Sexes: Attacking the Last Taboo

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Researchers are lobbying against the ban on incest

Sex researchers love to shock the public. Trouble is, the public is becoming more and more difficult to shock, and researchers are running out of myths to attack. Perhaps that accounts for the latest­and what may be the most reprehensible yet­trend in the field: well-known researchers and a few allies in academe are conducting a campaign to undermine the strongest and most universal of sexual proscriptions, the taboo against incest.

Most of the chipping away at the taboo is still cautious and limited. Says John Money of Johns Hopkins, one of the best-known sex researchers in the nation: "A childhood sexual experience, such as being the partner of a relative or of an older person, need not necessarily affect the child adversely." Money and Co-Author Gertrude Williams complain in their forthcoming book Traumatic Abuse and Neglect of Children about the public attitude that "no matter how benign, any adult-child interaction that may be construed as even remotely sexual, qualifies, a priori, as traumatic and abusive." One who commits incest, say the authors, is like "a religious deviant in a one-religion society"­thus neatly planting the notion that opposition to incest is quite like religious intolerance.

Wardell Pomeroy, co-author of the original Kinsey reports on males and females, is far more blunt. "It is time to admit that incest need not be a perversion or a symptom of mental illness," he says. "Incest between . . . children and adults . . . can sometimes be beneficial." Indeed the new pro-incest literature is filled with the stupefying idea that opposition to incest reflects an uptight resistance to easy affection and warmth among family members. Writes Anthropologist Seymour Parker of the University of Utah cautiously: "It is questionable if the costs (of the incest taboo) in guilt and uneasy distancing between intimates are necessary or desirable. What are the benefits of linking a mist of discomfort to the spontaneous warmth of the affectionate kiss and touch between family members?"

The SIECUS Report, the publication of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States and an unfailing indicator of fads and fashions in the sex research world, published a major article attacking the incest taboo. Though the journal's editor, Mary Calderone, and her colleagues ran an ingenuous editorial denying that the article was advocating anything, the piece in fact depicted the taboo as a mindless prejudice. Wrote the author, James W. Ramey: "We are roughly in the same position today regarding incest as we were a hundred years ago with respect to our fears of masturbation." Ramey, a researcher who has worked with many of the leading sex investigators, says the incest taboo owes something to "a peculiarly American problem­the withdrawal of all touching contact." With a little more touching in the home, he thinks, the nation might not be facing "the present rash of feverish adolescent sexual activity outside the home."

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