Incest is a word that is often misunderstood but universally considered taboo. While incest is listed as a criminal offense, many health care professionals have no clear idea of what constitutes incest or some incestuous acts are reportable by law. There are endless academic writings on the subject, yet may confuse rather than clarify because of lack of adequate definitions. Incest may be considered one of the only universal taboos, however, there is no uniformity as to which degrees are involved in the prohibitions. Through this paper I intend to further examine the different definitions of incest and I hope to clarify what incest may or may not be.
First we must look at why incest is considered harmful to our societies. The primary concern with incest is that the family members are too genetically linked. Inbreeding does not lead to congenital birth defects per se; “it leads to an increase in homozygosity, that is, the same allele at the same locus on both members of a chromosome pair. This occurs because close relatives are much more likely to share the same alleles than unrelated individuals. This is especially important for deleterious recessive genes, which are harmless and inactive in a heterozygous pairing, but when homozygous can cause serious developmental defects. Such offspring have a much higher chance of death before reaching the age of reproduction, leading to what biologists call inbreeding depression, a measurable decrease in fitness due to inbreeding among populations with deleterious recessives” (wikipedia.org).
There are three other theories that attempt to explain the taboo’s existence. One theory suggests that the taboo expresses a psychological revulsion that people naturally experience at the thought of incest. Most anthropologists reject this explanation, given that incest does exist. However, the taboo itself may be the cause of this psychological revulsion. Another theory, suggested by Claude Levi-Strauss and others, has suggested that “the taboo exists to encourage people to marry into other groups (exogamy), in order to build social, economic, or political alliances with other groups and thereby increase the group’s ability to survive and expand.” The third theory argues that living closely together in a family leads to the opposite of incestuous desire, referred to as a “habit of avoidance.” Bronislaw Malinowski and others have said that the incest taboo exists to prevent social role confusion or conflicts within a family, (Lavender 1273). The taboo has been explained as a mechanism for maintaining harmony within the family to prevent jealousy and conflict between kin and to protect well-being of family members.
Although incest is usually defined as sexual activity between close family members, it can be broken up into seven different types. The first is overt parental incest; this is incest by contact by the same-sex or opposite-sex parent. This is considered the cruelest form of sexual offense by child psychologists and is a felony criminal offense in the United States and many other nations, (wikipedia.org). Covert parental incest or psychological incest is where a parent seduces a child, usually of the opposite-sex, into the role of a lover, spouse, or parent, but is never actually in contact with them. Another form is incest by grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings in parental roles, which has similar affects on the child as parent-child incest. The fourth type of incest is incestuous abuse by non-related adults in responsible roles. Sexual predation by priests, nuns or other religious authorities against childhood parishioners, by teachers against students, by therapists against clients, and by a host of other authorities against people in dependent roles is seen by therapists as incestuous nature, although not in form.
Consensual incest is one of the foremost categories of incest. Consensual incestuous interactions between similar-age brothers and sisters sometimes occur according to a study by Floyd Martinson who found that 10-15% of college students had childhood sexual experiences with a brother or sister, a form of child sexuality. Author Jane Leder estimates that “23.000 women per million in (America) may have been victimized by a sibling” before age 18. According to researcher Richard Niolon childhood sibling incest can cause serious psychological damage to the younger or less capable sibling. Sibling incest can also damage or destroy sibling bonds, (wikipedia.org). Consensual incest between adults occurs when there is no dependence on the adults as parent-child or sibling-sibling. In these cases, there is no blame to be placed on either adult, and implies independent consent. The last type of incest is sex between cousins and other distant relatives. This type of incest is not considered harmful in some places because the definition of “family” varies around the world.
In most of the