Sexual Taboos

Sexual Taboos

Rose MacDowell

A sexual taboo is a type of sex or sex-related activity that is prohibited by a religion, culture, or group of people. In some countries, sexual taboos are established by law. The word taboo comes from the Tongan word tabu, which means forbidden or cursed. By the 19th century, the word was used to refer to any social convention that was considered impolite or indecent.

Though they may seem like a vestige of the past, sexual taboos are still common in many countries and may become part of our personal beliefs about sex. Let's look at some examples of sexual taboos, how they can impact our views of sex, and how to banish restrictive taboos that no longer make sense for our lives.  

What Are Examples of Taboos?

What is a taboo? Many examples can be found worldwide, and are a part of most cultures and religions. Taboos can vary by country or even family. Types of taboos include:

• Incest

• Sex with animals

• Sexual relationships between children

• Sex between minors and adults

Few if any cultures permit or tolerate any of the main taboos, and they are illegal in most countries. Other sexual taboos are unique to particular cultures and religions. Though many of these taboos are becoming less forbidden over time, conservative societies are still more likely to have taboos than more sexually open cultures. 

Examples of these taboos include:

Homosexuality. LGBTQ + are still shunned, persecuted, and even put to death in some cultures. The Middle East in particular is known for laws and religious edicts forbidding sex between same-gender couples. Though gay marriage is legal in many Western countries, simply holding hands with a person of the same sex can result in harsh punishment or death in countries under Islamic rule.  

Transvestim and cross-dressing. Many repressive countries consider cross dressing or dressing in women's clothing to be unnatural or sinful. Countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malawi, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, South Sudan, Tonga, and the United Arab Emirates prosecute transvesites and cross dressers using the same laws that target transsexuals.

Oral sex and "sodomy." Though oral sex, anal sex, and sex that isn't for the purpose of procreation is widely accepted in Western society, remnants of laws criminalizing sodomy remain on the books in many US states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

Extramarital sex. Adultery is still considered taboo in such countries as the Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei. Punishment can include caning or death by stoning. But if you thought extramarital sex was illegal only in Muslim countries, think again. Adultery is a felony in four US states, including Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, though prosecutions are rare.  

What Is The Most Common Taboo?

The most common taboo across all cultures is incest. This includes sexual relations between parents and their children, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, and even first cousins once removed.

Incest is widely believed to carry high risks of birth defects. For example, a study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 2008 showed that "incestuous marriages were associated with a significantly increased risk of having offspring with Down syndrome."

Many researchers believe that the aversion to incest is not just a social taboo, but a natural instinct that reduces the damaging impact that inbreeding can have on the human species.  

Do Western Cultures Have Sexual Taboos?

Western cultures are less sexually repressive than they were 30 years ago, and the signs of this are everywhere: Gay Pride parades, skimpy clothes, the widespread acceptance of sex toys, the ubiquity of pornography. When it comes to sexuality, loud and proud is the standard in the free world.

Certain taboos in Western culture, like incest and sex between adults and minors, have not changed, and for good reason. But there are still other sexual taboos that persist even today, including: 

Period sex

Though we live in a era of honesty about menstruation, period sex can still be seen as dirty or wrong. Even among more sexually enlightened couples, period sex is often off limits (not to mention oral sex). The truth is, having sex during your period is normal, healthy, and safe, and can even help alleviate bloating and cramps. You can get pregnant during your period, however, so if you do have sex during your period, use protection. 


Pegging is considered taboo by many people because it involves a woman penetrating a man with a dildo (usually a strap-on) from behind. This role-reversal is too much for some, who may say that pegging seems like an activity reserved for gay men. But prostate stimulation can be wildly pleasurable for men of all orientations, making pegging an equal opportunity activity.

Though it may still be taboo, more couples are giving pegging a go, and some are making it a regular thing. 

Learn more: 3 Tips For Pegging Beginners


Fisting is another form of penetrative sex that, while still taboo, has gained popularity in recent decades. Instead of a penis or dildo, the entire hand including all five fingers are put in the vagina or rectum of a partner. Once reserved for extreme types of pornography, fisting is gradually becoming more popular and accepted.  

Voyeurism and exhibitionism

Voyeurism and exhibitionism include being watched while masturbating or watching someone else masturbate, watching other people have sex, or being watched while having sex. Consensual voyeurism and exhibitionism are still taboo, though not as much as they once were.

Non-consensual voyeurism and exhibitionism, also known as "peeping" and "flashing," and are not only taboo in Western cultures, but are illegal. 

Learn more: What Does Safe, Sane, and Consensual Mean?

Certain kinks

Though BDSM has become more accepted thanks to the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, some less common kinks are still considered taboo. For example, impact play, which involves hitting, slapping, or whipping a consenting partner, is considered by many people to be abusive even if both partners desire it.

Daddy Dom and little girl relationships, in which couples take on quasi father and daughter roles with elements of BDSM, may seem to others to be uncomfortably close to incest. Knife play, rape play, and other consensual acts that play with notions of violence and control are also considered by many people to be taboo, abusive, and on the fringe of sexual behaviors.  

Learn more: Dominant and Submissive Relationships