Woody Allen and the Oldest Taboo


The media frenzy over Woody Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of his daughter, Dylan Farrow, and his marriage to Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, raises the disturbing issue of incest.  While little can be added to the pathetic Allen story, it reveals a deeper issue that remains little considers — the prevalence of incest in the U.S.

A handful of incest cases were reported last year, taking place around the county.  For example, a 37-year-old Madison County, KY, man was indicted for statutory rape and incest involving a 17-year-old girl. 
A 47-year-old Oglala, SD, man was indicted by a federal grand jury for – in the FBI’s words – “aggravated sexual abuse, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, felony child abuse and neglect, aggravated incest, and witness intimidation.”

In Chester County, PA, a husband and wife, along with the husband’s former lover, were charged with hundreds of counts of sexual assault involving children, including child endangerment, rape, sexual assault, incest and conspiracy to commit “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child.”

In Paterson, NJ, a 54-year-old music video producer is on trial for engaging in incest with and impregnating his “adult,” 18-year-old daughter.  The young woman insists she was raped; the father insists they had “consensual” sex to maintain the family bloodline and for Jesus.

Another story that got media attention took place, literally, on the other side of the globe.  The New Zealand Herald first reported about a “family cult” consisting of roughly 30 adults involved in a multi-generational incestuous family.  The group traces its roots to a pair of great-great grandparents who were alleged brother and sister.  (This cult recalls the tale of Warren Jeffs, the leader of a renegade Mormon sect, the FLDS, that galvanized the nation’s attention a few years ago.)

Incest is the most intimate sexually engagement in human existence, one that has persisted since time immemorial.  It can involve either (i) an adult family member and a younger person (i.e., child or youth) or (ii) two (or more) siblings, no matter which gender or what age.  And since time immemorial, incest has been condemned, a moral and legal taboo.  This taboo is predicated on a belief that sex among family members is a violation of both nature and civilization.  It’s a violation of the primal family bond, resulting in inbreeding and genetic disorders; and it’s a violation of personal consent to sexual engagement, a bedrock concept of Western values.

The American taboo against incest is framed within the legal context of sexual violence.  In involves the rape of an underage person (most often girl) and is often linked to sexual abuse and sex trafficking.  It’s a form of pedophilia most often involving an adult male, whether natural father, stepfather, older sibling or other relative, having sexual relations with an “underage” girl (or boy).

Surprising to many, an increasing number of countries around the world are differentiating between two types of incest: consensual and nonconsensual.  “Consensual” incest involves either (i) consensual sex between underage (e.g., 18-years) but age-appropriate siblings or (ii) consensual sex between an “adult” parent, child or another relative.  All other forms of incest are considered “nonconsensual” and remain crimes.

Switzerland recently de-criminalized “adult” consensual incest.  Germany’s Max Planck Institute finds that countries without criminal incest provisions include China, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Turkey.  It reports that three U.S. states – Michigan, New Jersey and Rhode Island – do not have incest laws.  It also found that criminal incest provisions were in effect in 14 of the 22 countries included in the study: all of the Australian states and territories, Canada, Chile, Denmark, England (and Wales), Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Sweden as well as nearly all U.S. states.

Incest is both a moral and legal issue.  It is a very old issue that, except for incidents of scandal, seems to no longer be seriously considered in terms of 21st century moral values and legal standards.

* * *

In the U.S., sexual violence is widespread but – like most crime – is declining.  A very alarming study was recently released by the prestigious JAMA, “Prevalence Rates Of Male And Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators In A National Sample Of Adolescents,” authored by Michele L. Ybarra, MPH, PhD, and Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD.  One of its principle findings is that “nearly 1 in 10 youths (9%) reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime; [and] 4% … reported attempted or completed rape.  Sixteen years old was the mode age of first sexual perpetration.”

A 2011 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study document the alarmingly high level of sexual violence among intimate partners.  Most often, men perpetrate this violence against women.  The study found that “almost one in five women have been raped in their lifetime ….”

No one really knows the extent of incest taking place in the U.S.  The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault uses data from two decades ago to map out the scope of childhood rape and incest taking place.  Using 1994 data, it notes that 46 percent of children who are raped are victims of actions by family members.  Citing 1992 data, it reports, “eleven percent (11%) of rape victims are raped by their fathers or step-fathers, and another 16 percent (16%) are raped by other relatives.”

Reliable federal statistics about incest are woefully inadequate.  RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which identifies itself as “the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization,” siting Department of Justice (DOJ) data, reports “there is an average of 237,868 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year.”  Unfortunately, incest is not broken out as a specific type of violent crime by either RAINN or the DOJ.

The most recent federal study of violence against children, “The Child Sexual Abuse (CSA),” came out in 2006.  It estimated the CSA prevalence rate at more then one-in-four (27.9%).  In addition, it found that there were no significant racial differences in the nature, severity or aftermath of such abuse.  CSA is, however, a broad category in which incest seems a very small segment.  No specific data on incest is provided.

A 1997 DOJ study, “Child Sexual Molestation: Research Issues,” reports on a telephone survey of young people aged 10 to 16 years that found that 3.2 percent of girls and 0.6 percent of boys “had suffered, at some point in their lives, sexual abuse involving physical contact.”  No specific data on incest is provided.

A 1984 FBI report, “Incest – The Last Taboo,” by R. J. Barry, finds  “authorities estimate incest occurs in over 10 percent of American families, yet only 20 percent of these offenses are reported.”  It found that “the causes and effects of incest vary according to the relationship of the family member involved.”  Going further:

The incestuous parent often lacks control or feels confusion about his role in the family, while stepparent incest does not have the strength of the incest taboo as an inhibition. Sibling incest, possibly the most common form, is less traumatic for children close in age who consider it play, but the stereotype of innocent games has only limited application.

Barry found “father-daughter incest creates the greatest emotional devastation: the daughter feels trapped, assaulted in her own home. In cases of father-daughter incest, the daughter typically has low self-esteem and relates to her mother poorly.”

However, a 2005 report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, “Sex Offense Research Brief,” offers valuable insight into incest, if only from one state.  The report analyzes 5,918 victims of sexual violence and found that less than 1 percent (0.9%) — 54 cases – were due to incest.  All the victims were under 18-years; 2/3rd of the victims were female and 1/3rd males; and 2/3rd were white and 1/3rd were black.  The principle perpetrators of incest were stepparents and older siblings.  (It must be noted that among sex crimes, incest is notoriously under-reported.)

Writing in the Atlantic, Mia Fontaine warns, “incest is the single biggest commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. …”

* * *

Incest haunts the West.  The Judeo-Christian Bible is richly illustrated with incest stories.  Among the most famous incest tales are those involving the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4).  These illicit couplings included Abraham marrying his half-sister Sarah (Genesis 20:12); Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19); Moses’ father, Amram, marring his aunt, Jochebed (Exodus 6:20); and David’s son, Amnon, with his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13).  Among these tales, the stories of Tamar and Lot involve forced, nonconsensual incest, rape.

Over the last few years, pedophilia scandals involving Catholic priests, Jerry Sandusky (the Penn State football coach), Jimmy Savile (the English DJ and BBC TV host) and at the Horace Mann School (an elite New York City private academy) have raised public awareness about age-inappropriate – nonconsensual — sex.  These pedophilia cases come at a time when teen sexuality is fully integrated into the marketplace.

Incest is an age-old taboo, a unique human sexual intimacy.  Will America’s new market-driven sexual culture accept the difference between “consensual” and “nonconsensual” incest as it has accepted 21st century consensual sex in general?  Accepting this difference changes age-old values.

Acceptance of this change may be on its way.  A few years ago David Epstein, a Columbia University political science professor, gained his Warhol-15-minutes-of-notoriety when charged with having a three-year consensual sexual relationship with his 24-year-old daughter.  He was arrested and arraigned on a single felony incest count.  He insisted on his innocence:  “What goes on between consenting adults in private should not be legislated. That is not the proper domain of our law. …  If we assume for a moment that both parties [involved in incest] are consenting, then why are we prosecuting this?”  He ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and remains at Columbia.

David Rosen regularly contributes to the AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.




David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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