What Irrational Social Norms Are You Conforming To?

Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent piece in the Atlantic in which he uses Amanda Todd’s suicide and Kate Middleton’s nude photos to tear down Western society’s unnecessary shaming of the human body, and female breasts in particular. Friedsdorf’s basic point is that because sexual desires will always adapt to society, our arbitrary norms about decency cause tremendous harm to transgressors without altering behavior in any beneficial way:

In places where women must wear head scarves, exposed locks can turn heads. In New York City, exactly no one thinks bare heads are sexually provocative, and New Yorkers have their heads turned on beaches in Rio until they don’t. Sexual attraction is a force of nature. It is a proper function of civilization to bound it.Though shalt not rape is a useful norm. Treat others as you’d want to be treated is a useful normIt is shameful to let people see your breasts is a useless norm. Those who think otherwise at once give men too much and too little credit — too little in that the site of bare breasts is not enough to corrupt men; too much in that no matter how women dress, there is no getting around the fact that many men will lust after them.

To use an economics analogy, the demand for sexual arousal is completely inelastic. There will be the same degree of lust regardless of how women look. If breasts are covered up, men will learn to get aroused from cleavage. If cleavage is banned, men will get their arousal from shoulders. Similarly, if bare breasts become the norm, men will quickly get accustomed to them and the level of lust in society will return to the pre-breast norm. Thus decency norms can alter the causes of “impure” thoughts, but they can’t alter the quantity of those thoughts.

The broader psychological lesson is that every day we live our lives unaware that we’re conforming to hundreds of different social norms, many of which are irrational and harmful. Whenever something strikes you as inappropriate, reprehensible, or praiseworthy, try to slow down your thought process and think about whether there’s a rational reason you’re having that reaction, or whether the reaction is merely the response dictated by society.


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