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May 21, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Limit To Your Love


When Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Lemon Incest” burst on to the music scene in 1985, it raised the eyebrows of even the most unflinching music lovers. The video featured a shirtless Serge lounging on a bed, with his then twelve year old daughter (Cannes-winning actress Charlotte) splayed on top of him, in nothing but a shirt and underwear. As they breathily (they are French) sang about the disturbingly intimate love between an adult and his child, the public watched with outraged fascination. Despite the song reaching number 2 on the French charts, its creepy implications were to haunt Serge and Charlotte for the rest of their careers.

It might sound like a bad Jerry Springer episode, but the issues here go deeper than the attention-seeking headlines would have you believe.  It’s about the freedom to love, which is deemed so universal that we don’t even consider it a right. And yet, it is. Not all love is created equal and this is why some types are made illegal. That means that the government-sometimes taking their cues from society-is free to tell you whether or not you have the right to pursue your feelings of love. If you suffer from a condition called genetic sexual attraction, your love could see you labelled a scumbag and thrown in jail.


Genetic Sexual Attraction can happen when related adults who have been separated during the critical years of their emotional development are reunited. Because they meet as ‘strangers’, their brains “struggle to associate each other as family” and instead form an extreme emotional connection over their shared similarities and unexpected longings, all of which trigger GSA. It manifests as a need to be close to the long-lost sibling/parent physically, mentally, and emotionally which makes it difficult to separate physical attraction from familiar associations. It doesn’t always result in a sexual relationship, but more often than not, the experience is confusing, embarrassing and exciting.

Says sex therapist Robyn Salisbury, “It’s more about the sense of finding themselves in the other. The longing that can follow is such a powerful feeling. People get lost in the intensity [of being reunited] and that can translate into intimacy”. Yet, is incest the best word to describe these kinds of relationships? In his seminal 1992 study, Dr Maurice Greenberg studied 40 GSA cases, and found that those who had begun sexual relationships with their birth parents “described a sense of revulsion at the thought of sexual relations with the adoptive parent, which they felt resembled more closely an incestuous reaction.”

Indeed, most GSA sufferers are adamant that they don’t see their partners as the biological relatives they are. Says an anonymous poster on a NZ GSA message board, “all we can do is pray that someday family and friends will understand that, when we met, we were strangers, that our love today is pure and not sinful”. Because of the complicated nature of the phenomenon, Greenberg contends that GSA must be distinguished from incest, which he says is an “abhorrence” that results “when an adult abuses their responsibility and trust by taking advantage of a vulnerable and immature child”.

What the law says

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a German ruling against consensual adult incest when a German man in his 20s began a relationship with his long-lost biological sister. Their grounds were vague and mostly based on the sanctity of the “family unit” and the “cultural history”
of opposition to incest. Despite their decision, other countries have followed their own consciences. Consensual incest between adults is legal in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain and Russia. Nor is it a crime in India, Israel or Turkey. Yet the rest of the globe isn’t as comfortable with incest, consensual or otherwise.

In Aotearoa, incest between parents, grandparents, or siblings is illegal and punishable by up to ten years in jail. Most of the laws against incest stem from the need to protect minors from horrific abuse, but there’s an underlying moral stance that continues to make the issue taboo. Even without the spiritual condemnation, secular society despises incest in all its forms simply because it’s seen as disgusting and unnatural, which is a conception that doesn’t seem to be dissipating.

Although incest’s ick factor has stood the test of time, it isn’t enough to sustain a legal argument that people’s rights should be quashed because their neighbours find their bedroom activities unappealing. Thus, one of GSA’s biggest legal barriers is the ‘children of incest’ conundrum. Knowingly conceiving a child who may be genetically abnormal because of an inappropriate relationship is punishable by the law. But many argue that parents of children who have been adversely affected in the womb because of lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking don’t have to answer to the courts. Disabled children are born all the time, even when every precaution has been taken. Does society deny their right to exist or their parent’s right to have them?

Many supporters of GSA argue that medical testing allows for the elimination of serious defects. They also point out that the government doesn’t punish carriers of hereditary diseases or women over 40 who choose to have children, despite the high rate of congenital defects in both cases because it would be a breach of human rights. Even though incest doesn’t cause abnormalities, it significantly increases the chances of offspring inheriting recessive and undesirable traits, not to mention the identity crises and risks of passing it on to future descendents. As Dr. Alan Bittles puts it, “with close inbreeding, there is a significant increase in the probability that both partners will share one or more detrimental recessive genes, leading to a 25 per cent chance that these genes will be expressed in each pregnancy.” Clearly, medical science won’t be petitioning to have the law changed just yet.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Surprisingly, many experts and sufferers of GSA agree that it’s a curse. Not only does it cause emotional conflict for those in the relationship, but it makes life hell for friends and family of the afflicted parties. Despite the complications, many GSA couples say that they’re normal people who just want to be allowed to love each other without fear of legal prosecution. “I’m a normal guy,” says ‘Shawn’, an American man.”I’m in fantasy football, I fish, I do everything that they do. I’m a normal person”.

Says a NZ GSA sufferer who identifies as ‘Liz’, “I am in love with my brother and he with me—reunited after 45 years. Both our families are aware of situation. I’m just being told over and over that the relationship is doomed to failure. How can I believe that? We just want to be together.” Another, ‘Stacey’, laments the lack of help and guidance available to people in her position. “I can’t go to my doctor for help as what we’ve done is illegal. I really don’t know where to turn to”. While many GSA sufferers resolutely defend their feelings, there are few that publicly come out about their conditions.

One such person is Danielle Heaney, a Scottish mother, who left her husband after being reunited with her half-brother Nick Cameron “I still feel that I’ve found my soul mate,” she says, “and I’m not letting him go for anything”. She continues on that they “just clicked straight away.

It’s impossible to explain. I just felt drawn to him, as if he was the person I’d been waiting for all my life.” Says ‘Bob’, an American GSA sufferer in love with his long-lost half-sister, “I don’t think about [my half-sister] being my sister. She’s not my sister. I just don’t look at it that way. She’s this wonderful, lovely, beautiful woman that I’m in love with”.

After all is said and done, we’re still left with the problem of how to handle GSA. Should it be seen as a mental disorder, the way that homosexuality used be labelled? Do we try to warn adopted children about the risks of GSA? Or should society treat it as a choice that two consenting and fully informed adults have the right to make? Mankind may well look back on the issue in 500 years and wonder what all the fuss was about. Until then, those affected by GSA will continue to experience legal prosecution and public shame for their forbidden love.


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