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Incest Taboo

The term ‘incest taboo’ refers to the prohibition of sexual relations and marriage between certain relatives. It is a social norm that deems certain types of familial interrelationships as culturally inappropriate or morally unacceptable. This taboo is recognized globally and spans across diverse cultures and societies, underlining its anthropological significance.

Cultural Universality of the Incest Taboo

Despite cultural variances worldwide, the incest taboo is universally observed. However, the ‘prohibited relatives’ may differ across cultures. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • In Ancient Egypt, royal siblings married to maintain the royal lineage, while such relationships were generally frowned upon in other classes [1].
  • In many Western societies, cousins marrying each other was commonplace, but it is increasingly stigmatized today [2].
  • The Zoroastrians in Persia had a tradition of next-of-kin marriage, ‘Xwedodah,’ to continue family lines [3].

Theories Behind the Incest Taboo

Several theories have been proposed to explain the origin and purpose of the incest taboo:

  1. Genetic Problems: Biologically, incestuous relations can increase the risk of genetic disorders and congenital disabilities [4]. The incest taboo may have evolved as a protective measure to ensure the genetic health of the community.
  2. Family Disruption: Another theory posits that sexual relationships within the family could lead to jealousy and conflict, disrupting family unity [5]. By prohibiting such relationships, the incest taboo maintains social order.
  3. Expanding Social Networks: Anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss suggest that the incest taboo forces people to marry outside their immediate family, expanding social networks and creating alliances [6].

The Westermarck Effect

The Westermarck effect, named after Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck, provides an evolutionary perspective on the incest taboo. Westermarck argued that people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to sexual attraction towards each other [7]. This theory has been backed up by studies on Israeli kibbutzim and Taiwanese minor marriages [8].

Incest Taboo in Modern Society

Despite its long-standing history, the incest taboo remains highly relevant in the modern world:

  • Law and Penalties: In many jurisdictions, incestuous relationships are criminalized and carry severe penalties [9].
  • Genetic Counseling: With advances in genetic science, prospective parents related by blood can undergo genetic counseling to understand potential risks [10].
  • Shifts in Societal Norms: The changing societal norms, such as acceptance of same-sex marriages and blended families, also impact the interpretation of the incest taboo [11].

Reflections on Cultural Differences in Incest Taboo Enforcement

While the incest taboo is a near-universal phenomenon, the way it is enforced varies greatly across societies. Some cultures enact rigorous social sanctions or legal penalties to deter incestuous relationships, while others rely more heavily on social stigmatization and shaming [12].

  1. Legal Enforcement: In the United States and several other countries, incestuous relationships can be legally prosecuted. Incest crimes often carry hefty penalties, including imprisonment [13].
  2. Social Stigmatization: In societies where legal enforcement is lacking or weak, the fear of social ostracization often deters individuals from engaging in incestuous relationships. The stigma associated with incest is so potent that it often extends to the entire family [14].

Incest Taboo and the Psychoanalytic Perspective

The renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was deeply interested in the incest taboo. He interpreted it as a manifestation of repressed desires, framing it within his broader theory of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex, based on the Greek myth of Oedipus who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, represents a child’s feelings of desire for their opposite-sex parent and jealousy and competition with their same-sex parent. Freud posited that the strength of the incest taboo correlates with the strength of these repressed sexual desires [15].

Challenges to the Incest Taboo in Contemporary Society

While the incest taboo remains robust in many societies, it is not without its challenges in the modern world. The advent of reproductive technologies such as sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy have complicated traditional definitions of incest. For instance, is it incestuous for a woman to bear a child using her brother’s donated sperm? Furthermore, with increasing acceptance of non-traditional families, such as same-sex couples and blended families, the lines of familial relationships and subsequent taboos are increasingly blurred [16].


The incest taboo, a long-standing social norm deeply ingrained in human societies, continues to shape our social and familial interactions. It is rooted in both biological and sociocultural perspectives, serving as a critical boundary for relationships. As our society evolves and redefines the concepts of family and kinship, the incest taboo may be subject to reinterpretation and reevaluation. However, the importance of maintaining healthy, appropriate boundaries in familial relationships remains undeniable.


[1] Shaw, I., & Nicholson, P. (1995). The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt.

[2] Bittles, A. (2001). “Consanguinity and its relevance to clinical genetics.” Clinical Genetics.

[3] Boyce, M. (1979). “Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices.”

[4] Bittles, A., & Black, M. (2010). “Evolution in Health and Medicine Sackler Colloquium: Consanguinity, human evolution, and complex diseases.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/doi/pdf/10.1073/pnas.0906079106

[5] Shepher, J. (1983). “Incest: A Biosocial View.”

[6] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1969). “The Elementary Structures of Kinship.”

[7] Westermarck, E. (1921). “The History of Human Marriage.

[8] Wolf, A. (1995). “Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck.”

[9] Fergusson, D. M., Lynskey, M. T., & Horwood, L. J. (1996). “Childhood sexual abuse and psychiatric disorder in young adulthood: II. Psychiatric outcomes of childhood sexual abuse.”

[10] Borry, P., Stultiëns, L., Nys, H., Cassiman, J., & Dierickx, K. (2006). “Presymptomatic and predictive genetic testing in minors: a systematic review of guidelines and position papers.”

[11] Cherlin, A. (2010). “Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s.” Journal of Marriage and Family.

[12] Scheidel, W. (1996). “Brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt.” Journal of Biosocial Science.

[13] Faller, K. C. (1991). “Possible explanations for child sexual abuse allegations in divorce.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

[14] Herman, J. L. (1981). “Father-Daughter Incest.”

[15] Freud, S. (1955). “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

[16] Almeling, R. (2011). “Gender and the Value of Bodily Goods: Commodification in Egg and Sperm Donation.” Law and Society Review.

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