Who Still Cares About Incest?
David Epstein, a Columbia University professor of political science, was discovered last week to be engaged in a consensual extramarital relationship with an adult person, and this, for some reason, warranted a headline. The adulterous couple has allegedly been exchanging ‘twisted text messages’ and, apparently, performing at least some of them for the last three years. His lawyer, in an impotent attempt at preliminary defense, reminds everyone to bear in mind that Epstein, according to law, is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Each version of this boring report manages to mention that Epstein’s Facebook page no longer lists him as ‘married’. When questioned, one student comments that he was ‘surprised to hear of the allegations, since Epstein has always been helpful’ and then goes on to refer to the professor’s integrity in the past tense, confessing: ‘He seemed to be a very nice guy’. Epstein, if convicted (of having sex with a consenting adult human), could face four years in prison. Following all of this, it should surprise no one that Epstein, for whatever reason, is currently on administrative leave. What about this trite and tediously typical story merits such pathetic dramatics? Why would anyone possibly give a fuck? Oh, I forgot to mention, the woman he slept with was his daughter.
This fact apparently elevates the severity of this dull affair to the status of criminal activity, and likewise would have done in any of the other 49 states in this country. Four years is not a universal term, however. Some states apply no penalties for incest among adults; some (by acrobatics of reason) only apply penalties for parent-child relationships; others (including, by spectacular surprise, dear Massachusetts) apply an almost murder-worthy sentence of twenty years.
The racket surrounding this innocuousness is, while incredibly disappointing, perfectly unsurprising, given the disheartening state of contemporary American prudery. In matters of sex, our country continually demonstrates with fierce passion the lingering traces its regrettably puritan youth. We see this unbecoming history resurrected daily: a New York City public school teacher was suspended (with pending dismissal) last month for her history as a sex worker*; an art exhibition featuring an apparently excruciating 11 seconds of video depicting a crucifix with a few ants on it was recently removed from the Smithsonian after infant Republican bullies threatened to withhold funding from the museum were the exhibition maintained^; and, of course, Senate Republicans just fucked gays again by failing to repeal DADT.
We’ve come a long way, surely, in the past few decades alone, but this is no reason to permit a moment longer the kind of kindergarten bashfulness that condemns the private recreations of any number of consenting adult persons. I challenge anyone to describe to me the inherent moral or criminal difference between sex with one’s wife and sex with one’s daughter (Christians beware: you can’t use the ‘god intended sex exclusively for reproduction’ argument here). If you find yourself disgusted by the thought, using words like ‘gross’ or ‘wrong’, these are signs of blushing childishness that needs to be quickly outgrown. And in any event, we have long learned that the attempt to use one’s personal sexual tastes to dictate legislation is a morally insolvent practice. Here’s what I’d recommend: get over it.
‘Well’, one might say, ‘as a father figure his filial dominance may have negatively influenced his daughter’s otherwise rational impulses…’ – just stop. Psychological manipulation is so rampant in literally every variety of social relationship that by the end of this sentence I’ve already lost interest. That the daughter has not been arrested is a fortunate though indefensible oversight that tells quite a bit about where the biases in this case lie. Maybe he’s not a nice guy, after all. Maybe his daughter was persuaded against her better judgment to sleep with him. Poor judgment is what gets most people to bed anyhow. Is this a consequence of criminal activity? Until a serious rape allegation surfaces I think we might as well shut up.
There is also the convoluted conception that if, say, Epstein and his daughter were legally permitted the opportunity to produce a child, that child stands a favorable chance of being born with a disability, and that this fact is somehow grounds for legislative discouragement. This is clearly ridiculous. First, it presumes that living while mentally or physically challenged is worse than living at all, which is a rather difficult proposal, especially when it is advanced by a healthy person. Second, it adjoins to the belief that the probability of producing an unfortunately encumbered child requires regulation by the state rather than careful consideration by the potential parents. We certainly don’t forbid the coupling of alcoholics, substance-abusers or disease-afflicted persons, and why should we? And, by extension, reasonable people certainly don’t argue for the perpetuation of humanity when confronted with LGBT rights, because, of course, the impossibility of producing a human being is absolutely irrelevant to a couple’s right to copulate in whichever fashion they choose. Social progress has never favored arguments like these and it is no more than arbitrary to argue them here.
That such harmless and irrelevant private matters should warrant vocational disbarment and public shame is absolutely disgraceful. Prejudices against incest are old and tired and must be dismissed as such. There is not a compelling argument in their favor. This is why it is so discouraging to note their systematic incorporation into public legislature, especially in states like Massachusetts that have fought hard to earn equality not only of law but of reputation for similar matters. Though, there is one glaring difference between the backwardness that bars gay marriage and that which criminalizes adultery: it is only the marriage of two persons of the same sex that is prevented by law (which is itself a completely unintelligible prohibition), not the sexual act itself. In the case of adultery (and in Epstein’s case specifically) it is intercourse as well as the marriage between two related persons that is forbidden. I suggest you give this a moment to detonate in your mind: you live in a country that limits on threat of incarceration the ability of consenting adults to have sex.
This is insufferable. Both the law and the archaic mindset that permits it must be overwritten immediately. For god’s sake, let Epstein return to the classroom so he can get on with his already ruined life. If we are to condemn his actions it must only be for his marital transgression, which is so customary as to hardly warrant a finger wag. Otherwise, let us move on with our presumably busy lives.
* I recently detailed my thoughts about Petro’s situation in an article here.
^ Genya Shimkin provides some commentary on this abomination here.