you’re chaste and restrained, you’re good, so you’re in; if you’re indulgent and slutty, you’re bad, and you’re out. The world is divided into those who are in and those who are out and if you’re out, shame on you.
So why do we want to be bad when we’ve been taught it’s so bad to be bad? Eighteenth century French philosopher, sadist and fierce critic of morality, Marquis de Sade, famously said that “in order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.” De Sade’s philosophical meanings are known to be elusive, but an appropriately blasphemous interpretation is that we must cross the line, or we must sin and acquaint ourselves with our propensity to transgress, in order to know the truth about ourselves, perhaps even to know god and what is morally good. As such, vice, or sin, is in fact virtuous, and bad is in fact good, and taboo sex will bring us to know the secrets of ourselves and maybe the universe.
But what if we pull at the threads even harder, only to discover that there is no good, no bad, and in fact, no integrity to the line we’ve been trying to avoid crossing? Feminism, and particularly Black and queer feminism like that of Angela Y. Davis has been telling us for a long time that lines are drawn on purpose, socially constructed – or more accurately, patriarchally constructed. That is not to say that we would want to rid ourselves of all lines. Some lines, we must keep to prevent people being harmed. Whether we want to rid ourselves of a line hangs on the purpose with which it was drawn. The lines we surely want to erase are the ones that control us, even when they pretend to protect us, pre-occupied with keeping us on the ‘right’ side, thinking straight, and scared to cross for fear of angering straight white cis-patriarchy. These are the violent lines – the ones dictating which bodies are in good taste, or have good taste, and those who are or have not. Constructions as to what ‘fits’ underpin our ideas of both taboo and taste – depictions of bodies and sex that we consume through media, art and literature tell us how we can best align our sexual tastes with power, and what happens when we don’t.
The lines we surely want to erase are the ones that control us, even when they pretend to protect us, pre-occupied with keeping us on the ‘right’ side, thinking straight, and scared to cross for fear of angering straight white cis-patriarchy.
There are consequences to transgression. As the story goes, when Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness, they rush to cover themselves with fig leaves. The wicked pair cover themselves in shame, before they receive their punishment. If this story is beginning to sound like the opening of a kink scene, that’s because it is. While shame is a powerful, violent and traumatising consequence to what has been deemed transgressive, understanding and embracing shame can provide a means of escaping the tyranny of the line that has been drawn across us.
Transgressive sex might be extra-marital sex, it might be sex with your boss, or it might be a particular sex act such as those falling within BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism) and Kink. We might think of spankings, fisting, face-sitting, whipping, cuck-holding, to name but a few glorious kinks. But whatever the kind of taboo sex takes our fancy, it is those who regularly practice what we might consider kinky sex that might be able to teach us how to enjoy our taboos: safe transgression doesn’t mean risk-free– it means risk-aware. Being aware of the risks whether physical, psychological or emotional, without judging ourselves for having the desire, is the key.
As queer psychotherapist Laura A. Jacobs argues, the practices surrounding kink, such as intensive negotiation around boundaries, and giving explicit voice to intuition and desires, can be therapeutic. Such sexual practices can allow someone who struggles with trauma and shame the possibility of regaining control over their bodies and their desires in a safe environment. In short, conventionally transgressive sex can actually be the path to understanding ourselves and how to indulge our transgressions without causing harm to ourselves and/or others. Doing what is taboo, but safely, can be a way of regaining control and reorientating desire towards what we actually want, rather than what we should want. But if we give ourselves the permission to want what we actually want, if we have approval for our transgressions, do they lose their power, and therefore their sex-appeal?
Naturally, there’s a psychoanalytical dimension to the will to transgress. From Sigmund Freud to Michel Foucault and from Carl Jung to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, there have been compelling ideas about the role of our unconscious, how we form our desires, and the role of religion and our primary care-givers in our draw towards and across the line. But in a way, the origin of transgression and our draw towards taboo is a distraction and one that Jung recognised in one of this most famous quotes: “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Reclaiming our sexuality from the tyranny of the line is not achieved by understanding how to avoid stepping across it, but from recognising the inevitability of doing so. Yes, you will transgress, yes, you will want what you can’t have – instead of punishing yourself about your desires, become literate in what they are and find safe ways to cultivate and indulge them.
Doing what is taboo, but safely, can be a way of regaining control and reorientating desire towards what we actually want, rather than what we should want.
Safe practice doesn’t have to mean unsexy. That transgressing can be safe is not what those who drew the line want you to think – because for as long as you think your desires must remain taboo and shameful, that’s exactly what will happen and suffering abounds. The key is taking pleasure in the breaking of taboo, of being naughty, while finding a way to free our shame. Or, of course, turning our shame into a part of risk-aware kinky practice. Having good taboo sex is liberating. Having that conversation about kink is powerful, talking about consensual non-monogamy is powerful, being a mistress can be powerful. Audre Lorde wrote that ‘the erotic’ is a deeply powerful yet vilified resource residing in people, particularly women, which we have been taught to fear. As Lorde writes, turning inward toward ourselves, embracing the eroticism of our being, we affirm ourselves and fight against this “racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic” society. Those who assert the line need us to fear, rather than acknowledge, our erotic and potentially transgressive selves.
Your body wants what it wants because sin is sexy, and because sin is good. Your body wants you to challenge taboos. We are built to transgress. We don’t necessarily want, nor should we, do everything our body tells us to, but being playfully curious about our desires rather than judging them will help us truly ‘know’ our vices, and perhaps how to enact them virtuously. So it’s fine, if you want, to let your eyes linger on Eve’s lips, to revel in the sensual joy of her teeth piercing the skin of that succulent forbidden fruit, to watch it give way to a gush of honey nectar which then trickles its way down to her breasts – it’s OK, to wish you were that fruit, because you are. You are the forbidden fruit. You are Eve, too – cross the line, have a taste, you know you want to.