Incest taboo should not deter us from rational discussion

Incest is perceived how it should be: just plain damn wrong. However, the Scottish Parliament’s debate on the legalising of family members aged over twenty one to have sexual intercourse has raised some questions on our society’s perceptions. The debate lasted for a total of two minutes (as it should) before Richard Morris’ petition was dismissed.

It is interesting that stories of incest inspire a kind of sick interest in the public: from trashy magazines’ headlines, ‘I accidentally married my brother’ (a Take a Break classic), to literary works such as Game of Thrones and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden. Incest sells. Surely that is because of its horrific and disturbing qualities, mirroring the success of crime dramas whose subject similarly inspires a kind of sadistic interest.

However, what must be ensured is the prevention of the stigmatisation of people because of their sexual preference. After all, homosexuality and bisexuality were also once seen as a crime. Indeed, if both participants were consenting and of a similar age range, then surely it is no harm to society, making a jail sentence seem somewhat futile. Also, one must question the purpose of imprisonment: if we are to work on the basis of four reasons for imprisonment (deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation and retribution), does a pair of consenting adults fit under these?

Of course, there is the issue of inbreeding and the effects it may have on a new generation of children who are more susceptible to birth defects. If incest were to be legalised, it would make the subsequent legislation regarding childbearing a difficult topic: would laws need to be put in place to avoid such consequences, or would contraception be made a mandatory requirement? We have all heard King Hatchepsut’s story; a deformed Egyptian pharaoh who was a product of an incestuous union and was thought to have many birth defects. This prominent issue makes the legalisation of incest a difficult topic, contributing to the taboo nature of it.

I feel the most significant (and legitimate) reason why incest is stigmatised is because of relationships that take place between a parent and a child. This is quite rightfully illegal. What make this relationship so inexcusable are the power imbalances and the abuse of parental trust. An abusive parent should be punished. This situation just screams grooming. 

Children – even if of a consenting age – put a certain trust in a parent, and a sexual relationship between the two makes this a clear act of child abuse. There is an imbalance of experience that would exist in these relationships, stemming from such an age difference and the natural balance of parent and child – between someone of trust, and someone who seeks that trust. The idea that a child (of any age) could think that such a relationship is acceptable is surely a product of conditioning on behalf of the parent; for who else do we seek the greatest advice from than our parents?

Incest’s status as a taboo subject may need to be reassessed. We all dismiss it as a totally unacceptable act. However, just because we view it as a foreign concept, should we automatically criticise it?

I would not suggest that we should all take to the streets to campaign for incest (you might get some strange looks), but perhaps we need to make sure that we do not succumb to societal norms and consequently stigmatise something that may become more normal in the future.

Image credit: Vladimir Pustovit

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