Friday, March 16, 2007

Incest Taboo: Beyond the Ick Factor

Okay, I wasn't going to write about this but I keep seeing stories about it and I think it raises some very interesting issues so, I'm going to take a stab at it.

From the Beeb:

"At their home in Leipzig, Patrick Stuebing and Susan Karolewski are in the kitchen, playing with a young toddler. They share a small flat in an east German tower block on the outskirts of the city. It looks like an ordinary family scene, but Patrick is Susan's brother and they are lovers."

The short of it is that these two were not raised together and were completely unaware of each others existence until she was 15 and he was 23. After the death of their mother, they fell in love and became a couple. They have several children together (two of these children have disabilities) who have been taken away from them by the state and Stuebing has spent two years in jail after being successfully prosecuted for the charge of incest. Stuebing has recently had a vasectomy to prevent them from having any more children, which could lead to further charges because it would provide the state with undeniable proof that the two are still engaging in incest.

The most common blogosphere reaction to this story seems to be that it's creepy, icky, gross, nauseating...Well, I think you get the point. Some people base their disapproval on the idea that such a relationship creates an unacceptably high risk of producing children with disabilities. Of course, there are all of the religious prohibitions that affect how people feel about it. Believing that God has said "No, you can't do that" is a powerful consideration for many people.

Personally, I can't even picture partnering with one of my brothers. The idea of doing so is just barf-worthy, as a matter of fact. In our society, there's an undeniable yuck-factor associated with everything that's even related to incest (no pun intended, honestly). Still, I feel a bit reticent about setting hard, fast rules about this for the whole world.

The truth is, incest isn't anything new. We know that it's been going on for at least as long as people have been recording history and the idea that most people view it as taboo is relatively new. The most famous group of people who engaged in this practice is probably the Egyptian royalty. It was also common among other groups in the region as well.

Greek mythology is rife with stories of incestuous couples. Gaia was impregnated by her son Uranus. Cronus married his sister Rhea.
Lest Christians, Jews and Muslims feel left out, there's also the Biblical account of, Abraham and Sarah--a brother and sister pair who married each other with God's blessing. Plus there's the original Biblical couple, the ancestors of all mankind, Adam and Eve. I'd welcome any input on this but the fact that Eve was made from Adam's rib seems like a reasonable argument could be made that this was also an incestuous relationship.

I'm not trying to offend anyone nor am I saying that any of these people were somehow immoral. This was an acceptable practice in the much of the world until quite recently. The spread of Western "values" to other parts of the world has lead to the expansion of this idea that there is something inherently wrong with marrying people who are closely related to you, but there are a lot of folks who just aren't buying into this. Many people who feel disgusted by the idea of brothers and sisters marrying would see absolutely nothing wrong with first cousins doing the same thing. In fact, there are plenty of places where such an arrangement would be looked upon quite favorably.

In fact, I don't have a problem with people in Western societies partnering with their family members if that's what they want to do. It's not what floats my boat but then I also wouldn't do a lot of other stuff that small groups of people freely engage in all around this country. I'm talking about stuff like this or this.

The principle that I'd apply here is that what I would or wouldn't do shouldn't interfere with whatever two consenting adults do in the privacy of their home. The idea that this should be prohibited based on how uncomfortable it makes some people is just as a dubious as when people make the same argument against allowing un-married, disabled or gay couples to adopt children. I look at it in this way: Your discomfort is your personal problem and shouldn't dictate how I can live my life.

And can we please get rid of this crappy argument that incest shouldn't be allowed because the children might come out with an extra eyeball growing out of their head or something? I'm not dismissing the possibility that something could go horribly wrong when siblings reproduce. Of course, that same possibility exists when non-siblings have children too. So why should this only be held against partnered siblings? What's next? Are we going to prohibit people with sickle cell trait or thalassemia from being partners too? The likelihood that a child with a disability may result from such a union is quite high as well. And who should really be able to decide what level of risk is too high when it comes to the potentiality of producing children with disabilities? It seems to me that when people start with the "think of the children" pleas, they are usually just trying to bolster claims that are, at the core, illogical or irrational. If the world really cared about children, then they'd be taking care of the ones who are here instead of worrying about potential children.

It really concerns me that people would go so far as to try and prohibit two people from being together based on the fact that they might possibly bring a person with disabilities into the world. This sounds like one step short of bringing back the practice of mandated sterilization of us "undesirables".

Just look at this case: The guy was picked up by the government and forced to serve time in jail based on the fact that he chose to have consensual sex with an unapproved of partner (not the first time this has occurred in Germany). He was coerced into being sterilized because if his partner got pregnant again, then he would be imprisoned by the state again. This is nothing different from the practices of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina which engaged in the same tactics all the way until 1974, just two years before I was born.

If Karolewski and Stuebing want to spend their lives together as partners, I see no reason why they should be prohibited from doing so.


belledame222 said...

Oh, yeah, we're talking about that elsewhere. I'll just be lazy and repeat what I said there:

In general, the incest taboo is still current not just because of the ancient "blood" issues (i.e. consider the offspring), but because it's a blurring/violation of psychological boundaries and (especially if it's a parent or guardian figure) a serious abuse of power.

Personally, after reading that story, I'm a lot less creeped out by it than I was by, say, the Woody Allen/Soon Yi business. And no, I don't think the law should be coming into it, here. It does sound like they hit one of those odd loopholes; for all intents and purposes they were not actually siblings.

Again, I'd be a lot more bothered by people who'd had the familial -relationship-, whether blood-related or not, who then turned it sexual; particularly, again, if it were a parent figure with the son/daughter.

Sibling stuff I guess doesn't hit me on as much of a gut level, possibly because I am an only child and don't feel the "squick" on as visceral a level.

but generally, the reason people apply the term "incestuous" casually to say o i don't know, really hidebound little cliques, ought to be a clue as to the other reason why this is problematic: keeping it "all in the family," as it were, tends to be not so hot psychologically & socially speaking, whether or not actual sex is involved; it tends to make people...odd.

but as per this particular story: provided there isn't actual abuse going on, I don't really think it's any of the government's business; and in fact I think that what they're doing to intervene may well be more disruptive than anything else.

if they were to find say the parental figure having sex with a child whom sie's been given guardianship, then that to me is very VERY different: throw the book at 'em.

ArrogantWorm said...

I remember reading about this over on Barbelith. The only thing I would worry about if it was made legal is if some fools decided to incorporate it into their religious practices, so that you have to marry a sibling. The genetics would take a nose dive after a couple of generations with no new blood, and some people are just that stupid. But this couple? Come on, they didn't grow up together, there's no familiarity to bring the feeling that says 'They're family, bad idea." Just leave 'em alone already, preferably with some monetary reparation for the destruction that the law caused them. And they should return their kids, that's cruel.

On the other hand,if there's a family that's raised together and the siblings don't have the 'familiarity breeds contempt' thing and they got together, I'd be interested to see if their children feel the same thing, if they have any. I'm just wondering where the 'familiarity brings contempt' thing comes from, really, since some people don't seem to have it. Also curious how much of it is cultural. Willing to bet money the stigma against such partnering is mostly cultural, but I'm not sure how the familiarity breeds contempt thing actually works in childhood and how it changes when ya get older.

Renegade Evolution said...

I have issue with any sort of parent/child level of this...but other aspects, like this couple, or cousins or whatever? Well, not for me, but if they are consenting adults and not forced into it???

No one elses business really.

And yes, historically it was VERY prevelent, especially amongst royalty and smaller, remote socities.