The Daily Evergreen

Obscenities vary across cultures

What Americans consider taboo may not phase members of other cultures

RIDGE PETERSON, Evergreen columnist

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Sexual content and obscenity are common topics in modern pop culture. We talk about what’s appropriate to say in public, we discuss whether a celebrity’s dress was too revealing or we fret about what euphemisms we can use for sex.

In America, sex can be considered taboo for some. But in other cultures, views on what qualifies as obscene can vary.

Marsha Quinlan, an anthropologist and professor at WSU, said obscenity, dress and attitudes toward sex vary widely from culture to culture. She said certain societies, such as some countries in the Middle East, have high expectations for modesty, especially for women.

Other cultures, like the Mehinaku of Brazil, wear no clothing except a belt around their waists. They discuss sexuality more freely and are much more open about sexuality and dress.

Even the cultures that we might consider more “open” regarding dress and sexuality still have expectations, however. For example, Quinlan said that to the Mehinaku, if someone’s belt comes off, they feel exposed and “naked,” even though the belt doesn’t cover the parts of the body that our culture considers “private.”

One of the biggest indicators of a culture’s norms regarding obscenity is what is considered appropriate to wear. Quinlan said a culture’s attitude toward dress can be an indicator of what their view of obscenity in general is.

“When it comes to nudity and dress, every culture has expectations of what’s proper to wear and what’s ‘bad’ to wear,” Quinlan said, “but those expectations differ widely from culture to culture.”

This also influences the definition of what is “obscenity” to different groups. To a culture that expects women to cover their entire bodies, any woman showing even her ankle is considered obscene; to a Mehinaku person, not even covering one’s genitals in public is considered normal and expected.

In addition to having different attitudes toward nudity and clothing, different societies around the globe often have varied views on sexual content, such as pornography. In the U.S., attitudes on topics such as erotica and pornography differ widely depending on who you talk to.

What we might consider taboo to wear, watch or discuss in public may not even be an issue to another culture, while many things Westerners see as normal aren’t tolerated in some parts of the world. When it comes down to it, sex is a topic that people in different countries and cultures see very differently. What is “obscene” and what is not are simply societal inventions.

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Obscenities vary across cultures