Free Essay on Incest Taboo

The incest taboo is one of the oldest and most universally held prohibitions. Incest is defined by Webster Dictionary as sexual intercourse between two people who are so closely related that they are forbidden by law to marry. In American society, the incest taboo forbids such sexual relations between people who are blood related (Benokraitis 2002: 377). Found in most cultures, the origins of the taboo are uncertain. Theories explaining the birth of the taboo include both social and biological bases.

Sociologist Nijole Benokraitis explains that the taboo was created to maintain the stability of the family (2002: 4-6). This includes a minimization of jealousy and sexual competition within the family. The taboo allows for a stable functioning of the family cycle. Another social reason for the creation of the taboo states that banning incest will ensure mating outside the family. Such exogamy will create a larger circle of people who can then band together and support one another in times of war or in times of distress. Incest taboos may also represent ritualistic or religious practices. A final cultural explanation for the taboo is that it allows for a business like transaction in pre-industrial societies. In a patriarchy where males dominate the household, a father controls the economic and social realms within the family. When finding his daughter a mate, a father knows that a virgin is much more desirable for the bartering process. He may gain property, allies or even forge political ties for the trade.

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The biological base for the incest taboo is the fear that interbreeding can lead to inherited generic diseases or birth defects. According to Patrick Bateson of “New Statesman and Society,” the taboo may function as a “safety law,” protecting people from the biological consequences of incest (1995: 362). When a child is conceived, it receives one copy of all genes from each parent. These genes can either be dominant or recessive. In order for a recessive gene to pass, both must be present. When the two parents have a majority of their genes in common, as cousins would, for example, and both carry a recessive gene for a genetic disorder, the chance of their child receiving a pair of those recessive genes is high. Such a union of the two recessive genes would lead to development of the disease.

Some social scientists in America are now saying that the biological costs of incest are being exaggerated, and that the taboo is becoming outdated (Pain 1993: 9). While marriages between cousins are on the rise in the United States (Time 1993: 20), worldwide, such marriages have always been common. Scientist Alan Bittles of King’s College in London, states that although the death rate for children born to cousins can be from 1.5 to 9 percent higher than normal, such dangers would require generations of interbreeding to surface regularly (1993: 9). Geneticist James Neel has even begun a campaign to condone incest among cousins, stating that “interbreeding might even improve a population’s genes” (Pain 1993: 9). Neel cites that about fifty percent of pregnancies afflicted with defective offspring are aborted. He sees this process as a “flushing” of the recessive genes that contain such disorders.

Regardless the reasoning, the incest taboo tends to garner much debate. In the past, many cultures found incest to be a proper choice for mating. Rulers of the Incan Empire, as well as Hawaiian royalty and Persian rulers, all engaged in incestuous practices. Wealthy Egyptian families practiced incest to ensure the passage of land from one generation to the next within the family (Benokraitis 2002: 4-6). Cleopatra is believed to have come from eleven generations of incest, and ultimately married her brother. Such practices are, however, the exception to a generally universal taboo against incest.

In Western history, a long list of “kissing cousins” can be found. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Queen Victoria all married their first cousins (Corliss 2002: 60). Yet in America, the incest taboo remains strong. “Couplings” or marriages between cousins or other close relatives is prohibited in thirty states and carries harsh penalty. Other, more controversial forms of incest include sexual intercourse between an adult and a child. Such a taboo exists here for more scientific reasons. Because adult to child incest is in no way related to reproduction or marriage, pedophilia is considered. Adults seem to engage in such sexual activity for their own pleasure. This form of incest between an adult-male and a child is said to be the most prevalent and is forbidden because of the psychological effects that tend to be long lasting (Immerman 1997: 5). A male can be defined as a biological father, step-father, uncle or grandfather.

The question of defining incest in modern day America is growing more difficult, according to Time Magazine writer Anastasia Toufexis, as the shape of the family is changing, blended and extended families tend to thin the blood lines or totally eliminate them (1992: 57). Lynn Reynolds of the Institute Against Social Violence finds that “there are more incidents of incest reported in stepfamilies than in biological families” (Toufexis 1992: 57). A popular example of the skewed definitions of incest can be found in the relationship between Woody Allen and the adopted child of his ex-wife Mia Farrow. Though Allen is no longer married to mother Farrow, and he is not blood-related to her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, many find the relationship to be less than innocent. Siblings of Soon-Yi told Time that Allen had acted as a father figure for Farrow’s children ever since Soon-Yi was a preteen (Toufexis 1992: 57). Despite Soon-Yi’s status as an adult, many see the relationship as an abuse of power.

Such situations lend to the question of whether the traditional American definition of incest still applies. In a society of divorce, adoption and remarriage, should the definition of incest be restructured to include emotional bonds and relationships of power? After all, experts state that “the heart of a family is not in the bloodline but in the emotional connection” (Toufexis 1992: 58).

As for relationships that deal among cousins, Americans seem to be growing more tolerant. With medical fears slowly being abolished, cousins such as Mark and Christie Smith tell Time Magazine that they feel freer to follow their hearts (Corliss 2002: 60). Despite the social taboos, such couples are finding success in marriage. In a society largely dominated by its religious values and morals, American couples like the Smiths look towards religion as a surprising source of support. Though the Roman Catholic church opposes marriage between two cousins, The Bible tells of many such incidences including relationships between the patriarch Jacob and two of his first cousins (Corliss 2002: 60).

Other sources, however, have found passages in The Bible that explicitly ban the practice of incest. Bateson, author of “New Statesman and Society,” cites The Book of Common Prayer, which explains how “a man may not marry his mother, sister, daughter, or a variety of other genetically related individuals” (1995: 363). Whether or not this includes cousins is up for the individual couples to interpret. Regardless of an individual’s religious preference or followings, the rise of marriages between cousins is obvious. There are even support groups in America for what was once considered unmentionable as a result of the strong impact held by the incest taboo. One example is CUDDLE, a union determined to erase laws banning marriages between cousins.

In addition to reports that incest among close relatives may in theory “improve the genome” (Pain 1993: 9), scientists are speculating that it can also improve fertility. This may explain why in countries of higher poverty and infant mortality such as a majority of Asia and Africa, the incest taboo has less of a stronghold, allowing incestuous relationships to flourish. Benefits can also be seen in countries such as Pakistan and India, where arranged marriages between cousins or close relatives relieves the parents from the burden of providing a dowry (Pain 1993: 9). Although many nations, including America, are unwilling to “lift” the taboo on incest, such examples prove that incestuous acts may be more common than assumed.

One culture that has seen a recent rise in incestuous relations, despite the presence of the incest taboo, is the Chinese. In China, the growing population of marriage between cousins is one of the many consequences that have arisen from the absence of over fifty million females (Beech 2002: 31). In the government’s attempt to control China’s extreme over-population, it has demanded that families only bare one child. In the rural areas of China, the ideal strength of a male is prized beyond the potential of a female (Beech 2002: 31). As a result, families often abort or neglect daughters as a form of infanticide in hopes of having a son when the female has died. The consequences of such practices have driven desperate men in need of a bride to marrying their relatives. According to Hannah Beech of Time Atlantic, the acts have grown so common, that certain areas of China have been designated as “incest villages” (2002: 31). The communities are looked upon with shame; however, the incest taboo remains strong despite the fact that the shortage is only becoming worse.

In Chinese societies, the incest taboo forbids marriage between men and women with the same surname. Individuals with certain surnames deemed too closely related are also considered inappropriate for marital relations. The sanctions for such acts are informal and social, however, as opposed to the formal restrictions in America which have made incestuous marriages illegal in certain states. In addition, the major cause of incest in China seems to spring from necessity, rather than being what many consider sexual abuse.

The rise in incest has only recently become an issue in Chinese culture. A traditional Chinese ethic known as xiao greatly stresses respect, love and duty to one’s parents (Wang 1996: 5). Throughout the history of Chinese literature, the value of xiao has been repeated, greatly influencing Chinese civilization. In examining Chinese literature, scholars, such as Yoquin Wang of Stanford University, have found that unlike the famous story of “Oedipus” in western cultures, Chinese stories, including mythology, fiction and plays, lack any reference to any form of incestuous relationship. In addition, there has been little found in historic Chinese criminal law that mentions or prohibits incest. Still, history does not show a rampant outbreak of incest in China’s history. Wang states how many equate the values of the Oedipus story with those of the Chinese xiao because both define what would be an appropriate parent-child relationship (1996:9). Though there is no direct guidance on incest, lessons of morality are imparted in the Chinese tales.

In modern China, the incest taboo remains strong. Yet, with choices for marriage opportunities lessening, many are being forced to wed relatives in secret as a last resort. As of now, an estimated eighty percent of children aged five to ten are male in China (Beech 2002:31). With these children soon to grow and hunt for wives, incest may develop into a way of life for the Chinese, completely disregarding the incest taboo.

Unlike modern day China, other cultures have approached incest with acceptance, despite the supposed universality of the taboo. In the modern history of Hawaii, incest was expected among members of royalty (Carando 2002:1). The practices, however, were restricted to only such high status members of Hawaiian society. Compared to other countries where the taboo has made incest a sin, royal incest in Polynesian Hawaii was encouraged. Carando shows reasons for such exceptions can be found in an examination of the social structure (2002: 2). Hawaii was at the time composed of different hierarchies or ranks. The highest level consisted of the aristocracy–the high chiefs and their wives.

Hawaii also followed a set of morals known as the “kapu” system (Carando 2002: 3). Chiefs would possess this kapu, demanding all others of lower ranks to lie before them or face death. Like Hawaii, most Polynesian cultures valued incestuous relations where a husband would search for the closest blood relative for a wife. Choice of wife was important because it helped determine the social rank of the couple and their child. The lineage of the mother was the most important. Often times, Hawaiian incest led to marriages between brother and sister. The child born from the two would hold the highest power of kapu, comparable even to a God (Carando 2002: 3). This relationship was the most revered.

As European travelers ventured to the Hawaiian Islands, they met such practices with disbelief and criticism. Carando writes how at the time, Hawaii had no definition of incest whatsoever (2002: 5). The term “incest” did not even exist and therefore there was no incest taboo. The need to maintain high ranks within the families led Hawaiians to confidently follow the accepted practices. Over time, Europeans gradually influenced such practices, infiltrating their own beliefs of the incest taboo. Hawaiians were no longer able to define “kapu,” as royal incest was modified and slowly eradicated (Carando 2002: 4).

Carando illustrates how many sociologists regard the existence of incest as having to do with societal definitions of what is “pure and impure.” Although Hawaiians did have such definitions, the function of incest laid not in sexual gratification, as Americans tend to associate it, but with necessity. Hawaiians believed that their race would be better suited with higher intelligence and physical features if a brother and sister were to mate.

In modern Hawaii, Carando points out that a strong brother sister relationship still exits (2002: 19). However, as a result of the de-socialization that occurred, incestuous unions have become a taboo. Revivals of such practices are considered obscene, as with most other nations.

In other cultures, the practice of incest is forbidden by means of a different definition of the taboo. In Israel, much of the morals and values that guide the rights and wrongs of the Israeli culture are found in the religious texts of Judaism. Regarding incest, Israelis may look to the following verse from Leviticus: “None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness” (Weiland 1998:1). The text expands on this value to forbid any sexual acts between parent and child, siblings or half siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, uncles, aunts and nieces and nephews, and finally, between in-laws. The sin or taboo of incest in Israeli culture carries with it dire warning of consequences for offspring including physical abnormalities and even death (Weiland 1998). Such fears share much in common with the American perceptions of incest.

To sum up the accepted definition of incest in Israel, Ted R. Weiland, author of “Mission to Israel,” states that “although incest taboo usually forbids sexual relations between near-blood kinsmen,” certain passages within the Hebrew Bible have expanded the definition to include “near relatives of those to whom a person is married,” for example a brother-in-law (1998:1). Perhaps this definition is more closely related to those in America for both Israel and America have a value system based on Judaic-Christian religious beliefs. Unlike the Chinese and Hawaii cultures, the necessity of incest is non-existent.

Despite the strict rules defined by the Israeli culture, occurrences of incest still exist. According to Michal Sela-Armoza of the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center, the number of incest incidents reported by children is high (Mason 1998). Sela-Armoza explains how children who call the center reporting such instances usually feel that they are to blame (Mason 1998). As in America, the majority of the cases include a male figure sexually assaulting a child.
The challenge of defining the incest taboo varies from culture to culture. Incestuous acts can range from sexual abuse committed by a parent to cousins reciting the vows of marriage. In America, although law prohibits sexual intercourse between blood relatives, the taboo appears to extend past such legalities to include step-members and adopted children. As the range of the taboo is expanding to account for the changing family structures in America, there seems to be a greater acceptance of other forms of incest once deemed inappropriate, such as between cousins. With scientific evidence lessoning the biological threat of incest, mature, consenting, adults who are also cousins are pursuing relationships more openly. While the taboo still remains strong, the increase in relations between cousins deserves mentioning.

Although the incest taboo is prevalent in almost every culture around the world, there are varying degrees of strictness. The same religious guidelines that helped shape the laws of America also define those in Israel and hence the taboo prohibiting incest is very similar. Other cultures, such as the Chinese, seem to be at a turning point in which the need for incest may overshadow the taboo. In the future, incest may well become a functioning way of life for the Chinese. Still, the most unusual definition of the incest taboo can be seen in the ancient culture of Polynesian Hawaii. Such a taboo did not even exist for royalty in Hawaii, as incestuous practices were encouraged. Although western explorers eventually eradicated the practice from Hawaii, the example serves as one of history’s most interesting cases in which the assumed universal incest taboo did not even exist.

Overtime, scientists have provided various reasons, both in support of and against the practice of incest. The degrees of incest are broad, leaving much to be debated about its occurrence.

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