Legalizing consensual incest — Why arguments from “moral disgust” are wrong

[This entry was initially posted to the original Red Keyhole blog on 18 February 2011.]

Little by little, the decriminalization and social acceptance of consensual incest seem to be gaining more attention and even support. The following comments, excerpted from an October 2008 posting on the Anadder blog, are unusually enlightened and rational, and are particularly interesting since they support decriminalization despite an emotional feeling that consensual incest is “disgusting and wrong”.

This excerpt. slightly edited for orthography and to improve readability, is posted here for educational purposes.

Sexual Ethics: Consensual Incest

If you keep a moral belief only because of moral disgust (meaning it’s unjustified), it’s therapeutic to at least acknowledge it. I have a belief that [consensual] incest is disgusting and wrong. The paradox is that I know this is false, that there’s absolutely no reason to believe it. People go absolutely apeshit over incest …. But the arguments can be refuted…

1. It’s unnatural — the same old line’s been used to prove the immorality of homosexuality, interracial marriage, contraception, etc. Sorry. The answer’s always “so what?” (being unnatural doesn’t make something bad) and “no it isn’t” (e.g., 10–15% of college students reported some childhood sexual contact with a brother/sister).

2. It’s universally condemned — this was also used against interracial marriage, etc. Again: so what? And again: no it isn’t. It’s universal to have some kind of incest taboo, but the limits vary a lot. In many cultures it’s common for first cousins to marry (with up to 50% of marriages being between first cousins).

3. It causes birth defects — finally a somewhat true statement (although apparently the best strategy is to actually marry your 3rd cousin). But if that’s reason to outlaw incest, we need to outlaw drinking/smoking during pregnancy (which we don’t, and it would be a big deal to do this). We’d also need to prevent 2 carriers of a genetic disease from procreating. Finally, despite what you hear on the news, we’re not living in the 12th century. Sex ≠ babies. 2 sisters having sex, or a heterosexual incestuous couple using contraception, will demolish the argument.

4. People who were brought up together shouldn’t be together — umm, because …? I’ve heard this one before. It’s priceless, the ultimate non-sequitur. This suggests that two childhood friends should avoid romantic relationships. This of course happens very often. I’m not aware of studies suggesting such couples are psychologically/emotionally worse off than the average couple. This argument is grasping at straws.

5. It makes me personally uncomfortable — at last, the truth! Yes, it certainly does.

So, there’s no reason not to legalise it. The only immoral case is a heterosexual couple not taking contraceptive precautions. Even that’s no slam dunk. There’s the obvious correlation with child abuse, but just like fantasies of pedophilia and acts of child abuse have merged in our minds, so have incest and child abuse. If you’re raping someone, the presence of incest does nothing to change the brutal nature of the act. If we keep incest statutes as a legal instrument against abusers, we should at least admit it.


As consensual incest becomes more generally acknowledged – and more widely practiced – support for decriminalization is increasing.

On another note, incest is only a matter of degree. We’re all related, descending from a common evolutionary ancestor, so everyone on earth is some cousin of yours. Sometimes a close one if you live on an island. It’s an evolutionary quirk to distinguish between the in-group (largely relatives) and out-group, as if there’s something fundamental about these 2 groups.

Anything producing moral panic should be viewed skeptically. People even feel a need to verbally state “that’s sick” to incest stories from the news, as if to make sure everybody knows they don’t approve. Even if you agree with the arguments-from-disgust, consensual incest isn’t the end of the world.



8 comments ↓

  • #   kandm on 10.07.13 at 01:36     Reply

    My own experience with incest was born out of love and intense sexual attraction not found with non related individuals. I don’t desire to bring a child into this world, and were it not for the social/legal boundaries I am sure I would be without regret.

    I believe the illegal/immorality is the what causes harm. Absent the wrongness imposed by society, expressing love between relatives of any separation is natural even when that expression of love includes sex.

    I find myself hurt not by the act of incest, but by the idea that something I personally feel is the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced is supposed to be fundamentally wrong. That I can never admit that I long for my relatives in ways that go beyond platonic.


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