Incest is a strangely fashionable subject, as the number of articles, novels, research surveys, films, books, and television programs cited in these three books demonstrates. Partly, perhaps, it is just that the jaded press is on the lookout for anything that still shocks. Partly it is the outraged reaction of women writers to some comments on the subject that declare that incest or pedophilia can be harmless and, if left in peace, guilt-free. And social surveys are for the first time substituting facts and statistics for previous guesswork about the subject. Another dimension has been added by the controversy over Freud’s early change of heart about the reality of incestuous abuse in childhood. Meanwhile anthropology, in uneasy alliance with the new discipline of sociobiology, has continued to puzzle over the contradictions implied by the primal taboo.

Harsh facts come first; and Diana Russell’s The Secret Trauma gives a sad and shocking picture of the actual prevalence of intrafamilial abuse of young girls. To gain the facts interviewers questioned a random sample of nearly a thousand women of different races and ages in San Francisco; out of the total, 16 percent described some kind of sexual approach by a member of the family. Very few described the experience as wanted or even bearable, and a high proportion—higher than among women who had not experienced incest—went on to have problems in later life, such as divorce, sexual maladjustment, or further sexual abuse. Though father/daughter incest was relatively rare, its occurrence was especially traumatic; stepfathers were the most common offenders, and uncles, brothers, and brothers-in-law figured in many cases. A scrutiny of the ages of the women concerned suggested that incest is indeed on the increase, rather than just being more visible. Russell thinks that the greatly increased number of stepfamilies is relevant, and also the availability of pornography. The attention of the press has some basis in fact, therefore.

Twitchell’s and Aren’s books take one away from the sorry parade of hurt to more rarefied speculation, Twitchell’s from a literary point of view and Arens’s from the anthropological. Anthropology has always been preoccupied with the central and universal taboo. The nineteenth century, age of heroic energies kept in check by heavy prohibitions, assumed that the greatest prohibition was the very touchstone of humanness. In Arens’s words, we now see the Victorian armchair anthropologists as “repairing to their studies and conjuring up wistful images of both past and distant societies. These primal scenes served, in part, to afford an attractive antithesis of ideal Victorian social arrangements, rather than verifiable propositions.” Their obsession was with a primitive period or society where sexual behavior could be dreadfully but excitingly unbridled. Freud’s Totem and Taboo fantasy is quite of its time. Even today, when we know so much more about animals and about different social groups, anthropologists have tried dating the incest prohibition back to a specific date in prehistory. In fact, Arens paradoxically comes to argue, incest is more a mark of “civilized” man than of primitive or brute.

The twentieth century, in general, gave up the search for societies that predated the incest taboo and came to see the issue less in moral than in utilitarian terms. The taboo came to be seen as a defense against confusion rather than against sin; the chaotic status of incestuously conceived children, sociologists argued, would cause a breakdown of family pattern. “For the Victorian anthropologists,” Arens writes, “incest was a regrettable stage in the childhood of man; for Freudians, incest was an object of fantasy; for contemporary sociologists, incest barely glimmered in their thought as some sort of untenable disorganized state.”

The Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck, in the late nineteenth-century, was out of step with his colleagues in proposing an idea that Arens appropriates; he saw not a deep lust brought under control by civilization, but a deep disinclination. “There is a remarkable absence of erotic feelings between persons living very closely together from childhood,” he wrote. “Nay more, in this, as in many other cases, sexual indifference is combined with a positive feeling of aversion when the act is thought of. This I take to be the fundamental cause of the exogamous prohibitions.” His was not an age for gathering hard evidence, but there is some available now for Arens to quote in support of Westermarck—though the argument remains highly speculative.

This comes both from anthropological field studies and from observations of animal groups. Arens cites, for instance, studies of particular forms of marriage arrangement from China, comparing that between virtual strangers and that between unrelated young people brought up together like siblings and betrothed early. This latter arrangement appears to have been most unsuccessful; in some cases it was never consummated or the brides ran away or the partners expressed a strong dislike of it; divorce was common, and the rate of reproduction lower than in the arranged marriages between strangers. Even more interesting is evidence from the kibbutz in Israel, where the children of the whole group are brought up communally. In spite of the difficulties of finding a mate elsewhere, marriages between young people of the same kibbutz are said to be rare. The aversion theory would fit in with Diana Russell’s finding that stepfather/stepdaughter is the most common incestuous pattern, stepfathers presumably being seldom present during the early years of child raising (and not in fact being blood relations at all). In the great incest case of the nineteenth century, between Byron and his half sister, the two had not met before adolescence. One aspect of the aversion theory not mentioned is that of roles. Someone who has played the role of the protective adult all through the years of childhood would surely find that a hindrance to switching to a sexual role.


The habits of chimpanzees, elephants, and voles are brought in by Arens to reinforce the argument that there is a genetic propensity to outbreed. (We ought to know about more than three species, however.) The unfortunate young male elephant is expelled by the ruling females of the herd and made to wander until he finds a mate elsewhere. Monkeys of several species leave the troop for mating purposes; sibling voles, forced together in captivity, produce few litters. Our cats will indeed inbreed, but they have lost some of the instincts of the free animal.

After incest-aversion Arens goes on to consider the actual commission of the deed. Incest within royal families has been reported from several quarters, in particular ancient Egypt, and has been interpreted to mean that what we all secretly lust after is put into practice by those above the law. But Arens argues that it is performed as a deeply symbolic act rather than as a lust of the flesh (and indeed may be unconsummated). The incestuous pair represent omnipotence, godliness, the bringing together of two fertilizing deities. He considers in some detail the rituals of the Shilluk of the Sudan, whose newly instated ruler has to spend a night with his half sister and afterward extend a pardon to any subjects who have been sexually delinquent. Incest here is concerned with power and with the survival of crime and danger appropriate to a king. Even in these ritual instances incest is always between father and daughter or brother and sister; between mother and son it seems virtually everywhere unthinkable. Oedipus’s crime was unwitting and his punishment appropriate. It is much more acceptable in most cultures for a young woman to marry an old man than the reverse. Sex between mother and son is perhaps the unexplained nub of incest; most seductive, most dangerous, most rarely acted out. It certainly is not absent from fantasy, however, to judge by titles of pornographic literature cited by Diana Russell: Seduced by Mom, Eager for Mom, The Nympho Stepmom, as well as Daddy’s Slave Girl, Family Sex Trip, and Taking His Sister’s Ass.

The question that still divides theoretical writers on incest is whether it is innately attractive or repulsive. Freud’s claim that it is the crucially powerful drive in each person’s life has been challenged by those who argue that, on the contrary, it is everywhere seen to be disliked and shunned. Both sides seem to be unaware of the essentially Freudian idea that attraction and repulsion go together as two sides of a coin. Arens is not a Freudian, but his conclusions come close to Freud’s and are similarly unflattering to our self-respect; incest, he says, is a uniquely human invention.

For one thing—his argument runs—incest prohibitions are themselves cultural artifacts going far beyond aversion to close family members. (As a bored child in church I used to turn to the Table of Kindred and Affinity to learn that I could not marry my husband’s grandfather, daughter’s husband, or son’s daughter’s husband.) Other cultures have built equally elaborate structures around the basic taboo. Aversion and prohibition are two different things; in Israel, for instance, there is no prohibition against marrying kibbutz peers but there is an aversion to it, while there is a prohibition against brother and sister marrying even if they have never met before. A society has been described that forbids marriage between anyone living on the same side of a river. Ritualized royal incest Arens sees as just another example of a human monopoly. Culture takes over from biology.

If culture defines the patterns of prohibition it also invents incest’s attraction. We live by imagination, and unlike the animals we know shame. Wherever there is a profound prohibition there will be the idea of breaking it, the idea of sin and defiance and guilt. We never hear, in Diana Russell’s study and similar surveys, the voice of the incest perpetrator. Why does he choose a daughter or niece when any other young girl would be so much safer? The idea of incest as a kind of Black Mass is specifically human. Would Byron indeed have chosen to love Augusta if he had not been acting out a story of himself as doomed and damned?


Arens therefore, like Freud, sees incest as having a special attraction/repulsion for humans. Where they differ is that Freud sees the attraction as chaotic and primitive and animalian, kept under control by our humanness, while Arens argues that what is animal in us turns away from inbreeding and that it is our very human nature that invents sins and sexual defiance.

James B. Twitchell’s survey of the incest theme in literature and popular culture certainly supports the idea that, if aversion is on one side of the coin, attraction is very much present on the other. Aversion means that the theme is usually disguised, attraction that it is so widely present. Twitchell (author of The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature and Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror) is something of an expert in ghoulishness and manages to see incest everywhere—in advertisements, fairy tales, Jacobean plays, popular ballads, Romantic poetry, vampire legends, gothic novels, Victorian pornography, New England utopias, in the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, and most recently of course in Lolita. It did not begin with the Romantics—the theme is there in Tom Jones and Moll Flanders—but Shelley dealt with incest openly in The Cenci, and Byron not only in Manfred but in the less well known Parisina and Cain. For both Shelley and Byron the act is horrible and punishment inexorable. In both Hamlet and Lear there had been hints of incestuous excitement; and Milton painted the archetypal horror in his picture of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, Death as the child of Sin continually impregnating his mother with monsters who crawl back into her womb and keep her in ceaseless labor.

Twitchell focuses in particular on the gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, where he finds two distinct kinds of incest; one favorite plot concerns a sinister paternal older man who pursues the young heroine, the other a pair of lovers who may be, but are finally proved not to be, siblings. Sibling incest seems always to be less disguised and tabooed than paternal incest. Twitchell might also have noted, in later Victorian domestic fiction, how innocently warm brother/sister relationships are, and how fully approved is first-cousin marriage. In Trollope’s The Belton Estate, for instance, the heroine engages herself to a cold fop but is clearly destined for her first cousin Will, who is honest and manly and generous. His role of brother/cousin is slowly transformed into that of cousin/lover and all ends happily with a marriage. Contemporary pornography, quoted by Twitchell, meanwhile was depicting straight brother/sister sex; and social reformers were reporting widespread actual incest in overcrowded slums—Tennyson’s “the crowded couch of incest in the warrens of the poor.” We are not easily going to be freed from our burden of being frightened, thrilled, intimately damaged.

This Issue

December 4, 1986