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Is incest always wrong?

By in Opinions

CUP Opinions Bureau Chief

Rule No. 1 of incest: You do not talk about incest!
In early December, a professor at Columbia University in New York was charged with incest. David Epstein allegedly had a three-year sexual relationship with his daughter, and now faces up to four years in prison.

The relationship started when the daughter was over 18, and therefore an adult under the law. From what little is known about this lurid affair, it appears to have been consensual. If consent is the cornerstone of sexual ethics, it’s hard to see why jail time is necessary.

Don’t get me wrong: incest is icky, very icky. I’m not advocating that we do away with the societal taboo against intra-familial sex. There is also a real biological risk to such relationships in the form of severe birth defects.

But with such barriers already in place, the law should stay out of regulating sexual morality. After all, if incest occurs between an adult and a minor there are already laws in place against pedophilia and sexual abuse. Two consenting adults, however, should be free to do whatever they like in the bedroom, even if their relation makes us squeamish.

The Criminal Code of Canada defines incest as: “Every one commits incest who, knowing that another person is by blood relationship his or her parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent or grandchild, as the case may be, has sexual intercourse with that person.”

There is nothing in the law about consent, coercion or violence. A person convicted of committing incest can receive up to 14 years in prison in Canada.

Some lawmakers in Switzerland have proposed decriminalizing consensual sexual relationships between first-degree relatives, like siblings, and also between parents and their adult children. Any coercive sex or incest with a minor would still be illegal.

Switzerland already allows consensual sex between second-degree relatives such as cousins, but this latest bill faces stiff opposition — 60 per cent are against it.

Around the world, half a dozen countries have no laws against consensual incest between adults including France, Spain and Russia. These countries are not suffering from moral collapse any more than Canada and the U.S.

Sometimes, certain sexual practices inspire such revulsion they bring the full force of the law upon those who take part in them. Interracial marriage was once seen as abhorrent, but today you would be hard-pressed to find any serious opposition to such a union. Homosexuality, too, used to inspire violent opposition — and arguably still does — but most people accept it as part of mainstream society.

The point isn’t that incest is equally valid as those other examples, just that attitudes change over time. There is no telling what “perversions” we will find acceptable in the future and criminalizing consensual relationships seems to impose morality through the force of the state.

Often, it’s better to regulate such things in the larger culture and leave it out of the courts.

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image: Conny Liegl/Flickr


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