it’s good for me to feel this kind of revulsion

This piece from New York magazine about a daughter-father sure is… something. As you might expect, it’s produced a feeling of visceral revulsion in me. I also think that since the uncoerced and informed consent of all parties is the only criterion for whether sexual conduct should be permissible, I think it should be legal. In those two opinions — that the relationship is viscerally unpalatable to me and that it should be legal — I imagine I am joined by a majority of progressive types.

But I also think that it’s very healthy for me to be feeling grossed out by other people’s consensual sexual practice. It’s good from the standpoint of living in a democratic society; it’s always beneficial for one side of controversial political questions to  actually experience the stakes of the other side. I am part of a social and political movement that thinks we should permit those sexual practices that involve the consent of adult, informed, uncoerced partners, and that do no harm to others, and further that we should be tolerant towards those who practice sexual acts that we don’t. But in the realm where this has had the most widespread valence, sex and marriage between partners of the same sex, the negative consequences for me are very low, because I don’t feel any revulsion towards those things. It’s easy for me to advocate tolerance towards them because for me they don’t require tolerance at all. So this experience, of feeling grossed out by practice that I think we have to tolerate, is a healthy way to experience the other side of that equation.

Now some will immediately say that there is a qualitative and substantive difference between same-sex relationships and incestuous relationships, differences in power and in rarity and in civic need, etc. And I agree completely; those two things are not the same. (You can expect, of course, a deluge of tweets saying “deBoer thinks gay sex and incest are the same!”) The point is not that I think that these behaviors are comparable, but rather that the feeling of revulsion I feel towards the act described is (as far as I know) similar to the feeling of revulsion that opponents of same-sex relationships feel towards those acts. And that, fundamentally, is a healthy political experience. It’s not like I hold these two revulsions to be equal from my own perspective; I would not tolerate the public expression of revulsion towards gay sex from people I am friends with, while I would be very surprised if I had many friends who didn’t feel revulsion towards father-daughter incest. But as a matter of genuinely understanding what I have long insisted other people should believe if they want to be enlightened and moral political beings, I find the comparison useful.

I find political learning for me is precisely as useful as it is difficult. No political lesson that ever came easy to me has had much use. Politics really mean something when they hurt. And one of the problems with politics is that most of our lessons come easy and pain-free, whichever side we’re on.

I also think that we need to get used to hearing more about these things that gross us out. Because consent, as powerful and essential of an instrument as it is, does not have the power to make sex palatable for all of us. And when you think that civic morality should not have any place in dictating consensual adult sexual practice, that will inevitably have consequences beyond the ones you intended. That’s life, that’s politics.

31 Comments

  1. Freddie I am challenged by your last paragraph, in particular:

    “And when you think that civic morality should not have any place in dictating consensual adult sexual practice, that will inevitably have consequences beyond the ones you intended.”

    Do you mean “civic morality” to mean “criminal and penal codes” here? Or do you mean “social basis for dictating behavior deemed acceptable”? Because towards the beginning of the post you note your objection to criminalizing incestuous relationships between consenting adults, but here you seem to broaden the scope of your objection substantially.

    Are you suggesting that it’s wrong for civic society to harshly condemn adult incest?

  2. “But I also think that it’s very healthy for me to be feeling grossed out by other people’s consensual sexual practice. It’s good from the standpoint of living in a democratic society; it’s always beneficial for one side of controversial political questions to actually experience the stakes of the other side.”

    I think this is unnecessarily reductionist. I doubt that your personal revulsion is helping you experience (much) the stakes of people who are against LGBT equality. I think those people are against equality for much more complicated reasons than mere visceral disgust.

  3. I am consistently mystified by the left’s reduction of all morality/truth/law to “consent” as the only value. It’s also rather difficult to explain how you justify any morality (even consent) in a naturalistic metaphysics … anyway, I’m just curious, do you really think, personally, that consent is the only standard for moral acts? That there’s literally nothing else worth taking into consideration?

    1. Well, since one of the subjects you bring up the subject of law, specifically, I’ll speak as somebody who thinks consent should be the sole criterion on whether it’s legal or not. To my way of thinking, legal penalty, especially imprisonment, represents a harm. Which doesn’t mean that legal punishment is never justified, but to my way of thinking, the punishment must be justified on the grounds that it’s preventing a greater harm by acting as a disincentive to genuinely harmful actions. And I can’t see where a fully consensual sexual act, no matter how deviant or “gross” rises to the level of harm that justifies the harm of legal punishment in order to prevent it.

      Now whether something like this might be the subject of moral censure or stigma is a more complex question.

      1. I somewhat agree. I researched the legal penalties, and it seems absurd that in Alabama you can get life in prison for this. I definitely think that legal penalties, given the brutality of our prison system and permanent branding that is a felony conviction, do more harm than good in many criminal cases. So no argument there.

        However, I don’t have to support imprisonment or other legal penalties to be in favor of strongly discouraging incest through social opprobrium. I can recognize the limitations of carceral solutions without tolerating incest.

      2. So there is nothing inherently harmful in a deviant act? It seems as though you must redefine the terms above?

  4. (And if so, can you explain, philosophically, your reasoning for this position? Beyond the vague unreflective intuition of “everyone in my subculture and age group feels that this is obviously true”?)

    1. Here are some reasons to just make this sort of thing illegal (and I’m saying this as a lawyer who’s actually helped out on marriage equality cases):

      (1) the high likelihood that the activity with lead to kids with genetic defects (fact: people really suck at birth control);

      (2) the risk that, in many cases, parents with this inclination may actually start grooming their pre-18 kids to be sex partners after they turn 18 — think of how easy it is to get teenagers to admit to crimes, and now think of what a evil parent would do with the fact that teenagers are so easy to manipulate;

      (3) it’s not as if people with this inclination can’t have a plausible relationships with anyone else but their own family members (in contrast to gays and lesbians);

      (4) the law should keep sex out of family relations for the same reason the law keeps it out of attorney-client relations — it just has a tendency to cause too much manipulation.

  5. I think an important issue, related to incest, that you didn’t address is that in so far as it is procreative it has a high probability of leading to genetic problems in the offspring. This isn’t a critique of your main point, more tangential to it. I think that it is much easier to make a case that the state has an interest in preventing incest because of the harm it can cause to offspring than other sexual practices between consenting adults that really don’t harm anyone else. That is beside the point, though, when it comes to your larger point that something shouldn’t be illegal because… ick.

    1. Should the state be able to sanction the sexuality of people with known genetic conditions? How about women over the age of 40? Men as they age? The indigent, drug abusers, and so on?

      1. The likelihood of genetic problem is much, much lower when an older woman has a baby than when blood family members have a baby. Plus, if you’re a women on the cusp of menopause who wants a baby with your own eggs, you generally don’t have any alternative but to go ahead and have it (with your own womb or another’s) — whereas these family member partners could obviously just have a baby with someone else. The comparison is specious.

    2. I actually think this is the *least* compelling argument against incest. It’s the 21st century, people can screen against these types of things. I’m also uncomfortable with going down that road in general. I think there are compelling arguments against incest that don’t boil down to “two related people might make a retard and we don’t need any more retards.”

      1. I’m not making any argument about law or the state. I agree this is probably a situation where the state shouldn’t do anything.

        However, any number of other adults who know these people should be doing all they can to stop it. There is certainly no virtue in “tolerating” it.

  6. My big problem with parent-child incest (which is not automatically applicable in sibling or cousin incest) is the power dynamic. It’s like a supervisor sleeping with an employee or teacher sleeping with a student dialed to 11. The only reason I don’t strenuously object as much in this case is because the young woman apparently didn’t really know her father much growing up. I guess one could argue that once you’re an adult you’re an adult and prior power relationships from when you were a minor shouldn’t be weighted against whether father-daughter incest should be legal, but I’d need to see some empirical psychological data to agree with that.

    On a more humorous note, this paragraph really jumped out at me:

    “We plan to move to New Jersey where we can be safe under the law, since adult incest isn’t illegal there, and once I’m there I’ll tell everyone.”

    God DAMMIT. As if the world needs another reason to mock my home state.

    1. To clarify, what I meant by this portion of my comment ” I guess one could argue that once you’re an adult you’re an adult and prior power relationships from when you were a minor shouldn’t be weighted against whether father-daughter incest should be legal”

      Is it possible to transcend ~18 years of being reared and disciplined by someone and then move into an adult romantic relationship? I’d really need to see empirical psychological data on that before I can so sanguinely dismiss all concerns as “consenting adults!!1” I find that a bit glib.

      I think your position on consent is bordering on the information wants to be free platitude/conclusory and simplistic thinking you rightly deride piracy apologists for. To my mind consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition, but you don’t seem to agree. I’d be curious to see you flesh this out.

  7. Parent-child sexual relationships where both parties get into it as consenting adults, after the child has grown up – gross, but I suppose not inherently evil.

    Parent-child sexual relationships where the parent has been interested since well before the child turned 18 and deliberately tried to groom the child to “consent” to the relationship once of legal age – both gross and evil, and something society has an interest in preventing.

    I’m totally comfortable letting the vanishingly tiny population of group A be collateral damage in the interest of suppressing group B.

    1. My concern is, can a child really transcend ~18 years of being on the spear end of a power relationship and morph that into a healthy, adult romantic relationship? Because I (and most people I know) found jumping from a guardian-child relationship to being friends with my parents to be difficult. Definitely possible, and common, but there’s a bumpy transitional period. And there was no sex involved in my case. I get that every person and every relationship is different, but there are also a lot of commonalities.

      In my case, I don’t think the full transition to being my parents’ friend as opposed to their ward was complete until I was ~25 or 26. I can’t imagine entering into a sexual relationship with my parents between 18-25 (or at all, frankly, but especially not younger than 25). It’s too easy to fall into previous scripts and dynamics, and that seems like it would lend itself to unhealthy and even abusive relationships.

      Again, people are different. But at the same time, people aren’t *that* unique, otherwise psychology wouldn’t provide many useful insights into human behavior. I think this needs to be fleshed out and studied more before I can be as sanguine about it as you guys.

  8. Totally fine to use the New York interview as a springboard for this post, but I don’t really understand why so many people seem to be taking the original story at face value. It is just rife with reasons to disbelieve it. I guess people just want to be titillated?

  9. People treat this subject is novel. Some years back, Anais Nin wrote about seducing her father, when she was in her 30s. Considering she’s a fairly well-known author, I’m surprised at how little I see this mentioned.

      1. I concur, but apparently, there are millions of people out there who do. THAT fact grosses me out more than parent-child incest.

  10. Shorter: What the f** is wrong with white people? This applies to the subject of the article and the magazine that published it.

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