“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and stay in Wonderland, and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” -Morpheus, The Matrix
Perfect metaphor for where this article is going to go. If you want to swallow the blue pill and keep on with your same views of Norma and Norman Bates, now’s the time to do it. Go ahead. Take the blue pill. Otherwise, we’ll be venturing into the underground and exploring a taboo that runs under the surface of things in this series. We’ll be getting up close and intimate with it. I can’t and don’t want to resist taking the red pill when it comes to topics like this. I want to put them under a magnifying glass. Last chance.
You’re still here. All right then.
I took a long time before I delved into researching this real-life phenomena in its various forms. Part of me wanted to, yet another part was afraid of what I might find. What I did end up finding was surprising, unexpected, and (remarkably) enlightening. I can safely say I have a somewhat-altered perspective because this topic contains many, many different variations of gray–a lot more than I ever would’ve thought it would.
Some History, Definitions, and Distinctions
Most of us simply define incest as “sexual relations between two people who are blood-related.” Unfortunately due to the prevalence of sex crimes against children, incest frequently gets lumped into the same category. Don’t get me wrong; there are scores of criminal cases were this does apply. But sometimes: it doesn’t.
Incest falls into two main categories: non-consensual and consensual. There’s also a third sub-category: genetic sexual attraction, which has some overlap in definition with consensual incest. But it also has some different traits according to different individuals’ circumstances, and every couple’s I’ve read about are different.
There is no way in hell I’d EVER condone non-consensual sex crimes committed against minor children, whether they’re incestuous or not. Adults who commit these acts need to be prosecuted ASAP and punished to the fullest extent of the law if found guilty. Now that’s out of the way, and it won’t be a further focus of this article. Instead, it’ll be on consensual intimate relationships between two adults, both over the age of majority, who happen to be related by blood. This category of incest is likely the most taboo and the most condemned throughout virtually every modern society the world over.
Yet like most things involving forbidden sex between adults, we can’t help but be fascinated by the idea of consensual incest, even as we’re horrified and repulsed by it at the same time. It’s really a concentrated example of common attitudes towards sex in general, even now in the relatively-enlightened 21st century. We’ve all had it drilled into our heads from the time we were old enough to understand what sex itself was: Incest is horrid, disgusting, a crime, ad infinidum, and yet the idea still has that allure of the forbidden. For decades, incest has shown up over and over in literature, including in classic works by authors such as
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Vladimir Nabokov
- A.S. Byatt
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Thomas Malory
It wasn’t always so universally condemned; a brief look at ancient history and mythology will show you just how much attitudes towards incest have changed over the centuries. The ancient Egyptians considered incest an acceptable and expected practice, especially among the royal family as a means of keeping the blood lines pure. Greek mythology is rife with incestuous unions. From an anthropological perspective, other early civilizations viewed incestuous marriages as a practical way of putting an end to disputes (and often wars) between rival villages or tribes when a son from one and a daughter from the other happened to fall in love and wished to marry. The resulting conflicts were bloody and expensive, in terms of human lives, crops, livestock, etc., The practice of incest became adopted in order to avoid them, so there was an economic practicality to it in this sense.
Incest From a Clinical and Legal Perspective
Consensual intimate partnerships between blood relatives are now subject to punishment by the same types of laws put in place to protect minors from sexual abuse-whether by coercion, manipulation, or both. While those laws have their definite and justifiable purpose, they often fail to recognize the difference of incestuous relationships that two willing adults have entered of their own volition. In many reported cases, the couples have reported strong romantic attachments and commitments to one another. They also (rather justifiably) feel unduly persecuted for who they happened to fall in love with. These have included full-blood brother/sister, half-brother/half-sister, cousins, and yes: even parent/adult-child pairings. A number of these cases have made news headlines throughout Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. In several of these consensual unions, one or both parties have been imprisoned and have fought back against existing anti-incest laws in their respective countries.
Laws against consensual incest stem from both various religious teachings and from fears over genetic defects in the children of a consensual-incest couple. Recent genetic research has uncovered higher-than-average chances of genetic abnormalities, but those percentages are lower than many medical researchers initially thought. According to author Diane Rinella’s research:
“Children of unrelated parents have a 3% to 4% risk of having serious birth defects. The offspring of first cousins have only a slightly higher risk of about 4% to 7%. The risk for the closest relation possible, parent/child, is only about 9%, all other factors being random. So between 7% and 9% are the odds for siblings.”
9%. Made me sit back and think for a while.
Blogger Keith Pullman takes it a step further and proposes that consensual incest between two loving partners needs to renamed, redefined, and decriminalized. In an ideal world, the stigma and discrimination would be removed from it as well. While a lot of his writings make logical arguments, some of the specifics do make me somewhat uncomfortable. That fact has made me take a good long look in the mirror (so to speak) at my own preconceived notions and prejudices. It made me ask myself exactly why I have them to begin with. Even so, I’m willing to listen, read, learn, and think things over. That’s what constitutes having an open mind despite a few misgivings. This blog is a treasure trove of eye-opening information that’s likely to make you question a lot. It did for me.
Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA)
The phenomenon of GSA has been recognized since the 1980s, when it was noticed repeatedly by the founder of a support group for adults who had been adopted when very young and were now reunited with their birth families. In about 50% of all these cases, one person will experience strong sexual/romantic attractions towards a blood relative that he or she didn’t grow up with. The main difference between GSA and consanguinamory is that two relatives involved in a GSA situation have never met one another until adulthood. They may have even never known one another existed until the birth family was tracked down and they were able to meet. Psychologists and sociologists point to the absence of the Westermark Effect, which dictates that growing up together negates the development of sexual attraction. The lack of early connection leads to an absence of the Westermark Effect and therefore the potential for developing these feelings is there.
Some documented cases of GSA have involved attraction between biological parents and the adult children they’d adopted out. It’s also occurred between biological siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, or cousins. As Pullman points out, “Add in emotional and psychological factors involved in reuniting with a lost family member, and you have something extremely powerful.”
Now I’ve finally gotten around to this phenomena of consensual incest, also known as “ethical incest” or “neocest”, depending on who you ask and on their point of view. Personally, I’m going with “consanguinamory.” I like the sound and Latin roots of it, if for no other reason. Consanguinamory is defined as sexual/romantic love between close genetic relatives. This couple is considered consaguinamourous if they’re involved in a consensual intimate relationship and both are considered legal adults (age 18 in most countries, though this can vary slightly).
Just exactly how common is consanguinamory? Exact numbers are unknown, but the consensus: more common than you might think. Some researchers venture that most of us have at least known in passing someone who’s been involved in consanguinamory at some point. We just never knew it. That’s also really given me pause for consideration. Just think for a minute all the casual acquaintances you’ve had, how many people you’ve passed on the street, in the school hallway, or elsewhere. The odds are one of those people, some time, somewhere, was/is involved in consanguinamory at some point in their lives. Unless we’re clairvoyant, we’d never have any way of knowing for sure.
Returning to the Westermark Effect for a minute, sometimes it doesn’t take to everyone. When two close relatives have grown up together or one has raised the other, just sometimes it isn’t strong enough to negate feelings of romantic love and sexual attraction once both are adults. These feelings have even higher chances of surfacing with the two have already developed a close, loving, familial/platonic relationship. Why does the Westermark Effect sometimes fail? No one knows for sure, but it does happen. In real life and possibly now on our TV screens for 10 weeks out of the year.
Consanguinamory On Our Screens
Whether some want to acknowledge it or not, TV series in general have become the new “literature” for many of us. The stories, when told well, have just as powerful a hold on us. Some might decry this; I personally celebrate it and give it just as much legitimacy. I’m venturing that “Bates Motel” may well be the first real mainstream portrayal of consanguinamory depicted on our TV screens. And this is a big contributing factor in why the series has gotten such a grip on so many of us in such a short time–regardless if we want to openly admit it.
I made the mistake of assuming consanguinamory hadn’t ever been depicted in movies or TV before, but we know what often happens when we assume things. Some films that dare to go there include:
More about these films and about some (sadly rather limited) documentaries on GSA and consanguinamory can be found on The Final Manifesto.
It’d be difficult to find anyone who lives anywhere with TV and Internet access who has never heard of this controversial A&E series. In only two seasons, as of this writing, it’s garnered a dedicated and passionate fanbase. As you’d expect, the “too-close-for-comfort” relationship between this famous mother/son pairing has sparked endless commentary and discussion. Some fans even venture the opinion that “The Oedipal angle is really the only reason to watch ‘Bates Motel’.” Not surprisingly, many fans have a conflicting attraction/repulsion, mental push/pull reaction to the idea of a consanguinamorous relationship unfolding between these two. Even as some have no idea what consanguinamory is, and I included myself in that group before I did the research for this post.
So what might this say for consanguinamory and its place in our cultural landscape? Some writers like Keith Pullman might suggest it indicates a small step towards a little more acceptance of it. Myself: I’m not really sure about that–but I see where others are coming from if they believe it. I think this: regardless of anyone’s views on consanguinamory, its very presence or suggestion is going to cause a stir. It’s going to stick in your mind and be quite difficult to get rid of (at least in my experience). Going back to what I mentioned about the attraction/repulsion psychological effect, many of us can’t look away from images of Norma and Norman getting close in a non-platonic way, even as they make us squirm. It says as much about us as it does about them, doesn’t it?
Blood Very Well May Be Thicker..
I believe the original Norma/Norman relationship depicted in Psycho IV was abusive and anything but consanguinamorous. That version of Norma was vicious, unpredictable, manipulative, mentally unstable, and possibly even sexually abusive towards 15-year-old Norman. We see one scene that suggests this, and we can only use our imaginations for those scenes behind closed doors we didn’t get to see in this version of their story. Even if what she did to him didn’t qualify as non-consensual incestuous abuse, she was still verbally and sometimes physically abusive in a way that would’ve warranted a CPS inquiry today.
The Norma in “Bates Motel” may not be perfect, but I believe she’s anything but abusive towards Norman. She’s controlling and emotionally demanding, but she loves him so much that she’d never deliberately do anything to hurt him. They have plenty of times where they can’t seem to live with or without each other, especially towards the end of season 2, and this says a lot on its own. No two people get this intensely emotionally tangled up with each other without love being the driving factor. And let’s look honestly at it: this is not parental/familial love, as much as we’d sometimes like to pretend it is due to our own discomfort. There’s no way these two would have the levels of drama between each other if this kind of love/attraction wasn’t running just under the surface, sometimes barely contained. The opposites would be indifference and nonchalance, and I have yet to ever see those enter Norma’s or Norman’s words and actions towards each other.
Want proof? Look at the intensity of the fighting and conflict between them. “Meltdown” is a perfect example. When they have less-than-platonic feelings towards each other, the way any two people get in fights with each other is extremely revealing. It says more than the rather intimate, lingering physical affection these two have over and over throughout the series.
With this growing evidence, I’m putting forth the hypothesis that what Norma and Norman feel for each other qualifies more as consanguinamory than incest as the law would define it. It’s been implied increasingly overtly in the first two seasons, and it’s way beyond implied in some corners of fanfiction land. My personal favorite: a story called “This Much Madness.” It’s harrowing and beautifully written. If you’re curious, go search FanFiction.net for it; it’ll come up. Is their relationship going to escalate further? What might this mean for the direction the show might take? And possibly the most important: how are we the audience going to react? Regardless of our reactions, I’d put money on the fact we still won’t be able to tear our eyes away.
The Big Question
Do I condone these kinds of consensual relationships? That question has caused me more sleepless nights than I care to count. The honest answer: I don’t know. I have come to understand the points of view those who do condone and support them, as limited as my understanding can be as an outsider. Those might seem like the same ideas and “yes” answers, but in reality they’re two very different things. It’s been quite a challenge to wrap my head around–the fact that these forbidden, taboo forms of romantic love REALLY DO exist, and what’s more: some of the stories of them I’ve gotten to read have been very moving.
It’s a lot to undo when you’ve been mentally programmed your whole life to believe these relationships are vile, evil, disgusting, destructive, criminal, etc., in every single last instance of them. But to paraphrase from Sexpressed, what’s disgusting to you is not disgusting to them. I’ve come to think my “Matrix” comparison at the opening of this article wasn’t too far off the mark. I truly feel like I have been “unplugged” when it comes to views of consanguinamory and GSA. There really is no going back.
I have learned that “incest” is too loaded of a word and does not allow for intelligent, educated discussion on this subject that’s still so controversial that even most academics won’t touch it. So I’ve struck it from my vocabulary when it pertains to consensual intimate relationships between legal adults who happen to be biologically related. I’ve come to the conclusion that the two leads in Bates Motel give us a look through the window at a consanguinamorous relationship–one of the most taboo ones: mother/son. The fact this relationship is wrapped up in madness, violence and murder is a tragedy that’s nothing less than Shakespearian as far as I’m concerned.
The ultimate lesson I’ve taken away from all this: Before you condemn, judge, and make all the “ick!” exclamations, take the time to educate yourself and to think. We don’t live in an “either-or”, “black-or-white” world. And it would be a more enlightened and compassionate world if we did make the time for that.
An Absolute Must-Read:
The Final Manifesto: A fantastic blog full of information, resources, current events about real-life couples and the struggles they face, and much more.
I highly recommend this post in particular: A Follower Asked Me a Question and I Answered. It’s very thorough in its explanations/arguments and likely to blow apart a lot of rationalizations about what’s “wrong.”
Also: Consensual Incest Never Happens? Many of these links are 18+ and NSFW, but all the same they’re eye-opening.
http://www.thestar.com.my/story/?file=%2f2008%2f5%2f5%2flifefocus%2f20900821&sec=lifefocus Very thorough and informative feature on the incest taboo, by journalist Allan Koay. Recommended.