Guest Column with Lauren Rosewarne

May 13 / 110

Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences.
Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences.

Sex, politics, and religion. Three topics routinely considered off-limits in polite company—in mixed company; in refined company. Three subjects deemed personal, inflammatory, and best avoided out of respect, consideration, and diplomacy.

Historically, when popular culture dared present sex, politics, or religion explicitly—or even just frankly—depictions were met with the wrath of censors, if not also rejection by audiences and advertisers. It is sex, politics, and religion that remain the perpetual hot button—the proverbial lightning rod—topics that even today in our tech-savvy, cable television mediascape consistently attract controversy and condemnation, bans and boycotts.

 While sex, politics, and religion might be conversation topics that make first dates awkward, dinner parties uncomfortable, and classroom, staff-room, and locker-room discussions fiery, the very fact that they summon such strong—such visceral—reactions highlights that these are also the very topics that we have the most passion for and certainly harbour the most curiosity about.

In my book American Taboo, I focused on some of my favorite taboos. From vibrator use to cunnilingus, homosexuality to prescription drugs, naughty hand gestures to farting, these topics are all gloriously—and variously—divisive. Time and time again, these topics have been shown to titillate, offend, arouse, and create angst—if not outrage. Likewise, each has a history of controversy and scandal, be it related to censorship, restricted classification, protest, or just accusations of poor taste.

While I titled the book American Taboo, the taboo topics aren’t actually taboo enough to remain completely unspoken. In fact, while these topics consistently attract controversy, such depictions—be they flagrant displays or subtle allusions—are readily detected. The ease of detecting examples, of course, highlights an interesting paradox. Evidently there are many subjects that remain difficult to talk about – if not thoroughly polarising - in real life, yet each has a notable presence in popular culture. What does this strange situation reveal? Why are we so drawn to consuming portrayals of these controversial topics? Why do these subjects so heatedly divide in real life and yet are so fervently consumed through entertainment media? Such questions guided my examination of hundreds of examples of controversial television and film scenes.

American Taboo is an exploration of a wide range of topics that are still haunted by politics, stigma, and controversy, yet each of which has a distinct, complicated, and ultimately fascinating presence in our popular culture.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences. Her book, American Taboo is launching in Melbourne on November 12. For more information please visit

Editorial Enquiries

Got a story?

Staff are encouraged to submit stories. There are some important steps in preparing a media-ready story.  Email