Disappearance of the Incest Taboo



Yehudi Cohen, in his article "The Disappearance of the Incest Taboo", argues that incest rules become far more relaxed in those societies that do not depend upon intermarriage among different extended kinship groups as a means of survival.  According to Cohen, as population increased within human societies and as businesses, governments and other non-kin-based institutions have become increasingly responsible for the social, economic and political functions that were previously performed by kinship relations in lineage-based societies, the social importance intermarriage between lineage groups has declined.  This has led to the gradual disappearance of the incest taboo and along with it a reduction in the very definition of what constitutes incest.  Cohen's point can be seen by examining the definition of incest used by most states in the U.S.  As the state laws listed below clearly indicate, incest in the U.S. refers only to marriage or sexual relations within the immediate family.  In none of the cases listed below does incest apply even to first cousins, and in the case of Massachusetts, it applies only to parents and children.  Nowhere do we see the elaborate and complicated incest-avoidance rules typical of the Yanomamo and other lineage-based societies.





    Selected State Incest Laws



Alabama  --  Section 13A-13-3 --  Incest

(a)   A person commits incest if he marries or engages in sexual intercourse with a person he knows to be, either legitimately or illegitimately:


(1)  His ancestor or descendant by blood or adoption; or

(2)  His brother or sister of the whole or half-blood or by adoption; or

(3)  His stepchild or stepparent, while the marriage creating the relationship exists; or

(4)  His aunt, uncle, nephew or niece of the whole or half-blood.


(b)  A person shall not be convicted of incest or of an attempt to commit incest upon the uncorroborated  testimony of the person with whom the offense is alleged to have been committed.


(c)  Incest is a Class C felony.

(Acts 1977, No. 607, p. 812, §7010.)

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Alaska  --  AS 11.41.450.  --   Incest.

(a)   A person commits the crime of incest if, being 18 years of age or older, that person engages in sexual penetration with another who is related, either legitimately or illegitimately, as

(1)   an ancestor or descendant of the whole or half blood;

(2)   a brother or sister of the whole or half blood; or

(3)   an uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece by blood.


(b)   Incest is a class C felony.


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Nebraska  --  28-702.  --  Incest


Incestuous marriages are marriages between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren of every degree, between brothers and sisters of the half as well as the whole blood, and between uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews.  Incestuous marriages are declared to be absolutely void. This section shall extend to children and relations born out of wedlock.




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Missouri  --  568.020.  --  Incest.


1.    A person commits the crime of incest if he marries or purports to marry or engages in sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse with a person he knows to be, without regard to legitimacy:


(1)  His ancestor or descendant by blood or adoption; or

(2)  His stepchild, while the marriage creating that relationship exists; or

(3)  His brother or sister of the whole or half-blood; or

(4)  His uncle, aunt, nephew or niece of the whole blood.


2.    For purposes of this section:


(1)  "Sexual intercourse" means any penetration, however slight, of the female sex  organ by the male sex organ;

(2)  "Deviate sexual intercourse" means any act of sexual gratification between persons not lawfully married to one another, involving the genitals of one person and the mouth, tongue or anus of another.


3.    Incest is a class D felony.



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Pennsylvania  --  Section 4302--  Incest


A person is guilty of incest, a felony of the second degree, if that person knowingly marries or cohabits or has sexual intercourse with an ancestor or descendant, a brother or sister of the whole or half blood or an uncle, aunt, nephew or niece of the whole blood. The relationships referred to in this section include blood relationships without regard to legitimacy, and relationship of parent and child by adoption.



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Massachusetts is currently revising its incest statute.  Lawmakers in the House approved a bill in January designed to toughen the state's incest law by broadening the definition of sexual contact.  The current Massachusetts incest law only applies to intercourse between a child and parent and not to other forms of sexual conduct.  The bill would change the law by expanding the definition of incest to include a wide range of sexual behavior, including oral sex and digital contact. The new bill was approved by the State Senate last year. The State House passed a slightly different version of the bill in January. If both houses can agree on a single version of the bill, it will be sent to the acting governor for her signature.  However, although there appears to be a good chance that the new more inclusive incest bill will be made into law, there is no indication that the definition of incest is or will be expanded to include relatives other than parents.



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