09.28.09

Incest's Defenders

Mackenzie Phillips' "consensual" affair with her dad shocked many, but she's hardly alone. Joseph Huff-Hannon talks to people who say their incestuous relationships are none of your business.

The notion of intra-family sex has inspired—and revolted—onlookers from Oedipus to Deliverance. It's our society's No. 1 sexual taboo, and for good reason: Children of incestuous parents have a higher than normal rate of birth defects and congenital diseases. But even more destructive can be the psychological trauma of incest, especially to the young person engaging in it with his or her mother or father.

So when singer and actress Mackenzie Phillips admitted last week that she carried on a decade-long sexual relationship with her father, John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, the collective gasp was both predictable and promotional. (Phillips' new book, High on Arrival, hit stores September 23.) Dropping the bombshell on Oprah last week, Phillips largely defended the sex with her dad as consensual, though she's since pulled back somewhat, saying it started as molestation before becoming consensual about two years into it.

View Our Gallery of Famous Family Affairs

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Clockwise: Yvonne Hemsey/ Getty Images; Tina Paul/ Wenn; AP Photo; Jennifer Greylock/ AP Photo

But Phillips' claim that she was a willing participant didn't temper the outrage—in fact, it fueled the fire. Bloggers and commentators came out in force, and largely on one side of the issue, describing the many ways in which an incestuous relationship, especially between parent and child, can never be consensual. "Nope. Not consensual. Not even close," wrote a Huffington Post editor. "She was 19 and drugged out of her mind and her father raped her."

Mackenzie’s revelations are the latest in a string of high-profile, often garish cases of father-daughter incest, often involving clear signs of abuse, manipulation, and violence. So it hardly took her admission to reignite a firestorm over the legal, social, biological, and moral impropriety these relationships kick up, since the term "incest" most often conjures an image of a sexually exploitative relationship between an older male relative and a young girl. But perhaps proving that there's an interest group for everything, there is a small and vocal community, mostly found in online chatrooms and forums, that says incest is far too broad a term to describe a wide variety of relationships that involve consenting adults from the same family.

“For some reason Mackenzie's story bothers me a lot," says "LiLoLita," a poster on the conversation forum at GeneticSexualAttraction.com, a Web site for people who share an experience known as genetic sexual attraction (GSA). "Perhaps because I have a wonderful relationship with my daddy and don't wish to be associated with someone who claims to be raped."

“I have a wonderful relationship with my daddy and don't wish to be associated with someone who claims to be raped.”

GSA is characterized as an intense emotional and physical attraction between two family members who've been separated for many years, often from a young age, and upon reunion, all of the emotion of loss and separation is sometimes channeled into a sexual or romantic relationship. Hardly any scientific research has been conducted into GSA, and some psychologists believe it's a myth. They caution that psychologizing GSA risks normalizing it, making it something to be worked through, like post-traumatic stress disorder, rather than a destructive crime like abuse.

While GSA relationships are still broadly defined as incestuous, and are illegal in most states, at least one member of the GSA chat forum with whom I corresponded stressed that they don’t see their relationships with a family member in the same light as the Mackenzie Phillips story.

“The GSA Soup is one with many exotic ingredients, simmering away in a liquid of human emotion,” writes "Lost Sister," a frequent poster to the site who lives in Australia. She was separated from her biological brother at a very young age, and was reunited with him in her 20s, when she fell deeply in love with him. Although he didn’t share her feelings, this deeply emotional and unsettling experience pushed her to seek out others who shared the experience.

“The Web site was a blessed relief for all of us going through this. Yes, sex is occurring between genetically / biologically related people, but GSA is something much deeper that that. The sudden flood of love is overwhelming, and not having learned what to do with that love in it [sic] proper context, the tendency to sexualize it arises.”

Other posters to the site talk openly about what they see as healthy relationships with siblings, cousins—or parents.

“After being reunited with my dad after so many years, not seeing him since I was a baby, I never thought that our relationship would take the twists and turns that it has,” writes "BlueSky" in a post dated to 2007. “I didn't mean to fall in love with him, and we didn't meant [sic] to fall in love with each other, but it happened and we are happy and comfortable with the relationship that we have. The physical aspects just makes are [sic] love even more deeper.”

According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, incest is any “sexual contact between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal (e.g., parents and children, uncles/aunts and nieces/nephews, etc.)” This would also be the case for cousins in 24 states. And while the idea of kissing cousins inspires in many a less visceral reaction than kissing parent and child, the taboo appears to have a particularly American genesis, as no other Western country bans the practice. It's this taboo that the many visitors to the Web site CousinCouples.com are well aware of. Some of the language used in recent posts sounds like earnest demands for the civil rights of a wronged minority. “Personally it doesn't matter to me what people think. This is my life and my happiness,” writes "FirstCousinsWed" in a post from September 22. “Of course it's easier to hide than being a homosexual or marrying outside your race. I love my cousin so much that I am not ashamed of it. I don't broadcast it, but to those I choose to tell if they don't accept it that's their problem—not mine.”

These incest defenders have occasionally had sex researchers on their side. In 1980, psychologist John Money of Johns Hopkins University was quoted in The Politics of Survivorship: Incest, Women's Literature, and Feminist Theory as asserting: "A childhood sexual experience, such as being the partner of a relative or an older person, need not necessarily affect the child adversely." Further back, Wardell Pomeroy, co-author of the original Kinsey Reports, stated that incest "can sometimes be beneficial." More recent studies have shown that distant cousins who procreate have the highest chances of success at pregnancy. These researchers are in the minority of their professions—most agree that incest can be psychologically harmful, especially in the context of a child-parent power dynamic.

Still, incest's defenders are adamant. On one forum about the subject, a poster posited the question: "How common is incest? I mean, I have thought about it before with my dad. Is it normal?" One of the top responses? "If you want to have sex with a close relative, go ahead and enjoy it—just don't tell anyone about it."

Joseph Huff-Hannon is a Brooklyn-based independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a 2008 recipient of a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. See more of his work here: www.josephhuffhannon.com.