Monday, January 14, 2008
Twins in Love
There has been much talk in the news lately about a pair of twins from the UK who were separated at birth, knew nothing of their siblinghood, met as adults and fell in love. The two married, and subsequently learned of the relationship. Their marriage was annulled and according to reports, they split up.
About a year ago, there was a similar story in the press about a German couple. The brother went into foster care at a very young age, and didn’t see his younger sister until both were adults. They fell in love and have actually had four children together. The brother has served two years in prison for incest and may have to serve more. Three of the children were taken from their home and put in foster care.
Few would disagree that these two stories are tragic. The point of debate is, is sibling incest immoral and should it be illegal?
The taboo against incest is almost universally prevalent in human society, with the most notable exception being ancient Egypt, were brother/sister marriages were quite common for three centuries. Scientific studies show that sexual repulsion stems not from the idea of similar heredity (“ick, we’re the same flesh and blood”) but from the “familiarity breeds contempt” principle. For example, unrelated children raised in the close proximity of an Israeli kibbutz had no sexual interest in each other when they matured. Anyone raised with a sibling (or even those like me, without one) can understand that; it makes no difference if that sibling was adopted and was no relation.
This would suggest, take out the familiarity, and anyone is fair game, sibling or no.
The two cases I mentioned above are interesting in their differences. The twins, who fell in love oblivious to their connection, apparently did so due to the uncanny similarities they experienced. I wish I could speak more to the question of their reaction to the news, but they have remained anonymous so far. Still, the fact that they split up after learning the truth, would indicate they were “heebed out” by being genetically related.
On the other hand, the German siblings knew of their relationship when they met. They attribute their bond to a desire to want to heal the separation caused by the brother being taken from his original family. In their case, the knowledge that they were brother and sister did not hinder them and may have actually encouraged their attraction.
This just goes to show that different people react differently when it comes to being capable of sustaining sexual attraction to a known sibling...although I suspect the UK twins were probably just as much in love as ever, but those feelings were at odds with their intellectual moral principles.
Speaking for myself, it’s interesting how I feel on the issue. Occasionally I’ve seen movies (“Gladiator”) or read books (The Hotel New Hampshire) about brother/sister incest, but they were always about characters who had grown up together. In those cases, I reacted with the typical “oh, that’s icky” response. Then there’s the example of Children of Dune’s Leto and Ghanima Atreides, who are so close and so godlike, the subliminally sexual bond between them is a little disturbing but also strangely fitting.
And on the other end of the spectrum, I reacted to the UK twins case with a wish that they would stay together. Clearly at least for me, the taboo is not flesh, it’s proximity. Seeing as these two never knew each other as children, I feel there is no reason why they shouldn’t stay together. My initial reaction was that ideally the law would allow them to stay together but not procreate, but the German case made me reconsider that aspect as well.
I believe three of the German couple’s four children are slightly disabled, as geneticists would predict. Many say 50% of offspring of siblings will have physical or mental defects. But really, from a moral standpoint, does the law have the right to dictate to any consenting adults if they may have children? After all, wouldn’t we all object if someone wanted to pass a law forbidding people carrying genes for Down syndrome, hemophilia, or sickle-cell anemia from having kids?
It seems to me the natural taboo most humans feel against sexual feelings towards proximate people is sufficient to safeguard the race from too much interbreeding. The occasional exception is not going to be our genetic undoing. That said, I have to amend this statement with the caveat that I’m not a fan of closed interbreeding societies like Warren Jeffs’ FLDS, where the majority of members of the community are genetically related--that’s just too darn much proximity, people!
About twenty years ago I wrote my second novel, a romance called A Bondage of Dreams, which was never published. In the story a woman falls in love with her young music professor, a man still tortured by the unsolved kidnapping of his beloved sister that occurred when they were small children. The heroine senses the prof feels likewise, and is puzzled why he keeps her at arm’s length. It finally comes out that he has looked into her past and is convinced she is the long-lost sister, hence he cannot allow himself to have sexual feelings for her. The woman does some research of her own and fears he may be right, but finally uncovers information that proves they are not related, and the HEA ending ensues.
Remembering the feelings these two had for each other in my book, I think of cases like the UK and German couples. Really, of what relevance is heredity?
It’s a taboo that isn’t always easy to apply, and a moral conundrum. All I know is, no one should be put in prison for sexually loving another consenting adult; exactly how that benefits society I can’t imagine.