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10 Surprising Things That Were Once Said to Promote Immoral Behavior

by Kieran Torbuck
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Mankind loves a moral panic. Throughout the history of human civilization, all manner of things have been censored and discouraged for fear they would cause people to abandon their values and descend into anarchy and depravity. Few things, if any, have ever actually caused this to happen.

However, even today, examples of such censorship can be found around the world despite the overwhelming odds that such fears are unfounded. In time, they are also very likely to be seen as nonsensical. How else to describe the fact that coffee used to be considered satanic (until suddenly it was not) and that surfing was said to be the pastime of savages?

Read on to find out more about those and other normal things that people amazingly once said were immoral.

Related: 10 Things We Eat That Are Banned Outside The US

10 Silk

How Did the Ancient Romans Actually Dress?

Many predictions of a slide into moral degeneracy have it starting with the same cause: sex. How exactly people’s bedroom activities will cause social order to break down is often unclear, but many societies throughout history have banned or discouraged certain behaviors for such reasons. Ancient Rome was no different, but one strange thing that they regulated for this reason was silk.

The fabric was popular across the empire as a way for the wealthy to show off, but it was heavily criticized by Roman moralists. The writer Seneca (d. AD 64) thought that women who wore it out were strolling around virtually in the nude; “They cannot swear with good conscience that they are not naked,” he wrote.

But while women were criticized for wearing it, silk was still seen as feminine. The Roman author Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) thought that men who wore it were contributing to the decline of Roman culture, while Emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37) went as far as to ban men from wearing it at all.[1]

9 Ovid’s Poetry

What Did Romans Find ATTRACTIVE? – Advice from Ovid

Silk was not the only alleged source of moral corruption that the Romans had in their sights. Under the moralistic Emperor Augustus, they censored the works of one of their famous poets, Ovid. They would not be the only ones to do so. His books were burned during the “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 15th-century Florence and banned by the Bishop of London 100 years later. They were also illegal to import to the USA until 1930.

Translations of his works have also been known to leave out chunks that were considered inappropriate. It is no surprise that Ovid has been so controversial throughout history since sex is a prominent feature of all his major works. He wrote about all kinds of it, too, and did not only stick to fictional situations.

Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) was essentially an instruction manual on how to seduce the opposite sex. This was the book that was illegal to import into the U.S., and it might even have the longest history of censorship of any book ever. When the U.S. finally allowed it, it was not because they had reassessed its morality but because it fell under their legal definition of a literary classic.[2]

8 Coffee

When Coffee was Illegal

Whether it’s standing at a counter sipping cappuccino in Italy or enjoying a cup of joe while jotting down existentialist thoughts on the streets of Paris, coffee is ubiquitous in European culture. But that was not always the case. When it first started gaining popularity there in the 17th century, it was decried as “Satan’s drink.”

At the time, the Ottoman Empire was gaining power and taking over formerly Christian parts of Europe. It was widely known that coffee was the Ottomans’ social drink of choice because they could not drink alcohol, and this led priests and bishops to fear that if the drink was widely adopted, then the beliefs of the Ottomans would be too. Some even begged Pope Clement VIII to ban it.

Not only was it the drink of those that they considered infidels, but if their fears were realized and it did lead to the adoption of Islam in Europe, the church’s supremacy and the Pope’s own position would be in danger. Surprisingly, however, Clement refused to forbid it. He reportedly said that the coffee was “so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”[3]

7 Bananas

How Bananas Changed the World

After its papal blessing, coffee was adopted fairly quickly in Europe. There was little that was controversial about it other than its association with the Ottoman Empire. Its appearance might have helped. A small bean or cup of black liquid does not really look like much else. At least, it does not remind people of body parts. The same cannot be said for bananas. And yes, this really was the reason the phallic fruit had a hard time—sorry for the pun here—becoming as popular as it is today.

By the beginning of that most prudish of centuries, the 1800s, some Americans knew about bananas, but they were not widely consumed. Their suggestive shape made them taboo. When they were eaten, it was done in ways that disguised the banana’s shape, like wrapping it in foil and slicing it up inside a bowl lest anyone lay their eyes upon the immoral fruit.

Andrew Preston of the Boston Fruit Company and later United Fruit was the man who changed this perception. As well as pointing the public to the low cost and health benefits of bananas, he issued postcards showing Victorian ladies eating them at picnics to make them more socially acceptable.[4]

6 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Highlights

Joseph Stalin had some surprisingly strong views on morality for a man who sent countless people to their deaths or the Gulag. In January 1936, a celebrated young composer learned this in a close call that would define his career and legacy. That man was Dmitri Shostakovich, who was watching a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District on January 26 of that year when he saw Stalin walk out.

A savage official review came out a couple of days later, and the popular opera vanished from theaters. A big part of the criticism was about how sex was depicted in the music, with “quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible.” It was said to be “tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie.”

Stalin is widely thought to have been offended by the sex scene in the first act, but its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous female murderer probably did not help either. Shostakovich spent months fearing a knock at his door. Instead, the opera led Soviet officials to define the art they found acceptable, which would come to be known as “Socialist Realism”[5]

5 Music in General

The Musicians of Afghanistan Silenced by the Taliban

The censorship of music is not confined to the last century or Stalinist Russia. It still happens in modern times and has, if anything, gotten worse in some places. While Stalin and the Soviets had grievances with specific artists and works, in 2023, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan sought to ban music. Not Western music or popular music, but music in general. Performing it or broadcasting it on the TV or radio is outlawed. Why?

According to an official at their Vice and Virtue Ministry, it’s because it “causes moral corruption” and causes “the youth to go astray.” The banning of music is a longstanding Taliban policy and was also in force when they were in power in the 1990s. Upon the reintroduction of the ridiculous rule, the Taliban organized bonfires in which instruments were burned.

Because they had seen it before, many Afghan musicians took steps to ensure their safety when the Taliban seized power again in 2021. Many fled the country, and those who stayed have been beaten, humiliated, and discriminated against.[6]

4 Surfing

The complicated history of surfing – Scott Laderman

When moral issues arise in sports, the focus usually seems to be something that an athlete has done in their personal life. Concerns are raised every now and then about the injuries caused by popular contact sports. Still, even then, the criticism is often aimed at the fans who enjoy the sport rather than the participants. Taking part in any sport is not usually said to be immoral. However, one of the world’s oldest sports and pastimes—surfing—is an exception to this rule.

While some European visitors to Hawaii in the late 1700s and 1800s were impressed by the native custom of “he’e nalu,” or “wave sliding,”‘ the missionaries who soon arrived disapproved of it. One missionary even described it as the pastime of “chattering savages.” They discouraged the locals from surfing and introduced them to new games, which reduced the former activity’s popularity.

However, it appears they never outright banned surfing, as is sometimes reported. Their main issues with the sport seemed to be that it was traditionally practiced in the nude or with very little clothing and that both sexes took part. How scandalous![7]

3 Bertrand Russell’s Lectures

Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals

“Canceling” is just another name for the old idea of using moral outrage to take an alleged bad influence away from an audience. In 1940s New York, that bad influence was the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His audience consisted of the students of the College of the City of New York, but some people wanted to deprive them of the chance to be taught by one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Why? Because of his liberal views about sex. The risk that Russell would corrupt the sexual morality of these youth—despite the fact he had already taught at several of the best universities in the U.S. without having done so—apparently outweighed his contributions to philosophy, logic, and mathematics, as well as his value as a professor.

At least, that was essentially what a judge decided when one family went to court to cancel the appointment and stop Russell’s immorality from infecting young minds. When the family succeeded, the mayor withdrew funding for Russell’s professorship, leaving him out of a job.[8]

2 Christmas

The 22-Year Ban on Christmas in Massachusetts

Today, people use the term “puritanical” to describe strict religious or moral behavior. The term originated in 16th and 17th century England where some members of the Church of England sought to redefine what it meant to live a godly life. For these “Puritans,” a godly life did not include any kind of merrymaking or festivities. They saw to it that laws were passed in both England and Colonial America, banning what they considered to be immoral behavior, which in some places included drinking, dancing, and games.

They also outlawed one celebration in particular, which seemed to them to be a festival of sinful activities: Christmas. Yes, Christmas was actually banned by Christians. They disliked how pagan traditions like trees and decorations were adopted into Christmas celebrations, believing them to be an insult to God. But they did not stop at banning these.

Amazingly, mince pies and Christmas pudding were off the menu, there was to be no singing of carols, and stores and businesses had to stay open all Christmas day. The ban was lifted in England in 1660, but it would not be recognized as a legal holiday in some U.S. states until 1856.[9]

1 Statues

Evil Bangkok statue upsets Thais

When statues are controversial, it is usually because they celebrate somebody who did bad things, not because an observer might look at them and be inspired to do something evil. However, there have been cases around the world where people feared that this would happen.

One example from 2023 comes from Thailand. A large statue was displayed outside a hotel in Bangkok. Called “Khru Kai Kaeo,”‘ the sculpture was 13 feet (4 meters) tall and looked like an enormous, jet-black vampire with angel wings and piercing red eyes. It is fair to say that it looked demonic, but could it really cause people to become evil? Some thought so.

The Council of Artists Promoting Buddhism called for its removal for the reason that it promoted devil worship. They said that people would offer animal sacrifices to it, although no reports ever emerged of these things actually happening. Another group asked for it to be moved to somewhere less visible for the even more vague reason that it threatened their culture and beliefs.

The scary statue was eventually removed, although the official reason was that the hotel did not have the right permission to display it.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen