Sex & Relationships

Sibling Incest: Does US Society Understand the Associated Risks?

Sexual contact between siblings may be destructive, though it doesn’t always constitute abuse.

Game of Thrones 'Twin-Cestuous' Relationship
Photo Credit: YouTube

Sibling incest has been a longstanding taboo shrouded in secrecy and rarely discussed. But in recent times, television programs like Game of Thrones have brought the issue to the forefront by glorifying the “twin-cestuous” relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, attracting millions of viewers and evoking much discussion about incest in popular Reddit threads

Similarly, MTV show “Happy Lands” just announced its upcoming brother/sister incest plot, with the show's star Bianca Santos making headlines for declaring, “Incest is hot, and we’re going to have fun!” Victims of incest abuse reacted angrily over Santos’ remark, saying that promoting the idea that incest is "hot" is heartless for victims of incest molestation.

“My father was a bisexual, transgender pedophile who molested me. Anyone who is willing to even joke about incest being hot is paving the way for a degradation of society and is attempting to make something obscene acceptable. It’s very unfeeling towards victims like me,” an anonymous blogger wrote in the Independent Sentinel.

Such examples raise the question of whether this new trend of depicting incest as sexy undermines the seriousness of what is still classed as a criminal offense in the United States. To what degree do we in society accept incest today in light of the rise in sibling-incest themes in pop culture?

Australian Judge Garry Neilson came under fire last month for suggesting that society may no longer see sex between siblings as “unnatural” or “taboo,” Sydney Morning Herald reported.   

Neilson’s comments arose from an incest case he presided over earlier this year in which a 58-year-old man was charged with repeatedly raping his younger sister in 1981, when she was 18 years old and he was 26. The judge refused to admit evidence to the jury that the defendant had earlier pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his sister when she was 10 years old and he was 17 in 1973, “reasoning” that the sexual abuse that occurred previously was not connected to the sex that happened when she was 18.

In his controversial statement, Judge Neilson said just as homosexual sex used to be socially unacceptable but is now recognized, “a jury might find nothing untoward in the advance of a brother towards his sister once she had sexually matured, had sexual relationships with other men and was now ‘available’, not having [a] sexual partner.”

He went on to say that the “only reason” incest was still a crime was because of the high risk of genetic abnormalities in children born from consanguineous relationships “but even that falls away to an extent [because] there is such ease of contraception and readily access to abortion.”

Predictably, the judgment sparked mass public outcry, most notably from child protection and gay rights advocates, and leading to a full investigation by the New South Wales Judicial Commission and disciplinary review. Nielson was subsequently stood down from criminal trials and the ruling set aside.

Of course, unlike this case, not all sexual contact between siblings constitutes abuse or rape. As repulsive as many people would view having sex with their siblings, tales of brother/sister love, particularly between long-lost siblings or step-siblings are not uncommon and have been around for centuries, most famously in royal families aimed at preserving their bloodline.

Aside from the cultural stigma associated with incest, most people cite genetic abnormality concerns as the principle reason why siblings shouldn’t get together. Full siblings are 50% genetically identical and 99.95% biochemically identical and therefore there is a greater risk of sharing the same recessive genes which, when combined, can result in a medical abnormality.

Scientists and theorists have also attempted to explain and dissect the phenomenon of incest love, which to date is still met with various conflicting theories. Sigmund Freud argued that we are all repressing incest sexual urges from childhood, while the Westermarck effect or “reverse sexual printing” alleges the reverse: that when two people are raised and live in close domestic proximity for the first few years of their lives, they become desensitized to sexual attraction, which suppresses sexual attraction in siblings. 

Conversely, a 2010 study showed that most people are attracted to people who look like themselves, which would then naturally extend to biological relatives and explain incestual trends. The Genetic Sexual Attraction effect has been found to be “present in up to half of all reunions/introductions of post-pubescent biological relatives,” Marriage-Equality reports, which may explain why siblings and close relatives who meet as adults sometimes end up in relationships.

half brother and sister from the United Kingdom were separated at birth, met in their 20s and fell in love. Consequently, their mother reported them to the police and they were convicted of incest and legally forbidden from engaging in sexual relations. But that didn't stop the relationship from blooming.

“I know that loving my brother in this way is wrong morally and legally, but it just feels right," 22-year-old Danielle told the Daily Mail in 2008. "The only way to explain it is to say that the day I met Nick, I felt I had finally met my soulmate. Everything clicked. I would marry him if I could."

An anonymous Reddit user wrote about his experience falling in love with his sister, as Thought Catalogue recently reported:

“I’ve been in a relationship with my sister for eight years. Our relationship has no impact on family gatherings because we’re the only ones who know about it. Yes, it’s consensual. We have the same biological parents….We have had sex. No, we don’t want kids. We’ve considered running away to a different country, but decided that would be something we’d do only if we were cornered and couldn’t really deny our relationship. ... We’d like to get married one day but it’s not going to happen... I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but my sister does.”

Psychotherapist Hannah Louise Cartwright, the author of Healing Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Very Personal Story, doesn’t buy it.

“Those TV shows, which depict incest themes are made for entertainment value only to be provocative and clearly written by those who have not experienced incest. It’s nonsense. Yes, we all have a biological imperative to procreate and connect with someone. Of course it is possible to fall in love with your relations, it happens with first cousins and step-siblings all the time. But, as a psychotherapist, I have never seen it among blood related siblings, we simply don’t have the right cultural context for it to occur,” she says.

A victim of incest abuse herself at the hands of her brother, Cartwright is convinced that nothing good can ever come from incest, recounting her own experience:

“Most of my abuse began when I was about five or six. My brother was six years older than I was. The most significant abuse occurred when I was about eight and continued until I was about 12. The abuse, like most abuse, began with gentle touching and expanded to much more forceful touching and digital penetration and was not a full rape. The first time I told my mother I was 15 years old. She responded in the best way she could. She believed me, comforted me, but then that was the end of it and that’s a common problem. It wasn’t until years later when I got into intensive therapy that I was able to confront my parents on a deeper level,” she said.

It is this family dynamic that makes incest one of the most difficult forms of sexual abuse to talk about and the reason incest crimes are the most underreported. The major difference between sexual abuse between siblings versus being molested by a stranger is that the victim lives in the same household as the abuser, so it never goes away. Cartwright explains:

“It’s about a whole family dynamic that plays into it and is increasingly difficult for parents to respond to. For example, if I’m a mom and I find out my little boy has been molested by a child next door, I can automatically make a decision about what is right to do for my son i.e. call the police. But if my 10-year-old son molests my five-year-old daughter, how am I going to protect my five-year-old and at the same time make sure my 10-year-old is okay? Parents are often forced to make a 'selfish choice' between the children that can often tear families apart.”

For this reason, she says it’s important to determine whether behavior is abusive or merely child play, particularly because it is quite common for children to engage in some sexual experimentation with a sibling, which does not fall into the category of abuse, although it can leave some residual trauma. The starting point is to look at the age of the parties.

“First, it is important for people to know that it is pretty common for children to have some sexual contact with one another, mostly because they are one another’s first playmate. But, if there is a four-year difference in age or greater between the children, it is no longer sexual play and is automatically classed as abuse. This is because a greater age difference creates a power differential, which is the major determining factor in whether you have abuse or play. Of course, contact can still be abuse if the siblings are closer in age, but if the children are within two or three years of one another, it is less probable,” Cartwright said.

Experts say this fine line between sibling sexual abuse and consensual sexual contact warrants incest remaining taboo in society— in so far as it is considered an abnormal, unhealthy behavior between siblings. Those who have been victimized by incest abuse are encouraged to speak up and tell someone about it in the interest of healing.