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Incest is illicit sex or marriage between persons socially or legally defined as related too closely to one another. All societies have rules regarding incest. Incest is conceptualized in four ways: as a proscribed or prescribed marriage form, as a taboo, as prohibited coitus, and as child abuse. The first three conceptualizations are most closely related to early scholars (mid-1800s to mid-1900s), who tended to overlap them. The last conceptualization has become prominent more recently.

Incest-as-marriage rules are usually proscriptive ("Thou shalt not"). Prescriptive ("Thou shalt") incestuous marriage rules have been documented for royalty in Old Iran and ancient Egypt and for Mormons in the United States (Lester 1972). Some groups historically encouraged brother–sister incest. Cases in point were the ruling families of Egypt and Polynesia, where preservation of family resources and ethnic identity took precedence over political alliances with other groups (Firth 1936, 1994).

That some groups proscribe while others prescribe incestuous marriages has caused some to be skeptical of many theories about incest, especially theories that assume that incest avoidance is natural, that close inbreeding is genetically disadvantageous, or that there is an incest taboo. John F. McLennan ([1865] 1876), a lawyer, coined the terms endogamy (within-the-group marriage) andexogamy (outside-the-group marriage). He defined incest as endogamy. Based on his analyses of marriage in Ireland, Australia, ancient Greece, and other societies, he concluded that rules proscribing endogamy evolved as a group survival mechanism. He reasoned that as members of one tribe or group married into others, "blood ties" emerged. These blood ties encouraged reciprocity between groups and cooperation and harmony within groups.

Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan ([1877] 1964) generally agreed with McLennan's definition of incest as endogamy and with McLennan's assumption that proscribing incest promoted both exogamy and group survival. Morgan assumed, however, that incest originally became prohibited due to the presumed deleterious effects of inbreeding. That is, Morgan assumed that at some point, humans developed the capacity to see that exogamy increased the "vigor of the stock" (p. 65). Moreover, in agreement with sociologist Herbert Spencer's ([1876] 1898, pp. 623–642) earlier critique of McLennan's application of the terms "endogamy" and "exogamy," Morgan ([1877] 1964) contended that given the very contradictory nature by which kinship is recognized and organized among humans, McLennan's "terms and his conclusions are of little value" (p. 432). Finally, Morgan contended that practices such as brother–sister and father–daughter marriage among Hawaiians, for instance, spoke to earlier, savage stages of human existence. To Morgan, human groups evolve through three basic epochs: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The first two epochs each have two stages, the last one only one stage. In Morgan's schema of the evolution of humankind, at the very first stage there is promiscuous intercourse and the marriage of brothers and sisters. In the second stage, brother–sister marriage is prohibited. The third stage of evolution sees prominence given to the Gentile pattern of social organization, which includes monogamy. The patriarchal family characterizes the fourth stage. The fifth, and final, stage in the schema, arising with the concept of property, is hallmarked by the monogamian family and the superiority of the "Aryan, Semitic, and Uralian system of consanguinity and affinity" (Morgan [1877] 1964, pp. 421–422). To Morgan, the Aryan family represented the highest level of human evolution, and thus the epitome of civilized humans. This high civilization was attributed to the "providence of God" (p. 468). To Morgan, in this civilized arrangement, cousin marriage is prohibited. In reading Morgan's work, one gets the impression that he saw this last stage as the best and the highest, and seemed to personally identify with it. Thus, it is somewhat curious that he married his cousin, Mary Elizabeth Steele.

Tylor (1889) elaborated on McLennan's notion of exchange and reciprocity among exogamous groups. He noted that men made political alliances with men in other groups by exchanging women in marriage. Spencer ([1876] 1898) argued that endogamy was probably the original practice among early peoples, especially among peaceful tribes. Exogamy probably began through wife stealing. He assumed that some early groups probably stole wives from other groups because they faced a scarcity of women. Other groups forcefully captured wives in the process of war. Thus, Spencer positioned exogamy as originally speaking to extremely brutal treatment of women. He assumed that as time passed and circumstances changed, exogamy would be seen as advantageous to groups who could make the linkages between sexual intercourse and procreation. That is, these groups might come to see exogamy as leading to a healthier stock of people. In addition, he assumed that, over time, such exchanges also would be seen as creating bonds among groups who otherwise might compete for scarce resources or else annihilate each other through warfare.

The common thread among these theories is the focus on incest rules as social organizational principles. A shared weakness is the reliance on analyses of primitive or premodern groups. These inclinations are also found in varying degrees in writings by Sir James Frazer (1927), Brenda Seligman (1929, 1932), Robert Briffault (1930), Bronislaw Malinowksi (1922, 1927, 1929), George Murdock (1949), and Claude Levi-Strauss ([1949] 1969). Many of these and other writers also fail to differentiate between incest rules and exogamy rules. What one group calls incestuous marriage may not biologically be such. Likewise, some groups' exogamy rules permit biologically incestuous marriage. Recognizing that incest rules are socially defined, Sumner (1906) presaged today's sociobiologists. Sumner argued that incest rules should be modified as researchers gathered genetic evidence that dispelled fallacious beliefs that all incestuous matings are deleterious.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim's Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo ([1898] 1963) is an infrequently cited magnum opus. Based on ethnographic research in Australia, this book emphasized and illustrated the social and moral origins of incest taboos. Durkheim noted the ways in which prohibitions against incest and penalties for rule violations organize social groups internally. Cooperation and alliances with other groups via exogamy are consequently prompted. Durkheim contended that the incest taboo has a religious origin. It is derived from the clan's sentiments surrounding blood, specifically menstrual blood. While blood is taboo in a general way, contact with the blood of the clan is taboo in specific ways. Durkheim reasoned that menstrual blood represents a flowing away of the clan's lifeblood. This renders women taboo for and inferior to men of the same clan. The taboo relates to intercourse in general and to marriage in particular. Blood and incest are presumed to be related such that a man violating the taboo is seen as a murderer. Thus, in a real sense, Durkheim posited women as having a dual nature, being at once both sacred and profane. That women bear children, thus rendering a clan immortal, made them sacred. However, since they spilt blood, which itself is sacred, they had a profane nature to them. To marry a clan's women to another group kept the clan sacred, while at the same making it possible for other clans to perpetuate themselves.

Durkheim contended that the origin of the taboo is lost to the consciousness of clans over time but that the taboo itself is replaced by a generalized repugnance of incest. This repugnance prompts men to exchange women with other groups, thus facilitating political alliances between men of different groups. In addition, in his The Division of Labor in Society ([1893] 1963), Durkheim posited that when incest loses its religiously based criminal status, prohibitions against it are or will be codified into law.

While brother–sister marriages are negatively sanctioned in many parts of the world, the United States contrasts sharply with European and other nations in having civil laws that prohibit cousin marriage as well (Ottenheimer 1990). Roughly 60 percent of U.S. states prohibit cousin marriage. Many of the states have prohibitions placed on marriages other than brother–sister or cousin–cousin. For instance, Alaska prohibits marriage to persons more closely related than the fourth degree of consanguinity, regardless of whether this relationship is whole- or half-blood. Both Rhode Island and South Carolina forbid men to marry their stepmother, grandfather's wife, wife's daughter, and various other affinal or blood kin. Both states forbid women to marry their husband's grandfather, son's daughter's husband, daughter's husband, stepfather, or grandmother's husband (Kessinger 1990). Many of these laws no doubt were influenced by persons such as Morgan, with his emphasis on social evolution and his contention that civilized people simply don't engage in incestuous pairings. It is probably also the case that the eugenics movement, of the late 1800s through roughly the early 1900s, had some effect on maintaining such laws. The word "eugenics" was coined by biologist Francis Galton and meant improvement in the human race through selective breeding (Parrinder 1997). Galton and his followers were concerned with an array of social issues that they thought could be minimized if not eradicated through eugenics. These included overpopulation caused by high fertility rates of immigrants, poor people, and other classes of people deemed to be of inferior stock. Given a belief that criminals biologically inherited their antisocial tendencies, proponents of eugenics also believed that sterilization and birth control were necessary among some people so that they did not bring forth more generations of criminals (Rafter 1997). Fears of the negative effects of human inbreeding were also high at this time, resulting in several U.S. states passing laws that made cousin–cousin marriage a criminal offense (Gibbons 1993). The eugenics movement is also associated with social Darwinism and the Nazi regime. However, both of these topics are beyond the purview of this article.

Marriage laws and moral crusades aside, endogamous unions have continued to occur in the United States. An analysis of marriage patterns in Madison County, Virginia, 1850–1939, revealed a rather high rate of marriage between first cousins and first cousins once-removed (Frankenberg 1990). Possible reasons for these patterns may include restricted physical mobility and preference for socially similar others. Relying on U.S. Census data, another study revealed a fairly high rate of endogamy among Louisiana Cajuns (Bankston and Henry 1999). Partial explanations for this endogamy include restricted residential mobility, ethnic identity emphases of the subculture, and a preference for social-class homogamy. The rate of biologically incestuous unions among this group, however, was not made clear in the report.

The concern over genetic transmission of physical and mental defects through marriage to close relatives continues today. In an analysis of consanguineous marriage and health profiles of offspring from these unions, researchers in Dammam City, Eastern Province, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, found that of the 1,307 unions studied, 52 percent were consanguineous. The most common consanguineous union was among first cousins. These consanguineous unions are associated with culture values and efforts to keep property and resources in the family. The study revealed that babies born of a consanguineous union tended to be smaller than those born of a nonconsanguineous union (Al-Abdulkareem and Ballal 1998). A recent American study focused on the relationship between consanguinity and childhood mortality in an Old Order Amish settlement. It was found that the Amish in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area are at risk for genetically transmitted defects that result in increased mortality rates. In addition, consanguineous unions resulted in higher neonatal and postnatal death rates than did nonconsanguineous unions (Dorsten et al. 1999).

Sigmund Freud focused on the incest taboo ([1913] 1950) and infantile sexuality ([1905] 1962). Through his tale of the primal horde, Freud posited that in the original family there was a jealous and violent father who engaged his daughters in incest. The jealous brothers banded together, killed, and ate the father. Horrified by their deeds, the brothers made incest taboo. For Freud, this (the moment when humans created incest rules) was when humans became social. He assumed that very young (Oedipal) children sexually desire their opposite-sex parent. Little boys then suffer from castration anxiety, fearing that the father will become aware of their desires and punish them. While little girls see their mothers as inferior to men, they also know them to be more powerful than they are. Thus, little girls resignedly align themselves with their mothers, repress their incestuous impulses, and experience penis envy. Even though Freud's theories were based on conjecture and focused on the bourgeois nuclear family of his day, they have nonetheless influenced many social scientists, including French anthropologist Jean Claude Levi-Strauss ([1949] 1969) and American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1954).

Levi-Strauss agreed with Freud that humans became social with the creation of incest rules. Borrowing from the emphasis on the exchange of women, found in the works of Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, and Durkheim's assumption that women of a clan become the symbol (totem) for the clan, Levi-Strauss posited that exogamy represents a special form of alliance-creating reciprocity. Since incest involves sexuality, incest rules and the exchange of women represent a unique social connection between the biological and the cultural. Although frequently lauded by social scientists, the work of Levi-Strauss adds little to previous theories about incest.

Parsons incorporated Freud's theory of infantile sexuality into his structural-functionalist view of the American nuclear family. Like functionalists before him, he assumed that incest rules exist to prevent role confusion within the nuclear family and to encourage alliances with other families (see also Malinowski 1927, 1929). He contended that the mother was to exploit her son's Oedipal desires as if she had him on a rope. At earlier ages she was to pull him toward her, encouraging heterosexuality. At later ages she was to push him away, encouraging him to establish relationships with nonrelated females. Tugging and pulling on the rope were also designed to assist the son in internalizing society's incest rules and guide him in creating his own nuclear family. Parsons assumed that little girls also experience an erotic attachment to their mothers. He argued that as the mother severed this attachment, it was her responsibility to instill in the daughter an aversion to both father–daughter and brother–sister incest. Failure to do this would result in family disorganization and in the daughter's inability to become a normatively functioning adult. Parsons contended that incest aversion would be realized if the mother kept the erotic bond with her husband intact. Parsons's analysis has thus assisted in perpetuating what child abuse researchers have sought to eradicate: placing blame on mothers when fathers incestuously abuse their daughters (see Finkelhor 1984; Russell 1986; Vander Mey and Neff 1986).

Psychologist Edward Westermarck ([1891] 1922) contended that family and clan members develop a sexual aversion to one another due to the dulling effects of daily interaction and the sharing of mundane tasks. This aversion prompts the development of laws and customs proscribing incest among persons with a shared ancestor and set of obligations based on clan membership. Westermarck noted that failure to develop this aversion and the propensity to violate incest laws were due to alcoholism, membership in the lower social classes, inability to control the sex drive, lack of alternative sexual outlets, social and geographic isolation, and failure to have developed normative, family-like feelings of duty. Variations on Westermarck's thesis appear in writings today. Some focus on a learned aversion that Oedipal children develop because their fantasies cannot be realized, due to their lack of full sexual maturation. Westermarck's thesis is weak because if there were a natural aversion to incest, then laws prohibiting it would be unnecessary. Furthermore, a growing body of literature suggests that persons who share mundane tasks and interact daily do not necessarily develop a sexual aversion to one another (see Vander Mey and Neff 1986).

Sociobiologists (e.g., Parker 1976; van den Berghe 1980) variously incorporate Freudian theses, Westermarck's thesis, and the assumption that human social behavior follows a fitness maxim to argue that groups establish prescriptive or proscriptive incest rules to enhance a group's survival by facilitating genetic advantages. Sociobiologists typically use the functionalist assumption that incest rules regulate the internal dynamics of the procreating group and encourage affiliation with other nuclear groups. Violations of incest rules are assumed to be caused by the factors identified by Westermarck. Many sociobiologists link intercourse directly to procreation. The assumption has no merit when one tries to explain why adult–child and child–child intercourse occurs. Equally problematic is the frequent reliance on the rules prescribing incest among royals. Dismissed is the role that ethnocentrism plays in such rules. Finally, serious questions arise when research on primates, birds, or other nonhumans is extrapolated to human social behavior and organization. In sum, it is questionable whether the sociobiological arguments for, and data supporting the existence of, incest-avoidance mechanisms in humans can be confidentially accepted (Leavitt 1990).

A new twist on sociobiological discourse on the incest taboo comes from the field of genetic psychology. It is proposed that the taboo exists to protect children's "mating-strategy template." It is assumed that humans have a mating-strategy template that effectively gears females toward attracting men who can provide for them and their children. The human biogram also orients males toward being able to garner valuable resources for themselves, which they can then share with mates and children. It is assumed that should adult–child incest occur, male and female children who experience it will have disruptions in their mating-strategy template. In effect, if incest occurs, then the developing girl child will suffer various psychopathologies and will be unable to adequately compete for suitable mates. This will make her less attractive as a potential mate. Boys who experience father–son incest will lose the ability to be instigators of mating since it already has been imposed on them. Boys then become targets. It is assumed that by lowering children's attractiveness as mates, their reproductive success is also lowered. With this lowered reproductive success, future generations are negatively affected as well. Therefore, it is argued that incest taboos have been instituted as a way to avoid these long-term consequences for greater intergenerational success in mating outside one's own group (Immerman and Mackey 1997).

Prefiguring more recent research on incest as child abuse, Durkheim wrote that incest violations are most likely to occur in families in which members do not feel morally obligated to be dutiful to one another and to practice moral restraint ([1898] 1963). In many parts of the world today, incest is seen as a serious and severe type of child abuse. As child abuse, incest is any form of sexual touching, talking, or attempted or actual intercourse between an adult and a child or between two children when the perpetrator is significantly older than the victim or forces the victim to engage in actions against his or her will. The perpetrator and victim are related either by consanguinity or affinity. Incest is abuse because it harms the victim and violates the child's basic human rights. Its negative effects linger throughout victims' lives (Russell 1986). That the sexual victimization of children is nothing new, but rather ancient, is well documented (deMause 1982; Rush 1980). Public recognition of incest as child abuse, however, has its roots in research and public discourse dating from roughly the early 1970s.

Had Freud not abandoned his first psychoanalytical paper, "The Aetiology of Hysteria" ([1896] 1946), he could have been heralded as the savior of children. In this paper he described incest and other sexual abuse experienced by eighteen patients when they were children. He linked his adult patients' problems to their experiences of childhood sexual trauma. However, when his paper was coldly received and then ignored by senior psychologists, and Freud faced professional ostracism, he dismissed these findings (see Jurjevich 1974; Masson 1984). He reasoned that his patients were incorrectly recalling masturbatory childhood fantasies of sexual encounters with adults (Freud [1905] 1962). Freud then associated adult neurosis and hysteria with unfulfilled childhood incest fantasies.

Freud's revamped theories quickly became popular. Several writers then recounted case studies of children who had experienced sex with an adult. The children were described as seductive and provocative. They were not seen as victims; rather, they were seen as sexual initiators (see Vander Mey and Neff 1986). Although Swedish sociologist Svend Riemer (1940) and American sociologist S. Kirson Weinberg (1955) tried to bring attention to incest as a form of family deviance that sometimes resulted in harm to victims, Freudian theory held fast until the late 1960s. The "discovery" of child abuse, in conjunction with the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, and the resurgence of the women's rights movement, refocused attention such that the physical abuse of children and rape of women became seen as serious wrongs inflicted on other humans and as special types of social problems (Vander Mey and Neff 1986). Since that time, theories and research have explored in great detail why and how incestuous abuse occurs and its lasting negative effects. Laws protecting children against such abuse have been enacted. These laws mandate that treatment services be available for victims, perpetrators, and families (Fraser 1987). They also stipulate penalties (fines, imprisonment) for convicted abusers. These operate on a sliding scale, with harsher penalties applied to cases in which the victim is very young or has suffered serious physical or psychological trauma because of the abuse. Some cases are handled in family courts. Others, especially those involving serious harm to the child, are heard in criminal courts. Although variable in scope, laws in European nations prohibit and punish incestuous child abuse (Doek 1987). As with statutes in the United States, applicable penalties often depend on the victim–perpetrator relationship, the age of the victim, and the seriousness of harm to the victim. Efforts to refine legal statutes and penalties continue. Laws are also needed that more specifically define and punish child–child incestuous abuse. While the bulk of research on incestuous abuse has focused on adult–child incest, there is accumulating evidence to the effect that sibling incest is more common than previously thought and also can be traumatizing (Adler and Schutz 1995; Vander Mey 1988).

Feminists usually focus on father–daughter incest. They refer to it as rape to emphasize the specific type of abuse that it is. The term "rape" also illustrates the point that if an adult male forced another person to engage in intercourse with him, he could be arrested. However, if he rapes his own child, it is called incest, which is often seen as a disgusting, private, family problem (Brownmiller 1975). Feminists see incest as commonplace, originating in and perpetuated by patriarchy (Rush 1980). A general feminist approach to father–daughter incest incorporates a discussion of the sex-role socialization of males and the male-as-superior patriarchal ideology as causal factors in incest. The contention is that females ultimately are rendered second-class citizens, the property of men, and sexual outlets for men (see Rush 1980). Problems with a general feminist perspective on incest include a focus limited to father–daughter incest, the monocausal linkage of patriarchy to incest, the portrayal of all incest perpetrators as male and all incest victims as female, and the oversimplified view of male sex-role socialization (Vander Mey 1992; see also Nelson and Oliver 1998). American feminist sociologist Diana Russell (1986) extends and refines the general feminist approach to incest. She argues that males are socialized to sexualize the power given them by virtue of the fact that they are male. This includes sexualizing the power they have over their own children. Moreover, Russell recognizes that mothers and children can be incest perpetrators. She advocates androgynous socialization of children, more equality between men and women, and more public awareness of the harsh realities of incestuous abuse.

Welsh psychologist Neil Frude (1982) relied on existing empirical and clinical research to articulate a five-factor explanatory model of father–daughter incest. These five factors are sexual need (of the perpetrator), attractive partner, opportunity, disinhibition, and sexual behavior. A strength of Frude's model is the attention paid to the interweaving of sex and power. Weaknesses include the fact that incest perpetrators are not usually sexually deprived, victim attractiveness is often irrelevant, and families are not usually closed systems today. American sociologist David Finkelhor (1984) offers a somewhat similar model, although it differs from Frude's model in that Finkelhor pays keen attention to the myriad ways in which larger social forces and cultural ideology are related to child sexual abuse. Finkelhor's model has the added strength of being applicable to several types of incest and other sexual abuse.

American sociologists Brenda Vander Mey and Ronald Neff (1986) constructed a researchbased ecological model of father–daughter incest. They begin with the assumption that there is no incest taboo. Rather, there are rules proscribing adult–child incest. They contend that characteristics of the society, the neighborhood, the family and the marital dyad, and the father–daughter dyad differentially affect the probability that a daughter will be sexually abused by her father. These levels of influence interact in complicated ways. Father–daughter incest is associated with dominance in society and in the family, residence in a violent neighborhood, social isolation of the family, family disorganization, and the father's lack of empathy for his wife and children. Mitigating factors decreasing the likelihood of incest include a father's conformity to rules against incest, sex education of the daughter, and media attention to adult–child incest as wrong and illegal. This model is strong in its reliance on research and theoretical principles. Although this model is limited to father–daughter incest, it does provide information that can assist in identifying children at risk for incestuous abuse.

Incestuous abuse of children, male and female alike, is associated with an array of problems for victims. These problems include bulimia, self-mutilation, alcohol abuse, criminal behavior such as assault and shoplifting, psychological impairment, sexually aggressive behavior, and sexual hyperarousal (Araji 1997; Green 1993; Kinzl and Biebl 1992; Ryan et al. 1996; Wonderlich et al. 1996).

Incestuous abuse is seen as an international social problem today. At least four journals frequently carry the latest research on this topic: Child Abuse and Neglect, Journal of Family Violence, The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

However, not everyone sees adult–child sexual contact as abusive. It has been argued that American and European cultures have long tended to deny that children have a sexuality. That is, experts on child development have for many decades focused on every other aspect of human development but have ignored child sexuality. In addition, audiences have been less than receptive to the idea that children might enjoy sexual contact with other children—or with adults—and that this contact might be conducive to their development in a constructive way. It has been argued that taking the cultural constraints away from children's need to develop their sexuality is part of a child's right (Martinson 1973, 1994; Yates 1978). Due to the very sensitive nature of the topic, few empirical studies on child sexuality have been conducted. Of the few available studies, one was a longitudinal study of sexual experiences in early childhood. It revealed that most of the children focused on in the study had engaged in some form of sex play by age six (Okami et al. 1997). However, another extensive study of college students revealed that among those who had experienced sexual contact while children, sexual contact with an adult was more often seen as unwanted, unwelcome, and/or abusive (Nelson and Oliver 1998).

Organizations such as the North American Man Boy Love Association contend that the child abuse laws constrain children's liberty. Some parents, particularly in the United States and Europe, have resisted the child sexual abuse laws as infringing on their right to rear their children in ways they see as most appropriate (for elaboration, see Beckett 1996; Hechler 1988). Thus, just as marriage laws and cultural groups vary in their definitions of what constitutes incestuous marriage, we now are seeing public discourse on how best to define sexual contact with children.


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