Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines a taboo as "a social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person". Taboos come into existence as a means to help a society to persist or improve the general health of its members. Since societies change, so do taboos (although perhaps rather slowly, and without the acceptance of all).

According to French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), incest (marriage and/or sexual partnership between closely related individuals) is the 'universal taboo' (The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1947), trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969). He believed this was a driving force in human social development since it forced people to look outside their family for mates and therefore brought disparate and even warring groups together.

The origins of this taboo seem to lie in the increased likelihood that children of an incestuous partnership will be born with abnormalities, and hence have a possible deleterious effect on a society. There appears to be more to it than this, though, as it does appear to elicit particular disgust and revulsion. Also there are other behaviours which increase the likelihood of a couple having children born with disabilities (for example becoming pregnant later in life) which are not held in the same disregard. In addition, it is not perhaps the universal taboo that Lévi-Strauss made out. For instance, European monarchies (together with those in other societies such as the Incas and Ancient Egyptians) encouraged marriage between closely related members of the nobility for centuries to keep blood lines pure. (With this in mind, it is interesting that Henry VIII chose to accuse Anne Boleyn of an incestuous affair with her brother to ensure he was granted his divorce - and her execution).

Given that incest has gained this reputation as perhaps the ultimate taboo, it is surprising that there is no true consensus between different nations with regard to its legality (or illegality). In some countries, the law has tried to take into account the risks while legalising it in certain circumstances. In Brazil, an uncle and niece may have a relationship provided they undergo health checks. In some states of the US, first cousins may marry if they are at reproductive age or ability. France dropped incest from the penal code under Napoleon, but reinstated it in 2010. Children born to incestuous relationships in France are removed and put into care. In the Netherlands, where consensual incest is no longer prosecuted, the legal status of a child born of such a relationship is ambiguous. Sweden is the only country in Europe which allows marriage between siblings who share a parent, although I believe Switzerland is currently debating whether it should be decriminalised.

There is an interesting academic paper on the subject here.

A story appeared in the news recently of two German siblings who met after growing up separately and started a relationship together (in the knowledge they were brother and sister). They lost their appeal at the European Court of Human Rights this week after being convicted in Germany. Here's how the BBC reported the story:

German Incest Couple

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