Taboo & titillation

Have you noticed that adultery is the new thing on TV? I don’t mean the actual act — nobody actually does it — and certainly not the word itself, which has been out of fashion probably since the 1950s. The last person to make it truly glamorous must have been John Updike in his big novels of the 1960s and 1970s. But it persists as a looming threat in the popular imagination.

This fall, it’s become the animating principle on a couple of the new shows and it’s interesting to see it in action.

On Glee — the gayest show ever, according to a gob-smacked Rolling Stone magazine — the central tension is between Will Schuester, the squeaky clean glee club director, and Emma Pillsbury, the obsessive-compulsive guidance teacher. He’s married, and therefore theoretically off limits, but it’s clear the show’s writers are rooting for a little off-side romance. His wife is so crazy and their marriage so dysfunctional that adultery seems almost right. Still neither the show’s writers nor viewers can do without the idea that adultery is immoral. It’s the one thing keeping the sexual tension screwed tight.

Same deal over on Mercy, the best of the new fall medical shows. I tuned in for the gay character (Guillermo Diaz as an interestingly non-stereotypical male nurse) but stayed for the mesmerizing Taylor Schilling. Playing a nurse just returned from Iraq, she’s intense, dedicated and deliciously conflicted. She’s also in love with a doctor with whom she served in the army. And again, there’s just one problem: She’s married. The working class husband is actually more appealing than the glam doctor but the plot is definitely skewed in favour of the doctor — who’s apparently supposed to be some tall, dark Mr Darcy type — and the off-limits adultery he represents.

Grey’s Anatomy used the same conceit in its first season to great effect, and of course Desperate Housewives never tires of using adultery to screw up the tension — first Gabby with the gorgeous gardener, and now Bree with Karl.

Thank heavens for taboos, I say. Because without them most contemporary romances would cut to the chase and there would be no story. You need a few obstacles to make love interesting. While your average person can supply dozens of internal barriers — neuroses, fears, defences — they’re not as interesting or as easy to dramatize as such long-established external barriers as “I’m already taken and not supposed to screw around on the side.”

There’s something in human nature that loves a taboo. For obvious reasons, most sexual discourse over the past half century has been about breaking down taboos, making people feel better about their desires, accepting the forbidden, etc. Just look at an average Dan Savage column. It’s all about eliminating roadblocks to pleasure. As long as you don’t hurt anyone else, goes the usual logic, do what you like.


But every jab at taboo is also an attempt to re-establish it, an ironic acknowledgment that we need the forbidden to understand our lives. People wouldn’t be as interested in their various desires if they weren’t also conflicted about them. If so many straight guys are suddenly (it would seem) interested in anal sex, surely it’s partly because conventional sex is now so easily available and, without tension or restriction, it’s not terribly interesting.

Forty years ago, in Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer, suggested that we were getting far too “hygienic” in our attitudes to sex. Sex “was better off dirty, damned, even slavish, than clean and without guilt,” he wrote. “Guilt was the existential edge of sex. Without guilt, sex was meaningless.”

On the surface, this just seems like advanced twaddle, the weird rantings of a late unlamented patriarchal beast. Who in their right mind wants to feel guilty?

But Mailer was onto something and somewhere in the midst of his convoluted maunderings is an interesting point. As the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñel once said, “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt.”

At its most itchily interesting, sex is a human construct saddled with much social and psychological baggage. If it weren’t, if it were just a physical act, we’d relieve our loins with the first person to come along, and not spend so much time quibbling over the style, age and quality of our partners.

Instead, it’s filled with the sort of contradictions that might have delighted the late Claude Levi-Strauss. The great French anthropologist who died last month insisted that human mythologies could only be understood in terms of oppositions — raw and cooked, hot and cold. By that measure, pleasure doesn’t exist without pain, or expression without repression.

Adding taboo to the texture of our lives just for a smidgen more titillation seems a tad extreme. Personally I have enough hang-ups as it is. But perhaps there’s a reason to preserve some small part of the psyche as a no-fly zone, an area where you will not go, just to let yourself know where you stand — and where you get off.

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