When Cousins Do More Than Kiss

Article excerpt

NOW THAT same-sex marriage increasingly is becoming acceptable in the U.S., might not incestuous marriage be next? Both have been condemned by legal sanctions and religious beliefs. However, since these are subject to change, what is to prevent first cousin marriage from gaining popularity?

While visiting recently with a group of my Catholic in-laws, the subject of incest came up. Actually, no one used the term "incest" but, when my brother-in-law mentioned that he once dated his first cousin, others in the room clearly were shocked. After all, it says in the Bible that sex with close relatives, even some in-laws, is abhorrent to God. This reaction encouraged me to play anthropologist by pointing out that, in some societies, the most preferred marriages are between first cousins. Predictably, someone asked, "What about inbreeding?" Since most Americans probably would ask the same question, here is my professorial answer:

Incest taboos in practically all societies prohibit copulation between parent and child and, with a few rare exceptions, sex between siblings is not allowed. Beyond these relationships, there is very little international agreement concerning the extent to which incest taboos should apply to relatives outside one's nuclear family--and, where marriage between certain cousins is the ideal, other cousins strictly may be off-limits. For instance, among the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific, a man is forbidden to have sex with the daughter of his mother's sister, and yet. he is encouraged to marry a daughter of his mother's brother. Both are, of course, first cousins and equally close genetic relatives.

The scope of incest taboos varies widely from one society to another. Where descent is traced strictly through males, as among the Lakher of Southeast Asia, one cannot marry anyone within his or her clan or lineage, including many distant cousins. Likewise, many matrilineal societies, like the inhabitants of Chuuk (Trek) in the central Pacific, frequently extend incest taboos to all matrilineal relatives. That means that a man cannot even marry his mother's mother's mother's sister's daughter's daughter's daughter's daughter--a third cousin once removed. In China, traditionally, people with the same surname are discouraged from marrying even when there was no indication of common kinship. In some states in the U.S., it used to be illegal for in-laws to marry, especially for a man to marry his stepdaughter. Clearly, this did not represent any concern about inbreeding.

Another interesting variable regarding incest taboos has to do with the fact that some societies permit certain exceptions. Historically, royal siblings in Egypt, Hawaii, and Peru were expected to marry each other to produce an heir, thus preventing dilution of royal blood. The Tonga of East Africa sometimes encouraged an esteemed hunter to have sexual intercourse with his daughter prior to stalking lions.

Given the fact that many tribal societies have westernized their incest taboos as a result of Christian missionary influence, illustrating how flexible they can be, we must ask: ff incest taboos are instinctual as so many believe, why do they vary so from one society to another, and why are they so subject to change over time? Yet, first we have to ask: How did incest taboos get started? The Australian Tiwi of Bathurst Island are a particularly interesting case. To them, a child was considered unrelated to his or her mother's husband. Daddy was seen as playing only a mechanical role in inducing pregnancy, making it possible for some family ancestor to complete spiritual conception. A man's children, strictly speaking, were not considered to be his offspring. Nevertheless, the mother's husband was not allowed to have sex with her daughters. If this prohibition is not based on genetic considerations, how do we explain it?

In most societies, violations of incest taboos do occur, as in our own country. …

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