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Incest is sexual activity between family members and close relatives. This typically includes sexual activity between people in a consangueous relationship (blood relations), and sometimes those related by affinity, such as members of the same household, step relatives, those related by adoption or marriage, or members of the same clan or lineage.
The incest taboo is and has been one of the most widespread of all cultural taboos, both in present and in many past societies. Most modern societies have laws regarding incest or social restrictions on closely consanguineous marriages. In societies where it is illegal, consensual adult incest is seen by some as a victimless crime. Some cultures extend the incest taboo to relatives with no consanguinity such as milk-siblings, step-siblings and adoptive siblings. Third-degree relatives (such as half-aunt, half-nephew, first cousin) share 12.5% genes, and sexual relations between them is viewed differently in various cultures, from being discouraged to being socially acceptable.
In some societies, such as those of Ancient Egypt and others, brother–sister, father–daughter, and mother–son, cousin-cousin, aunt-nephew, uncle-niece, and other combinations of relations were practiced among royalty as a means of perpetuating the royal lineage. From a religious context, the marriage of Cain to his sister Awan has been described by some writers as the first instance of incest. Some societies, such as the Balinese and some Inuit tribes have different views about what constitutes illegal and immoral incest. However, sexual relations with a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) who share 50% DNA, is almost universally forbidden.
The justification often given for the incest taboo is the impact of inbreeding on the children of incestuous sex. Children whose biological parents have a close genetic relationship have a greatly increased risk of congenital disorders, death and disability at least in part due to genetic diseases caused by the inbreeding. Unintended sexual relations between genetically related persons may also arise when either or both biological parents are unknown or uncertain, as in the case of children born as a result of casual or extramarital sexual relations, anonymous sperm donation, surrogacy or adoption. On the other hand, most prohibitions on incest extend the categories of prohibited relationships to affinity relationships such as in-law relations, step relations, relations through adoption, among others.
The English word incest is derived from the Latin incestus, which has a general meaning of "impure, unchaste". It was introduced into Middle English, both in the generic Latin sense (preserved throughout the Middle English period) and in the narrow modern sense. The derived adjective incestuous appears in the 16th century. Prior to the introduction of the Latin term, incest was known in Old English as sibbleger (from sibb 'kinship' + leger 'to lie') or mǣġhǣmed (from mǣġ 'kin, parent' + hǣmed 'sexual intercourse') but in time, both words fell out of use.
In ancient China, first cousins with the same surnames (i.e., those born to the father's brothers) were not permitted to marry, while those with different surnames (i.e., maternal cousins and paternal cousins born to the father's sisters) were.
Several of the Egyptian Pharaohs married their siblings and had several children with them. (for example, Tutankhamun married his half-sister Ankhesenamun. Tutankhamun himself was the child of an incestuous union between Akhenaten and an unidentified sister-wife).
The fable of Oedipus, with a theme of inadvertent incest between a mother and son, ends in disaster and shows ancient taboos against incest as Oedipus is punished for incestuous actions by blinding himself. In the "sequel" to Oedipus, Antigone, his four children are also punished for their parents' incestuousness.
It is generally accepted that sibling marriages were widespread among all classes in Egypt during the Graeco-Roman period. Numerous papyri and the Roman census declarations attest to many husbands and wives being brother and sister, of the same father and mother. The most well known of these relationships were in the royal family, the Ptolemies; the famous Cleopatra VII was married to her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Her mother and father, Cleopatra V and Ptolemy XII, had also been brother and sister.
In Ancient Greece, Spartan King Leonidas I, hero of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, was married to his niece Gorgo, daughter of his half-brother Cleomenes I. Greek law allowed marriage between a brother and sister if they had different mothers. For example, some accounts say that Elpinice was for a time married to her half-brother Cimon.
Incestuous unions were discouraged and considered as nefas (against the laws of gods and man) in ancient Rome. In AD 295 incest was explicitly forbidden by an imperial edict, which divided the concept of incestus into two categories of unequal gravity: the incestus iuris gentium, which was applied to both Romans and non-Romans in the Empire, and the incestus iuris civilis, which concerned only Roman citizens. Therefore, for example, an Egyptian could marry an aunt, but a Roman could not. Despite the act of incest being unacceptable within the Roman Empire, Roman Emperor Caligula is rumored to have had sexual relationships with all three of his sisters (Julia Livilla, Drusilla, and Agrippina the Younger). Emperor Claudius, after executing his previous wife, married his brother's daughter Agrippina the Younger, and changed the law to allow an otherwise illegal union. The law prohibiting marrying a sister's daughter remained. The taboo against incest in Ancient Rome is demonstrated by the fact that politicians would use charges of incest (often false charges) as insults and means of political disenfranchisement.
In Norse mythology there are themes of brother-sister marriage, a prominent example being between Njörðr and his unnamed sister (perhaps Nerthus), parents of Freyja and Freyr. Loki in turn also accuses Freyja and Freyr of having a sexual relationship.
Many European monarchs were related due to political marriages, sometimes resulting in distant cousins (and even first cousins) being married. This was especially true in the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Savoy and Bourbon royal houses. However, relations between siblings, that may have been tolerated in other cultures, was considered abhorrent. For example, the accusation (probably untrue) that Anne Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn had committed incest was one of the reasons that both siblings were executed in May 1536.
Incestuous marriages were also seen in the royal houses of ancient Japan and Korea, Inca Peru, Ancient Hawaii, and, at times, Central Africa, Mexico, and Thailand. Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the Inca rulers married their sisters. Huayna Capac, for instance, was the son of Topa Inca Yupanqui and the Inca's sister and wife.
Half-sibling marriages were found in ancient Japan such as the marriage of Emperor Bidatsu and his half-sister Empress Suiko. Japanese Prince Kinashi no Karu had sexual relationships with his full sister Princess Karu no Ōiratsume, although the action was regarded as foolish. In order to prevent the influence of the other families, a half-sister of Korean Goryeo Dynasty monarch Gwangjong became his wife in the 10th century. Her name was Daemok. Brother-sister marriages were common during some Roman periods as some census records have shown.
Incest between an adult and a person under the age of consent is considered a form of child sexual abuse that has been shown to be one of the most extreme forms of childhood abuse; it often results in serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest. Its prevalence is difficult to generalize, but research has estimated 10–15% of the general population as having at least one such sexual contact, with less than 2% involving intercourse or attempted intercourse. Among women, research has yielded estimates as high as 20%.
Father-daughter incest was for many years the most commonly reported and studied form of incest. More recently, studies have suggested that sibling incest, particularly older brothers having sexual relations with younger siblings, is the most common form of incest, with some studies finding sibling incest occurring more frequently than other forms of incest. Some studies suggest that adolescent perpetrators of sibling abuse choose younger victims, abuse victims over a lengthier period, use violence more frequently and severely than adult perpetrators, and that sibling abuse has a higher rate of penetrative acts than father or stepfather incest, with father and older brother incest resulting in greater reported distress than stepfather incest.
Incest between an adult and a child is usually considered a form of child sexual abuse and for many years has been the most reported form of incest. Father–daughter and stepfather–stepdaughter incest is the most commonly reported form of adult-child incest, with most of the remaining involving a mother or stepmother. Father–son incest is reported less often, but it is not known how close the frequency is to heterosexual incest because it is likely more under-reported. Prevalence of incest between parents and their children is difficult to assess due to secrecy and privacy; some estimate that 20 million Americans were, as children, subjected to incest.[clarification needed (needs a better source)]
In a 1999 news story, BBC reported, "Close-knit family life in India masks an alarming amount of sexual abuse of children and teenage girls by family members, a new report suggests. Delhi organisation RAHI said 76% of respondents to its survey had been abused when they were children - 40% of those by a family member."
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime a large proportion of rape committed in the United States is perpetrated by a family member:
Research indicates that 46% of children who are raped are victims of family members (Langan and Harlow, 1994). The majority of American rape victims (61%) are raped before the age of 18; furthermore, 29% of all rapes occurred when the victim was less than 11 years old. 11% of rape victims are raped by their fathers or step-fathers, and another 16% are raped by other relatives.
A study of victims of father–daughter incest in the 1970s showed that there were "common features" within families before the occurrence of incest: estrangement between the mother and the daughter, extreme paternal dominance, and reassignment of some of the mother's traditional major family responsibility to the daughter. Oldest and only daughters were more likely to be the victims of incest. It was also stated that the incest experience was psychologically harmful to the woman in later life, frequently leading to feelings of low self-esteem, unhealthy sexual activity, contempt for other women, and other emotional problems.[clarification needed (needs a better source)]
Adults who as children were incestuously victimized by adults often suffer from low self-esteem, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and sexual dysfunction, and are at an extremely high risk of many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, phobic avoidance reactions, somatoform disorder, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Research by Leslie Margolin indicates that mother-son incest does not trigger some innate biological response, but that the effects are more directly related to the symbolic meanings attributed to this act by the participants.
The Goler clan in Nova Scotia is a specific instance in which child sexual abuse in the form of forced adult/child and sibling/sibling incest took place over at least three generations. A number of Goler children were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, cousins, and each other. During interrogation by police, several of the adults openly admitted to engaging in many forms of sexual activity, up to and including full intercourse, multiple times with the children. Sixteen adults (both men and women) were charged with hundreds of allegations of incest and sexual abuse of children as young as five. In July 2012, twelve children were removed from the 'Colt' family (a pseudonym) in New South Wales, Australia, after the discovery of four generations of incest. Child protection workers and psychologists said interviews with the children indicated "a virtual sexual free-for-all."
In Japan there is a popular misconception that mother-son incestuous contact is common, due to the manner in which it is depicted in the press and popular media. According to Hideo Tokuoka, "When Americans think of incest, they think of fathers and daughters; in Japan one thinks of mothers and sons" due to the extensive media coverage of mother-son incest there. Some western researchers even assumed this was established fact. However, research into victimization statistics from police and health-care systems discredits this, as it shows the vast majority of sexual abuse, including incest, is perpetrated by men against young girls. The Mainichi Daily News column WaiWai, by Australian journalist Ryann Connell, featured often-sensationalist stories, principally translated from and based on articles appearing in Japanese tabloids. On June 28, 2008, The Mainichi newspaper announced punitive measures. Mainichi said, "We continued to post articles that contained incorrect information and indecent sexual content. These articles, many of which were not checked and properly investigated should not have been dispatched. We apologize deeply for causing many people trouble and for betraying the public's trust in the Mainichi Shimbun." 
Childhood sibling–sibling incest is considered to be widespread but rarely reported.
Sibling-sibling incest becomes child-on-child sexual abuse when it occurs without consent, without equality, or as a result of coercion. In this form, it is believed to be the most common form of intrafamilial abuse. The most commonly reported form of abusive sibling incest is abuse of a younger sibling by an older sibling. A 2006 study showed a large portion of adults who experienced sibling incest abuse have distorted or disturbed beliefs (such as that the act was "normal") both about their own experience and the subject of sexual abuse in general.
Sibling abusive incest is most prevalent in families where one or both parents are often absent or emotionally unavailable, with the abusive siblings using incest as a way to assert their power over a weaker sibling. Absence of the father in particular has been found to be a significant element of most cases of sexual abuse of female children by a brother. The damaging effects on both childhood development and adult symptoms resulting from brother–sister sexual abuse are similar to the effects of father–daughter, including substance abuse, depression, suicidality, and eating disorders.
Sexual activity between adult close relatives may arise from genetic sexual attraction. This form of incest has not been widely reported in the past, but recent evidence has indicated that this behavior does take place, possibly more often than many people realize. Internet chatrooms and topical websites exist that provide support for incestuous couples.
Proponents of incest between consenting adults draw clear boundaries between the behavior of consenting adults and rape, child molestation, and abusive incest. According to one incest participant who was quoted for an article in The Guardian:
You can't help who you fall in love with, it just happens. I fell in love with my sister and I'm not ashamed ... I only feel sorry for my mom and dad, I wish they could be happy for us. We love each other. It's nothing like some old man who tries to fuck his three-year-old, that's evil and disgusting ... Of course we're consenting, that's the most important thing. We're not fucking perverts. What we have is the most beautiful thing in the world.
In Slate Magazine, William Saletan drew a legal connection between gay sex and incest between consenting adults. As he described in his article, in 2003, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum commented on a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving sodomy laws (primarily as a matter of Constitutional rights to Privacy and Equal Protection under the Law). He stated: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery." However, David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign professed outrage that Santorum placed being gay on the same moral and legal level as someone engaging in incest. Saletan argued that, legally and morally, there is essentially no difference between the two, and went on to support incest between consenting adults being covered by a legal right to privacy. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has made similar arguments. In a more recent article, Saletan said that incest is wrong because it introduces the possibility of irreparably damaging family units by introducing "a notoriously incendiary dynamic—sexual tension—into the mix".
In the Netherlands, marriage between nephews and nieces is legal, but only with the explicit permission of the Dutch Government, due to the possible risk of genetic defects among their offspring. Nephew-niece marriages predominantly occur among foreign immigrants. In November 2008, the Christian democratic (CDA) party's Scientific Institute announced that it wanted a ban on marriages between nephews and nieces.
Consensual sex between adults(persons of 18 years and older) is always lawful in the Netherlands and Belgium, even among closely related family members. Sexual acts between an adult family member and a minor are illegal, though they are not classified as incest, but as abuse of the authority such an adult has over a minor, comparable to that of a teacher, coach or priest. (Dutch)
In Florida, consensual adult sexual intercourse with someone known to be your aunt, uncle, niece or nephew constitutes a felony of the third degree. Other states also commonly prohibit marriages between such kins. The legality of sex with a half-aunt or half-uncle varies state by state.
The most public case of consensual adult sibling incest in recent years is the case of a brother-sister couple from Germany, Patrick Stübing and Susan Karolewski. Because of violent behavior on the part of the father, the brother was taken in at the age of 3 by foster parents, who adopted him later. At the age of 23 he learned about his biological parents, contacted his mother, and met her and his then 16-year-old sister for the first time. The now-adult brother moved in with his birth family shortly thereafter. After their mother died suddenly six months later, the couple became intimately close, and had their first child together in 2001. By 2004, they had four children together: Eric, Sarah, Nancy, and Sofia. The public nature of their relationship, and the repeated prosecutions and even jail time they have served as a result, has caused some in Germany to question whether incest between consenting adults should be punished at all. An article about them in Der Spiegel states that the couple are happy together. According to court records, the first three children have mental and physical disabilities, and have been placed in foster care. In April 2012, at the European Court of Human Rights, Patrick Stuebing lost his case that the conviction violated his right to a private and family life.
Some societies differentiate between full sibling and half sibling relations. In ancient societies, half-sibling marriages occurred. Sexual relations with half-aunts or half-uncles are illegal in some US states.
Marriages and sexual relationships between first cousins are stigmatized as incest in some cultures, but tolerated in much of the world. Currently, 24 US states prohibit marriages between first cousins, and another seven permit them only under special circumstances. Cousin marriages are rare, accounting for less than 1% of marriages in Western Europe, North America and Oceania, while reaching 9% in South America, East Asia and South Europe and up to 25% in regions of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Communities such as the Dhond and the Bhittani of Pakistan clearly prefer marriages between cousins as believe they ensure purity of the descent line, provide intimate knowledge of the spouses, and ensure that patrimony will not pass into the hands of "outsiders".
Apart from the partial prohibition in the United States, there are some cultures in Asia which stigmatize cousin marriage, in some instances even marriages between second cousins or more remotely related people. This concerns notably the culture of Korea, and some Hindu communities in India. In South Korea, before 1997, anyone with the same last name and clan were prohibited from marriage. In light of this law being held unconstitutional, South Korea now only prohibits up to third cousins (see Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code). Hmong culture prohibits the marriage of anyone with the same last name - to do so would result in being shunned by the entire community, and they are usually stripped of their last name. In a review of 48 studies on the children parented by cousins, most of the babies born to cousins were healthy contrary to the popular perception, with birth defects being 4% of births for consanguineous couples as opposed to 2% for the general population.
Some cultures include relatives by marriage in incest prohibitions; these relationships are called affinity rather than consanguinity. For example, the question of the legality and morality of a widower who wished to marry his deceased wife's sister was the subject of long and fierce debate in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, involving, among others, Matthew Boulton. In medieval Europe, standing as a godparent to a child also created a bond of affinity. But in other societies, a deceased spouse's sibling was considered the ideal person to marry. The Hebrew Bible forbids a man from marrying his brother's widow with the exception that, if his brother died childless, the man is instead required to marry his brother's widow so as to "raise up seed to him" (per Deuteronomy 25:5–6).
In Islamic law, marriage among close blood relations like parents, step-parent, parents in-law, siblings, step-siblings, the children of siblings, aunts and uncles is prohibited, while first or second cousins may marry. Marrying the widow of a brother, or the sister of deceased or divorced wife is also allowed.
Incest that results in offspring is a form of close inbreeding (reproduction between two individuals with a common ancestor). Inbreeding leads to a higher probability of congenital birth defects because it increases that proportion of zygotes that are homozygous, in particular for deleterious recessive alleles that produce such disorders (and see Inbreeding depression). Because most such alleles are rare in populations, it is unlikely that two unrelated marriage partners will both be heterozygous carriers. However, because close relatives share a large fraction of their alleles, the probability that any such rare deleterious allele present in the common ancestor will be inherited from both related parents is increased dramatically with respect to non-inbred couples. Contrary to common belief, inbreeding does not in itself alter allele frequencies, but rather increases the relative proportion of homozygotes to heterozygotes. However, because the increased proportion of deleterious homozygotes exposes the allele to natural selection, in the long run its frequency decreases more rapidly in inbred population. In the short term, incestuous reproduction is expected to produce increases in spontaneous abortions of zygotes, perinatal deaths, and postnatal offspring with birth defects.
There may also be other deleterious effects besides those caused by recessive diseases. Thus, similar immune systems may be more vulnerable to infectious diseases (see Major histocompatibility complex and sexual selection).
A 1994 study found a mean excess mortality with inbreeding among first cousins of 4.4%. Children of parent-child or sibling-sibling unions are at increased risk compared to cousin-cousin unions. Studies suggest that 20-36% of these children will die or have major disability due to the inbreeding. A study of 29 offspring resulting from brother-sister or father-daughter incest found that 20 had congenital abnormalities, including four directly attributable to autosomal recessive alleles.
Many mammal species, including humanity's closest primate relatives, tend to avoid close inbreeding, especially if there are alternative partners available. However some chimpanzees have been recorded attempting to mate with their mothers. Male rats have been recorded engaging in mating with their sisters, but they tend to prefer non-related females over their sisters.
Livestock breeders often practice controlled breeding to eliminate undesirable characteristics within a population, which is also coupled with culling of what is considered unfit offspring, especially when trying to establish a new and desirable trait in the stock.
Laws regarding sexual intercourse between close relatives vary considerably between jurisdictions, and depend on the type of sexual activity and the nature of the family relationship of the parties involved, as well as the age and sex of the parties. Prohibition of incest laws may extend to restrictions on marriage rights, which also vary between jurisdictions. Most jurisdictions prohibit parent-child and sibling marriages, while other also prohibit first-cousin and uncle-niece and aunt-nephew marriages.
In most places, incest is illegal, regardless of the ages of the two partners. In other countries, incestuous relationships between consenting adults (with the age varying by location) are permitted, including in the Netherlands, France and Spain. In Sweden the only type of incestuous relationship allowed by law is that between half-siblings and they must seek government counseling before marriage.
In three places in the Torah, there are lists of family members between whom it is prohibited to have sexual relations; each of these lists is progressively shorter. The biblical lists are not symmetrical – the implied rules for women and men are not the same. Relationships compare as follows:
|Holiness Code||Deuteronomic Code|
|Leviticus 18||Leviticus 20|
|Grandparent's spouse (including other grandparent)|
|Uncle's/aunt's spouse||Father's sibling's spouse|
|Mother's sibling's spouse|
|Parent's child||Half-Sibling (mother's side)|
|Half-sibling (father's side)|
|Sibling-in-law (if the spouse was still alive)|
|Nephew/niece-in-law||Spouse's brother's child|
|Spouse's sister's child|
|Spouse's grandchild (including grandchild)|
Apart from the questionable case of the daughter, the first incest list in the Holiness code roughly produces the same rules as were followed in early (pre-Islamic) Arabic culture; in Islam, these pre-existing rules were made statutory.
In the 4th century BCE, the Soferim (scribes) declared that there were relationships within which marriage constituted incest, in addition to those mentioned by the Torah. These additional relationships were termed seconds (Hebrew: sheniyyot), and included the wives of a man's grandfather and grandson. The classical rabbis prohibited marriage between a man and any of these seconds of his, on the basis that doing so would act as a safeguard against infringing the biblical incest rules, although there was inconclusive debate about exactly what the limits should be for the definition of seconds.
Marriages forbidden in the Torah were regarded by the rabbis of the Middle Ages as invalid – as if they had never occurred; any children born to such a couple were regarded as bastards under Jewish law, and the relatives of the spouse were not regarded as forbidden relations for a further marriage. On the other hand, those relationships which were prohibited due to qualifying as seconds, and so forth, were regarded as wicked, but still valid; while they might have pressured such a couple to divorce, any children of the union were still seen as legitimate.
In the Roman Catholic Church, marriage is generally not permitted if the potential spouses are related in the collateral line up to and including the second degree, although a dispensation may be granted permitting marriages between first cousins or even uncle/niece unions as in the marriage of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor to his niece (and first cousin) Margarita Teresa of Spain in 1666. The Church does not generally permit the marriage if a doubt exists on whether the potential spouses are related by consanguinity in any degree of the direct line or in the second degree of the collateral line.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, marriages are banned between second cousins or closer and between second uncles / aunts and second nieces / nephews (between first cousins once removed) or closer. Marrying one's godparent or deceased spouse's sibling is also prohibited, although marrying one's stepchild is not - e.g. Vyacheslav Ivanov exercised his right to marry his stepdaughter after her mother's (his first wife's) death.
The Quran gives specific rules regarding incest, which prohibit a man from marrying or having sexual relationships with:
The main differences (apart from relationships between a man and his daughter) are:
Hinduism speaks of incest in abhorrent terms. Hindus are fearful of the bad effects of incest and thus practice strict rules of both endogamy and exogamy within castes (Varna) but not in the same family tree (gotra) or bloodline (Pravara). Marriages within the gotra ("swagotra" marriages) are banned under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. i.e. Marriage with paternal cousins is strictly prohibited. In fact marriage between two people whose parents are related paternally up to seven generations is expressly prohibited. Gotra is transferred down the male lineage while the Gotra of a female changes upon marriage. i.e., upon marriage a woman belongs to her husband's Gotra and no longer belongs to her father's Gotra.
Buddhist societies take a strong ethical stand in human affairs and sexual behavior in particular. Most variations of Buddhism decide locally about the details of incest as a wrongdoing, according to local cultural standards. Sexual misconduct is mentioned but the definition of what constitutes misconduct sex is an individual issue. The most common formulation of Buddhist ethics are the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path: one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct". 'Sexual misconduct' means any sexual conduct involving violence, manipulation or deceit – conduct that therefore leads to suffering and trouble. Buddhist monks and nuns strictly forbid any type of sexual misconduct, and therefore depends on the culture of the area, not on mandate from Buddhism itself.
In March 2013, Lawrence Krauss in a debate with Hamza Tzortzis, titled Islam or Atheism, which makes more sense?, stated that he did not necessarily see anything wrong with incest if it was between two consenting adults.