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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Incest is any sexual activity between close relatives (often within the immediate family) irrespective of the ages of the participants and irrespective of their consent, that is illegal, socially taboo or contrary to a religious norm. The type of sexual activity and the nature of the relationship between people that constitutes a breach of law or social taboo vary with culture and jurisdiction. Some societies consider it to include only those who live in the same household, or who belong to the same clan or lineage; other societies consider it to include "blood relatives"; other societies further include those related by adoption or marriage.[1]

According to some studies,[2] the most frequently reported type of incest is father-daughter incest. However, others studies[3][4][5] suggest that sibling incest occurs as often, or more often, than other types of incest. Incest between adults and prepubescent or adolescent children is considered a form of child sexual abuse[6][7] that has been shown to be one of the most extreme forms of childhood trauma, a trauma that often does serious and long-term psychological damage, especially in the case of parental incest.[8] Prevalence is difficult to generalize, but research has estimated 10-15% of the general population as having at least one incest experience, with less than 2% involving intercourse or attempted intercourse.[9] Among women, research has yielded estimates as high as twenty percent.[8]

Consensual adult incest is equally a crime in most countries,[10] although it is seen by some as a victimless crime,[11][12] and thus, it is rarely reported.

Most societies have prohibitions against incest.[13][14] The incest taboo is and has been one of the most common of all cultural taboos, both in current nations and many past societies,[15] with legal penalties imposed in some jurisdictions. Most modern societies have legal or social restrictions on closely consanguineous marriages.[16] However, in some societies, such as that of Ancient Egypt, brother–sister, father–daughter, and mother–son relations were practiced among royalty.[17][18] In addition, the Balinese[19] and some Inuit tribes[20] have altogether different beliefs about what constitutes illegal and immoral incest.



Between adults and children

Incest between an adult and a child is sometimes called "intrafamilial child sexual abuse",[21] and is the most reported form of incest. Father–daughter and stepfather–stepdaughter incest is the most commonly reported form of parent–child incest, with most of the remaining involving a mother or stepmother.[14] Father–son incest is reported less often, although it is not known whether the prevalence is less, because it is under-reported by a greater margin.[22][23] Prevalence of incest between parents and their children is difficult to assess due to secrecy and privacy; some estimate that 20 million Americans were, as children, subjected to incest by a parent.[14]

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime a large proportion of rape committed in the United States is perpetrated by a family member:

Research indicates that 46% of children who are raped are victims of family members.(Langan and Harlow, 1994) The majority of American rape victims (61%) are raped before the age of 18; furthermore, 29% of all forcible rapes occurred when the victim was less than 11 years old. 11% of rape victims are raped by their fathers or step-fathers, and another 16% are raped by other relatives.[24]

A study of victims of father–daughter incest in the 1970s showed that there were "common features" within families before the occurrence of incest: estrangement between the mother and the daughter, extreme paternal dominance, the mother's inability to fulfill her traditional parental role, and reassignment of some of the mother's major family responsibility to the daughter. Oldest and only daughters were more likely to be the victims of incest. It also was stated that the incest experience was psychologically harmful to the woman in later life, frequently leading to feelings of low self-esteem, unhealthy sexual activity, contempt for other women, and other emotional problems.[25]

Adults who as children were incestuously victimized by adults often suffer from low self-esteem, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and sexual dysfunction, and are at an extremely high risk of many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, phobic avoidance reactions, somatoform disorder, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.[8][26][27]

Between childhood siblings

Childhood sibling–sibling incest is considered to be widespread but rarely reported.[14] Many types of sexual contact between children (e.g., "playing doctor") are not considered harmful or abnormal, but become child-on-child sexual abuse when there is overt and deliberate actions directed at sexual stimulation. The most commonly reported form of abusive sibling incest is abuse of a younger brother or sister, committed by an older brother.[14] A 2006 study showed a large portion of adults who experienced sibling incest have distorted or disturbed beliefs both about their own experience and the subject of sexual abuse in general.[28] An observational study in 1993 found that 16% of the 930 adult women interviewed reported that they had been sexually abused by a sibling before they were 18 years old.[29]

Sibling incest is most prevalent in families where one or both parents are often absent or emotionally unavailable, with the abusive siblings using incest as a way to assert their power over a weaker sibling.[29] Absence of the father in particular has been found to be a significant element of most cases of sexual abuse of female children by a brother.[30] The damaging effects on both childhood development and adult symptoms resulting from brother–sister sexual abuse are similar to the effects of father–daughter, including substance abuse, depression, suicidality, and eating disorders.[30][31]

Between consenting adults

Sexual activity between adult close relatives may arise from genetic sexual attraction.[32] This form of incest has not been widely reported in the past, but the internet has shown that this behavior does take place, possibly more often than many people realize.[32] Internet chatrooms and topical websites exist that provide support for incestuous couples.[32]

Proponents of incest between consenting adults draw clear boundaries between the behavior of consenting adults and rape, child molestation, and abuse.[32] According to one incest participant who was interviewed for an article in The Guardian:

"You can't help who you fall in love with, it just happens. I fell in love with my sister and I'm not ashamed ... I only feel sorry for my mom and dad, I wish they could be happy for us. We love each other. It's nothing like some old man who tries to seduce his three-year-old, that's evil and disgusting ... Of course we're consenting, that's the most important thing. We're not perverts. What we have is the most beautiful thing in the world."[32]

The Guardian article also states:

Voices in Action, a US support group for victims of incest, vehemently rejects these arguments: "These teens have been brainwashed into believing this behaviour is natural; it is not ... Sexual abuse is learned behaviour." But some political thinkers are prepared to support the distinction between abuse and consenting relationships. "[32]

In Slate Magazine, William Saletan drew a legal connection between gay sex and incest between consenting adults.[33] As he described in his article, in 2003, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum publicly derided the theory of the Supreme Court ruling to allow private consensual sex in the home (primarily as a matter of Constitutional rights to Privacy and Equal Protection under the Law). He stated: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery."[33] However, David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign professed outrage that Santorum placed being gay on the same moral and legal level as someone engaging in incest. Saletan argued that, legally and morally, there is essentially no difference between the two, and went on to support incest between consenting adults being covered by a legal right to privacy.[33]

Between adult siblings

The most public case of consensual adult sibling incest in recent years is the case of a brother-sister couple from Germany.[11] Due to violent behavior on the part of the father, the brother was taken in by foster parents at the age of 3 who adopted him later. At the age of 23 he learned about his real parents, contacted his mother and met her and his then 16 year old sister the first time. The now-adult brother moved in with his birth family shortly thereafter. After the sudden death of their mother a mere six months later, the couple became intimately close, and had their first child together in 2001. The public nature of their relationship, and the repeated prosecutions and even jail time they have served as a result, has caused some in Germany to question whether incest between consenting adults should be punished at all.[11] An article about them in Der Spiegel claims the couple is happy together.[11]

Cousin relationships

Marriages and sexual relationships between cousins are viewed differently in many cultures and may or may not be seen as incest. In many countries, marriage between cousins is legal. Other jurisdictions, notably many in the United States, follow a more restrictive doctrine and prohibit such marriages as incestuous.[34] Consanguineous unions remain preferential in North Africa, the Middle East and large parts of Asia, with marriage between first cousins being particularly common.[35] Communities such as the Dhond, bhittani of Pakistan clearly prefer marriages between cousins as they ensure purity of the descent line, provide intimate knowledge of the spouses, and ensure that patrimony will not pass into the hands of "outsiders".[36] Some cultures prohibit farther relations than first cousins from marrying and may extend these prohibitions to genetically unrelated individuals, as for example was the case in South Korea before 1997 when anyone with the same last name was prohibited from marriage. In light of this law being held unconstitutional, South Korea now only prohibits up to third cousins (see Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code).

Incest defined through marriage

Some cultures include relatives by marriage in incest prohibitions; these relationships are called affinity rather than consanguinity. For example, the question of the legality and morality of a widower who wished to marry his deceased wife's sister was the subject of long and fierce debate in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, involving, among others, Matthew Boulton.[37][38] In medieval Europe, standing as a godparent to a child also created a bond of affinity.[citation needed] But in other societies, a deceased spouse's brother or sister was considered the ideal person to marry. The Hebrew Bible forbids a man from marrying his brother's widow with the exception that, if his brother died childless, the man is instead required to marry his brother's widow so as to "raise up seed to him" (taken from Deuteronomy 25:5-6).


In many cases incest is also inbreeding. Inbreeding leads to a higher proportion of congenital birth defects through an increase in the frequency of homozygotes.[39] The effects of this can diverge - recessive genes that produce birth defects can become more frequent, resulting in a higher rate of these defects while genes that do not code for birth defects can become increased within a population. The overall consequences of this divergence depends in part on the size of the population. In small populations, if children born with heritable birth defects die before they reproduce the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population with an overall decrease in the number of birth defect-causing genes over time. In larger populations it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects.[40] A 1994 study found a mean excess mortality with inbreeding at the first cousin level of 4.4%.[41]

Scientific study of incest avoidance

Incest avoidance is found empirically to be a cultural universal (albeit expressed differently in different societies), leading to studies of whether it is based on an innate biological mechanism, which would presumably be favored by natural selection for genetic reasons. It is observed that when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction. This phenomenon, known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck. The Westermarck effect has since been observed in many places and cultures, including in the Israeli kibbutz system, and the Chinese Shim-Pua marriage customs, as well as in biological-related families.

In the case of the Israeli kibbutzim (collective farms), children were reared somewhat communally in peer groups—groups based on age, not biological relation. A study of the marriage patterns of these children later in life revealed that out of the nearly 3,000 marriages that occurred across the kibbutz system, only fourteen were between children from the same peer group. Of those fourteen, none had been reared together during the first six years of life. This result provides evidence not only that the Westermarck effect is demonstrable, but that it operates during the critical period from birth to the age of six (Shepher, 1983).

When close proximity during this critical period does not occur—for example, where a brother and sister are brought up separately, never meeting one another-they may find one another highly sexually attractive when they meet as adults. This phenomenon is known as genetic sexual attraction. This observation is consistent with the hypothesis that the Westermarck effect evolved because it suppressed inbreeding. This attraction may also be seen with cousin couples.



The word 'incest' was introduced into Middle English around 1225 as a legal term to describe the crime of familial incest as it is known today. It was also used to describe sexual relations between married persons, one of whom had taken a vow of celibacy (often called spiritual incest).[42] It derives from the Latin incestus or incestum, the substantive use of the adjective incestus meaning 'unchaste, impure', which itself is derived from the Latin castus meaning 'chaste'. The derived adjective incestuous does not appear until the 16th century.[43]

Prior to the introduction of the Latin term, incest was known in Old English as sibbleger (from sibb 'kinship' + leger 'to lie') or mǣġhǣmed (from mǣġ 'kin, parent' + hǣmed 'sexual intercourse') but in time, both words fell out of use.

Table of prohibited marriages from The Trial of Bastardie by William Clerke. London, 1594.

In ancient China, first cousins with the same surnames (i.e., those born to the father's brothers) were not permitted to marry, while those with different surnames (i.e., maternal cousins and paternal cousins born to the father's sisters) were.[44]

The fable of Oedipus, with a theme of inadvertent incest between a mother and son, ends in disaster and shows ancient taboos against incest as Oedipus is punished for incestuous actions by blinding himself. In the "sequel" to Oedipus, Antigone, his four children are also punished for their parents having been incestuous.

It is generally accepted that sibling marriages were widespread at least during the Graeco-Roman period of Egyptian history. Numerous papyri and the Roman census declarations attest to many husbands and wives being brother and sister.[45][46][47][48] Some of these incestuous relationships were in the royal family, especially the Ptolemies; The famous Cleopatra VII was married to her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Her mother and father, Cleopatra V and Ptolemy XII, had also been brother and sister. In Ancient Greece, Spartan King Leonidas I, hero of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, was married to his niece Gorgo, daughter of his half brother Cleomenes I.

Incestuous unions were frowned upon and considered as nefas (against the laws of gods and man) in the Roman Empire. In AD 295 incest was explicitly forbidden by an imperial edict, which divided the concept of incestus into two categories of unequal gravity: the incestus iuris gentium, which was applied to both Romans and non-Romans in the Empire, and the incestus iuris civilis, which concerned only Roman citizens. Therefore, for example, an Egyptian could marry an aunt, but a Roman could not. Despite the act of incest being unacceptable within the Roman Empire, Roman Emperor Caligula is rumored to have had sexual relationships with all three of his sisters (Julia Livilla, Drusilla, and Agrippina the Younger).[49] Emperor Claudius, after executing his previous wife, married his niece Agrippina the Younger, changing the law to allow an otherwise illegal union.[50] The taboo against incest in Ancient Rome is demonstrated by the fact that politicians would use charges of incest (often false charges) as insults and means of political disenfranchisement.

Many European monarchs were related due to political marriages, sometimes resulting in distant cousins (and even first cousins) being married. This was especially true in the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Bourbon royal houses.

Laws regarding incest

Incest is illegal in many jurisdictions. The exact legal definition of "incest," including the nature of the relationship between persons, and the types sexual activity, varies by country, and by even individual states or provinces within a country. These laws can also extend to marriage between subject individuals.

In some places, incest is illegal, regardless of the ages of the two partners. In other places, incestuous relationships between two consenting adults (with the age varying by location) are permitted.

A jurisdiction's definition of an incestuous relationship will also limit who a person is permitted to marry. Some jurisdictions forbid first-cousins to marry, while others limit the prohibition to brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles.

Religious views on incest


In three places in the Torah, there are lists of family members between whom it is prohibited to have sexual relations; each of these lists is progressively shorter. The biblical lists are not symmetrical - the implied rules for women are not the same. They compare as follows (blue = forbidden for men only, pink = forbidden for women only, purple = forbidden for both men and women):

Holiness Code Deuteronomic Code
Leviticus 18 Leviticus 20
Grandparent's spouse (including other grandparent)
Parent's spouse Parent
Uncle/Aunt Parent's sibling
Uncle's/Aunt's Spouse Father's sibling's spouse
Mother's sibling's spouse
Parent's child Half-Sibling (mother's side)
Father's child Sibling
Half-Sibling (father's side)
Step sibling
Sibling-in-law (if the spouse was still alive)
Nephew/Niece Sibling's child
Nephew/Niece-in-law Spouse's Brother's Child
Spouse's Sister's Child
Spouse's child Child
Spouse's grandchild (including grandchild)

Apart from the questionable case of the daughter, the first incest list in the Holiness code roughly produces the same rules as were followed in early (pre-Islamic) Arabic culture[51]; in Islam, these pre-existing rules were made statutory[52].

In the 4th century BCE, the Soferim (scribes) declared that there were relationships within which marriage constituted incest, in addition to those mentioned by the bible. These additional relationships were termed seconds (Hebrew: sheniyyot), and included the wives of a man's grandfather and grandson[53]. The classical rabbis prohibited marriage between a man and any of these seconds of his, on the basis that doing so would act as a safeguard against infringing the biblical incest rules[54], although there was inconclusive debate about exactly what the limits should be for the definition of seconds[51].

Marriages forbidden in the bible were regarded by the rabbis of the Middle Ages as invalid - as if they had never occurred[55]; any children born to such a couple were regarded as Jewish bastards[55], and the relatives of the spouse were not regarded as forbidden relations for a further marriage[56]. On the other hand, those relationships which were prohibited due to qualifying as seconds, and so forth, were regarded as wicked, but still valid[55]; while they might have pressured such a couple to divorce, any children of the union were still seen as legitimate[55].


The Roman Catholic Church allows marriages farther than first cousins, and first-cousin marriages can be contracted with a dispensation.[57]

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, marriages are not allowed between second cousins or closer and between second uncles / aunts and second nieces / nephews (between first cousins once removed) or closer. Also, marriages that produce children that are closer genetic relatives than legal are also not permitted (unless the genetic relationship does allow marriage between those children). For example, two siblings may not marry two other siblings because legally their children will be cousins, but genetically they'll be half-siblings. On the other hand, two siblings may marry two cousins.[citation needed]

The Anglican Communion allows marriages up to and including first cousins. But in all of the three preceding Christian churches, marriages to uncles, aunts, relatives in the direct line, or their respective spouses are not allowed.[citation needed]


The Quran gives specific rules regarding incest, which prohibit a man from marrying or having sexual relationships with:

  • his father's wife (his mother[58], or stepmother[59]), his mother-in-law, a woman from whom he has nursed[58],
  • either parent's sister[59],
  • his sister, his half sister, a woman who has nursed from the same woman as he, his sister-in-law (while still married to her sister)[58],
  • his niece[58],
  • his daughter, his stepdaughter (if the marriage to her mother had been consummated), his daughter-in-law[58].

The main differences (apart from relationships between a man and his daughter) are:

in the Torah but not the Qur'an in the Qur'an but not the Torah
  • wife's granddaughter
  • a woman from whom he has nursed
  • a woman who has nursed from the same woman as he
  • niece

A Hadith also prohibits marriage to a woman and her parent's sister at the same time.[60]. The same applies for a woman with the male counterparts to the aforementioned.


Hinduism speaks of incest in highly abhorrent terms. Hindus were greatly fearful of the bad effects of incest and thus practise strict rules of both endogamy and exogamy within castes (Varna in Hinduism) but not in the same family tree (gotra) or bloodline (Pravara). Marriages within the gotra ("swagotra" marriages) are banned under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. i.e. Marriage with cousins is strictly prohibited. Gotra is transferred down the male lineage while the Gotra of a female changes upon marriage. i.e., upon marriage a woman belongs to her husband's Gotra and no longer belongs to her father's Gotra. At the same time, a girl's children are not allowed to marry brother's children. Hence marriage with a person having same Gotra as of the original Gotras of grandfather, grandmother, maternal grandfather and maternal grandmother is prohibited.

In some movies there are film songs like - "Mama wo ponnai kudu". Meaning Uncle (mother's brother) give me your daughter. However, in Indian culture, the term "Uncle" is generic and can be refering to any older man with whom the speaker has no relation.


Buddhist societies take a strong ethical stand in human affairs and sexual behavior in particular. In most of those societies, incest is regarded as highly abhorrent. However, unlike most other world religions, most variations of Buddhism do not go into details regarding what is right and what is wrong in mundane activities of life.[citation needed] Incest (or any other detail of human sexual conduct for that matter) is not specifically mentioned in any of the religious scriptures. The most common formulation of Buddhist ethics are the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path, one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct". 'Sexual misconduct' means any sexual conduct involving violence, manipulation or deceit - conduct that therefore leads to suffering and trouble.[61] But it is a loose term and is subjected to interpretation relative to the social norms of the followers. In fact, Buddhism in its fundamental form does not define what is right and what is wrong in absolute terms for the laity.[citation needed]

See also


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  2. ^ Herman, Judith (1981). Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 282. ISBN 0-674-29506-4. 
  3. ^ Goldman, R., & Goldman, J. (1988). The prevalence and nature of child sexual abuse in Australia. Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage and Family, 9(2), 94-106.
  4. ^ Finkelhor, D. (1979). Sexually victimised children. New York: Free Press.
  5. ^ Rayment-McHugh, Sue and Ian Nesbit. 2003. Sibling Incest Offenders As A Subset of Adolescent Sex Offenders. Paper presented at the Child Sexual Abuse: Justice Response or Alternative Resolution Conference convened by the Australian Institute of Criminology and held in Adelaide, 1–2 May 2003
  6. ^ Kathleen C. Faller (1993). Child Sexual Abuse: Intervention and Treatment Issues. DIANE Publishing. p. 64. ISBN 9780788116698. 
  7. ^ Diane H. Schetky; Arthur H. Green (1988). Child Sexual Abuse: A Handbook for Health Care and Legal Professionals. Psychology Press. p. 128. ISBN 9780876304952. 
  8. ^ a b c Courtois, Christine A. (1988). Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 208. ISBN 0393313565. 
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  49. ^ Potter, 2007, p. 62.
  50. ^ Potter, 2007, p. 66.
  51. ^ a b This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "incest", a publication now in the public domain.
  52. ^ This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  53. ^ Yebamot' (Tosefta) 2:3
  54. ^ Yebamot 21a
  55. ^ a b c d Shulchan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 16, 1
  56. ^ Yebamot 94b
  57. ^ Richard Willing, Research downplays risk of cousin marriages, USA Today, April 4, 2002.
  58. ^ a b c d e "Sûrah an Nisa 4:23". 
  59. ^ a b "Surah an-Nisa 4:22". 
  60. ^ "Islam Question and Answer - Is it permissible to marry two sisters from one father at the same time?". 
  61. ^ Higgins, W. "Buddhist Sexual Ethics". BuddhaNet Magazine. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  • Bixler, Ray H. (1982) "Comment on the Incidence and Purpose of Royal Sibling Incest," American Ethnologist, 9(3), August, pp. 580–582.
  • Leavitt, G. C. (1990) "Sociobiological explanations of incest avoidance: A critical claim of evidential claims", American Anthropologist, 92: 971-993.
  • Potter, David Morris (2007). Emperors of Rome. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Quercus. ISBN 1-84724-166-2. 

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—Biblical Data:

Marriage or carnal commerce between persons of a close degree of consanguinity. Even in modern times the connotation of "incestuous" is not the same in all countries. Among primitive and barbarous races there is a still wider divergence. Nor has the opinion as to which marriages between relatives were incestuous and hence forbidden been constant at all times among the Israelites. The oldest customs were laxer in permitting marriages than was the law of the intermediary books of the Pentateuch. The marriage of the father with his own daughter (and therefore presumably also that of the son with his mother) was forbidden at all times as incestuous. The story of Lot, which might be construed as showing that even this relationship was allowed in Ammon and Moab (Gen 19:30 et seq.), reflects the antipathy of Israel, which regarded these peoples as born of an incestuous union. But of other marriages forbidden in olden times as incestuous no definite data are obtainable. Endogamic marriages (i.e., within the circle of one's relatives) were preferred by ancient tribes. The chosen suitor for a girl was her cousin; it was actually forbidden for the eldest daughter to marry outside the family. By analogy, then, the conclusion is safe that marriages between very near relatives were permitted among the ancient Hebrews also. In fact, there is no lack of evidence for this. Abraham, whose wife Sarah was also his half-sister, may be mentioned as an example of a marriage between brother and sister (Gen 20:12). Even in David's time, although it is represented as unusual for a royal prince to marry his sister (2 Sam 13:13), it was still regarded as neither objectionable nor forbidden. It should be noticed that in both these cases the union was with a paternal half-sister; the husband and wife being of one father, but not of one mother. Jacob had to wife two sisters at the same time, and Moses was born of a marriage between nephew and aunt (Num 26:59). Marriage with a sister-in-law, or the widow of a deceased brother, is in certain cases a religious duty (see Levirate): only from the account of Judah and Tamar (Gen. xxxviii.; comp. especially v. 26) is it to be concluded that in case of a lack of brothers the oldest custom obliged the father to marry his daughter-in-law.

It has been contended that marriage with the father's wife (who was not the son's own mother) seems not to have been objectionable in olden times. As an instance of this the union between Reuben and Bilhah is adduced (Gen 35:22). But in Gen 49:4 this union is severely condemned. The right explanation of this incident as well as of the similar occurrence reported in the story of Absalom's uprising (2 Sam 16:21, 22) is that control of the harem of one's predecessor was regarded as the assertion of one's right to the throne. And when Adonijah asks for Abishag from his father's harem, he appears from this act to claim to be his heir (1 Kg 2:13 et seq.). The phrase (missing hebrew text) (Gen 49:4) may be taken symbolically, and doesnot necessarily convey the idea of an actual incestuous union. The following, however, are the degrees of consanguinity and relationship within which marriage is forbidden as incestuous in Deuteronomy: the father's wife (xxi. 30, xxvii. 20); a sister or half-sister (xxvii. 22); and a mother-in-law (xxvii. 23). In all three points, however, even in Ezekiel's time, custom by no means upheld the law (Ezek 22:10 et seq.).

The so-called Priestly Code goes furthest in forbidding marriages among relatives. According to Lev 18:6-18, a man may under no circumstances marry: (1) mother, (2) stepmother, (3) sister, (4) son's daughter, (5) daughter's daughter, (6) half-sister, father's side [or mother's side], (7) father's sister, (8) mother's sister [aunt], (9) wife of father's brother, (10) daughter-in-law, (11) sister-in-law, (12) wife and her daughter [or wife and (16) her mother], (13) wife's son's daughter, (14) wife's daughter's daughter, or (15) wife and her sister [both living]. In Lev 20:11-21 another list is given, which enumerates only Nos. 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12, and omits those that are implied, such as mother's sister, granddaughter, and sister-in-law; explaining also that No. 6 includes a half-sister on the mother's side, and that No. 12 includes wife and her mother. This chapter describes the punishments of the various classes of incest (see Punishment).

The same unions were in general forbidden by Islam, as also by custom earlier than Islam.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The crime of incest is known in the Talmud as "'arayot"; and it is implied that alliances involving its commission are illegitimate and consequently null and void.

A notable omission from the list of those with whom sexual intercourse, according to Lev. xviii., constitutes incest is a daughter, in regard to whom the prohibition is explained by the Talmud as "self-evident" or implied from the expressed proscription against a granddaughter (Yeb. 3a). Deut 27:20, 22, 23, as was noted above, enumerates only Nos. 2, 6, and 12, namely, father's wife, half-sister, and mother-in-law; this, according to the Rabbis, is because they are more remote [the others being implied], and because, since they usually live together in the same house, if they violate the law they can not be easily detected (Rashbam, Commentary). The intercourse of such relatives is among the "secret sins" to which the Levites' curse on Mt. Ebel was directed (Deut 27:15). The levirate marriage of the childless wife of a dead brother ( (missing hebrew text) ), though commended in the Bible, is discouraged by some rabbis. Abba Saul said that "ḥali-ẓah" is preferable to marriage (Yeb. 3a). Later it was prohibited in European countries. See Levirate Marriage.

The soferim or scribes (322-221 B.C.) extended the number of degrees of relationship within which marriage involved incest, and ranked those relations as "seconds" ( (missing hebrew text) ) or subordinates which are not included in the Bible. Marriage with these was forbidden by the Rabbis ( (missing hebrew text) ) as a precaution and safeguard against the infringement of the Mosaic degrees ( (missing hebrew text) ; Yeb. 21a). The rabbinical "seconds" are as follows: [19] mother's mother; [20] father's mother; [21] wife of father's father; [22] wife of mother's father; [23] wife of father's brother, on the mother's side; [24] wife of mother's brother, on the father's side; [25] son's daughter-in-law; [26] daughter's daughter-in-law (Tosef., Yeb. ii. 3). The prohibition is thus raised one degree on the ascent, and one degree on the descent in the case of the daughter-in-law; while the prohibition of the wife of a father's half-brother is balanced by the prohibition of the wife of a mother's half-brother on the mother's side (being comparative seconds to the Mosaic half-sister prohibition).

R. Ḥiyya, in his list of seconds, or rather "thirds," goes one step further, and adds the third generation on the descent, namely: [27] daughter's granddaughter, and [28] son's granddaughter; likewise a wife's third generation [29] and [30]. On the ascent he includes the fourth generation and prohibits the grandmother of a wife's mother or father [31] and [32] (Yeb. 22a). A like prohibition on the man's side is implied, but not mentioned, the existence of relatives of this degree being an improbability, except on the wife's side, who usually was the husband's junior. It is questionable whether R. Ḥiyya's seconds are infinite, i.e., whether the prohibition is endless, both on the ascent and the descent, or whether it stops at the point described (ib.). Rab is of the opinion that the prohibition stops with the wife of a mother's brother [24], and goes no further, even on the father's side; nor above the wife of a father's brother on the mother's side [23]; nor below a daughter's daughter-in-law [26]. Ze'era permits the wife of the father of a mother [22] (ib. 21a). Rab denies this permission, as it might be mistaken to refer to the wife of a father's father, whereas she, as well as the wife of any of a father's direct ancestors, to the infinite degree, is prohibited. Ze'era, however, thought there was no chance for an error, as a man is not in the habit of visiting his mother's family in like manner as his father's (ib.). Beyond the line of seconds, affinitive incest, according to Rab, stops, but consanguinitive incest is infinite. Accordingly the marriage of any of the direct descendants of Abraham with any of those of Sarah, to the end of humanity, would be prohibited (Yer. Yeb. ii. 4).

Bar Ḳappara adds to the seconds the mother of the father of one's mother [33], and the mother of the father of one's father [34], and thinks that incest stops both above and below the line of seconds. R. Ḥanina, however, is of the opinion that the seconds which are specifically mentioned include merely those with whom the natural length of human life allows marriage to be thought of as a probable contingency; but the prohibition extends to infinity, except in the case of a mother's father's wife (ib.).

Rab rules as a second a male whose female prototype is prohibited in the Mosaic law, and thus includes among the seconds the wife of a father's or mother's brother [23] and [24]; also his son's or daughter's daughter-in-law [25] and [26] (ib.); but he excepts the wife of a father-in-law (40) and the wife of the son of a mother-in-law or father-in-law, or the wife of the son of a stepson; these are permitted, for the reason that in these cases the affinity is not direct, but requires two distinct marriages to bind the kinship (Yeb. 21b). There is no incest between one's wife and his stepson, nor between his stepson and his daughter, although a stepdaughter is prohibited in the Bible (Tosef., Yeb. ii. 3); nor between two stepchildren, that is, one his own and the other his wife's, who may intermarry, though they both live in the same house. R. Eleazar, however, prohibited their marriage for appearance's sake, and R. Ḥanina would permit it only in a place where the parties are unknown as stepchildren (Yer. Yeb. ii. 4). Amemar permitted the wife of the brother of a father's father (37), and the sister of a father's father (38); while other authorities prohibit them (Yeb. 21b). The authorities agree on the prohibition of the son's son's daughter-in-law infinitely, on the ground that the inheritance line is continuous on the son's side, and because father and son usually visit each other, whereas on the daughter's side both the inheritance and the visits cease (Tosafot, s.v. (missing hebrew text) ; Yeb. 22a).

The principal reason for prohibiting the great-grandmother, though she is not on the inheritance line, is because she is likewise called "grandmother" ( (missing hebrew text) ). A similar reason is applied to the great-granddaughter. R. Ḥana derives the prohibition against the third generation, both ascending and descending, from the specific proscription against the wife's grandchild in Lev 18:17 (Yer. Yeb. ii. 4). Some authorities prohibit the grandmother's sister (39) and also the marriage of a man to the wife of the former husband of his wife (41) ("Tif'eret Yisrael" to Yeb. ii. 1).

David took Rizpah, the wife of his father-in-law Saul (2 Sam 12:8), which is permitted according to the Biblical law, though R. Ḥanina prohibits a wife's stepmother for appearance's sake (Yer. l.c.). But the Talmud Babli permits a father-in-law's wife. The Babylonian Talmud is less strict in regard to the degree of relationship which renders a marriage incestuous than the Jerusalem Talmud, a difference which furthermore divides the Sephardim from the Ashkenazim ("Bet Yosef" to Ṭur Eben ha-'Ezer, xv. 39a). The former, led by Maimonides, are guided by the Babylonian Talmud, while the Ashkenazim, headed by Asheri and Caro, concur with the Jerusalem Talmud.

The later authorities in Europe were even more rigid, as the condition of their countries and the development of the time warranted a stricter observance of the law against incest. Thus Rabbenu Tam in France stopped the marriage of a man to the wife of his father-in-law, and spoiled the banquet and all preparations for the wedding (ib.). Yet the Sephardim permit such a marriage. In a case presented to Rabbi Nathanson he rules to prohibit it (Responsa, "Sho'el u-Meshib," iii., No. 29), and where the marriage has already taken place would compel the husband to divorce his wife; making an exception, however, if she has borne him children, so as not to reflect on their legitimacy. The responsum is dated 1857.

There is a difference between Maimonides, who is against, and Asheri and Caro, who are for, the infinite extension of the prohibition beyond the line of seconds of the wife's ancestors and descendants to the third generation, also below the third generation on the man's side, except the daughter-in-law from son to son. But all authorities agree that the man's parental line is infinite except in cases indicated.

The majority of the rabbis permit the illegitimate (seduced) wife of a father or of his son. R. Judah prohibits the former (Yeb. 4a). But the decision is against him, though there is no question as to the prohibition of an illegitimate daughter or granddaughter. Cousins german are permitted to marry, and to marry the daughter of a sister (a niece) is even advised as a meritorious act (Yeb. 62a, and Rashi).

The difference between the principal (Biblical) degrees of incest and the rabbinical seconds is that the marriages involving the former are considered illegal, requiring no divorce, and the issue is declared illegitimate, while the marriages involving the latter must be dissolved by a divorce, and the children are legitimate (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 16, 1). Incest by affinity is disregarded when the first marriage is not legal (Yeb. 94b).

Prior to the enactment of the Mosaic law on Sinai, a Noachid was prohibited only the natural degrees of incest, such as were later capitally punished by the Jews (Sanh. 57b). Maimonides enumerates them as follows: marriage with (1) mother, (2) father's wife, (3) married woman, and (4) sister on the mother's side ("Yad," Melakim, ix.). Hence Abraham was permitted to marry his half-sister on the father's side, and Jacob might marry two sisters because these cases were not contrary to the natural law, although they were later prohibited by the laws of Moses. It should be noted that the Noachian law was more rigorous on the mother's side and the Mosaic law stricter on the father's side, as the former was based on nature and the latter on the civil law of inheritance and social connections.

Special rules were made for teaching the laws of incest: "Whoever puts a different interpretation upon 'arayot at the public reading of the Pentateuch shall be stopped" (Meg. vi. 9). The teacher must explain the various grades of incest to each student separately; therefore "'arayot shall not be taught in public" (Ḥag. ii. 1), as one might be inattentive and misinterpret the Law. The chapter on incest (Lev. xviii.) is read on the most solemn day, Yom Kippur, to impress the public with its importance.

[Reference-numbers in parentheses in the article Incest correspond with names of relatives printed in capitals in table; those in brackets with the names in small letters; those in italics with the names in italics.]

Bibliography: Tif'eret Yisrael to Yeb. ii. 1; Michaelis, Comm. Laws of Moses, art. 265, § 8; Monatsschrift, xxxviii. 108.

—Karaite View:

Among the points on which Karaites and Rabbinites were divided was the interpretation of the Biblical laws concerning incest. Applying to these laws the hermeneutic rule of analogy ("heḳesh"), Anan, the founder of Karaism, was more strict than the Rabbinites, who laid down the principle that the laws concerning incest were not subject to the hermeneutic rules of interpretation. Anan's immediate successors went still further. Assuming the principle that husband and wife are to be considered legally as one person, the Karaite expoundersof the Law, known as "ba'ale ha-rikkub," prohibited the marriage of the husband to the wife's relatives, regarding them as being related to him in the same degree as they are to her. On the same principle, the prohibition was extended to the relatives of the second, third, or fourth husband of a divorced wife. A stepsister, because of the name "sister," was classed by them as a sister, the prohibition being made to apply to her relatives as well as to those of a real sister. The Biblical prohibition of Lev 18:17 applies, according to them, not only to a wife's direct daughter, but also to her stepdaughter, and even to her husband's stepdaughter.

Reforms of Joseph ha-Ro'eh.

In the eleventh century two expounders of the Law, Joseph ha-Ro'eh and his pupil Jeshua, started a reform movement. They refuted the arguments upon which the ba'ale ha-rikkub based their principle that husband and wife are to be considered as one person, and rejected their prohibitions based on "appellation," e.g., the prohibition against marrying a stepsister on account of the name, and the prohibition derived "by inversion," as that of marrying a woman and her stepdaughter. Only the prohibitions enumerated in the Pentateuch and those derived from them by the application of the hermeneutic rule of analogy were recognized by Joseph ha-Ro'eh and Jeshua, whose views were ultimately adopted by all Karaites.

These prohibitions, both expressed and derived, are divided into five categories according to Joseph, into six according to Jeshua. To the first category belong those referring to the six relatives known in legislation as (missing hebrew text) (= "issue of flesh"), namely, mother, stepmother, sister, sister-in-law, daughter, and daughter-in-law. Of these prohibitions, five are expressed and one (that of the daughter) is derived. According to Jeshua, the prohibition in this category is infinite, both in the ascending line (e.g., grandmother, great-grandmother, etc.), and in the descending (e.g., granddaughter, great-granddaughter, etc.). The second category comprises the prohibitions of relatives in the second degree ( (missing hebrew text) ), namely, aunt (father's side or mother's side, by blood or by alliance), granddaughter (by son or daughter), and son's or daughter's daughter-in-law. The prohibition in this category is infinite in the direct line, but stops at the point described in the collateral line. To the third category belong the prohibitions against marrying two women who are related in the first degree, as mother and daughter, sisters, sisters-in-law, a mother and her daughter-in-law.

By analogy the prohibition is extended to the "rivals" of the prohibited women, as the wife of the mother's, sister's, and sister-in-law's husband. The fourth category prohibits marrying two women who are reláted in the second degree, namely, grandmother and granddaughter (by the son or by the daughter), aunt and niece (father's side or mother's side), grandmother-in-law and granddaughter-in-law (by the son or by the daughter).

The fifth category prohibits the marriage of parallel related pairs, as of a father and son respectively to a mother and daughter, or to two sisters; of two brothers to mother and daughter, or to two sisters or two sisters-in-law; the prohibition affecting both the ascending and the descending lines, the direct and the collateral lines. Stepbrothers are considered as brothers, and the prohibition contained in this category is applied also to them.

The sixth category prohibits marrying a woman one of whose relatives in the first degree, as, for instance, her mother, or her daughter, has married one's relative in the second degree, as, for instance, a grandfather, grandson, or uncle. Jeshua infers from the omission of the word (missing hebrew text) (= "kins-woman") in Lev 18:14 that "brother" includes the stepbrother, to whom the prohibition contained in the sixth category is extended.

Bibliography: Aaron of Nicomedia, Gan 'Eden, pp. 128 et seq.; Hadassi, Eshkol ha-Kofer, §§ 316 et seq.; Elijah Bashyaẓi, Aderet Eliyahu, pp. 144 et seq.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

Simple English

Incest is a term that means having a sexual intercourse once or in a regular basis between people who are almost similar in traits. In many societies, such relationships are disallowed by law. This is because children that result from such relationships are more likely to have birth defects.

The closeness that is forbidden varies in societies; some only consider it to be the same lineage (like parents, and their children; or brothers and sisters that have both parents in common). That way, relationships between cousins are possible, since a cousin is the child, of the siblings of one of the parents. Those who live in the same household, or those who belong to the same clan or lineage are affected. Other societies consider it to include "blood relatives"; still others also include those related by adoption or marriage.[1]

The type of incest most often reported is father-daughter incest.[2]

Incest between adults and children is a form of child sexual abuse.[3] This form has been shown to cause one of the worst forms of childhood trauma, a trauma that often causes serious and long-term psychological damage, especially in the case of parental incest.[4]

It is difficult to say how frequent incest is, but researchers have estimated that between 10% and 15% of people have at least one incest experience. Less than 2% of these involve intercourse or attempted intercourse.[5] Among women, research by Russell (1986) and Wyatt (1985) has given estimates as high as twenty percent.[4]

Incest between consenting adults is is very rare.[3] Consensual incest between adults is a crime in most countries, although it is seen by some as a victimless crime.[6]

Most societies have some form of incest avoidance.[7][8] The incest taboo is and has been one of the most common of all cultural taboos, both in current nations and many past societies,[9] with legal penalties imposed in some jurisdictions. Most modern societies have legal or social restrictions on closely consanguineous marriages.[10] However, in some societies, such as that of Ancient Egypt, brother–sister, father–daughter, and mother–son relations were practiced among royalty.[11][12] In addition, the Balinese[13] and some Inuit tribes[14] have altogether different beliefs about what constitutes illegal and immoral incest.


  1. Elementary Structures Of Kinship, by Claude Lévi-Strauss. (tr.1971).
  2. Herman, Judith (1981). Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 282. ISBN 0-674-29506-4. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wolf, Arthur P.; William H. Durham (2004). Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century. Stanford University Press. pp. p170–172. ISBN 0804751412. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Courtois, Christine A. (1988). Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. p208. ISBN 0393313565. 
  5. Nemeroff, Charles B.; Craighead, W. Edward (2001). The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology and behavioral science. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-24096-6. 
  6. Hipp, Dietmar (2008-03-11). ""German High Court Takes a Look at Incest"". Der Spiegel.,1518,540831,00.html. Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  7. Brown, Donald E., Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991, p. 118-29
  8. Turner, Jeffrey S. (1996). Encyclopedia of Relationships Across the Lifespan. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. p92. ISBN 031329576X. 
  9. Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo, by Emile Durkheim (tr.1963)
  10. Kinship, Incest, and the Dictates of Law, by Henry A. Kelly, 14 Am. J. Juris. 69
  11. Maurice Godelier, Métamorphoses de la parenté, 2004
  12. "New Left Review - Jack Goody: The Labyrinth of Kinship". Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  13. Bateson, Gregory (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226039053. 
  14. Briggs, Jean (2006). Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674608283. 

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