It is a truth universally acknowledged that incest is both legally and morally wrong … but is it time to question this?
Lately, the topic has been on everybody’s lips, not because of a court case or a local issue, but because of the popular medieval-like fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which features two of its most prominent characters Cersei and Jamie Lannister, two secret lovers with three children in common, who are not just brother and sister, but also twins.
Image above: Cersei and Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones
This particularity of the show (which stems from a series of epic fantasy books by the noteworthy writer George R. R. Martin) has spurred interest, outrage, disgust and even diverse comic reactions in fans, magazines and websites worldwide, inspiring parodies of the situation, multiple memes and at this point, almost becoming an established joke.
Wikipedia defines incest as ‘a sexual activity between family members or close relatives’. It can be consensual or forced, between people who are consanguine (sharing the same blood) or those related by affinity (ex having sexual relations with a step-mother or a sister’s husband). The incest taboo is a widespread one, existing to some extent in almost all modern-day societies, albeit to different degrees.
Incest does not seem to be such a taboo in the Bible, where Cain is portrayed marrying his sister Awan, though that could be considered to be justified, since there would have supposedly been no other women available, apart from his mother Eve, of course. In Genesis, Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah, and Lot’s two daughters seduce and have sexual relations with their father, who does not recognise them, apparently.
Image above: Cain and his sisten Awan
In ancient Greece, on the other hand, incest was most definitely frowned upon. This can be clearly seen from a number of Greek legends and plays, where such relations always end in tragedy. One famous instance is the story of Oedipus who, after having sexual relations with his mother, was punished by the gods. In Rome, incest was expressly forbidden by Imperial edict which, however, differentiated between laws for Romans and those for non-Romans. So, for example, an Egyptian could marry his niece, but a Roman could not.
In Egypt it was, on the other hand, quite normal for members of the same family to get married, particularly within the royal family, as this was seen as preserving the blood line. For example, it is well known that the Pharaoh Tutankhamun was the product of the incestuous marriage of his father Akhenaten and his sister. Tutankhamun, following this ideology, also married his half-sister. In ancient China, however, first cousins with the same surnames (therefore on the father’s side) were not permitted to marry, but cousins with different surnames (maternal cousins and cousins born to the father’s sisters) were.
In medieval Europe, most marriages between noble or well to-do personages were politically motivated, so unions between cousins were acceptable. Incestuous relations between siblings and parents however were not, which is why Anne Boleyn was condemned for allegedly being her brother’s lover and why the popular belief that Lucrezia Borgia committed incest with her father and two brothers was so abhorrent. On a side note, it is believed that the Borgias were the inspiration behind the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.
Image above: Anne Boleyn
When one hears the word ‘incest’, they usually associate it with rape or paedophilia. Both of these issues are reprehensible and terrible crimes. However, when it is clear that an incidence of incest is neither, and that it took place between two consenting adults, should it still be considered a crime?
When one rationally looks at the issue, why do we consider such an act to be a crime? If one thinks about it from a practical perspective, there seems to be no clear argument, apart from the fact that the idea itself creates feelings of repulsion. One could use the argument that it’s not natural. Yet, how many times have we heard this with regards to LGBT rights? But, what exactly is ‘natural’? It’s common enough amongst cats, dogs and other animals, where copulation with their siblings is the norm. So, it seems to be natural enough in the animal world. Secondly, people claim that incest results in children with disabilities. While it is true that there is a greater risk for there to be various health issues in a union where the two participants share certain genetic occurrences, one must consider that there is a danger of that happening each time a child is born.
Similarly, if we continued with this logic, it seems that any person who has an increased risk of having children with disabilities ought not to reproduce, or should be condemned. What if one of the persons isn’t capable of having children? Would it be ok to commit incest then? How about non-consanguine family members? These would not be related by blood, so for example, a stepmother having sex with her adopted adult son would be fine, right? Furthermore, this assumes that sex acts are solely aimed at having children, which is nonsense, since we have effective contraceptives and other measures to prevent pregnancy.
Yes, most of us find the idea of members of the same family having sex repugnant. But seriously, why should the sexual activities of two consenting adults concern us? This is the same question we can ask those who are ‘against’ homosexuality, which is like being against having brown eyes or black hair.
We can’t rely on feelings of repugnance to justify our social policies, since our repugnance is simply that: our own. Besides which, people get a feeling of repulsion for different things.
What do you think about this issue? Is it justified for incest to be considered against the law?
Also, read about cohabitating before marriage.