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Forbidden Love: Why Is It Not Such A Good Idea To Have An Incestuous Relationship?

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By Sanchita Srivastava:

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?

incestuous relation

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 Stübing 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.

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  1. Raj

    Nice controversial topic! 😀

    However I oppose your views:

    – Khap panchayats in North India often kill couples if they marry from the same “Gotra” i.e. clan or can be interpreted as “family” as well. Their reasons are precisely because they think it is incestuous for such marriages to take place. If by banning and criminalizing incest, don’t we play into their mentality? They have no right nor any jurisdiction over other adults’ personal lives.

    – Gay marriage and inter-racial marriage too were considered unnatural and psychologically harmful, morally wrong, unethical and destructive to the “traditional” family structure.

    – Procreation isn’t the issue. Even if there were significant genetic risks, should incestuous sex and incestuous relationships be banned and criminalized? That’s the main question.

    – Finally, I don’t think it is anybody else’s business what two people(or even more) consenting adults do in the bedroom as long as it doesn’t harm any third party. While a case could be made against children being born incestuous relationships, but then a similar case will also have to be made against smoking mothers and other people who could conceive a genetically-impaired child.

    Btw I oppose Govt. and public intervention in all forms of marriage. Marriage ceremonies can be done in religious places or elsewhere and the terms of marriage can be registered in court (regarding distribution of property, residence rights, children etc.). But there should be no marriage laws, no divorce laws, no alimony laws, no adultery laws and even no dowry laws(since coercion and threats are already covered in other acts) etc.

  2. Rigya Singh

    You have written a well reasoned article.
    I have a question. What if two siblings consensually love each other, decide to engage in sex but have no intention of having children. The couple wants to stay together but without having kids. If the child factor is eliminated not many arguments hold against it. And every psychological theory has a counter to it. So, it is not absolute.
    The premise that human beings are meant to reproduce is not a rule, especially looking at the population.
    Brahma did have intercourse with his daughter. So many mythologies feature on incest. Greek mythology has it in every story.
    I neither support it, nor condemn it. I firmly believe in “Live and let live” and “if it has not happened to you, you can’t really comment on it as you are an outsider”.

  3. Mahitha Kasireddi

    ‘Mythology’ as the name suggests does not necessarily be true. Each one is free to give their own versions too. I have a version too for Brahma impregnating his daughter. It might not have been a physical relationship in literal sense. I am suggesting it must have been an ancient form of IVF method, transferring his DNA into the womb and all, you know gods were powerful enough to make anything possible. Probably, Brahma must have only donated his sperm. Talking of the Egyptian and Spain Civilization, if it was to protect lineages how does the question of incest arise? I mean citing this example in this context if out of my comprehension. If they had knowledge and expertise to conduct IVF then, they would do it too.

    Off course, people are entitled to right to privacy in family life. But, you cannot label this a ‘taboo’. Somethings are just not meant to be. The court’s verdict is just. Though I don’t want to sound conservative here. Only if they thought about future when their children will be sane enough to question the disabilities imposed upon them as a result of their physical urges. This is why in South India, you see a decline in number of marriages between first cousins which was common till 2 decades ago.

    1. Raj

      I know about Egypt. The Pharaohs (at least some of them) married their own sisters since it was believed that Pharaoh’s couldn’t marry anyone who did not share his blood. Not to mention the Jewish/Christian myths about Noah’s Ark, when he and his kids had to populate the planet with humans. His kids procreated with each other.
      I don’t think it has anything to do with IVF. Implicit in your assertion is that gods actually existed and thus were powerful to do such procedures. It is more likely it was all made up. Human’s have had amazing imagination since time immemorial.
      Anyway leaving aside procreation, should incestuous relationships be allowed?
      And should parents be punished for giving birth to impaired children?

    2. christabom

      @Raj No matter what other people think: a relationship is between 2 people. If they are both adults and are in a consensual relationhip and love eachother, I dont think there is any valuable reason to forbid that. You might not like it, but a relationship is private in my opinion.

      However, I think it is very selfish if these couples choose to have children, dispite that they know that there is a high chance of birth defects. An option would be to adopt or use a sperm donor. You can give birth to impaired children by accident, but in this case you know beforehand that there is a big chance of birthdefect, this makes it different. You willingly choose to take that risk and your children are the victim of this.

      Now can we forbid people in incestious relationships from having children? I think this is a very difficult issue. Even though for some couples it might not be a good idea to have children, in practice we can not stop people. People should be free to live the life that they want. People make all kinds of bad choices in life that you may not agree with. The law is there to prevent people from doing harm to others, not to dictate how people should live their life. If children are involved it is a conflict: on one side the freedom of the parents, on the other side the welfare of the child. Therefore there is no easy answer to this question.

      It would be a good idea to give such couples a lot of counseling so that they exactly know what to expect and what the risks are. People might make better choices if they fully understand what they are doing. They might or might not listen to this information..

    3. Raj

      @Christa : I am in agreement when you say that we should respect consensual relationships. You can read my 1st comment in which I have given my support.
      Now coming to the children issue, if the only issue we are preventing them from having children is because they “might” have kids with impaired genes, then we will have to use that same yardstick for kids being born out of non-incestuous relationships. And if child-welfare is the primary concern then even poor people should be banned from having kids because they will be unable to take care of them properly.I agree there are no easy answers to this.

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