Interestingly, in several Holy Scriptures and ancient societies, we have innumerable references to and justification for incestuous relationships. For instance, in Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma is said to have had a sexual intercourse with his own daughter, and the act was justified as it was required for procreation whereas even in the royal families of ancient Egypt or Spain, incest was practised in order to preserve the purity of their lineages. But in several contemporary societies, the very thought of sexual association between individuals who are related by blood is now considered as obnoxious. Incest, in all its forms such as one between a parent and child or between siblings, is loathed in some way or the other in most civilizations. But why is that?
Moral and ethical reasons aside, incest is said to have severe psychological and sociological implications. When incest takes place without consent (as seen in most of the cases of sibling incest), it leaves deep scars on the minds of the survivors. As Mr P Ramsey has pointed out, there are short-term and long-term emotional, psychological, and relational effects on the victim, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, relationship dysfunction, and substance abuse and body image disturbances. Moreover, it is widely held that the closer the kinship relation between sexual partners, the higher is the probability of a genetic anomaly for their offspring, with some geneticists putting the risk of producing a disabled child as high as 50%, although the veracity of this statement is hotly debated.
But what if such an alliance is formed after mutual consent of both the parties involved? This question has come to the forefront after the recent judgement on the fate of a brother-sister couple from Germany, Patrick StÃ¼bing and Susan Karolewski. In Patrick’s case, the siblings had not grown up together. It was only when he was 23 that he had moved in with his biological parents and met his then 16 year old sister for the first time. After their mother’s death, the couple became intimately close and had had four children by 2004. The verdict of the German court, which made the couple serve jail sentences was also upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012, even though it implied a refusal to acknowledge his ‘right to a private and family life’. This has led many to question whether incest between consenting adults should be punished at all, especially in cases like this where the “Westermarck” hypothesis (i.e. humans who grow up together develop an instinctive sexual aversion to one another) does not hold ground.
At this juncture, it is imperative to take a look at the reasons cited by the German court regarding its verdict. The interference with his personal rights was justified in order to protect the family structure and the society as a whole. Not to mention the risk of genetic damage to offspring (three of Patrick’s children had genetic anomalies, though one cannot conclusively attribute those to their parents’ relationship) and of course, to uphold the moral tenets of the society.
With the ‘higher genetic risk’ theory getting controversial with every passing day, the only reason that can possibly explain the incest taboo is that it will leave the familial relations in shambles. Moreover, in my humble opinion, forcible incest amounts to nothing but rape. And ‘old school’ as it may seem, I see of consensual incest as nothing but blatant concupiscence, more so in cases where one partner is significantly older than the other as here the leeway of them being naive or curious is simply not there. But with morality being as subjective as it can get, the upholders of ‘personal-liberty-at-all-cost’, are free to disagree.