Growing up in the South, I heard about an incidence of incest at least once or twice a year. I was never sure if they ever confirmed myths about “inbreeding” among Southern states, but I know that it happened here or there and yes, because of where I grew up, they happened in the South. Once, I remember some friends were vacationing in New England when they started up with each other, but yes. It was a vacation. They lived in the South, and continued once they returned.
The first time I heard about incest was from my grandmother. A preacher’s wife and ordained minister herself, Betty became home-bound in the latter years of her life due to complications with Diabetes. When my mother would travel abroad for the summer, I would go stay with my grandparents and learned to snap peas, peel apples, hang up clothes on clotheslines and many other things that seemed so foreign to suburban living. Along with these “vintage” activities, my grandmother also took joy in storytelling, entrusting the memories of her childhood to me. One of those stories involved incest. Looking back, that was the summer that my grandmother probably divested herself of every story she had. When my mother came back to the States, long-held secrets came tumbling out of my grandmother’s mouth – the loss of her first child, the fear and uncertainty she felt on her wedding night, her own curious relationship with her father, what it was like to deal with depression, even doubt in spiritual matters that she had not been allowed to talk about previously. To this day, my mother and I wonder whether Betty somehow knew she would die within the year. And, at least for me, I infuse those last stories with significant weight. If she knew she would be dying soon, was she trying to tell us something beyond the stories themselves?
The summer she told me about incest, I remember thinking my reaction was not adequate to the shock she expected from me. She told me about a girl she had known who had quit school to have a baby. I was more troubled by the fact that the girl quit school in sixth grade than I was that she was pregnant! By her own father, no less! Perhaps this would be shocking to some, but my grandmother told the story as though this were a frequent thing – girls getting pregnant by relatives. Fathers. Brothers. Uncles. It was, as she said, “a frequent thing back then, especially in the cricks and hollers. You’d see a girl and then one day you’d think, ‘Well, I swannee, I haven’t seen her in a while. Where did she go?’ And you’d know she got pregnant somehow and nobody wanted to talk about it ’cause it was somebody she was family with.”
I don’t think this was “one of those things” that happens in the cricks and hollers of the Appalachians, or even something that was more frequent decades ago. When I in my teens, I dated a girl whose mother sat her down and explained her father was not her biological father. Her uncle – her mother’s brother – was actually her father. A few years later, some college friends of mine from Arkansas told with the gravest sobriety that the legends of Ozark Inbreeding were true – in fact, they had relatives who they knew had gotten on with other relatives – and the family, unilaterally, chose not to discuss it after the initial shock. Each instance was atypical, but certainly not something from a bygone age or specific location. And it didn’t warrant total revulsion. Yet somehow incest has become a nightmare experience, something no one ever wants to talk as we look down at the floor and clicked our tongues. “That’s a shame. They seemed like such good people.” But what of the incidents where incest wasn’t such a bad thing? Where no one got hurt, no one had to rush an abortion, no charges were pressed?
After my parents divorced, my mother went back to college in a very small town of northwest Louisiana. Like many small towns in the South, the movie theater there showed Clueless (1995) about three months after it had originally debuted. Alicia Silverstone plays a modern versions of Jane Austen’s titular character Emma in the film where she falls in love with her stepbrother. Incestuous? The characters don’t seem to think so. Were Clueless one of those singular incidents, or we were able to say, “Well… they’re step-siblings. It’s not really ‘incestuous’ because they’re not related by blood’” that might be the end of it. Forget that Josh was in college and Cher was fifteen in the film (statutory rape, anyone?), we are fascinated with the idea of relatives – any kind of relative – getting together. Something about it is secretive and arousing. Indeed, on the show Dexter, Debra Morgan has a thing for her brother. In real life, the actors who portray Debra and Dexter (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter) were once married, adding a whole other dimension of je ne c’est pas. As Amelia McDonell-Parry writes of Dexter,
Everything about it is vaguely fucked up. Anyway, I think this totally shocking twist is something that the show will pursue in greater depths… Dexter and Deb do have a very special relationship, one that he will never have with anyone else… And purely from a psychological point-of-view, I think the idea of there being romantic/sexual feelings between non-blood siblings is something Dexter would do a good job exploring.
True Blood and Game of Thrones are other phenomenally popular programs where incestuous couplings play a seminal role in both the story and attracting viewership. They are not the first, though, or pioneering moral lowgrounds. Who hasn’t had a Luke and Leia fantasy, after all? The short-lived series Brothers and Sisters, which thrived on the ABC network. Brothers and Sisters saw their highest ratings when it was revealed that Justin and Rebecca’s are-they-aren’t-they-related? storyline began to develop. But once it was revealed that they were not related, the show tanked and was cancelled in short order. Childhood classic The Blue Lagoon (1980) romanticized both childhood nudity, as well as sibling love culminating in pregnancy. Cruel Intentions makes incest look incredibly sexy (and convenient!), and of course The House of Yes (1997) makes incest a known topic of conversation at the dinner table. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson regularly works an incestuous coupling into his films, even in the climactic “Will you be my mom?” scene of Boogie Nights between pornstars Rollergirl and Amber Waves. The two women, excited by a marathon drug session, pledge their love for one another in a rather touching scene. Director Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) involves a sub-plot of star-crossed romance between siblings Richie and Margot. Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s art-house film The Dreamers (2001) involves siblings welcoming a new friend into their bed for a threesome. George-Michael and Maeby on Arrested Development are not the only incestuous couple on the show. Their parents, siblings Michael and Lindsey have a brief interlude, as well as matriarch Lucille’s affair with brother-in-law Oscar. Incest was something of a running gag on the show even when it returned for the 4th season. There, creator and producer Ron Howard is believed to be dating his own his daughter.
Is incest that perverse of an idea, given how often our entertainment choices celebrate it? Perhaps we have a conditional relationship with the idea. Maybe our frequent interest is indicative of a repressed desire in our own lives – the mythical Oedipal and Electra complexes that Freud talked about so much, or a comfortable familiarity with the siblings with whom we grew up. Indeed, as McDonell-Parry puts it, “Shit ain’t sexy anymore unless there’s a dose of incest, amiright?”
Is incest the new taboo? Has it replaced homosexuality as the moral concern of our time? The frequent occurrence of incestuous coupling has a name: Genetic Sexual Attraction.
In 2011, a then-orphaned 28yo Penny Lawrence sought out her father, then-46yo Garry Ryan. After several phone conversations, the two decided to meet up. Lawrence flew to Houston to meet Ryan and the two felt “an instant physical attraction,” soon beginning a relationship. The two now have a child together.
Their experience, and that of many others, can be explained by Genetic Sexual Attraction, a little-known term coined by Barbara Gonyo to explain feelings of attraction between blood relatives who meet as adults. Gonyo was the founder of Truth Seekers in Adoption, a Chicago-based support group for adoptees and their recently-found relatives. She began noticing GTS among members and coined the term in the late 1980s. GTS is based on the belief that humans are most attracted to faces similar to their own – a theory supported by the work of Penton-Voak and several other social and biological scientists. Not meeting until adulthood means that social taboos have not had a chance to develop between the partners, and many attribute GTS to the complex emotions produced between reunited relatives. Still others attribute it to something called the Westermarck Effect, a reverse sexual imprinting through which people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to later sexual attraction. It is hypothesized that the Westermarck Effect is a product of evolution to prevent inbreeding, though this raises many questions. If the Westermarck Effect works as a reverse sexual imprinting by familiarity – time and distance being key factors – does this also apply to the loss of attraction between non-related couples over time? The Westermarck Effect is noted to explain incestuous couplings, but can it be said to apply to other relational dynamics, and if so what does that say about the longevity of those relationships? Do we, over time, become bored with friends, family, and partners due to circumstance?
Our fascination with incestuous couplings is perhaps indicative of a new development, a latent desire to either overcome our puritanical restrictions with their emphasis on science for the renaissance of licentious freedom to do whatever we wish with whomever we wish. Indeed, if this were true, we might have an explanation of why we find incestuous stories so entertaining. For we do. We continue to become acculturated to see incest not as something repulsive, but a frequent thing. Further, sociologists who look to the development of pornographic materials have come to see a cause-and-effect relationship with “adult entertainment.” One begets the other in a cycle of familiarity even as incest has flourished in underground erotica and pornography, becoming increasingly mainstream with entertainment as well as the availability afforded by the Internet.
This idea may offend your sensibilities, and I do not say that incest is something we all feel a desire for in all cases. That is, there is one cousin who I find particularly attractive, but my other cousins I find repulsive. While I feel no sexual feelings towards my mother, in full disclosure I want to admit that we have had conversations that would be considered inappropriate, conversations on sex toys and sexual preferences and positions. To the outsider, and even to my mother and I at times, it goes beyond conventional mother-son relational structures. But again, I am not attracted to her nor do I see anything sexual in my father.
I feel the reason for this has something to do with how open and honest my parents were with me when I was little. Mommy and Daddy weren’t “hugging,” they were having sex. And they did this regularly. Sometimes, babies were made. But most times, they weren’t because of condoms, certain pills that were only for women, and so on. I knew what my parents looked like when they were naked, and… I simply got over them. The Westermarck Effect proved true for me, and maybe if we talked about things more openly we might dispel some of the more offensive taboos that are out there. I say this not as though this is the answer. Indeed, incest occurs as frequently with familiarity as it does when and where we don’t talk about sexual feelings at all. Further, I don’t think incest is one of the great challenges of our times, for either you have feelings like these or you do not. It’s the same as discussing couplings with large age difference – this will either concern you, or it will not. But silence does not address it at all, as testified by pregnancy statistics in states like Mississippi. Underage pregnancies flourish (together with other social concerns like illiteracy, sub-high school education, substandard economies, etc) in Mississippi all because they persist in not talking about sexual education at all.
My point is this: Incest is prevalent in our entertainment sources. Whether this is cause or effect, we cannot continue to progress as a society without frank conversations on this topic. It is no longer some strange and foreign thing that happens with “a friend of a friend of a cousin’s classmate that I heard about this one time.” Indeed, where and when we fail to discuss our mores, ethics, and sexual preferences, we lose our voices in the public sphere. Our entertainment choices often define us. Maybe it’s time to discuss why incest is so entertaining.