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Monday May 5, 2008

Incest: Age-old taboo

A look at incest down the ages, as seen through the eyes of different societies.

VLADIMIR Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have written about it in their novels, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle and One Hundred Years of Solitude respectively. So did A.S. Byatt in Morpho Eugenia, which was later made into a shockingly explicit film called Angels and Insects.

Surprisingly, the subject also appears in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin.

Incest. We abhor it, we look upon it with horror and disgust. Yet it appears everywhere in popular culture in all societies. In no shortage too, are real-life cases that have shocked the world.

Just last week, a 73-year-old Austrian father was found to have imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and repeatedly raped her. He had seven children with his daughter, now aged 42.

Also recently was the consensual case of an Australian father and his daughter who had a child together. Despite the outrage when their relationship was uncovered, the court deemed the relationship between John Deaves, 61, and his daughter Jenny, 39, as a “mutually consensual union”. Today, they are permitted to see each other but are prohibited from having sexual relations. They later appeared on a TV news show in Australia with their healthy nine-month-old daughter and asked to be treated as an ordinary couple.

Then there are the German brother and sister, Patrick Stübing and Susan Karolewski, who have had four children together, three of whom are in foster care. Stübing served some time in prison for the offence, but that did not stop them from fighting the country’s incest laws. In March, Germany’s highest court upheld the law that incest is a criminal offence. Stubing faces imprisonment if he resumes a sexual relationship with his sister.

In the United States in 2005, siblings Allen and Patricia Muth were sent to prison for incest.

Incest can be defined as sexual relations between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal or forbidden by custom.

The more heartbreaking story is the one about the British couple who only found out they were siblings after their wedding. Their marriage was subsequently annulled, and the issue raised concerns over in-vitro fertilisation, where the same incident could occur because the identity of one parent could be unknown.

It is an infinitely difficult subject to talk about, when you consider the universal taboo attached to it, what more when different societies treat the subject differently, perceive it in myriad ways, with varied moral perspectives and degrees of acceptability.

In some cultures, marrying the sibling of one’s deceased spouse is frowned upon, while others allow unions between cousins. Sweden, meanwhile, is the only country that allows marriage between siblings who share a parent.

Last year in Malaysia, taxi driver Omar Salih was found guilty of incest as he was simultaneously married to two women who are sisters. He was fined by the Syariah High Court. While the Quran expressly forbids a man from marrying sisters at the same time, our Penal Code has a wider interpretation of incest, taking into account “the law, religion, custom or usage applicable” to a person.

A 2002 article in The Guardian of UK uncovered a whole community of people who indulged in consensual incest, who had formed online groups in support of each other and to dispel notions of incest being morally unacceptable.

Of course, if these people were living in ancient Egypt, they wouldn’t need to form anonymous support groups. Incest was an accepted practice in Roman Egypt, the only well-recorded instance of incest as a societal norm. Brother-sister marriages were reportedly rife in the New Kingdom royal family – Cleopatra herself married some of her brothers.

It comes as no surprise too that Egyptian mythology describes the incestuous link between Osiris and Iris who were brother and sister. The prevalence of incest in ancient Egyptian royal families as well as among the Incas is sometimes construed as a necessity for safeguarding royal wealth and property, and keeping them within the royal lineage.

In anthropology, incest is often perceived hand-in-hand with exogamy, where marriage creates a social alliance that puts an end to conflicts between warring groups or averts potential trouble.

Incest, in fact, appears in mythologies the world over. The legend of King Arthur famously narrates how Arthur had a child with his sister Morgana Le Fay. The child, Mordred, later became his arch nemesis.

In Greek mythology, Zeus and his wife Hera were brother and sister, whose parents Cronus and Rhea were also siblings. But if you think this constant presence of incest could be cause for its acceptance, consider the tale of ancient Greek monarch Oedipus, who consummated a relationship with his mother and suffered the ultimate punishment of blindness.

Gene pool

Which consequently leads us to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Many see the aversion to an intimate relationship with kin as a natural mechanism of evolution that helps to preserve the gene pool and avoid defective genes, culminating in fears of a “contaminated gene pool” and shorter lifespan of children borne of incestuous unions, as well as birth defects.

Many researchers hold the view that we all have a “kin recognition ability” that helps us to avoid incest. But if Freud’s idea is anything to go by, it seems that we all have desires for our family members, and it is only the laws of society that keep us in check.

But of course Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck countered that a natural aversion occurs between persons who spend their childhood years growing up together. This is supported by the fact that most cases of incest occur between family members who have not seen each other for years.

The Shim-pua marriages in China also demonstrated the “Westermarck effect”, where young girls were sold to rich families for marriage, but husband and wife (having grown up together) lacked sexual attraction for each other.

While early incest laws (especially in the United States) were created mostly for religious reasons, today the reasons for incest prohibition centres on the fear of genetic defects in children produced by such unions.

In the case of the Austrian “crime of a monster”, the seventh child, a twin, died shortly after birth, while one of the surviving children is epileptic. And in the Australian case, the Deaves’ first child also died after birth, from congenital heart disease. However, none of the aforementioned has been proven to be the direct result of the incestuous unions.

Members of a family have similarities genetically, which include recessive genes that cause defects and diseases. The risk of birth defects is therefore higher in incestuous relationships. And these recessive genes will have more opportunities to double and become a danger if inbreeding were allowed to continue for a few generations.

But scientists have rejected the explanation that incest taboo is a social mechanism that reduces the risk of congenital birth defects. One of the reasons is, findings have concluded that recessive or defect-carrying genes in a population may increase or decrease in instances of inbreeding. The frequency of birth defects depends on the availability and effectiveness of healthcare in a population.

A recent genetic report also stated that children of unrelated parents have a 3% to 4% risk of having serious birth defects, while the offspring of first cousins have only a slightly higher risk of about 4% to 7%. The United States’ laws which prohibit marriages between cousins – laws that are unique to the country – became a point of debate.

Recent studies on human adaptive immunity found that there is an evolutionary tendency to create a more diverse gene pool – which could support the Westermarck effect, that siblings who live together since childhood are not attracted to each other.

Anthropologist Melford E. Spiro’s study of a Jewish kibbutz found that the children who grew up together did not marry even when there was pressure from their families to do so.

But what about the animal kingdom? The famous Jane Goodall observed that chimpanzees exhibited incest avoidance behaviour, where mothers do not allow their male offspring to mate with them, sisters do not mate with their brothers, and females do not mate with older males in their familial group.

Researchers in Britain and Germany found that male hyenas typically are forced to leave their birth group, a move that ensures minimal or no in-breeding.

But according to senior veterinarian Dr P. Vanaja, animals do not recognise the definition of familial lines, and therefore would not know how to avoid incest behaviour.

“Incest happens a lot between animals, especially cats and dogs,” she explained. “Take for example, elephants. They move in male and female groups, and when they come together to mate, they do not know who their parents or siblings are.”

According to Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, director of UKM’s Institute for Ethnic Research, the creation of lineage and clans is the result of families creating boundaries and avoiding incest.

He said there were tribes and peoples in Papua New Guinea and Africa who practise what he calls “internal reproduction”. This was to ensure the survival of their tribes which were very small in number. “But that was a long time ago, and it was only over a few generations,” he said. “They did not see it as incest. It was more of a way of survival for them. This was especially so with the hunters and gatherers who moved in groups of 20 or 30 families.”

He said although some societies may regard incest as normal or tolerate such relationships, our society is not open to such a concept due to our religious beliefs.


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