Tuesday, 9 August 2011


So, one time, I wrote this blog post about incest. And then I was asked to write an essay on the subject, and I think, though I don't know, that this essay was published somewhere.

Well today I was thinking about things I've had published (there aren't loads) and I thought that I wanted to post this essay up on here. It's probably not entirely in keeping with the tone of the blog, and there's no pictures, but I hope you like it anyway.

Without further adieu, I give you:

The love that dare not speak its dirty stinkin’ name

One’s natural inclination when writing is often to celebrate (imaginatively) the familiar.  We’re told, to make it easier, to ‘write what we know’.  The fun though, sometimes or always, often lies in the unfamiliar.  Sitting down at a desk and setting to work, that is the hard part but when you’re there, there’s no need to go easy on yourself.  You’ve overcome the fear, which is really just your imagination or something, so you may as well put the work in; you never know when you’ll be back.  So I look at what I do not know.  And further, what I do not want to know.  What do I not want people to think I know?  Well, there are a number of things that I have little interest in exploring – I shan’t list – that might provoke anything from boredom to outrage to disgust but there’s one topic the mere mention of which gives me the proverbial willies.  Incest.  I feel it’s safe to say that a fair amount of the world’s population feel the same as me, and most legal systems too when it comes to the physical act of love between immediate relatives.  We’re a world that is united in our extreme and automatic distaste for incest.  The thing is though, I do ask myself, why.  What is so inherently disgusting, wrong and/or evil about incest?  Well, obviously, it’s not natural, it results in mutant babies and it’s just not right, ethically and stuff.  And so, I would like to look at whether that is in fact true – why exactly is the practice of two consensual adults who are related privately engaging in non-abusive sexual relations deemed unlawful in these generally tolerant times?

Imagine a couple, called Hansel and Gretel, who met each other as adults.  After a brief and terribly romantic fling, they get married and have babies.  After which things get a bit Moll Flanders as Gretel’s Aunt Dorothy reveals that she is also Hansel’s Aunt Dorothy - for the two are in fact long-lost brother and sister.  Dun dun daaaaah!  And then Hansel and Gretel are locked up and their perfectly happy and healthy children taken away.

Now imagine another couple, named Jack and Jill.  They have lived next door to each other since birth, went to school together and became boyfriend and girlfriend as teenagers.  They attend the same university and get married upon graduation, after which they live a very happy life together, uninterrupted by shocking revelations.

While some might find the first couple’s story tragic and the second a bit odd, I imagine the general reaction to each of the couples as so: Jack and Jill, sweet; Hansel and Gretel, gross.  I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of going out with your neighbours but I think this example shows that our issues with incest don’t come from any kind of emotional reasoning.  By which I mean that it’s not the intimacy of the act, it’s not that fact that we know our family too well that we can’t be with them romantically.  It’s the physical act that turns our stomach.  Two biologically similar humans doing the deed.  The relatedness. 

So, if it is the biology that we are hung up on, it must be because incest is not natural.  Nature doesn’t like incest.  Does it?  Well, the short answer is kind-of-maybe-yes. But only in the absence of any other suitable candidates.  Nature would prefer it that all organisms have sex with someone who can add something new to the gene pool.  This way, there is always the potential for new and stronger genes to permeate throughout a bloodline and ensure its continued survival.

Yet many species of plant or animal, particularly in secluded areas like islands and mountaintops, are happy to either reproduce asexually or with close relatives - whatever's easiest.  It’s kind of lazy and/or desperate and doesn’t, on a large scale, help a species to evolve but it does happen enough that we could call it a natural behaviour.

It hasn't been discovered yet, but it is thought that some animals, in particular humans, have evolved past incest.  This would mean that our psychological revulsion towards any physical expressions of love towards family is by biological design, to keep human bloodstreams interesting.  But the gene responsible for this remains undiscovered and I’m sure that a simpler explanation would be that our psychology in this regard, as in most others, is learned. 

It's not a huge stretch to say that most societies these days are not big on incest.  Any sexual relationship with a direct family member is almost always illegal and marriage between first cousins is even forbidden in some countries, including a number of states in the US.  And one can’t forget that that all of the major world religions refer to it only as an abhorrence (if you don't think too much about Adam and Eve or Noah).  All of this, I would imagine, colours many of our opinions on the matter.  If something is illegal, majorly frowned upon by religious leaders and widely thought to produce deformed offspring, one's natural reaction would be repulsion.  What leads me to believe that it can't be natural for us to have evolved past incest is that 2000 years ago, such a short time evolutionarily, incest was routinely practised by a number of societies. 

At this time, a Roman census revealed that the Ancient Egyptians, including the royal family, celebrated all kinds of intra-familial marriage, be it father-daughter, mother-son or brother-sister; Cleopatra VII, for instance, married more than one of her brothers.  Graeco-Roman society was less a fan, with literature such as Oedipus and Antigone displaying disastrous results for incestuous couples and their offspring.  Conversely, many gods and titans of the ancient Greek pantheon were married to siblings, Zeus and Hera being the most famous, and nothing much was made of that.  And, while illegal in Roman society, Caligula was still thought to have done the deed with all three of his sisters.  While generally the practice was forbidden, it seems to have been enough of a concern that people needed to be warned against it.  If people were doing it or warning people not to do it just two millennia ago, evolution has not had enough time to create a genetic failsafe against incest.  Which again leads me to think that the biggest influence on our negative thinking on this are societal rather than biological.

One big argument levied against incestuous relationships is the fear that any offspring could easily spring forth from the womb sporting an extra arm, no toes and a magic finger.  It will come as a surprise to such thinkers that, in actual fact, having a baby with a relative will not, in and of itself, result in any deformities/superpowers.  Breeding within the same gene pool is merely increasing the chance that the child will develop any genetic weaknesses inherent in either of the parents .  If you have an unhealthy but recessive gene, often your partner will have a healthy version of the same gene, which will override the unhealthy one.  This wouldn't happen if you had the same genetics and the two unhealthy recessive genes might result in a defective baby.  So there is a slightly increased risk of genetic illnesses but if both parents are healthy, this will result in a similarly healthy child (physically).  Putting this into some perspective, one could say the same of those who carry cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s genes.  Carriers of these genes could potentially be responsible for passing on terrible, life-shortening genetic conditions and yet it is not illegal for them to ever have children.  And they’re certainly not forbidden from ever having sex with each other... ever!

And if the sex is not procreative, then this issue is eliminated anyway.  What then, would the problem be?  I'd imagine that most sex, in the Western world, isn't of the baby-making variety at any rate. Contraception is, I feel confident in saying, recommended by most.  Abortion... less recommended, but still legal.  And homosexual practice (which I’m not likening to incest!  I add, defensively) also does not result in babies.  So while the lack of (healthy) children, and the aforementioned potential genetic weaknesses, are often touted as a reason to condemn incestuous practice, I don't think that this is the cause for our distaste towards it, at least not today with our more liberal attitude towards non-procreational sex.

Blaming our culture, the media or whatever seems a bit simplistic and, in any case, I don’t think I could ‘blame’ anything for incest being illegal.  But I just can’t see the reason for two consenting adults making love in the privacy of their own home as something prison-worthy.  Yes, it’s possibly indicative of an unhealthy approach to relationships and sex but one could say that about commitmentphobes or fetishists or prostitutes…  Oh.  Well the first two still stand.  It might be something that we would find completely unarousing or possibly disturbing but you don’t arrest someone because they have an interest in watersports.  Moving on, I feel that the reason this particular sexual act garners quite so much revulsion must run deeper.  A huge part of this has to be the inherent association with abuse, because we rarely hear stories of mutually loving and caring incest, just the abusive and the paedophilic.  And then there's the madonna/whore complex, whereby we view our mothers (and other female relatives) as saints who we don't want to imagine anyone having sex with.  When they're up on a pedastal, untouched by earthly contaminants like sex, the last thing one would want to do is have sex with them oneself.  Plus incest is illegal, don't let's forget, which makes it even more taboo, and less advisable.
The standard, and best, argument in the defence of incest is Mill's Harm Principle which is the belief that a victimless crime such as this should not be punishable by the law.  Essentially, if they’re not hurting anyone, leave them be.  Liberally guilty and open-minded as I like to think I am, the thought of doing anything with my family does completely freak me out.  And I can’t imagine a time will ever come that a parent fixes her children up because ‘they’re just perfect for each other!’ or even a time when each social circle has its token incestuous member but (and this is hard for me to write) this is what I think: incest should be legal.  There, I said it. 


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