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Why do Taboos Exist?

Updated on September 28, 2009

If you've been following the news you've undoubtedly caught wind of Mackenzie Phillips' recent claim that she had been sexually involved with her father, John Phillips, for a decade. John is of course best known as lead songwriter and co-founder of the beloved '60s vocal group the Mamas and the Papas. In case you're in the dark, here's what's been going on:

In her tell-all memoir, "High on Arrival," Mackenzie described her first sexual experience with her father, during which she had come to after a drug-induced blackout. She was "17 or 18" when this happened, and, given her state at the time, had not consented. These encounters allegedly continued somewhat consistently for the next decade, gradually becoming consensual, but were halted after an aborted pregnancy (which had occurred when Mackenzie was in a committed relationship with somebody else).

In bringing this topic to a public forum, Mackenzie has challenged the culture to come to terms with one of its most feared taboos: incest. Even worse - its consensual? How are we meant to handle this?

Most readers are probably repulsed by the idea of a father and daughter having sex. But why do they feel that way? There's a simple answer: "because it's wrong," but what does that mean exactly? Why is it wrong?

A more comprehensive response is that it is wrong for the same reason all taboos are "wrong" - because abstaining from taboos protects social constructs. Society exists to maintain order, and taboos threaten that order.

A father and daughter engaging in consensual intercourse, for example, disrupts the socially accepted order of the family unit. The authority of parental figures is compromised and the development of the child may be irreparably damaged. Furthermore, we know that biologically, two people from the same blood line will produce genetically mutated offspring. Isn't this evidence enough?

Many would argue that it is, but bear in mind that taboos are not fixed. Homosexuality was once unspeakable - for many of the same reasons that adult incest is now - and continues to be in parts of the world. Transgenderism is threatening to many in the Western world, perhaps because it blurs the respective roles of men and women, though elsewhere on the planet - places like Samoa and India - androgyny is celebrated and revered. Then there's pedophilia, which is cause for alarm in most parts of the world (though its not without adamant supporters, such as NAMBLA).

Who knows, perhaps this recent discourse is the first of many steps towards reinventing the family unit. Maybe society will, in some strange way, benefit from it, or at least remain in tact. Or maybe this is an indication of a severe deficiency in our structure - a sort of red flag if you will - that may ultimately prevent us from moving in a particularly harmful direction.

Whatever this could mean for the future, I hope we can, at the very least, think critically about what is right and wrong. When you condemn something, you should be aware of why it is you are condemning it. Your judgments should be the result of carefully considered observations and questioning. Just because the culture at large rejects it, doesn't mean its wrong, and universal acceptance also doesn't mean its right.

Now seems to be the time to make up our own minds.


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    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      3 years ago from United States of America

      @thecakeofage Whoa! I have to commend you for publishing this article without the Googlebot disabling the ads. I recently tried to publish an article that was almost as controversial as yours, and the Googlebot disabled my ads. Luckily, a moderator did a manual review of it, and he re-enabled the ads. I just wish that Hubpages and Google Adsense were more open-minded about the publication of articles like these. I mean, how are we all going to get the good stuff out there for people to read and make a living off of it if they throw roadblocks our way? Keep up the good work. :-)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The damaging affects from an adult/child consensual sexual interaction are all social. The society is wrong in that case.

    • theageofcake profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from MA

      Harold -

      I think a sexual relationship between a child and adult has an innately disproportionate balance of power in favor of the adult. This uneven power dynamic is troubling to me. Keep in mind it is as kids that we develop the blueprints of our lives, when our brains, personalities, and bodies are especially vulnerable - So a child who experiences sex early on as a subservient will have difficulty in overcoming that. And yeah, maybe there are pedophiles who consider this and try to accommodate the children they have sex with, but I fear more often than not that is not the case.

      I think children sexually exploring with other children is ok because the playing field is much more even, or at least moreso than it is in an adult/child relationship. There's more room for mutual give and take. The harm, of course, comes from not knowing how to safely engage in sex, which is why I think we could culturally benefit from being a bit more open about it.

      Of course, there are exceptions to every rule - these opinions I've expressed are certainly generalized. There could be individual adult/child sexual dynamics that work, but from my view they are too scarce to justify pedophilia as a whole. If you can prove me wrong, I welcome it.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      theageofcake wrote: "Generally, a child cannot foresee the consequences of sex" and also "Now, children exploring their sexuality with their peers, regardless of their age, is ok in my book,"

      Are you saying that a child's inability to see the consequences of sex is one of, if not the main reason why children and adults should not have sex?

      If so, wouldn't it then be even worse to have BOTH sexual partners(both children) who are incapable of seeing the consequences?

      If you argue that a superior ability to see possible consequences of sexual action is preferable, then having at least one partner who is an adult would be preferable over both being children, wouldn't it?

    • theageofcake profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from MA

      torimari, thank you for the additional questions you've raised. These are things everyone should really attempt to explore.

      I agree that pedophilia is "wrong," because of the damaging effects on the development of a child. This isn't to say that I think pedophiles are villainous and prey on helpless kids, or that all pedophilia is rape. I think there are cases when a child thinks he or she is consenting, and is not being subjected to forceful physical abuse.

      However, I know a handful of people who were sexually active as children with individuals that were years older, and they reflect on these experiences regretfully. Generally, a child cannot foresee the consequences of sex, so their judgment does not excuse the adult who knows better.

      These awful feelings victims now have may PURELY be a result of the social attitudes towards pedophilia, but even if that IS the case, children should be protected from it to avoid such stigma.

      Now, children exploring their sexuality with their peers, regardless of their age, is ok in my book, but this also necessitates teaching our children, rather than hiding from them, the facts about safe sex. A society with such a fear of sex as ours raises quite a few repressed individuals, and that makes for dysfunction.

      Consenting inter-familial sexual relationships is a whole 'nother ball game. If they both want to be involved, I don't see the harm, but reproductive restrictions should most definitely be established.

    • torimari profile image


      10 years ago from Pennsylvania

      This is a very well-written and thought-out article. I like how you compare it to some modern controversy.

      It begs the question, as you've said, are taboos because of social construct? Also, is the majority of humanity programmed as well, to instinctively find certain things taboo?

      Is it just social, genetic, or based on personal morals...or a mix?

      Is there truly right or wrong?

      This can also be dangerous thinking to a child molester may think it is ok to do as he does, regardless of society.

      This is a particular instance where it may be right for social structure to deem pedophilia or specifically child sex offender wrong.

      Nice hub-more thought-provoking and subjective than most the ones I've read which is a good change.


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