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Incest is any sexual activity between close relatives (often within the immediate family) irrespective of the ages of the participants and irrespective of their consent, that is illegal, socially taboo or contrary to a religious norm. The type of sexual activity and the nature of the relationship between persons that constitutes a breach of law or social taboo vary with culture and jurisdiction. Some societies consider it to include only those who live in the same household, or who belong to the same clan or lineage; other societies consider it to include "blood relatives"; other societies further include those related by adoption or marriage.

According to some studies, the most frequently reported type of incest is father-daughter incest. However, others studies suggest that sibling incest occurs as often, or more often, than other types of incest. Incest between adults and prepubescent or adolescent children is considered a form of child sexual abuse that has been shown to be one of the most extreme forms of childhood trauma, a trauma that often does serious and long-term psychological damage, especially in the case of parental incest. Prevalence is difficult to generalize, but research has estimated 10-15% of the general population as having at least one incest experience, with less than 2% involving intercourse or attempted intercourse. Among women, research has yielded estimates as high as twenty percent.

Consensual adult incest is equally a crime in most countries, although it is seen by some as a victimless crime, and thus, it is rarely reported.

Most societies have prohibitions against incest. The incest taboo is and has been one of the most common of all cultural taboos, both in current nations and many past societies, with legal penalties imposed in some jurisdictions. Most modern societies have legal or social restrictions on closely consanguineous marriages. However, in some societies, such as that of Ancient Egypt, brother–sister, father–daughter, and mother–son relations were practised among royalty. In addition, the Balinese and some Inuit tribes have altogether different beliefs about what constitutes illegal and immoral incest.


Between adults and children

Incest between an adult and a child is sometimes called "intrafamilial child sexual abuse", and is the most reported form of incest. Father–daughter and step-father–step-daughter incest is the most commonly reported form of parent–child incest, with most of the remaining involving a mother or step-mother. Father–son incest is reported less often, although it is not known whether the prevalence is less, because it is under-reported by a greater margin. Prevalence of incest between parents and their children is difficult to assess due to secrecy and privacy; some estimate that 20 million Americans were, as children, subjected to incest by a parent.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime a large proportion of rape committed in the United States is perpetrated by a family member:
Research indicates that 46% of children who are raped are victims of family members.(Langan and Harlow, 1994) The majority of American rape victims (61%) are raped before the age of 18; furthermore, 29% of all forcible rapes occurred when the victim was less than 11 years old.
11% of rape victims are raped by their fathers or step-fathers, and another 16% are raped by other relatives.

A study of victims of father–daughter incest in the 1970s showed that there were "common features" within families before the occurrence of incest: estrangement between the mother and the daughter, extreme paternal dominance, the mother's inability to fulfill her traditional parental role, and reassignment of some of the mother's major family responsibility to the daughter. Oldest and only daughters were more likely to be the victims of incest. It also was stated that the incest experience was psychologically harmful to the woman in later life, frequently leading to feelings of low self-esteem, unhealthy sexual activity, contempt for other women, and other emotional problems.

Adults who as children were incestuously victimized by adults often suffer from low self-esteem, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and sexual dysfunction, and are at an extremely high risk of many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, phobic avoidance reactions, somatoform disorder, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between childhood siblings

Childhood sibling–sibling incest is considered to be widespread but rarely reported. Many types of sexual contact between children (e.g., "playing doctor") are not considered harmful or abnormal, but become child-on-child sexual abuse when there is overt and deliberate actions directed at sexual stimulation. The most commonly reported form of abusive sibling incest is abuse of a younger brother or sister, committed by an older brother. A 2006 study showed a large portion of adults who experienced sibling incest have distorted or disturbed beliefs both about their own experience and the subject of sexual abuse in general. An observational study in 1993 found that 16% of the 930 adult women interviewed reported that they had been sexually abused by a sibling before they were 18 years old.

Sibling incest is most prevalent in families where one or both parents are often absent or emotionally unavailable, with the abusive siblings using incest as a way to assert their power over a weaker sibling and thereby express their feelings of hurt and rage. Absence of the father in particular has been found to be a significant element of most cases of sexual abuse of female children by a brother. The damaging effects on both childhood development and adult symptoms resulting from brother–sister sexual abuse are similar to the effects of father–daughter, including substance abuse, depression, suicidality, and eating disorders.

However, according to studies of psychological theories of imprinting, siblings are protected against falling in love. Reverse sexual imprinting means that when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction. This phenomenon, known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck. The Westermarck effect has since been observed in many places and cultures, including in the Israelimarker kibbutz system, and the Chinese Shim-pua marriage customs, as well as in biological-related families. When close proximity during this critical period does not occur—for example, where a brother and sister are brought up separately, never meeting one another—they may find one another highly sexually attractive when they meet as adults. This phenomenon is known as genetic sexual attraction. This observation is consistent with the hypothesis that the Westermarck effect evolved because it suppressed inbreeding.

Between consenting adults

Incest between consenting adults is sexual activity between close relatives after they become adults that is not coerced or forced in any way, and may involve genetic sexual attraction. While incest between consenting adults has not been widely reported in the past, the internet has shown that this behavior does take place, possibly more often than many people realize. Internet chatrooms and topical websites exist that provide support for incestuous couples.

Proponents of incest between consenting adults draw clear boundaries between the behavior of consenting adults and rape, child molestation, and abuse. According to one incest participant who was interviewed for an article in The Guardian:

"You can't help who you fall in love with, it just happens.
I fell in love with my sister and I'm not ashamed ...
I only feel sorry for my mom and dad, I wish they could be happy for us.
We love each other.
It's nothing like some old man who tries to seduce his three-year-old, that's evil and disgusting ...
Of course we're consenting, that's the most important thing.
We're not perverts.
What we have is the most beautiful thing in the world."

The Guardian article also states:

Voices in Action, a US support group for victims of incest, vehemently rejects these arguments: "These teens have been brainwashed into believing this behaviour is natural; it is not ...
Sexual abuse is learned behaviour."
But some political thinkers are prepared to support the distinction between abuse and consenting relationships.

In Slate Magazine, William Saletan drew a legal connection between gay sex and incest between consenting adults. As he described in his article, in 2003, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum publicly derided the theory of the Supreme Court ruling to allow private consensual sex in the home (primarily as a matter of Constitutional rights to Privacy and Equal Protection under the Law). He stated: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery." However, David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign professed outrage that Santorum placed being gay on the same moral and legal level as someone engaging in incest. Saletan argued that, legally and morally, there is essentially no difference between the two, and went on to support incest between consenting adults being covered by a legal right to privacy.

Between adult siblings

The most public case of consensual adult sibling incest in recent years is the case of a brother-sister couple from Germany. Due to violent behavior on the part of the father, the brother was taken in by foster parents at the age of 3 who adopted him later. At the age of 23 he learned about his real parents, contacted his mother and met her and his then 16 year old sister the first time. The now-adult brother moved in with his birth family shortly thereafter. After the sudden death of their mother a mere six months later, the couple became intimately close, and had their first child together in 2001. The public nature of their relationship, and the repeated prosecutions and even jail time they have served as a result, has caused some in Germany to question whether incest between consenting adults should be punished at all. An article about them in Der Spiegel claims the couple are happy together.

Cousin relationships

Marriages and sexual relationships between cousins are viewed differently in many cultures and may or may not be seen as incest. In most countries, marriage between cousins is legal, though some religious and cultural restrictions may exist in these nations. Some jurisdictions, notably many in the United States, follow a more restrictive doctrine and legally prohibit such marriages as incestuous. Consanguineous unions remain preferential in North Africa, the Middle East and large parts of Asia, with marriage between first cousins being particularly common. Communities such as the Dhond of Pakistan clearly prefer marriages between cousins as they ensure purity of the descent line, provide intimate knowledge of the spouses, and ensure that patrimony will not pass into the hands of "outsiders". Some cultures prohibit farther relations than first cousins from marrying and indeed may extend these prohibitions to genetically unrelated individuals, as for example was the case in South Korea before 1997 when anyone with the same last name was prohibited from marriage. In light of this law being held unconstitutional, South Korea now only prohibits up to third cousins (see Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code).

Incest defined through marriage

Some cultures include relatives by marriage in incest prohibitions; these relationships are called affinity rather than consanguinity. For example, the question of the legality and morality of a widower who wished to marry his deceased wife's sister was the subject of long and fierce debate in the United Kingdommarker in the 19th century, involving, among others, Matthew Boulton. In medieval Europe, standing as a godparent to a child also created a bond of affinity. But in other societies, a deceased spouse's brother or sister was considered the ideal person to marry. The Hebrew Bible forbids a man from marrying his brother's widow with the exception that, if his brother died childless, the man is instead required to marry his brother's widow so as to "raise up seed to him" (taken from Deuteronomy 25:5-6).


In many cases incest is also inbreeding. Inbreeding leads to a higher proportion of congenital birth defects through an increase in the frequency of homozygotes. The effects of this can diverge - recessive genes that produce birth defects can become more frequent, resulting in a higher rate of these defects while genes that do not code for birth defects can become increased within a population. The overall consequences of this divergence depends in part on the size of the population. In small populations, if children born with heritable birth defects die before they reproduce the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population with an overall decrease in the number of birth defect-causing genes over time. In larger populations it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects.

Scientific study of incest avoidance

Incest avoidance is found empirically to be a cultural universal (albeit expressed differently in different societies), leading to studies of whether it is based on an innate biological mechanism, which would presumably be favored by natural selection for genetic reasons. It is observed that when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction. This phenomenon, known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck. The Westermarck effect has since been observed in many places and cultures, including in the Israelimarker kibbutz system, and the Chinese Shim-pua marriage customs, as well as in biological-related families.

In the case of the Israeli kibbutzim (collective farms), children were reared somewhat communally in peer groups—groups based on age, not biological relation. A study of the marriage patterns of these children later in life revealed that out of the nearly 3,000 marriages that occurred across the kibbutz system, only fourteen were between children from the same peer group. Of those fourteen, none had been reared together during the first six years of life. This result provides evidence not only that the Westermarck effect is demonstrable, but that it operates during the critical period from birth to the age of six (Shepher, 1983).

When close proximity during this critical period does not occur—for example, where a brother and sister are brought up separately, never meeting one another—they may find one another highly sexually attractive when they meet as adults. This phenomenon is known as genetic sexual attraction. This observation is consistent with the hypothesis that the Westermarck effect evolved because it suppressed inbreeding. This attraction may also be seen with cousin couples.



The word 'incest' was introduced into Middle English around 1225 as a legal term to describe the crime of familial incest as it is known today. It was also used to describe sexual relations between married persons, one of whom had taken a vow of celibacy (often called spiritual incest). It derives from the Latin incestus or incestum, the substantive use of the adjective incestus meaning 'unchaste, impure', which itself is derived from the Latin castus meaning 'chaste'. The derived adjective incestuous does not appear until the 16th century.

Prior to the introduction of the Latin term, incest was known in Old English as sibbleger (from sibb 'kinship' + leger 'to lie') or mǣġhǣmed (from mǣġ 'kin, parent' + hǣmed 'sexual intercourse') but in time, both words fell out of use.

Table of prohibited marriages from The Trial of Bastardie by William Clerke.
London, 1594.
In ancient China, first cousins with the same surnames (i.e., those born to the father's brothers) were not permitted to marry, while those with different surnames (i.e., maternal cousins and paternal cousins born to the father's sisters) were.

The fable of Oedipus, with a theme of inadvertent incest between a mother and son, ends in disaster and shows ancient taboos against incest as Oedipus is punished for incestuous actions by blinding himself. In the "sequel" to Oedipus, Antigone, his four children are also punished for their parents having been incestuous.

It is generally accepted that incestuous marriages were widespread at least during the Graeco-Roman period of Egyptian history. Numerous papyri and the Roman census declarations attest to many husbands and wives being brother and sister. Some of these incestuous relationships were in the royal family, especially the Ptolemies; The famous Cleopatra VII was married to her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Her mother and father, Cleopatra V and Ptolemy XII, had also been brother and sister. In Ancient Greece, Spartan King Leonidas I, hero of the legendary Battle of Thermopylaemarker, was married to his niece Gorgo, daughter of his half brother Cleomenes I.

Incestuous unions were frowned upon and considered as nefas (against the laws of gods and man) in the Roman Empire. In AD 295 incest was explicitly forbidden by an imperial edict, which divided the concept of incestus into two categories of unequal gravity: the incestus iuris gentium, which was applied to both Romans and non-Romans in the Empire, and the incestus iuris civilis, which concerned only Roman citizens. Therefore, for example, an Egyptian could marry an aunt, but a Roman could not. Despite the act of incest being unacceptable within the Roman Empire, Roman Emperor Caligula is rumored to have had sexual relationships with all three of his sisters (Julia Livilla, Drusilla, and Agrippina the Younger). Emperor Claudius, after executing his previous wife, married his niece Agrippina the Younger, changing the law to allow an otherwise illegal union. The taboo against incest in Ancient Rome is demonstrated by the fact that politicians would use charges of incest (often false charges) as insults and means of political disenfranchisement.

Many European monarchs were related due to political marriages, sometimes resulting in distant cousins (and even first cousins) being married. This was especially true in the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Bourbon royal houses.

Laws regarding incest

Incest is illegal in many jurisdictions. The exact legal definition of "incest," including the nature of the relationship between persons, and the types sexual activity, varies by country, and by even individual states or provinces within a country. These laws can also extend to marriage between subject individuals.

In some places, incest is illegal, regardless of the ages of the two partners. In other places, incestuous relationships between two consenting adults (with the age varying by location) are permitted.

A jurisdiction's definition of an incestuous relationship will also limit who a person is permitted to marry. Some jurisdictions forbid first-cousins to marry, while others limit the prohibition to brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles.

Religious views on incest


In three places in the Torah, there are lists of family members between whom it is prohibited to have sexual relations; each of these lists is progressively shorter. The biblical lists are not symmetrical - the implied rules for women are not the same. Ignoring family members involved in homosexual liasons (for the sake of simplicity), they compare as follows (blue = forbidden for men only, red = forbidden for women only, purple = forbidden for both men and women):

Holiness Code Deuteronomic Code
Leviticus 18 Leviticus 20
Grandparent's spouse (including other grandparent)
Parent's spouse Parent
Uncle/Aunt Parent's sibling
Uncle's/Aunt's Spouse Father's sibling's spouse
Mother's sibling's spouse
Parent's child Half-Sibling (mother's side)
Father's child Sibling
Half-Sibling (father's side)
Step sibling
Sibling-in-law (if the spouse was still alive)
Nephew/Niece Sibling's child
Nephew/Niece-in-law Spouse's Brother's Child
Spouse's Sister's Child
Spouse's child Child
Spouse's grandchild (including grandchild)

One of the glaringly obvious features is that there is not a prohibition against father-daughter sexual activity; this was noticed even in classical times, and the Talmud claims it is missing from the Torah because it was too obvious to need mentioning. Apart from the questionable case of the daughter, the first incest list in the Holiness code roughly produces the same rules as were followed in early (pre-Islamic) Arabic culture; in Islam, these pre-existing rules were made statutory.

In the 4th century BC, the Soferim (scribes) declared that there were relationships within which marriage constituted incest, in addition to those mentioned by the bible. These additional relationships were termed seconds (Hebrew: sheniyyot), and included the wives of a man's grandfather and grandson. The classical rabbis prohibited marriage between a man and any of these seconds of his, on the basis that doing so would act as a safeguard against infringing the biblical incest rules, although there was inconclusive debate about exactly what the limits should be for the the definition of seconds.

Marriages forbidden in the bible were regarded by the rabbis of the middle ages as invalid - as if they had never occurred; any children born to such a couple were regarded as Jewish bastards, and the relatives of the spouse were not regarded as forbidden relations for a further marriage. On the other hand, those relationships which were prohibited due to qualifying as seconds, and so forth, were regarded as wicked, but still valid; while they might have pressured such a couple to divorce, any children of the union were still seen as legitimate.


The Quran gives specific rules regarding incest, which prohibit a man from marrying or having sexual relationships with:
  • his father's wife (his mother, or step-mother), his mother-in-law, a woman from whom he has nursed,
  • either parent's sister,
  • his sister, a woman who has nursed from the same woman as he, his sister-in-law (while still married to her sister),
  • his niece,
  • his daughter, his step-daughter (if the marriage to her mother had been consummated), his daughter-in-law.

As mentioned above, these are very similar to the rules of pre-Islamic Arabic culture, and to the rules in the Torah. The main differences (apart from relationships between a man and his daughter) are:
in the Torah but not the Qur'an in the Qur'an but not the Torah
  • father's brother's wife
  • half-sister (father's side)
  • wife's granddaughter
  • a woman from whom he has nursed
  • a woman who has nursed from the same woman as he
  • niece

A Hadith also prohibits marriage to a woman and her parent's sister at the same time.. The same applies for a woman with the male counterparts to the aforementioned.


Hinduism speaks of incest in highly abhorrent terms. Hindus were greatly fearful of the bad effects of incest and thus practise strict rules of both endogamy and exogamy within castes (Varna in Hinduism) but not in the same family tree (gotra) or bloodline (Pravara). Marriages within the gotra ("swagotra" marriages) are banned under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. i.e Marriage with cousins is strictly prohibited. Gotra is transferred down the male lineage while the Gotra of a female changes upon marriage. i.e., upon marriage a woman belongs to her husband's Gotra and no longer belongs to her father's Gotra. At the same time, a girl's children are not allowed to marry brother's children. Hence marriage with a person having same Gotra as of the original Gotras of grandfather, grandmother, maternal grandfather and maternal grandmother is prohibited.

"mostly in southern India and SriLankan Hindu's the marriage system adopts a different methodology, the children of siblings of opposite sex (i.e children of brother, sister) are allowed to marry, where as children of siblings of same sex(i.e either the children of brothers' or sisters') are prohibitted."


Buddhist societies take a strong ethical stand in human affairs and sexual behavior in particular. In most of those societies, incest is regarded as highly abhorrent. However, unlike most other world religions, most variations of Buddhism do not go into details regarding what is right and what is wrong in mundane activities of life. Incest (or any other detail of human sexual conduct for that matter) is not specifically mentioned in any of the religious scriptures. The most common formulation of Buddhist ethics are the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path, one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct". It is understandable that incest itself could constitute "sexual misconduct". 'Sexual misconduct' is a loose term, and is subjected to interpretation relative to the social norms of the followers. In fact, Buddhism in its fundamental form, does not define what is right and what is wrong in absolute terms for the laity.

See also


  • Bixler, Ray H. (1982) "Comment on the Incidence and Purpose of Royal Sibling Incest," American Ethnologist, 9(3), August, pp. 580–582.
  • Leavitt, G. C. (1990) "Sociobiological explanations of incest avoidance: A critical claim of evidential claims", American Anthropologist, 92: 971-993.

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