Incest generally refers to any sexual activity between closely related persons (often within the immediate family). The type of sexual activity and the nature of the relationship vary in different societies.
Some societies consider it to include only those who live in the same household, or who belong to the same clan or lineage; other societies consider it to include “blood relatives”; other societies further include those related by adoption or marriage.
This pro/con article focuses mainly on the public debate surrounding whether incest between consenting adult blood relatives, most notably brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons all in adulthood. The debate has received significant attention in recent years with the trial and imprisonment of multiple couples for incest. The debate has also receive some legitimacy among scholarly circles with, for example, an extensive article appearing in the June 2006 Harvard Law Review in favor of legalizing incest between consenting adults.
Multiple questions frame the debate: Do consenting adults have a right to engage in whatever relationships they choose? Do incestuous relationships often violate the principle of consent due to complicated past family dynamics? Can incest be morally sound, possibly in cases of genuine love between incestuous couples? Should social norms of morality even determine the legality of incest? Does incest harm the institution of marriage? Are there significant risks for the offspring of incestuous couples? Do incestuous relationships follow from disproportionate power-dynamics within a family? Do the overall pros and cons suggest that legalizing adult incest is good public policy?
Banning incest because of the potential for the abuse of power in family relationships is wrong-headed. The potential for the abuse of power exists in all relationships: between boss and worker, between clever and not so clever. We do not try to control what should happen in those examples, because they are adults, free to live their own lives and make their own decisions. Should the state intervene to stop the union of the Nobel Prize winner and her secretary, or the physically strong construction worker and the physically week office administrator, because of a potential ‘abuse of power’? No. Neither should it be the case with incestuous relationships. Additionally, there is no defined power relationship–in any other aspect of life–between a father and adult daughter or between a mother and adult son. As they are legally equals in all other aspects of life there is no reason to treat them as anything other than equals in the area of sexuality.
The case against incestuous couples relies too much on speculation about worst-case scenarios in which poor judgment and corrupt morals lead to abuse in the relationship. Yet, most of these problems have nothing to do with incestuous couples specifically and could apply to any family. In any family, one family member could be abusive. In any relationship, one member could abuse power and possibly force another member into sex without consent. It is wrong, therefore, to cite abuse in incestuous families as an example of the corruption of incest itself, when such abuse is consistent with what occurs in traditional families as well. It is important to, instead of considering bad-apple scenarios, to consider if incest can be just in isolation of unrelated issues. This means that the best-case scenarios (in which all else is equal) should be considered for the purpose of developing incest law. This reveals that there are many successful, happy, and fairly ordinary incestuous couples and families living in society today, and that a ban is unnecessary.
It is easy to confuse adult incest with abusive forms of incest; such as intragenerational incest between a father an his 14 year-old daughter. Incest between consenting adults is much different than these abusive forms of incest, which are wrong and will always remain unlawful. The proposal is only to legalize consensual adult incest, keeping all other laws in place to check abusive, non-consensual acts.
Many sibling relationships involve considerable power. Much older siblings have power over younger siblings. When one or both parents die or are ill or are often away from the family unit, an older sibling often takes on a pseudo-parental role in nurturing and caring for the younger. This is more important than other power relationship parallels, such as boss-worker, since in this one children can be groomed so that when they reach adulthood their impression of sexuality is distorted to the degree that they cannot but approve of incest. The age restriction may prevent penetrative sex between siblings when one or both are underage (but given that it will be seen as less serious in an environment in which incest is approved, even this is less certain). However, kissing and cuddling (in a different context, the natural displays of familial affection) can be used over years on an underage person to ensure that their view of sexuality is firmly based on a sexualised family environment and to ensure that, by the time they do come ‘of age,’ that they are firmly on the path to commit inces
“The mothers [of incest survivors] described a ‘world of the father’, a world that extended from the private domain of the family to the larger, public, societal domain. In this world men had the right to do what they wanted.”
Those most likely to take up the ‘opportunities’ offered by this change in the law live in remote, isolated places where abuse is even more likely to be successfully concealed. The recent case of repeated sexual abuse on the island of Pitcairn demonstrates the dangers of small societies determining their own moral agenda. This kind of abuse becomes much more likely when the state sanctions some of the acts concerned, as the argument becomes about lack of consent, which is much more difficult to prove, than about incest itself.
Incestuous defendants in a 2007 case in Cincinnati, USA wrote: “Our view of Lawrence is a fairly narrow one, that there is a Constitutional right under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause that says private consensual activity between adults cannot be criminal.”
The individual and family should generally have the ability to choose its own course. In general, if consenting individuals choose to start a family together (incestuously) this private family affair should be allowed to occur free of government intervention.
Kissing and cuddling (in a different context, the natural displays of familial affection) can be used over years on an underage person to ensure that their view of sexuality is firmly based on a sexualised family environment and to ensure that, by the time they do come ‘of age,’ that they are firmly on the path to commit incest. Therefore, an adult raised in an incestuous environment is not really a consenting incestuous adult, but rather an individual indoctrinated in incestuous behavior without full consent.
Consent is not the only criteria for the legality of actions. Consenting adults do not have a right to act in ways that harm others. Much of the case demonstrates the harms involved, such as the risks for the offspring, for the family institution, and for social sustainability in general.
Incest has been bashed for centuries by society. But, beyond repeating the mantra that it is “unnatural and contrary to the history and tradition of the family institution”, there is not much substantive argument surrounding why incest between consenting adults is supposed to be wrong. Yes, reproduction between blood relatives does contain some risks, but is there a well-founded argument against its morality beyond this? Not really. If two individuals deeply love one another, why is wrong for them to follow their desire?
There are many things that are immoral that are still legal. Adultery, for instance, is typically legal, although it is widely considered immoral. Similarly, incest cannot be illegal merely because it is considered immoral. It must have some significant harmful effect, for which this side argues it does not.
The case against incest is based on an application of biblical rules that have little to do with today’s inclusive and tolerant principles. Modern citizens must learn to live with people who perform deeds they consider abhorrent, but which do not directly harm other individuals. Citizens can certainly protest, but to ban outright a certain practice on the simple basis of “immorality” is unacceptable in modern democracies.
The state and society should not engage itself too deeply in setting moral standards for other citizens. Morality is often in the eye of the beholder, particularly when it comes to love and sex. Incestuous couples should be left alone to follow their own moral code.
“It’s universally condemned — this was also used against interracial marriage etc. Again: so what? And again: no it isn’t. It’s universal to have some kind of incest taboo, but the limits vary a lot. In many cultures it’s common for first cousins to marry (with up to 50% of marriages being between first cousins).”
The case against incest is certainly not merely biblical, but it exists in almost all religions for the very sound reason that it it undermines so many fundamental values and morals in society: the integrity of the family institution, the integrity of the institution of marriage, the safety of children from abuse and molestation, the health of offspring, among other tangible and moral damages discussed below. There is more than a ‘yuck’ factor to this: but the instinctive ‘yuck’ we feel for some things is often rooted in the fact that it is dangerous or bad for us/those around us. The wisdom of the ages should not be ignored. The overall moral abhorrence of incest justifies society setting a clear moral line against it with a ban.
The children of incestuous parents are much more likely to see incest as acceptable and to, therefore, engage in incest themselves. The problem with this is that second-generation incest is even more likely to involve medical and genetic problems. Third-generation incest is even more risky, and so on. Therefore, incest is an unsustainable social model. To this extent, a ban on incest is good social, public policy. And, to the extent that incest is bad for society and its collective interests, incest is immoral.
“the natural aversion to incest among most human beings is so strong that we formulate moral and legal norms against incest and enforce them as expressions of our natural emotional dispositions […] We can see how reason comes into play here. We might, for example, call on our knowledge of the genetics of inbreeding to rationalize our abhorrence of incest. But this is only a rationalization of a moral abhorrence that causes our moral condemnation of incest as an expression of moral emotion.”
“It’s unnatural — the same old line’s been used to prove the immorality of homosexuality, interracial marriage, contraception etc. Sorry. The answer’s always “so what?” (being unnatural doesn’t make something bad) and “no it isn’t” (eg. 10–15% of college students reported some childhood sexual contact with a brother/sister).”
Incest is fairly common in the animal kingdom. In human history, incest has been common, found prominently as far back as Ancient Egypt. This all suggests that incest is fairly “natural”, undermining the argument that it is unnatural and immoral.
“On another note, incest is only a matter of degree. We’re all related, descending from a common evolutionary ancestor, so everyone on earth is some cousin of yours. Sometimes a close one if you live on an island. It’s an evolutionary quirk to distinguish between the in-group (largely relatives) and out-group, as if there’s something fundamental about these 2 groups.”
Incest is against the natural order of things. People are not supposed to mate with blood relatives, but with people from a different family. This is meant to ensure the random mixing of genes that enables variation within human offspring and the potential for evolution. Diverging from this natural order is wrong on many levels. It impairs the natural evolutionary process, which weakens human evolutionary progress and improvement. Symbolically, it diminishes the respect we place on the natural sexual order that has enabled humans to become the sacred creatures that we are. Similarly, for people of faith, it diminishes the value placed on the sexual order created by God.
In his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Charles Darwin has a chapter “On the Good Effects of Crossing, and On the Evil Effects of Inbreeding.” – “Although there seems to be no strong inherited feeling in mankind against incest, it seems possible that men during primeval times may have been more excited by strange females than by those with whom they habitually lived. . . . If any such feeling formerly existed in man, this would have led to a preference for marriages beyond the nearest kin, and might have been strengthened by the offspring of such marriages surviving in greater numbers.”