The Forbidden Fruit of IncestHi people.
On Tom O'Carroll's blog someone took me up on my offer to go through and cite literature I'd saved on incest, and I spent the best part of a day hamming something out and produced a "starter pack" for my "fellow intellectuals" out there!
For his part, Tom was very complimentary. He wrote:
"This is a fantastic piece of work from Prue, a 9-page absolute must read for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. It is extremely well written, well organised into thematic sections, has wide coverage from different angles, and (while always being clear, straightforward, and user-friendly) goes deeply into the literature.
Well done Prue! I cannot commend this highly enough!"
The file is available at the link below
But in case it doesn't work for some people, I'm going to copy and paste the text with all the links below, so feel free to archive it for your own collection :)
Incest, Inbreeding, Imagined and Incendiary Desires: A (Semi) Annotated Bibliography
Sources relevant to the topic of incest are listed below in chronological order. The list does not claim to be comprehensive. Rather, it aims to present sources which engage with, or are relevant to, critical debates around the topic. Incest simply refers to erotic and / or sexual encounters between relatives, usually blood relatives or cousins. Definitions of what is considered incest, erotic and / or sexual, will vary by person to person and author to author. In my experience, studies prior to the 1980’s tended to focus on intercourse and relationships between close blood relatives in the immediate family, such as father-daughter or mother-son relations. Whereas studies after 1980 often use an expansive definition where incest does not necessarily involve intercourse or a long-term relationship. Different definitions will shape research findings; more expansive definitions will inflate prevalence rates, for instance. You are advised to pay attention to these differences.
Incest is often imagined to be intergenerational, between older and younger, whereas legal scholar Tatjana Hörnle, in her paper on “consensual adult incest,” reminds us that incest can occur between persons of similar ages – siblings or cousins for instance.
See Tatjana Hörnle, Consensual Adult Incest, New Criminal Law Review: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 76-102 <https://doi.org/10.1525/nclr.2014.17.1.76>
Whilst this is important to remember, most authors, including myself, have focused on intergenerational encounters, and so the literature cited here is skewed towards these arrangements; even if, again, definitions such as “child” and “adult” vary among researchers just as they have varied historically and cross-culturally.
You might be wondering what debates could exist surrounding erotic encounters between kin. Here’s a sample.
One debate is whether such encounters can be experienced positively by those involved. A researcher who is well-known for engaging in this debate is Joan A. Nelson, who published accounts from participants who experienced their encounters as positive overall. See:
Joan A. Nelson, The impact of incest: factors in self-evaluation, book chapter in Children and sex: new findings, new perspectives, edited by Larry L. Constantine and Floyd M. Martinson (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1981), pp. 163-174.
Joan A. Nelson (1986) Incest: Self‐report findings from a nonclinical sample, The Journal of Sex Research, 22:4, 463-477 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00224498609551327>
Joan A. Nelson (1987) Fear of Sexual Intimacy: Learned Inhibition as an Etiological Factor, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 13:1, 43-46 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01614576.1987.11074894>
A similar debate perennially occurs with non-incestuous intergenerational encounters, where positively experienced non-incestuous encounters outside the home have been documented by such authors as Allie C. Kilpatrick, Jessica Stanley, Amanda H. Littauer (2020), Rachel Hope Cleves, Sonya Arreola, Terry Leahy, Paul Okami, Theo Sandfort, Bruce Rind, Titus Rivas, David Riegel and Marshall Burns, to name a few. Nelson’s final paper that I am aware of argued that such experiences exist along a continuum.
See Joan A. Nelson (1989) Intergenerational Sexual Contact: A Continuum Model of Participants and Experiences, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 15:1, 3-12 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01614576.1989.11074938> or https://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/nelson.htm
Another debate asks what is traumatogenic. Is it the erotic encounter itself – a kiss, hug, tactile contact, genital contact or intercourse? Is it the external reactions to the erotic encounter – a young person’s fear of what their parents will say, the police and authorities, their partner being arrested; guilt, shame, or, for those encounters that are reported, the external interventions in response? This is referred to as “iatrogenic” harm, and Nelson referred to such persons as “iatrogenic victims.”
Recent research supports the idea “that children may be re-victimised” as the author’s put it, “by various aspects of “the system” and professionals within it, including social workers, police officers, and lawyers.” See Anna Gekoski et al., (2016) 'The effectiveness and impact of the child protection and criminal justice systems in cases of intrafamilial child sexual abuse', Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice, 2:1, pp. 54-66 <https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRPP-06-2015-0023>.
For reference, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect.” The difficult question underlying these debates: can erotic encounters ever be separated from the external variables that surround them, and controlled for in research?
The famous gender theorist Judith Butler has contributed to this debate. In her book Undoing Gender, she wrote:
“to understand the violation that incest can be—and also to distinguish between those occasions of incest that are violation and those that are not—it is unnecessary to figure the body of the child exclusively as a surface imposed upon from the outside. [...] So I keep adding this qualification: “when incest is a violation,” suggesting that I think that there may be occasions in which it is not. Why would I talk that way? Well, I do think that there are probably forms of incest that are not necessarily traumatic or which gain their traumatic character by virtue of the consciousness of social shame that they produce.”
Butler elaborates on the following pages that the concept of “incest” can only exist as long as there’s the concept of the white heterosexual middle-class, that is, stable and insular family. After all, without the idea of a “family” what does incest even mean? Therefore, incest is, according to Butler, not inherently traumatic.
To give a concrete example, let’s think of two siblings who are infertile and who have sex with each other but neither they themselves nor anyone else is aware that they are indeed relatives. Unless they injure themselves during sex (which could happen to anyone), the only “harm” that can result is external to the erotic encounter itself. Scholars would refer to this as some combination of “sociogenic” / “iatrogenic” / “nocebogenic” harm. Here, “Incest” relies on the knowledge of one’s kinship status, who are they related to, their brothers, sisters, etc.? This is what Butler means by “not necessarily traumatic.” Culture, values, interpretation and knowledge make a difference to how a given experience is perceived and responded to, both individually and by society at-large. An epistemological (knowledge-based) foundation to traumatogenesis. Not all genital touching by older persons of younger persons, for instance, can be inherently traumatic, otherwise parents would not be able to wash their young and keep them clean! There are many interesting debates with implications for policy makers and social organization, and I hope the sources here can help you come to your own conclusions.
Atalay Yorukoglu and John P. Kemph, (1966) Children not severely damaged by incest with a parent, in Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 5, pp. 111-124
Describes two cases of incest, one mother-son and one father-daughter, where the younger party did not manifest psychological disturbance.
David Lester, (1972) Incest, The Journal of Sex Research, 8:4, 268-285 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00224497209550762>
Reasonable discussion of research bias.
“Extensive bias is present in the research carried out on the participants in incest. First, the majority of subjects who come to the attention of researchers are those brought to court as a result of the incest behavior. This increases the apparent incidence in families from the lower social classes and the likelihood of incest being noted in disorganized, unstable families, since these variables increase the chances that the incest will be reported and legal action instituted.
A second source of bias is that many reports of incest in the literature come from families in which some members are in therapy. This increases the likelihood that the participants will be seen as psychologically disturbed. These biases are apparent in that most cases of incest reported are instances of father-daughter incest whereas brother-sister incest is much more common.
A third source of bias is that families are examined after the incest has been reported and legal or therapeutic action taken. These actions may have a profound effect on the family. Gligor (1967) did not find incestuous families disorganized or unstable as Weinberg (1955) did, and Gligor felt that Weinberg's data were a reflection of the disorganization brought about by the legal prosecution of the fathers involved. It is clear from the case reports that prosecution of the father followed by jailing or detention in a psychiatric hospital for many years has a profound effect on the daughters. Usually, the daughters are not allowed to see their fathers during this period, a separation that may be especially traumatic since commonly father-daughter incest is protracted rather than episodic. The guilt, sexual acting-out, and other behavior problems found in the daughters invariably commence after the discovery of the incest and the break-up of the home.
In addition, methodological problems are frequent in the research” (pp. 272-273).
I will leave the rest to the interested reader.
Edward Sagarin, (1977) Incest: Problems of definition and frequency, The Journal of Sex Research, 13:2, 126-135 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00224497709550968>
Abstract: Research into factors pertinent to incest is hampered and confused as a result of lacking clear‐cut definitions. A distinction is made here between consanguine and affinal relationships, and it is suggested that biological consequences as well as psychological problems allegedly resulting from incest could be more clearly determined, and the effectiveness of the incest taboo, its origin and psychological internalization could be studied more effectively. Instances from literature are cited to exemplify these concepts.
Alayne Yates, Sex Without Shame: Encouraging the Child’s Healthy Sexual Development (New York: William Morrow, 1978).
This book is very famous and available easily online. Yates, combining scholarly literature with her own experience as a mother of many children, takes seriously the idea that fear, shame and guilt are serious issues young people face which have deleterious effects upon their lives as they grow older. Recommended reading.
Alayne Yates, (1982) Children Eroticized by Incest, American Journal of Psychiatry, 139:4, pp. 482-485 <https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.139.4.482>
“The assumption that children involved in incest are passive, unwilling victims is an oversimplification of a complex situation. Young children may find such relationships gratifying and, when exposed over time to intense genital and extragenital stimulation, they often become highly erotic. This hypermature responsiveness may be viewed as learned behavior; the behavior is self-reinforcing and may be difficult to modify. The author describes three children to illustrate their arousal, inability to differentiate sensual from affectionate touch, early gender discrimination, and stereotyped role modeling. Foster homes are neither trained nor supported in caring for these children, so serial placements are common.”
This essay is particularly interesting for the cases described and the reason Yates gives for why pre-pubescents are “victims” in erotic encounters with older persons; not because psychological maladjustment is an inherent and invariable outcome, but for other reasons more related to young people’s position in society. (Note that Yates does not refer to post-pubescents and adolescents or adult-adult incest, so I cannot speak to her views on such matters).
“Both legally and morally, there is no question that in instances of incest prepubescent children are always the victims. They are the victims because they have neither the responsibility nor the capacity to participate in the initial decision-making process. Even in the unusual case of the experienced, seductive child who approaches an inexperienced, reluctant adult, it is the adult’s responsibility to decline the invitation. This, however, introduces a new concept: the child may be not only the victim but a participant” (p. 482).
You can read a response to Yates’s article and her reply in:
"Orgasm in eroticized children", American Journal of Psychiatry, 139:10 (1982), p. 1378 <https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.139.10.1378a>
Other essays by Yates include:
Yates, (1987) Should young children testify in cases of sexual abuse? American Journal of Psychiatry, 144:40, pp. 476-480 <https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.144.4.476>
Yates, (1991) Differentiating Hypererotic States in the Evaluation of Sexual Abuse, Journal American Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 30:5, pp. 792-795.
Abstract: When young children behave in a sexual manner, they may be suspected of having been sexually abused. However, this behavior may or may not indicate sexual abuse. Case studies suggest that nonsexually abused children can manifest an increase in erotic behavior on the basis of unusually intense but nonabusive sexual experiences or as part of a compulsion. When the sexual behavior is secondary to abuse, it can be related to posttraumatic stress disorder or intense and prolonged sexual experience.
Yates, (2004) Biologic perspective on early erotic development, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 13:3, pp. 479-496 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2004.02.002>
Ray H. Bixler (1982) Sibling incest in the royal families of Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii, Journal of Sex Research, 18:3, 264-281 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00224498209551152>
Abstract excerpt: “Analysts of the incest taboo who believe that cultural determinants alone are a sufficient explanation of human incest avoidance frequently cite alleged sibling marriages in the royal families of Egypt, Hawaii, and Peru as supporting evidence. If full‐sibling incest were common in intact families in several populous societies (where mates other than siblings were available) incest avoidance theories involving genetic components, and natural selection theory itself, would be seriously challenged”.
Ray H. Bixler (1983) The multiple meanings of “incest”, The Journal of Sex Research, 19:2, 197-201 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00224498309551180>
Bixler advocates the importance of distinctions within research, something which remains an issue in 2021, in part because of a taboo around recognizing that those involved in incest can be “willing participants” as Bixler puts it. If researcher’s risk opprobrium for acknowledging their existence, why would they risk studying “willing participants”, “positive experiences”, or making distinctions?
Abstract: “A host of different sexual activities between partners varying widely in age and degree of consanguinity are usually classified as "incest" and often analyzed in toto. Efforts to encourage investigators to draw distinctions between the various kinds of "incest" have not been very successful, in spite of the availability of both research and theory which suggest the need for a definitional reform. Several important theoretical and empirical issues can be clarified if analysts will specify, for incest partners, the ages, degree of consanguinity, the specific types of sexual acts in which they have engaged, the willingness of each participant, and how long and at what age they lived in the same nuclear family unit. The rationale for recording these data is introduced.”
A.P. MacDonald, (1986) Same-Sex Incest: The Too Too Taboo, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 12:1, 18-20 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01614576.1986.11074855>
Points out that research has mostly focused on father-daughter incest and fills a gap by documenting what the author calls “homosexual incest”; that is, same-sex incest.
Gregory C. Leavitt, (1990) Sociobiological Explanations of Incest Avoidance: A Critical Review of Evidential Claims, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 92, No. 4, pp. 971-993 (23 pages) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/680655>
Jane F. Gilgun, (1995) We Shared Something Special: The Moral Discourse of Incest Perpetrators, Journal of Marriage and Family Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 265-281 (17 pages) <https://doi.org/10.2307/353682>
Excerpt: “Informants were 10 men and one woman interviewed an average of six times each. […] Most striking about informants' accounts was that almost all of them defined incest as love and care and their behavior as considerate and fair. In several instances, they described their experience of incest as mutual romantic love. Yet, their professed care, love, and sense of fairness were contradicted in many ways”.
Keith Soothill & Brian Francis, (2002) Moral panics and the aftermath: a study of incest, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 24:1, 1-17, <https://doi.org/10.1080/09649060110112659>
Abstract: “A ‘moral panic’ about child sexual abuse in Britain in the 1980s culminated in ‘the Cleveland affair’ that produced the challenge of widespread incest and sexual abuse within families. This paper considers the aftermath of this ‘moral panic’.”
A. H. Bittles et al., (2002) Does inbreeding lead to decreased human fertility?, Annals of Human Biology, 29:2, 111-130 <https://doi.org/10.1080/03014460110075657>
Abstract excerpt: “In most Western countries there is a widespread belief, fostered in part by historical prejudice and religious proscription, that inbreeding in human populations causes a reduction in fertility. […] To critically assess the overall status of fertility in consanguineous unions, data on 30 populations resident in six countries were collated from a systematic review of the literature. […] The results were, however, subject to a number of potential limitations, in particular lack of control for important socio-demographic variables. To overcome this problem, data on first cousin marriages were abstracted from the National Family and Health Survey conducted in India during 1992-1993. Multivariate analysis showed that fertility in first cousin unions was positively influenced by a number of variables, including illiteracy, earlier age at marriage and lower contraceptive uptake, but the most important of these parameters were duration of marriage and reproductive compensation. In net terms, consanguinity was not found to be associated either with a significant positive or negative effect on fertility.”
There are occasionally articles that cause a stir in the research community, where a large number of authorities come together to discuss the many sides of an issue. In the intergenerational sexualities research more generally, outside of incestuous encounters, the classic examples are:
Richard Green, (2002) Is Pedophilia a Mental Disorder?. Arch Sex Behav 31, 467–471 <https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020699013309> which argued, using the same criteria by which Dr. Green had influentially argued that homosexuality be de-classified as a mental illness, that attraction to pre-pubescents (6-12 years) should also be de-classified and does not constitute a disorder. For responses and commentary, see
Peer Commentaries on Green (2002) and Schmidt (2002). Arch Sex Behav 31, 479–503 (2002). <https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020603214218> [I recommend reading Bruce Rind and Paul Okami’s contributions].
More recent are debates over Michael Seto’s short but influential article, Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?. Arch Sex Behav 41, 231–236 (2012). <https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9882-6>
And the debate over whether “hebephilia” – exclusive or preferential attraction to 11–14 year-olds, should be considered a mental illness. This proposal elicited a maelstrom of criticism. For an overview which summarizes and links to the many sides of critique, see
Bruce Rind and Richard Yuill, 'Hebephilia as Mental Disorder? A Historical, Cross-Cultural, Sociological, Cross-Species, Non-Clinical Empirical, and Evolutionary Review', in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 42 (2012), 797-829 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-9982-y>
Richard Green also contributed: ‘Sexual Preference for 14-Year-Olds as a Mental Disorder: You Can’t Be Serious!!’, in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 39 (2010), 585–586 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9602-7>.
In the field of incest studies, the big debate among professionals revolved around contrasting theories of “the incest taboo” – why is there a taboo; have there been any exceptions where incest was not taboo; how accurate are evolutionary theories; and what role do genetic and biological factors play? Related to this were debates about people who are the offspring of incestuous unions, and whether or to what extent issues arise for those offspring as a result.
For the incest equivalent to the papers just cited, see:
Human inbreeding avoidance: Culture in nature, in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 6, Issue 1, March 1983 (34 pages) <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00014850>
Recent commentators have noted that the existence of an incest taboo is puzzling when there is little evidence to suggest that many people desire erotic encounters with their own immediate family, although they might find the idea of incest, pornography featuring or simulating incest, or step-relatives through marriage not related by “blood” to be desirable. It’s important to recognize a gap between fantasy and action.
Two recent overview discussions include:
Thomas O’Carroll, Review of Arthur P. Wolf: Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos, Two Aspects of Human Nature, in Sexuality & Culture 21, 323–329 (2017). <https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-015-9327-9>
Michael Seto et al., The puzzle of intrafamilial child sexual abuse: A meta-analysis comparing intrafamilial and extrafamilial offenders with child victims, clinical psychology review, Volume 39, July 2015, pp. 42-57 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.04.001>.
There is evidence to suggest that disgust plays an important role. See
Paula Kresanov et al., Intergenerational incest aversion: self-reported sexual arousal and disgust to hypothetical sexual contact with family members, in Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 39, Issue 6, November 2018, pp. 664-674 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2018.06.008>
Lesleigh Pullman et al., An Examination of the Westermarck Hypothesis and the Role of Disgust in Incest Avoidance Among Fathers, Evolutionary Psychology, Volume: 17 issue: 2, (2019) <https://doi.org/10.1177/1474704919849924>
To add to the confusion, there’s evidence to suggest that non-human animals rarely avoid inbreeding. It might be humans that have erected an exception to the rule, rather than being representative of the rule. See:
Raïssa A. de Boer et al., Meta-analytic evidence that animals rarely avoid inbreeding. Nat Ecol Evol 5, pp. 949–964 (2021). <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01453-9>
Victoria L. Pike et al., Why don’t all animals avoid inbreeding?, The Royal Society, 11 August 2021 Volume 288, Issue 1956 <https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1045>
Finally, here’s some random links to news reports of mother-son incest cases.
Published on 10 September 2021.
Published on 10 September 2021.
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Nobel Prize winner Dr. Carleton Gajdusek on the benefits of intergenerational sex within the family