Thinking about Incest 3: Westermarck, Fritzl, and Incest

The first pair of posts in this series looked at genetic sexual attraction, or what I suggested might be called adult reunion-mediated GSA, or ARMGSA. Simply lumping that together with other incest-related phenomena isn’t that productive, though I think that ARMGSA does tell us something important about incest, sexual attraction, and social taboos. To get to that, I want to go a bit slowly through a view that was mentioned in the previous posts, “the Westermarck Effect”. What is this, and what does it have to do with incest?

Edward Westermarck was a Finnish thinker whose 1891 tome The History of Human Marriage, published when he was in his late 20s, began a career of publishing long, wide-ranging books on marriage, sex, and the origins of morality. Westermarck is most often remembered for a particular view he held about the relationship between early childhood association and sexual attraction, a view often named the Westermarck Effect. There are various characterizations of this effect and its relationship to incest. Here are four taken from one recent collection that adopts a biosocial approach to incest, Arthur Wolf and William Durham’s Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century (Stanford University Press, 2004), a book whose core message is that despite the fact that Westermarck’s views have been widely dismissed until recently, he was more right than wrong about childhood association and sexual attraction:

  • “the deleterious consequences of inbreeding have selected for an innate tendency to develop an aversion to sexual relations with childhood associates. This tendency, not the recognition of the dangers of inbreeding, was the source of the incest taboo.” (Arthur P. Wolf, Introduction to Wolf and Durham 2004, p.4)
  • “It is now generally accepted that Edward Westermarck was right when, in 1895, he argued that ‘there is a remarkable absence of erotic feelings between people living closely together from childhood’. The problem now is why? Why does early association inhibit sexual attraction?” (Arthur P. Wolf, Explaining the Westermarck Effect, or, What Did Natural Selection Select For?, ch.4 of Wolf and Durham 2004, p.78, quoting from Westermarck)
  • “Westermarck, presciently, hypothesized that close association from early life established a later propensity for incest avoidance. Because children are raised in close proximity to parents, and siblings, in virtually all traditional cultures, his hypothesis was plausible.” (Mark T. Erickson, Evolutionary Thought and the Current Clinical Understanding of Incest, ch.9 of Wolf and Durham 2004, p.162).
  • “The aversion hypothesis, or “Westermarck effect”—namely, the proposition that ‘an innate aversion to sexual intercourse [develops] between persons living very closely together from early youth.’” (William H. Durham, Assessing Gaps in Westermarck’s Theory, ch.7 of Wolf and Durham 2004, p.122, quoting from Westermarck 1891, p.320)

Durham gives a similar characterization in his earlier work: Westermarck claimed that “a psychological aversion to sexual intercourse develops between human beings who have been reared in prolonged and intimate childhood association.” (Durham, Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity, 1990, p.309)

The effect associated with Westermarck’s name is characterized in these quotes, respectively, in terms of (i) aversion to sexual relations, (ii) the absence of erotic feelings, (iii) incest avoidance, (iv) aversion to sexual intercourse, and (v) psychological aversion to sexual relations. Despite the differences here, note that all of these characterizations pertain to the effects of relationships between intimate childhood associates. In the context of the kinds of social groups in which children are reared, this means between siblings, in the first instance, and in first cousins in those cases where the level of association during upbringing between these is indistinguishable from that of siblings (e.g., when a kinship system has them cared for in a single household). And amongst those, just those who are relatively close in age, since this is entailed by their being intimate childhood associates together. Since adults and children do not have this relationship of being reared together, the Westermarck Effect as characterized above has no direct implications for other forms of incest, such as those between parents and children, or between other adult family members (such as uncles or significantly older siblings) and children. This is relevant from the outset, for a few reasons.

First, the most politically charged, emotionally-charged, and personally moving reports of incest concern precisely these kinds of adult-child sexual relationships. The recent case of Josef Fritzl, the now 74-year-old Austrian man recently sentenced to life imprisonment for homicide, enslavement, rape, incest, forced imprisonment, and coercion, is an especially appalling case that centres around incest. In the wake of that case, a number of others from the past few years have been highlighted, including the Colombian case of Arcedio Alvarez Quintero, awaiting trial for charges of sexual abuse against his daughter from the age of 5 leading to 14 pregnancies and 8 children, the first of whom was born when the daughter was 13, the Cass County, Missouri case (Danial Rinehart, 4 children with his daughter from age 13), Grodzisk, Poland (Krystof Bartosiuk, 2 children with his daughter from age 15), last year’s Sheffield, England case (defendant cannot be named for legal reasons to protect his daughters and their nine children; see also the powerful coverage at the Daily Mail), and one in Turin, Italy (the “Laura-Giovanni case”, as it is pseudonymously called). There is good coverage of both the Fritzl case and the Sheffield case at Wikipedia; both of these cases have been tried, while the other three are still at the pre-trial stage. Of these, only the Turin case has a possible connection to the Westermarck Effect, concerning, as it does, charges against a father-son pair and involving a daughter/sister seven years younger than her brother; whether it is connected to the Westermarck Effect depends on how close in age, or how old the children need to be, for the associative mechanism invoked by Westermarck to apply).

Second, and relatedly, both incest taboos and the “horror of incest” that Westermarck speaks of in those words in several places, are strongest in precisely these kinds of cases—those involving adults and children; typically, as in all 5 above cases, they involve fathers and daughters. Violations of the taboo that most readily spring to mind in raising the issue of incest—again, as in the above cases—typically involve child rape, physical abuse and intimidation of other kinds, families that are dysfunctional on many other, independently specifiable dimensions, hidden deaths, and even homicide.

In light of the preceding two points, there is a question about the relationship between the Westermarck Effect, which appears to concern one particular kind of incest—sexual relations between close age siblings who were raised together—and incest more generally, especially that found in the above, headlining cases concerning father-daughter incest. I have just said that there is no direct relationship here—the Westermarck Effect, as characterized above, concerns the effects of childhood intimacy for later sexual feelings and behaviors. One question is whether there is an indirect relationship between the two and, if so, what that might be.


One thought on “Thinking about Incest 3: Westermarck, Fritzl, and Incest

  1. Pingback: Thinking about Incest 10: Rules, rules, rules « What Sorts of People

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