Be it the TV series Game of Thrones’ Cersei and James Lannister or casanova Charlie from Two and a Half Men and his half-sister, the concept of incest is ever so present in beloved Television Series and OTT platforms across the world. Whether it is met with laughter or a dumbfounded face, this makes its way on-screen for a perfect plot twist. What, then, makes this topic so hush-hush in the real world?
Cases of incest are not alien to the world. These have been reported throughout the world. The prevalence of incest cases is reported to vary between 5% and 62% according to culture, the source of the report, and geographic location. (Yildrim et al., 2014)
According to The Atlantic, in the USA, one in three to four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family. (Fontaine, 2013)
Before moving forward, it is important to establish the criteria and meaning of the word incest. The American Psychological Association defines incest as “sexual activity between family members, whether related by blood or not.” This, then, encompasses step-family as well as in-laws among many other non-blood familial relationships. Not only this, incest can also be emotional or verbal. Emotional incest, as defined by the American Psychological Association, refers to a form of child sexual abuse consisting of nonphysical sexualized interactions between a parent figure and a child.
While it does exist throughout the world, can Indians swallow the hard pill of its existence? Ancient India was sexually liberal, in fact, weren’t we one of the flag bearers of sexual activity? The Kamasutra is perhaps one of the oldest sex manuals and hence conclusive evidence. In the colonial era, however, Indians were conditioned to abhor sex.
So, does the land of gods and goddesses, the one that villainizes sexual activity of any sort, record instances of incest? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. One Google Search away are tens of thousands of cases wherein young women have been raped by their fathers. One such was the case in Shihor town in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district, [where] a man allegedly raped his unmarried 19-year-old daughter multiple times over the last one year. The alleged crime came to the fore..when the unmarried teenager gave birth to a child at a state-run hospital. (Mirror Now Digital, 2021)
Let’s keep ethics and values, ‘sanskara aside for one second. What about the Law? Despite there being such a moral veto around the subject, the Indian Penal Code doesn’t identify incest as an unlawful activity. The only law applicable to situations of child abuse would be under Section 376 in the IPC or The Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, and the POCSO Act.
Several cultures, in fact, promote romantic relations among family members. Consanguineous marriages are ubiquitous in West Asia, the Middle East as well as North Africa. These refer to marriages between individuals who share predecessors. In populations of North Africa, West Asia, and South India, consanguineous marriages are culturally and socially favored and constitute 20–50% of all marriages. (Hamamy, 2011)
There can be several kinds and notions of incest across cultures and countries. Maddock and Larson describe 4 kinds of incest as:
- Affection based: This takes place when the only form of affection present in the family is the incest
- Erotic-based: wherein ‘polyincest’ is the norm and all relationships are seen through a sexual lens.
- Aggression-based: where incest is a form of aggressive outlet
- Rage-based: This is based on sadism and a serious threat to victim(s). (Maddock & Larson, 1995)
While these types do exist, what makes a person want to indulge in such activity? Several factors may result in incestuous tendencies, ranging from depression, trauma, dysfunctional family, lack of spousal sexual activity, or simply experimentation.
Exposure to pornographic content of the same kind has made it more appealing to the youth of today. It is no secret that young adults throughout the world indulge in content that points to incest. One in five people reported having at least one incest fantasy before, according to social psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller’s research.
What, then, can be done to resolve these issues? Even though it is seen as a form of sexual activity, Incest can have serious impacts on the well-being of the person as well as family dynamics. One of the main aftereffects could be triangulation. In psychology, triangulation is a situation wherein a single person controls family dynamics. What happens is that there is one person who acts as a messenger between the victim and the manipulator. A good example of this would be both parents using the child as the mediator in times of conflict.
Another result of incestuous activities could be trauma bonding. The term is self-explanatory. It means a relationship established on account of trauma, wherein the abuse is seen as a form of affection. This further impacts the future romantic relationships of the victim.
Incest could also result in dissociation which is a discontinuity or detachment from one’s feelings, emotions, memories, or identity.
The consequences of incestuous abuse or tendencies are unfathomable, and hence treatment must be provided. Psychotherapy, Family Therapy, Relationship Therapy, Group Therapy, etc are seen as most suitable to treat this.
Counseling follows a three-step model in its attempt to resolve mental issues stemming from or leading to incest. This includes:
- Safety, self-regulation skill development and alliance formation: which is providing a safe environment wherein the person can share information and trust the counsellor.
- Trauma processing: wherein trauma is brought to the forefront and problems are addressed in an elaborate manner.
- Consolidation: a solution is found and the process of healing has started taking place.
While it is a comparatively unexplored topic, incest can have everlasting effects on the individual, not just sexual but also mental and emotional. Thus, it is paramount that we let the cat out of the bag, and educate instead of suppressing it.