Thinking about Incest 2: GSA and Incest

Let’s start with five public reactions to the CBC story Forbidden Love–starting with the more articulate and ending with primal blurts–as found in the commentary section to the story, which was the subject of the previous post, Thinking about Incest 1:

  • I heard this on the radio this morning and was totally repulsed that I turned it off and almost vomited. Why is there a need to broadcast this to everyone, so casually at 9:00 am? This implies some societal acceptance of people having sexual relations with their kids, birth kids or not. Absolutely unacceptable. It’s incest no matter how you slice it. What astounds me in this article is that there is no judgement against this behaviour or even a better understanding of how this situation can happen. My hypothesis is that these people have such a barren life, devoid of any real feeling or appreciation of anything around them, that when they feel such feeling, they totally misintepret what is is. CBC, you went too far with this one.
  • This is revolting and disturbing !! Wow ppl are sick. At least if you are messed up like this don’t make it public no one wants to hear about ur nasty sex life !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I’m going to vomit.
  • Sick!
  • Eeewwww

If your reaction to the story falls in line with these reactions, then this post probably isn’t for you. But then again, you are probably not in the habit of heavy-breathing your way through What Sorts posts any way …

The first thing to say something about is the strength and sweepingness of the kinds of reactions above. Revolting, disturbing, disgusting (not in any of the above quotes but in plenty of others), vomit-inducing, sick, and … eeewwww. Although these are not the majority of publicly-expressed reactions (say, on the CBC site), I suspect that they are much more widely felt than they are expressed, and it’s the literal gut-feel they have to them that interests me. We’re not only in deep taboo land here, but deep emotion land as well. Sex will do that to you in general … but then this is not viewed as any ol’ sex.

So mention the word “incest”–something the CBC story did little off, except when trying to put some distance between the subject of their story and incest–and you’ll get strong reactions. Duh. But what should be almost as obvious is that those reactions are reactions to a fairly heterogeneous range of phenomena. Some of these, the ones that elicit the strongest eeeewwww reactions, are bundled with child rape, nonconsensual sex, emotional exploitation, pedophelia, early teenage pregnancy, forms of nonsexual physical abuse, parenting, inbreeding, taking advantage of those in vulnerable positions. It’s a heady mixture. Many of those on the preceding list evoke an “ick!” reaction all on their own, and the others do so in combination with them.

Barbara Gonyo

Barbara Gonyo

What is striking about the “forbidden love” that is the focus of the CBC story is that it involves relationships that lack all or nearly all of the features above. The phenomenon was given the name “genetic sexual attraction” by now-71 year old Barbara Gonyo about 20 years ago after her own personal experiences, but a more descriptively-accurate name would be adult reunion-mediated genetic sexual attraction, or ARMGSA. (Ok, so I’m not out to win any competitions with that acronym.) It’s the attraction part of this that Gonyo strives to understand, and she thinks that we need to confront as a society with some sympathy, especially as increasing numbers of people find themselves meeting their biological relatives for the first time through adoption reunions during adulthood.

Over at the GSA support group discussion forum, Gonyo says

The website is meant to help those who are victims of separation and reunion of blood family members and who are unable to understand what they are feeling. We are here to educate through others experience and to help you understand what GSA is or is not. Communication with each other, to share as a support system what you are experiencing can be very helpful. This is the reason I continue the GSA site. However, GSA is
* NOT an incest site as we have always understood the subject of incest
* NOT a place to fantasize
* NOT for incest victims of childhood abuse or their abusers
* Not a porn site

and the posts there are moderated accordingly. Gonyo herself advocates NOT acting on one’s feelings of sexual attraction in these cases, though the site contains MANY reports from people who have not so resisted. If you cruise over there, you’ll find not simply people expressing and trying to come to grips with their own feelings of sexual attraction, but many reports of sexual relationships and sex-based living arrangements that result from that attraction.

Focused just on ARMGSA then, there are two kinds of attractions (and behaviors) to think about: those between separated siblings who reunite in adulthood, and those between separated parents and children who reunite in adulthood. Whether these belong together, or whether they should themselves be separated out, depends in part on what the psychological mechanism are that produce (or inhibit) the sexual feelings in play. That’s something to take up in a later post in this series.

Although I think that the CBC story is pretty good, the one I have found most informative is from The Guardian from about 6 years ago by Alix Kirsta simply called Genetic Sexual Attraction, also linked to on the GSA site, and also available from Kirsta’s website here. The personal story it focuses on concerns two people separated at birth who first met when they were in their 60s, but it also provides more on Barbara Gonyo, on connections to the theories of Freud and Westermarck, and on some of the politics of GSA and later-in-life reunions of adoptees with their biological kin. Here is an extract that conveys the quality of the reporting overall in the article, and that gets to the heart of what’s at issue, and why the issue is unlikely just to go away, eeeewwww or not:

The emergence of GSA both in the US and the UK coincided with the relaxation of adoption laws in the mid-1970s, which gave adopted children easier access to their records and led to an increase in the number of reunions between adoptees and their blood relatives.

The unexpectedly high number of reported cases of men and women struggling with sudden and terrifying emotions after a reunion has surprised and perplexed most post-adoption agencies. So far, because of the taboos surrounding GSA and its variable and complex nature, the frequency of these cases is almost impossible to quantify, although some agencies estimate that elements of GSA occur in 50% of reunions. Growing awareness of its potentially devastating implications, especially in cases where relatives embark on a sexual relationship, has prompted some organisations to warn all clients attempting to trace a relative about the phenomenon, while also training counsellors to recognise the warning signs and to help adoptees and their families cope with the damage.

These may sound like important and timely advances but they don’t, in fact, add up to much. Because of the revulsion aroused by incest, and the stigma attached to anyone who admits experiencing GSA – let alone those who embark on sexual relations with a parent or sibling – the condition remains obscured by myth, tainted by smutty innuendo, under-reported by sufferers and, worse, virtually ignored in academic circles. Although, occasionally, a story involving GSA is given predictably lurid tabloid coverage, ignorance prevails. Why GSA occurs only in some reunions, whether certain people are more predisposed to GSA than others, or whether it manifests itself differently between parents and children or siblings, is simply unknown.

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