ABUSE

01.17.15 11:45 AM ET

‘Consensual Incest’ Is Rape

A New York Magazine piece about a father-daughter sexual relationship has readers wondering: is ‘consensual incest’ a real thing? (The answer: No.)

Six years ago, Mackenzie Phillips, actress and daughter of the late Mamas and the Papas songwriter John Phillips, told Oprah Winfrey that her alleged sexual relationship with her own father had started out as rape but eventually “became a sexual relationship.” A year later, Phillips changed her tune after spending more time with incest survivors.

“[T]here really is no such thing as consensual incest due to the inherent power a parent has over a child,” she said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily call it a consensual relationship at this time.”

In the wake of an explosive New York Magazine interview with an 18-year-old woman who has reportedly been in a sexual relationship with her once-estranged biological father for almost two years, the conversation around consensual incest has re-emerged once more and it’s still just as fraught.

In the interview, the young woman describes her experience of reuniting with her father at age 17 after only having seen him on weekends for about a year as a toddler. After they re-established contact, the young woman and her father—then in his mid-30s—talked online prior to a weeklong visit at the father’s house. Within a few days, they began to cuddle at night and, eventually, they formed a relationship. It is worth noting that prior to this relationship, the young woman had never had sex. Currently, the couple is planning on moving to New Jersey where adult incest is legal so that they can marry and have children and, technically, grandchildren. The young woman insists that she consents to this bond saying, “He made sure I wanted to do it” and, “When you are 18 you know what you want.”

By publishing this interview, New York Magazine has certainly blown the door wide open on a taboo topic, but a subject such as incest requires a special degree of care. In this case, that care does not seem to have been taken. As it stands, the inaccurate and under-researched presentation of the NY Mag interview does more harm than it does good.

In the mere days since its publication, the interview has already spread false and misleading information about adult incest. Although NY Mag’s Alexa Tsoulis-Reay takes a healthy skepticism into her interview with the young woman—pressing her, for example, on the fact that she took her father to prom even though she herself was conceived at her father’s own prom night—she frames the interview in a way that lends too much credence to the notions of “Genetic Sexual Attraction” and “consensual incest,” terms that have little grounding in reality. The interview makes for an engrossing read, it’s true, but it goes too far toward normalizing the behavior discussed within it.

For one, Tsoulis-Reay presents Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA)—the idea that relatives who have been estranged may experience a strong biological attraction upon being reunited—as a well-established scientific fact. As proof, Tsoulis-Reay refers to a Guardian article, saying that “experts estimate that these taboo feelings occur in about 50 percent of cases where estranged relatives are reunited as adults.” That’s quite a staggering claim to be paired with such a vague citation and, unfortunately, the 50 percent statistic is currently being circulated in the media thanks to this brief mention. If we click through to the Guardian article, however, the foundation of the 50 percent statistic becomes even more questionable.

The sole academic champion of the concept of GSA referenced in the Guardian article is a British psychiatrist named Dr. Maurice Greenberg who published a 1995 paper on post-adoption incest in the British Journal of Medical Psychology. To this day, Greenberg’s work remains one of the only scholarly references on GSA and, as a result, the GSA Wikipedia page has long been locked in debate over whether or not to delete the topic altogether given the lack of scientific evidence. If we consult Greenberg’s original article, too, we can find that the 50 percent statistic that Tsoulis-Reay repeats as the opinion of multiple “experts” originally appears in a footnote with no empirical grounding:

“Some post-adoption counsellors [sic] reported to us that it was fairly uncommon, others that it was virtually universal when clients were asked sensitively. We would estimate from their reports that over 50 per cent of current clients seen in London have experienced strong sexual feelings in reunions.”

The Guardian article also makes reference to an estimate from the London-based Post-Adoption Centre (PAC-UK) that “up to half of reunions are accompanied by anything from temporary attraction to obsessive sexual obsession—and, very occasionally, even to the birth of a child.” There’s quite a bit of leeway between “up to half” and “about 50 percent” but what’s more concerning still is the fact that Dr. Greenberg was a former advisor to PAC-UK. The origin of the 50 percent statistic seems to be, well, a little incestuous in the more general sense of that term. In other words, it does not seem to be the case that multiple experts from different regions have independently verified a 50 percent rate of GSA, but rather that a localized and more or less anecdotal sense of its frequency has informally emerged.

It is clear by now that many estranged biological relatives do end up in sexual relationships after reconnecting—at least enough for the occasional exposé to appear online—and that the topic is worthy of clinical research. But GSA may not be the best rubric to use for further study. Even the term itself—Genetic Sexual Attraction—deserves further scrutiny as it was defined by a non-academic author named Barbara Gonyo who was sexually attracted to her own adult son, whom she had originally given up for adoption. There is, in fact, no proof that the basis of this sexual attraction is genetic. In this light, uncritically using the term GSA and floating the unverified 50 percent claim as fact is both factually incorrect and socially irresponsible, especially because adult incest advocates regularly parrot the 50 percent claim in order to legitimize incestuous relationships.

One of these adult incest advocates is a man named Keith Pullman, whom Tsoulis-Reay positions in the introduction to her interview as a man who “runs a marriage equality blog”—a generous description of someone whose blog focuses almost exclusively on protecting so-called “consensual incest” from criminalization. On his blog, Pullman regularly questions news reports of a relative allegedly raping another relative—even when one party is under 18—in order to raise the possibility that there could have been a consensual relationship involved. In one post, Pullman reacts with uncertainty to a New Zealand case in which a man was convicted on incest charges and one charge of rape that occurred later in their sexual relationship:

“Okay, if a jury in a court of law said it was consensual and convicted him of incest rather than assault/rape, why does the news article call it rape? Is this a bias against Genetic Sexual Attraction? As it turns out, if I’m reading it right, it looks like they believe it was an ongoing, consensual relationship that involved one incident of rape.”

Just one, he suggests, as if it mitigates the seriousness of the charge. In another post about a 32-year-old California woman who was charged with incest after allegedly performing oral sex on her 16-year-old biological son, Pullman also equivocates:

“There are 16-year-old boys who dream of this sort of thing, but that shouldn’t matter. … I don’t generally argue for changes to age of consent laws because the line has to be drawn somewhere. However, I don’t think they should always be applied. Just as I do with cheating and GSA, I give special consideration here. … Ten years down the line, they could be a happy a couple, for all we know now.”

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Pullman tries to boost his marriage equality credentials by also promoting the legalization of same-sex marriage but a more apt description of affairs would be that he wants to hitch incest to the same-sex marriage wagon. In his post “Gay Marriage and Incest in the US,” he tries to link same-sex marriage with incestuous marriage by saying that both take place “between consenting adults,” they “don’t hurt anybody,” they are both “subject to discrimination,” and that there is “no rational reason” for their prohibition.

“Gays and lesbians do not choose their orientation and people do not choose the parents to whom they are born,” he adds, in a staggering leap of logic.

Referring to Pullman as a “marriage equality” blogger is ceding too much ground to a man who co-opts the language of the marriage equality movement in order to protect what he terms “consensual incest.” But rather than challenge Pullman’s terms, NY Mag deploys them uncritically. Tsoulis-Reay writes, “Consensual incest between fathers and their daughters remains the least reported and perhaps the most taboo sort of GSA relationship.” Here, Tsoulis-Reay unblinkingly repeats Pullman’s vocabulary instead of introducing the interview by casting suspicion on the idea that incest can ever be consensual.

As psychotherapist Robi Ludwig told CBS at the time of the Mackenzie Phillips story, “By calling incest ‘consensual incest,’ [Phillips is] still protecting the person who abused her. … But you can’t say it’s consensual, because there’s always a power imbalance when it comes to a parent and child.”

Placing the words “consensual incest” together in anything other than the scariest of scare quotes—as Tsoulis-Reay does—may be an oversight but it’s also an ethical failure. Introducing this interview especially with that phrase threatens to normalize a situation that can be read as inherently abusive. There is a strong possibility given the age gap between the couple at the start of the relationship—she was 17, he was in his mid-30s—that he took advantage of her youth and emotional immaturity in order to cultivate a sexual relationship, a process akin to what survivors of child sexual abuse refer to as “grooming.”

Consider that the young woman’s only early memories of her father are of him giving her gifts: “He spoiled me rotten. I had this giant storage tote of Barbie dolls and I had my own Mary-Kate and Ashley bedroom. It was a little girl’s dream.”

Consider, too, that she is self-aware about the “abandonment issues” she has surrounding his childhood absence, that she “didn’t really have a social life” as a teenager, and that he tries to re-initiate contact when she is “about 15.” Once they connect, he bonds with her over their favorite TV shows, cuddles with her overnight, and takes her shopping for shorts the next day. Of the young woman’s own admission, she was isolated, depressed, and bullied in school but started to feel “more confident” and “much more attractive” after forming a sexual relationship with her father. The full context of the relationship cannot be fully ascertained from the interview but the details we do have could certainly be used to support an interpretation in which a man in his 30s earns the trust of his 17-year-old daughter only to abuse that trust—and her vulnerability—for sexual reasons.

By printing this interview, of course, New York Magazine is by no means endorsing the nature of this relationship. But by uncritically adopting the language of adult incest supporters in publishing it, New York Magazine has perpetuated misleading information about adult incest that could confuse our understanding of abusive situations. Genetic Sexual Attraction is not a scientific concept. Supporters of incest are not part of the marriage equality movement. And, once again, there is no such thing as consensual incest.