“Mastication, good; masturbation, bad”

Psychologist Neil Frude’s Fringe show traces the history and future of desire. Polly Checkland Harding asks him for his take on the taboos being tackled this August

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Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis
Published 22 Jul 2017

Neil Frude’s Fringe show is called The Future of Desire – but what exactly this future will look like is, it appears, ambiguous. The man who remembers provoking The Sun headline ‘Boffin says we will bonk with robots’ in 1984 remains speculative about how exactly sexual technologies will develop: “We might think that sex with robots is going to be about humanoids – but maybe not, maybe it’s going to be some sort of ball-shaped object,” he muses. Frude is clear, however, about the current reaction to this as an eventuality. “For some people, it’s definitely a taboo,” he says. “And taboo is largely about disgust, or the other bit is that it’s breaking rules.”

The Fringe itself doesn’t offer many rules to break: in its constitution the Festival Fringe Society states that it will "take no part in vetting the festival’s programme". Within the shows themselves, however, audiences may well find subjects that they personally consider transgressive; as Frude observes, “there are different subcultures with different values”. So what’s the psychology behind this? Why do some people find topics like simulated sex, incontinence or menstruation taboo?

Frude puts much of the hesitancy about the pioneering sexual technologies explored in his own show down to perception. “Our image of a robot is of a rather clunky piece of machinery, which is completely asexual – it’s just about the least sexy thing you could think about,” he argues. There is, then, a distinction to be made between inanimate sex objects—to which, considering the $15 billion global sex toy industry today, many of us appear to have become accustomed—and artificially intelligent sexual beings. Going intergalactic with C-3PO somehow seems unappealing. Frude agrees: “We talk about artificial intelligence a lot, but we completely leave out the concept, usually, of artificial personality.”

As The Future of Desire highlights, our current hangups around sex—also explored in shows like Queen Mary Theatre Company's Givin’ It Somedo have historical precedents. “A classic one is the Victorian campaign against masturbation – which was like, 'you’re going to go blind',” explains Frude. “That’s what they believed.” Partly stemming from fears of population increase outstripping food resources, Victorian anti-masturbatory crusades included Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts, warning boys against “beastliness”, doctors practicing clitoridectomy, and the development of restrictive genital devices. Victorian health manuals instead championed Fletcherism, the mastication movement. “Now don’t get the syllables wrong here,” Frude cautions. “Mastication is good – chewing your food 40 times every mouthful, at least... Mastication, good; masturbation, bad.” 

There are older taboos, too – as shows like Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman underline: this ‘marvellously menstrual lecture’ focuses on what Frude classes as an ancient taboo. “Blood coming from a sexual part of the body? Absolutely,” he says. Negative attitudes towards menstruation can be found in the Old Testament, which suggests that a menstruating woman is ‘unclean’. “The deepest taboos are about bodily functions,” says Frude. “There’s a good evolutionary reason for this.” For instance: when outside the body, blood is instinctively associated with a wound or malady. The result, however, is that menstruation continues to be a barrier to equality, and micro-practices like the concealment of tampons persist. Featuring alt-cabaret acts, shows like Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman are about combating this. As Frude points out: “The way not to be disgusted by stuff is to actually expose yourself to it.”

Across the Fringe programme, taboos are coupled with comedy – much to Frude’s approval. “The breaking of taboos in comedy can be very useful, because it desensitises,” he says. “At least now we’re talking about it.” The New Yorker described Sara Juli’s show on motherhood and urinary incontinence, Tense Vagina:an actual diagnosis, as "like a standup routine performed… while doing Kegel exercises". The documentary footage that interweaves Jane Doe, a reflection on rape culture, is characterised in the show’s blurb as ‘frank and funny’. Áine Ryan, the writer behind Up the Hill Jackie, has chosen a darkly humourous take on abortion. Performers across the programme have, then, decided to present taboos to audiences in accessible ways. “What we desire is not up to us,” Frude observes, sagely. “But what we are in control of, of course, is our behaviour.”