The researchers looked at two expressions of happiness, referred to as Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles. Named after a 19th-century neurologist, the Duchenne smile conveys genuine pleasure and engages both the mouth and the eyes, whereas a non-Duchenne smile is linked with concealment and social politeness. Bonanno and his colleagues found that those who, as kids, had not disclosed their sexual abuse to others (for example, it was discovered by another adult and only then reported) and who blamed themselves displayed far more non-Duchenne smiles than did those survivors who blamed their abusers. This latter group was more clearly identifiable by their facial expressions of disgust—a palpable moral loathing—whenever speaking about those who had harmed them.
Disgusting to Whom?
Although such powerful symbolic disgust responses are all too real in the damage they can do to a person's well-being, you may be surprised to learn that their precise parameters have no basis in a moral reality. Human beings have evolved to combat pathogens through adaptive responses that require absolutely no enculturation. We do not have to learn how to vomit, for instance, after wolfing down a burger infected with E. coli. The symbolic disgust response, in contrast, emerges from prevailing cultural forces. What might have made a Japanese person commit ritual suicide in the 18th century because he could not stand to live with himself and his social offense would for most of us today be quickly forgotten as a trifling incident. Given their sheer emotional intensity, it is easy to mistake feelings of symbolic disgust for an immovable moral reality that exists outside our own subjective head. But no such reality exists.
Anthropologists have long known just how easy it is to make Western moral compasses spin out of control by describing other so-called exotic cultural traditions, especially those involving sex. Consider one elaborate ritual in Papua New Guinea, described by anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, now at San Francisco State University. In the tribe he called the Sambia, boys close to their eighth or ninth birthday are banished to a bachelor's hut filled with older males whom they must fellate. The Sambia believe that the ritual transforms their youths into mighty soldiers. In our society, this ritual would be unspeakable, causing irreparable harm and condemning these boys to lifelong issues with their sexuality. In contrast, Sambia adults and older teenagers who participate are seen as altruistic. The Sambia perceive harm in denying boys participation in the ritual because doing so would permanently brand these children as weaklings who would be judged unworthy of defending the community as adult warriors.
The notion of abnormal sexuality is as much a matter of straying from our culture's script as it is one of violating the laws of reproductive biology. This is not to excuse or downplay the violence done to victims of abuse but to note that the concept of perversion or going against what is right is a phantom of the moralizing human mind.
Oddly enough, a healthy dose of moral nihilism is the antidote for so many of the social ills connected to human sexuality. To adopt the most clear-sighted stance on these increasingly slippery subjects, we must remember to take deviance within its given context, and harm must be understood as harm experienced by the parties involved, not by us as “disgusted” onlookers.
Morality is not out there in the world; it is a way of seeing, and it is constantly evolving. The emotional atmosphere of our own culture has undergone radical social climate changes. To assume we are now finally glimpsing a clear moral reality that previous generations did not would be stupendously foolish of us.
This article was originally published with the title That's Disgusting.