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Who Still Cares About Incest?

2010 December 13

David Epstein, Political Science Professor at Columbia University

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.

34 Responses
  1. Monica permalink
    December 13, 2010


    I agree wholeheartedly with your condemnation of the American public’s puritanical fixation on sex that other people are having, and applaud you for your defense of Professor Epstien. Reading an argument like this one, that so unflinchingly refuses to back down from its defense of privacy and permissiveness, is the sort of thing that makes me feel like I’m not intellectually alone in the world.

    I have to take issue, however, with this:

    “‘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 …Maybe his daughter was persuaded against her better judgment to sleep with him.  Poor judgment is what gets most people to bed anyhow..Until a serious rape allegation surfaces I think we might as well shut up.”

    What I’m not clear on here is what, exactly, would constitute a “serious rape” under your definition? Without getting too much into the “structure vs. agency” debate that has been leading the conversation over sexual politics in circles for the past three decades, I would point out that the ethical standard of “consent” that you so articulately defend in this article works best when coupled with the qualifiers of “meaningful” and “informed.” The assertion that “consent” is possible and meaningful in absolutely any relationship is short-sighted, reductive, and naive. Some people are weak. Some people are exploitative. And some relationships contain too great an imbalance of power for both parties to maintain their agency within them. The relationship between an adult and a child comes to mind here as a convenient, if tired, example.

    “Well,” one might say, “what is sex, after all, if not eroticized power imbalance? A degree of inequality is ineradicable from any social/sexual relationship, be it between a father and a daughter, or an adult and a child, or two equally educated, unrelated adults of the same socioeconomic status.” And this is where I have to say it: stop. While I certainly don’t defend the media and the public’s presumption to define what meaningful consent means for Professor Epstein- or, for that matter, for anyone else – I do feel that the movement towards an ethical socio-sexual politics requires individuals to rigorously examine each and every one of their own relationships in the pursuit of meaningful and mutual consent. Any person who fails to do so, fails to fulfill her obligations as an ethical agent. Statements like “Poor judgement is what gets most people into bed anyhow” undermine the urgent and constant need to create social conditions in which the personal agency of every individual is respected and maintained. Real consent, real agency, are the ethical foundations on which we build just and equitable social relationships. And I’m not sure that your argument here gives them the defense that they deserve.

    • December 13, 2010

      yeah – fathers screwing their daughter are so misunderstood.

      this article does such a great job working primarily through the context of consent, alluded to at least 5 times. because, certainly, the young woman (who just so happens to be the fruit of epstein’s loom – so glad the article drops that fact casually, really, it’s such an insignificant point that should be discarded so we can compare this situation analogously to other consensual adult sexual relations) came that way – a fully cognizant adult capable of making informed decisions based on formative sexual and gender development untainted by patriarchal familiar relations. no way this woman was ever a pre-sexual being, malleable by, above all, the dominant sexual figuration of mother and father – notions which inform constructs like consent in the first place. no, she was just a free willed adult unattached to her sexual partner, uninfluenced by him in any significant way critical to her development not just as a sexualized person, but as a human being.

      beyond primary engendering, her willingness couldn’t possibly be impacted by monetary and cultural issues, like her father’s prominence as a professor (i bet little girls who dads are professors don’t hold them in any sort of esteem or position of authority, especially not intellectual authority which influences the thinking aspect of consent), or by being financially dependent on a father to pay for education, car, housing, health insurance and care – i bet she was completely divorced of wanting to “please” the holder of the wallet that pays for her livelihood. good thing the author doesn’t even consider these issues. i’m glad the author wrote from the perspective of the male in this consensual relationship, it’s about time someone defends the most suppressed demographic to ever live and breathe.

      i think we should always blame the victims any way because it’s usually their fault for attracting attention in the first place. victims have so many laws protecting them, i mean just two years ago Maryland passed a law allowing a woman to deny consent after penetration (nevermind the previous precedent that wouldn’t protect women under this clause for over 200 years). and any way, even if the young woman in question was the victim of “un-consensual” incest, she should totally be willing to run around crying rape eventhough rape is one of the most pervasive but least reported crimes of all time (gee, i wonder why – couldn’t be all those sound laws they’re just handing out, nor could it be because women like her live in proximity to their attackers, not the fact of humiliation…and we’ve already established that she’s a free thinking woman under no sort of subversive influence…hmmm).

      but my favorite part is when the author equates the rights of sex workers with the right of the father. damn straight no one should legislate the father’s molestation and sexual subversion of kin, because the father created them, he owns them, right? so he can do whatever he wants with them.

      yeah for familiar privacy. in places like vermont, even when children show signs of severe sexual trauma and abuse, the state won’t do anything about it until those scared little girls stand up and say rape (which is such an easy concept to teach, because in this day and age the line of consent are crystal clear). and when they do, they must stay in the home while the state investigate and guess what happens. the fathers continue to rape and abuse those girls and threaten their lives. so of course the girls retract their statements, the state goes away, and i bet those girls grow up to be well adjusted women who are capable of willing consent in happy healthy adult relationships.

      Sigh. This article so badly makes me want a penis. Guess I know what I’ll ask for this Christmas.

      • December 13, 2010

        oh yah and don’t worry, there probably won’t be any congressional action taken against incestuous fathers since the number of women in the u.s. congress is lower than the proportion of women raped in just the untied states. it’s decreasing too – for the first time since the 70s. so glad we’re advocating this topic, we just really need to make so much more progress for white men and their prolific right to dominate all.

      • Monica permalink
        December 13, 2010


        While I sympathize with your anger and think that your points regarding the impossibility – or, at least, the extreme unlikelihood – of meaningful consent between a father and daughter are well made and well taken, I have to take issue with your insinuation that the author’s maleness prevents him from understanding the extent of the inequality implicit in a father-daughter relationship and blinds him to the reality of intellectually coerced sex as rape. It is an issue in the article, certainly, and one that deserves critique, but it is not a function of the author’s gender.

        Rather, I believe that the central flaw in this article’s argument is a dogmatic and uncritical adherence to the idea of sexual libertarianism. The article defines sex as a private “recreation,” and indeed, recreation is what sex often is. Recreation, I would say, is what sex usually is. But what the article fails to fully recognize – aside from the allusion to “serious rape,” which disturbingly seems to imply that rape whose coercion is not located in physical force is somehow not serious – is that sex is not always only “recreation.” It can also be coercion, exploitation, violence, violation, and injustice. It is certainly not always all of these things at once, and it can sometimes be these things while also being “recreation,” but such qualifications do not mitigate the horrendous violation of rape, the unethical nature of sex without meaningful consent. And it is the article’s unwillingness to question or qualify its own ideas of sexual libertarianism that I take issue with.

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        December 13, 2010

        Let’s be clear, friends.

        ‘Serious rape allegation’ should be taken as one phrase. A distinction between ‘Serious’ and ‘Un-serious’ rape would be quite atrocious indeed.

        As I suggest below, if we were discussing a rape charge this article would not have been written. As it stands there is no such thing. If there is, the game will change and I will be the first to clarify my views on rape, which are probably quite similar to any normal, feeling person’s. As for now, this is an argument in defense of one’s ability to have consensual sex (mentioned multiple times in the article) with an adult human. I don’t think any person, related or unrelated, should be able to rape another person. That should be clear.

      • Justin Becker permalink
        December 13, 2010

        xx’s post does a good job challenging the problematic assumption that this is a “consensual” relationship, though I wish she didn’t have to develop the whole darn argument with uninterrupted sarcasm (a rhetorical tack possibly more annoying than playing the consensual card “at least 5 times”). I also think she goes way too far when she equates Brian’s position with “blaming the victim” and accuses him of believing that fathers “own” their children — clearly that’s not what he’s arguing.

        But the real reason I’m replying here is my belief that there’s an even stronger case to made for moral opposition to incest — “stronger” in the sense that it doesn’t rely on a particular presupposition about the nature of the relationship. See, in some sense xx is falling into the same trap as Brian: just as he presumed that the daughter is a willing participant in this relationship and that her apparent desire to have sex with her father is not the result of psychological coercion or abuse, xx is assuming — with no additional knowledge of the two people involved — that the daughter could not possibly have had a healthy upbringing and that her decision to have a sexual relationship with her father could not have been formed independently and rationally. To be sure, my own view is that xx’s assumption is way, way more likely to be true. However, to suggest that this is the ONLY plausible explanation betrays an awfully paternalistic view of female development, and it implies that engaging in certain kinds of sexual conduct is incontrovertible evidence of psychological trauma. In other words, it’s a stance (if I’m interpreting xx correctly… it’s hard to tell through all the sarcasm) that doesn’t fully honor female autonomy, or the right of a woman to do whatever the hell she wants when it comes to her private life.

        In my view, xx’s argument does justify the illegality of parent-child incest. Absent any knowledge of the particulars of the relationship, and given the impossibility of uncovering the precise psychological dynamic at play, the State errs on the side of protecting the child… because preventing sexual coercion is a good that trumps our desire to respect the libido of consenting adults. But what about the situation where the daughter really is, by her own accord, interested in sleeping with her father? Imagine a loving, devoted father — no longer married, let’s say — who has never made sexual advances toward his daughter or really thought about doing so, and whose adult daughter begins acting flirtatious and eventually admits to an interest in a sexual relationship. Is such a situation totally impossible? Is it morally wrong for the father to reciprocate on those feelings, or to act on them? Do the reasons for the daughter’s interest really matter, so long as she was never abused? The most thought-provoking part of Brian’s post is his challenge to identify an “inherent moral…difference between sex with one’s wife and sex with one’s daughter.”

        The reason it’s though-provoking, at least to me, is that our reflexive opposition to incest can’t be adequately expresses in the language of rights or the language of utility. Since it’s a consensual act, it by definition doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom. And making an argument based utility requires presuming that you know better than the two actors what is in their own best interests — and that’s a tough sell.

        But outright actions are not the only things that are subject to moral approval and disavowal; so too are attitudes and dispositions. We expect people not only to honor the rights of others and refrain from harming them, but also to regard them with a certain dignity and respect. It’s the reason why certain kinds of selfish economic activity, like “price gouging” in the wake of a natural disaster, may be morally repugnant, even if it’s an act of individual freedom and economists think it’s part of normal economic recovery. Greed, in of itself, is a moral vice — or at least most people think.

        What does this have to do with incest? Well, parenthood–like all human relationships–is associated with certain virtuous attitudes and dispositions. We expect parents to love their child even when the child does not deserve it, and we expect them to honor their child’s life choices even when they disapprove. The virtue of parenthood lies in one’s initiating a human being into the outside world, in preparing him/her to step out the door, without claiming that person as an instrument to one’s own happiness or well-being. As with all interpersonal relationships, we demand that parents behave unselfishly — but to a far greater level of self-sacrifice, with greater consistency, and with a unique interest in their child’s independence. To see parental selflessness as a moral virtue is not an arbitrary preference, or a vestigial remnant of traditional values. It is integral to our view that humans are born into this world as individuals, with value in and of themselves, rather than as extensions of their parents’ autonomy. Moreover, we undoubtedly value this kind of parental selflessness — giving one’s children up to the outside world, rather than claiming them for oneself — because, applied broadly, this kind of parenting is most consistent with the well-being of children and societies as a whole.

        It shouldn’t be hard to see why lusting after one’s own child is inconsistent with this parental virtue. To seek or have sex entails treating someone as an object of desire, as something to be had or experienced. Moreover, to be “in love” with someone — in contrast to merely “loving” them — implies a certain hunger for ownership over another, in the sense of wanting to have them as a partner and soulmate. Being “in love” with one’s child means, necessarily, rejecting the selflessness and openness parents are supposed to have in encouraging their children to find their own place in the outside world.

        In other words, the moral disgust I feel towards Dr. Epstein does not require evidence that he has harmed her. It is sufficient that he has lusted after her, since doing so is inconsistent with the attitudes we expect in a good parent.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 13, 2010


      We’re in total agreement, I believe.

      The line of consent is dangerously blurry, especially when a person has compromised his or her own awareness with alcohol, etc. Even otherwise, there are many pressures to consider. These are things that society and law have to look out for and be relentlessly careful about. However, this is also tied to your ‘what is sex’ comment, as well. We could extend your question even farther to ask just what relationships are. They are comprised – not entirely, mind you – of ever-shifting power dynamics. These are always being manipulated. While we have to be careful to distinguish rape, we also have to be careful to call it out. People must take responsibility for their actions when this is possible (of course, in some cases, it isn’t). This is all I mean to say. If a person calls ‘rape’, I’m listening. The paragraph you cite references this case specifically. As of yet, we are only talking about an ‘incest’ charge. We can intuit what we like, but many of these intuitions are biased by (in my mind) backward social prudery, and this makes them suspect. The commenter above demonstrates exactly of what I’m suspicious – the mindless equation of incest with rape. These are incredibly (I cannot stress it enough), vastly, expansively different things and we must approach these issues with that knowledge. Forms of manipulation are present in every inter-person relationship and only some are worthy of a criminal sentence. As I say, if the daughter – or anyone close to the pair of them, I’d say – calls ‘foul’, then we must be, as you suggest, all ears. However, to level incest inherently with sexual violence is disgusting and intolerable prejudice.

      • December 13, 2010

        great thoughts monica but i’m not insinuating the author’s maleness prevents him from “understanding” and “blinds him.” oh no. let’s keep gender and sex distinct.

      • December 13, 2010

        alrighty. have you seen pedro almodovar’s la ley? exploiting the drama which establishes sexual standardization in the patriarchal model, almodovar penetrates the incest taboo to rewrite the law of desire. i think that’s ultimately what your after in this piece but fail to do within the context of these particular current events. though you reject the framework of psychoanalsysis, because you so poorly work within the framework the realities of social and political policy, i think you should give it a try. here. i’ll get you started.

        as you’ll see, it’s probably in your own interest to “care” about incest too.

        often, the narrative report of incest correlates with a psychic event, but not a historical one, and that the two orders of event are clearly dissociable is vital to this film’s plot. pablo, the main character, is injured and traumatically forgets his past. It is only through this event, through this sudden, desperate need to remember collectively, with his sister, tina, their familiar past (the bond of siblings). here is possible a narrative event of his tina’s incestious experience with their father. tina narrates her memory of forbidden desire in the incestuous relationship with her father.

        she begins her fantastic tale with the introduction, “i am your sister, tina.” she goes on to tell Pablo that she had seduced and run away with their father. she explains that before they left, tina was a boy.

        psychoanalysis attributes, “incestuous fantasy and its prohibition to the process by which gendered differentiation takes place (as well as the sexual ordering of gender).” the prohibition “produces heterosexually normative kinship and forecloses for the realm of love and desire forms of love that cross and confound that set of kinship relationships.” in this powerful instant in narrative cinema, almodovar penetrates the incest taboo in a manner which creates the possibility for fluid gender identification as well as homosexual kinship, apparent in the relationship between pablo, tina, and tina’s daughter ada. that tina’s incestuous encounter is homosexual and followed by a sex change (tina seduces her father as a boy and as a girl) is a sort of binary sexual transgression, which, occurring during sexual development, allows tina and those in her family to conceptualize a great fluidity, rather than a distinction, in individual formation of sexuality.
        tina’s father abandons her and she is left, literally, a mutilated self. it is important that she includes the detail that her father doesn’t write; she desires the missal, the declaration of love from the object which cannot be had.

        throughpa family reconstituted by homosexual incest, almodovar provokes the viewer to consider: “by refusing to consider what happens to the child’s love and desire in the traumatic incestuous relation with an adult, we fail to describe the depth and psychic consequence of that trauma.” – Judith Butler. both pablo and tina’s inability to love and desire in total surrender, is the passion of this piece.

        in this aberrant transgression of the law of desire, the father is attained; heterosexual family and gender are bent. Penetrating the relationship of trauma, fantasy, incest, desire, and love, almodovar creates a tale which speaks at the heart of the unspeakable, and in doing so, suggests a wider focus on the standardization of normative sexual experience.

        but of course there is a critical divide between the meladroma of this narrative production, reading through it to articulate the laws of desire, and articulating sexual liberalism by reading (incorrectly) through “real” incest, it’s social, political, emotional consequences and all.

        you probably need me to show that divide to you but wtf i’ve spent enough time on this as it is. okay. im not getting paid for this and its taking my precious time which i could be using to advocate rape victim’s rights. have a good one, good luck, may all your attempts at sexual transgression be safe and successful. peace.

  2. December 13, 2010

    It’s true that we care too much about the status of others’ marital affairs and headlining ones personal sexual preference is completely unnecessary however, I can’t say that I’m persuaded by your argument enough to accept incest as a norm. I personally still feel it is wrong but, if one were to choose to participate it’s nobody else’s business.

    I also don’t think that his deviance makes him any less intelligent as a professor but it certainly highlights his difference in morals. I agree that limitations on our society are insufferable at times but we have always been diligent at building an image based culture. Unfortunately for some with atypical preferences, this is a definite detractor to the image.

    I continue to enjoy your articles and admire your outspokenness, bravo!


  3. December 13, 2010

    @Monica: Exceptionally well said!

  4. palio permalink
    December 13, 2010

    Thank you xx for your response. Brian, fire is one thing but knowledge is another. It is certainly a valid point to question whether sexual relations between adult relatives should be illegal, but any discussion of the subject starts with knowledge of it. Speak with psychologists and social workers, and read. There is extensive literature on incest. Freud would be a good start.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 14, 2010

      Bring me any psychologist who thinks ‘Incest’ is a valid criminal charge and I’ll bring a fight.

  5. Kyle Snow Schwartz permalink
    December 14, 2010

    All “logic” aside, let us wait for the day when Brian has a little girl of his own. Then give him his own piece to re-read and check the reaction. I predict extreme, debilitating bouts of nausea.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 15, 2010

      If I let my personal disinterest in sleeping with my own daughter persuade me that I should consequently infringe upon the rights of consenting adults to recreate however they see fit, it should be nausea-inducing indeed.

  6. Kyle Snow Schwartz permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Alright, I’ll dispense with the platitudes and actually try. I think that you’re approaching the logic behind the law from an incorrect angle. You assume that coitus between good doctor and his daughter is completely consensual; that their decision to do so was the right of normally-functioning consenting adults, and that we have no right to judge them and punish them based on long-held puritanical beliefs based on our own inner revulsion that they do not share.

    The law correctly assumes otherwise, and does so to protect victims from the highest of influential, exploitable relationships – that between parents and their brethren. Dr. Epstein aside, the majority of incestuous relationships are unhealthy, and there is a victim involved. Don’t dismiss Palio’s comment so blithely. Discuss with an experienced social worker whether or not incest should be decriminalized and they’d tell you you’d be opening up a Pandora’s box of abuse. Considering that the age of consent in many of our United States is as young as 16, to remove the only legal hurdle for a parent to engage in intercourse with their child would be stunningly irresponsible.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 15, 2010

      My ‘assumption’ that the relationship was consensual is no such thing. Every report has it this way. My article is operating under this belief. Of course, OF COURSE, if this is proven to be false my opinion will change. I have taken great measures of caution to qualify my claims with this rhetoric.

      I’ll elaborate in a separate comment, below, in an effort to avoid having to say the same things over and over again to different people.

  7. palio permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Talking about this as “recreate” is totally astounding. I, too, will try one more time. I was hoping, Brian, that you would realize after reading the intelligent and knowledgeable responses above that this is a subject about which you know nothing. Talking about “challenging” and “fighting” is all well and good if indeed one truly knows something about a subject, but totally inappropriate if one is completely uninformed. It stifles all true exploration. You are clearly intelligent. Let yourself reconsider this. The women posting above have sensitive and thoughtful insights into this.

    I would wonder how Prof. Epstein’s daughter was reared, what she may have been exposed to and suffered from, to choose her father as her sexual object. Whatever comes out about this, I assure you it will not be pretty. Her “free choice” had long since been destroyed. It is the role of parents to help their children learn appropriate boundaries, and parents who engage in incest with them have seriously harmed them.

    I, too, am all for liberty and choice, but you might explore what actually constitutes free choice. You might wonder why all civilized societies have strong taboos against incest. Freud wrote in “Totem and Taboo” that society only needs to erect taboos and social prohibitions against that which there is a desire, or an unconscious desire, to do. We do not have laws prohibiting us from eating mud. No one wants to do it. Or dreams of doing it.

    Justin: your question is serious. What if the daughter makes her decision rationally and thoughtfully? If you are speaking about a woman reared by her father, as opposed to one separated at birth who forms a relationship to him unknowingly (as Oedipus did with Jocasta, and you know how that turned out), the answer is that a barrier against such a relationship develops in a normally maturing girl. There may well be initial attraction, as many girls evidence at about age seven (“daddy, can I marry you when I grow up?”). A girl or woman who sees her father as a permitted sexual object has been seriously hurt in her upbringing. She is very damaged. So that while one might imagine a situation in which the father and daughter are attracted to each other in a healthy way and become sexually involved, it never exists.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 15, 2010

      It shouldn’t surprise you to know that I find your own careful logic to be quite flawed, as well. Your assumptions (which can only be assumptions, based on the lack of supportive information from the case itself) are that it was the father who initiated the relationship; that even if it was, the daughter had been so vastly manipulated in her upbringing as to rend her entirely incapable of expressing meaningful consent (for anything, shouldn’t it follow?) in her relationship with her father; and that the age and prevalence of social taboos inherently lends them credibility (by the way: if you were arrested for eating mud then there’d be an article penned by me railing against the incredible injustice done to you).

      As the case stands, and I urge you to read the reports from last week, it was a consensual relationship. As I have mentioned many times, if this fact is discovered to be false, and every horrible nightmare you automatically attribute to this case were, in fact, true, then believe me, I would absolutely be by your side. However, the kind of criminal activity we hope did not occur can be addressed with other existing charges. The charge, as I will describe clearly below, is ONLY that they had sex. He has been charged with having sex. Not rape or child abuse. If he is guilty of the latter transgressions (which can include the awful psychological manipulation you rightly fear) then, by all means, he should go to prison. I cannot be more clear: as of now there is no such charge. I will continue to take issue (in spite of all the completely valid concerns expressed here) with a criminal charge for consensual sex. The only reason Epstein is even mentioned in this article is because his case happens to demonstrate the flaws in such a primitive and inconsiderate law. I find it inconsiderate for every reason I’ve ever mentioned in the post and all my subsequent commentary. It DOES NOT consider your concerns. It assumes them. This is injustice.

  8. palio permalink
    December 15, 2010

    I apologize, Kyle, for having written “the women who posted above.” I should have written “those who posted above.” My gender assumption did me in.

  9. Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Lest I be asked to address the following points again, here are my thoughts, as clear as I can make them.

    The charge Epstein faces is Third Degree Incest. Here is its full definition:

    INCEST THIRD DEGREE (Class E felony) PENAL LAW 255.25 (Committed on or after Nov. 1, 2006)
    The ______ count is Incest in the Third Degree.
    Under our law, a person is guilty of Incest in the Third Degree when he or she [marries or] engages in sexual intercourse or oral sexual conduct or anal sexual conduct with a person whom he or she knows to be related to him or her, whether through marriage or not, as

    Select appropriate alternative:
    an ancestor, descendant, brother or sister of either the whole or the half blood, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece.

    [Some of the terms used in this definition have their own special meaning in our law. I will now give you the meaning of the following terms, “sexual intercourse,” “oral sexual conduct,” and “anal sexual conduct.”

    SEXUAL INTERCOURSE has its ordinary meaning and occurs upon any penetration, however slight.
    ORAL SEXUAL CONDUCT means conduct between persons consisting of contact between the mouth and the penis, the mouth and the anus, or the mouth and the vulva or vagina.1
    ANAL SEXUAL CONDUCT means conduct between persons consisting of contact between the penis and anus.2]

    Under our law, a person shall not be convicted of incest (or of an attempt to commit incest) solely upon the testimony of the
    1 Penal Law § 130.00(2)(a). 2 Penal Law § 130.00(2)(b).
    other party unsupported by other evidence tending to establish [that the defendant married the other party, or] that the defendant was related to the other party, whether through marriage or not, as
    Select appropriate relationship:
    an ancestor, descendant, brother or sister of either the whole or the half blood, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece.3

    In order for you to find the defendant guilty of this crime, the People are required to prove, from all of the evidence in the case, beyond a reasonable doubt, each of the following three elements:
    1. That on or about (date) , in the county of (county) , the defendant, (defendant’s name), married [or engaged in sexual intercourse or oral sexual conduct or anal sexual conduct with] (complainant’s name);
    2. That (complainant’s name) was related tothe defendant, whether through marriage or not, as
    Select appropriate relationship:
    an ancestor, descendant, brother or sister of either the whole or the half blood, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece; and
    3. That the defendant knew (complainant’s name) was so related to him/her.

    Therefore, if you find that the People have proven beyond a reasonable doubt each of those elements, you must find the defendant guilty of the crime of Incest in the Third Degree as charged in the _____ count.
    On the other hand, if you find that the People have not proven beyond a reasonable doubt any one or more of those elements, you must find the defendant not guilty of the crime of Incest in the Third Degree as charged in the _____ count.

    I have no interest in unconditionally defending Epstein. I have a passionate interest in doing away with this silly charge. Third Degree Incest does not address any of the psychological manipulation, child abuse, or rape that we all (including myself, it will apparently surprise some to know) worry about. Never once does the legislation mention these horrors. Why not? Because they are already addressed by other existing laws. Epstein has not been charged with these, he has been charged with Incest, which, as anyone may now clearly see above, is only concerned with the sexual act itself. It has none of the nuance or concern that has colored this debate. Sex, in this case, is the crime. In fact, this law assumes the sex is consensual! Otherwise we’d have a rape charge! This law condemns consensual sex. That is the only thing it does. This is an absolute atrocity and a complete disfiguration of morality. We can clearly see that the only conditions for conviction are that the defendant knew he was having sex (described as ‘penetration, however slight’) with a relation. We cannot and absolutely must not assume the terrors we have thoroughly described as if they are inherent because the are not. However prevalent they may be in cases of incest, we have separate laws to address them when they occur. Similarly, we don’t criminalize sex itself, despite the frequent exploitation that accompanies it, because it is the exploitation that is criminal, not the sex. We must allow for the possibility of consent or we perpetuate mindlessness: something of which the law must never be guilty. I will not back down from this. I cannot. We must, of course, be careful to distinguish rape or abuse when we see it or suspect it, but to assume it because of the relationship of the persons involved is nothing more than thoughtless. My issue is only, ONLY, with the charge, which I find to be completely devoid of care. Until Epstein is charged with something serious (the abuse or rape we all fear) then I will continue to defend him.

  10. Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
    December 16, 2010

    In related news, Switzerland is considering the same questions:

  11. palio permalink
    December 16, 2010

    ” My issue is only, ONLY, with the charge, which I find to be completely devoid of care.”

    It is not possible to have any meaningful discussion of the laws against incest if one has no knowledge about incest. Essentially that is what everyone here has been saying. If one has no basis from which to address whether incest between a parent and child can truly be thought of as stemming from informed consent, and if one has no concept of whether the act in such cases could cause harm to one or both parties, one is in no position to argue whether the state is right or wrong in legislating against it.

    So, no one is arguing that in all cases it causes harm, or that the laws should not be changed. It is that to take a polemic and absolute stance regarding laws about a subject as complex as this without knowledge of the subject itself is not truly liberal and enlightened, but the opposite.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 16, 2010

      I mean this sincerely: What would you have me know that you think I do not? You have continually addressed my alleged ignorance on the subject: I wonder what your assumptions about my ignorance are that the revelation thereof would wholly change my view. Have the complexities of consent not been addressed? Have they not been admitted willingly by those on both sides? Have I not made clear my position on these complexities? You have confessed the inability to address incest wholesale – this is precisely my point. If there is room for consent the law must allow for it. It currently does not.

      Left completely unaddressed in the backlash is the fact that this law also applies to mother-son, mother-daughter, father-son, sister-brother, and many other relationships. I find it suspect that many of us are so willing to condemn incest automatically based upon the apparently inherent abuse in this particular dynamic. The arguments (all valid, to some degree) for the father’s potential (I must stress this as always) mistreatment break down in any of these other scenarios when no such paternal dynamic exists. I wonder if those who have argued unrelentingly against the father in this case (because of his allegedly dominant role in the relationship – a claim that, to my taste, needs a bit more than intuited evidence) would argue unrelentingly against the mother in a mother-son situation. We are arguing about incest itself, and these considerations must be made. My position is that if we admit the possibility of consent we must rid ourselves of this ridiculous law. I think it is foolish to assume with no specific knowledge of the persons involved that one has dominated the other (physically or psychologically). Is it really so impossible to imagine a relationship initiated by a son or daughter? And where do those assumptions fall when presented with a sibling case? This law allows for no subtlety or individuality. I refuse to believe that an encyclopedic knowledge of incest theory is required to find this law crude and inflexible on a subject that requires, as we have all agreed, the utmost agility.

      It seems to me that believing a child incapable of thinking clearly about sexual matters in regard to their parents must necessarily accompany a belief in the inability of the child to think clearly about any other paternal or maternal issues as well. Why would a normally-thinking person with an assumedly typical parental relationship suddenly break down (to the point of being physically incapable of providing a meaningful reply) when confronted with a sexual request in this case? I, for one, would feel perfectly equipped to refuse any advance by either of my own parents. Are we then saying that those children who would agree are inherently incapable of providing meaningful consent? This is a devious trap.

      I truly wonder what you’re after. If you wish to inform me of something you feel I don’t know then I certainly welcome you to do it – though you’ve had quite a few chances and seem to have neglected them. Perhaps this next parry would be an ample opportunity…

      • December 17, 2010

        I think that the fear that a lot of the above commentators have is that normatively socialized people conceptualize and experience their familial relationships within economic, social, and symbolic matrixes that are so deeply cathected and so powerfully deterministic that any willful transgression of them is impossible as an exercise of personal agency. The idea is that the way we structure our familial relationships does not allow for sexual relationships within them to happen with the willful, meaningful, and informed consent of both parties. I’d love to hear where it is that you locate this possibility for meaningful consent within the relationships of the immediate family – it seems like a lot of people believe that it is structurally prohibited.

        And while I don’t want to sound cheeky, I have to say that my eyebrows were raised by this:

        “I, for one, would feel perfectly equipped to refuse any advance by either of my own parents.”

        I admire your fortitude, Brian. On the long list of circumstances that I would not be able to handle with my normative psychological functioning intact, the trauma of being approached with a sexual request by one of my parents is right at the top.

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        December 18, 2010

        You wouldn’t feel so confident? I’m pretty uninterested, myself.

  12. palio permalink
    December 17, 2010

    I will try to answer some of your questions, because there is considerable openness evident in your last post. I am not at all saying that I agree with the law in question, but rather exploring how it might be evaluated.

    You bring up two points repeatedly: consent, and the possibility that no harm has been done.

    We are talking about an act which is, and has been, considered taboo in virtually every society. Is it not possible that there are sound reasons for this, which may not be immediately obvious nor discoverable by logic and assumptions?

    Laws are regularly passed to prohibit behavior that has some reasonable probability of causing harm, even if it can be done by certain persons or in certain instances safely. Imagine a man shooting a gun in Times Square. “I am a marksman,” he tells the judge,”and knew I would not hurt anyone.”

    The question of consent is extremely complex. I could not possibly explore this more thoughtfully than has TK above. It is not simply conscious, verbal agreement. There are many situations in which an individual is not considered to be able to give consent by nature of the dynamics of the relationship.

    Consider three admittedly extreme “thought-experiments.” If it were the case that an extremely high proportion of participants of incest were later to commit suicide, and it were established that there is a causal relationship, would not society reasonably prohibit the act? What if in fact there were some harm caused in many instances? Should that not be considered in evaluating the law?

    And if you learned that in virtually all instances that a child, or parent, or sibling that agreed or initiated an incestuous relationship were psychotic, or mentally impaired, or influenced by drugs, would you not consider that the law might need to protect that individual? Even if he were eager to engage in the activity? Since the law cannot apply only to those proved to be most impaired or vulnerable, would not the legislators need to find some standard that could practically be applied?

    Imagine two adults agreeing that one could cut off the arm of the other, would not we question whether that agreement should be valid and remove responsibility for harm? In this instance the harm is obvious, in incest it is not, and may or may not occur, although many experts would argue it always occurs.

    So I have been saying that in order to properly judge the reasonableness of a law against incest one would need to have considerable knowledge about it. You have been writing, very intelligently, about rights but not at all exploring what is known about harm.

    In my own field I have known and worked with many people who have been involved in incestuous relationships. I have some real knowledge of the effects and causes, but would not claim to be an expert, it is so complex. That is why I, and other posters, have suggested talking with psychologists and social workers who have knowledge of it, and reading, before insisting that because there is some chance that no harm was done by Prof. Epstein and his daughter, to themselves or the other, there is no reason at all that the law should prohibit this type of sexual relationship.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 18, 2010

      I surely understand each of your points. I cannot come along with you, and I suppose it will simply have to end here. There is no doubt that the circumstances surrounding incest are curious and at least atypical. In many cases the detrimental effects are easily understood. These are all concessions willingly made. I draw the line, however, at prohibition. This I cannot tolerate. I find it encouraging to know that despite the resoundingly negative reaction to this particular article, such laws have been discarded in many other countries for reasons similar to those discussed here.

      This should warrant no such extended debate, but I do want to call attention to the idea you advance that consenting adult persons must be legally prohibited from harming themselves or each other. Of course, in some cases they should be. But in others, as is continually addressed in regard to drug use (among other things), perhaps they shouldn’t. I suppose you might guess where I land on this point in regard to incest. While I do believe that there is a chance that no harm was done, it also doesn’t bother me that some might have been. As I suggest (rather crudely) in the article, degrees of harm occur in many relationships all the time and, unless they are so severe as to be otherwise criminal, I suspect their relevance here.

      Your points are well taken. You’ve found me steadfast because I have considered them previously. I hope in all of this we’ve made ourselves as clear as we’d wish to, though I suspect we are simply at an impasse. I should thank you for a valuable exercise – this is precisely what I like to do.

  13. palio permalink
    December 18, 2010

    The only way a 24 year old woman will choose to have sex with her father is if she had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. Whether or not he was the original perpetrator he has done her immense and irreparable harm.

  14. palio permalink
    December 19, 2010

    What would lead a 21 year old woman to have a sexual relationship with her father and continue it for several years? A normal young woman is disgusted at even the thought of it, regardless of how attractive her father is to other women. A woman who chooses to do it willingly and repeatedly had already been seriously impaired in many aspects of social and personal functioning, and the cause of that is almost certainly that she had been sexually abused as a child and possibly also as a young adult.

    The normal love and warmth of a father for his daughter involves limit setting not always appreciated by the child. Sexual expressions are strictly limited. The girl comes to understand, even when she goes through that stage in which she talks openly of wanting to marry daddy when she grows up, that it is not allowed. Daddy belongs to mommy. In a normal family there can be anger without violence, feelings expressed without having to be enacted. In this setting the child learns self control and discipline, develops trust, an ability to work with others, and confidence and temper stability.

    If an adult uses that child for sexual pleasure the child often blames herself, seeing herself as the cause even though it had not been the case. She is often told that she had better not let anyone, especially her mother, know what happened. The effects of this are devastating for the girl. She becomes fearful and unstable.

    Whether or not the father was the original abuser, if he engages sexually with his daughter once she is an adult the situation is made much worse. This is true even if, as an adult, she had approached him, because now her complicity is even greater in her own eyes. Her ability to work with others and have stable friendships and romantic attachments will have been seriously impaired. The entire fabric of the woman’s psyche has been distorted in such a way that she will suffer the effects for the rest of her life.

    If the daughter had, in fact, simply been raped by her father after becoming an adult, it would have been much better for her. She would have had no responsibility at all. As bad as that situation would have been, the chance of recovery would be infinitely greater.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 19, 2010

      I appreciate the explication. Surely you know by now what I’d say to all of this, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not recounting my thoughts here. Here’s hoping you’re wrong about Epstein and his daughter.

  15. Elizabeth permalink
    December 27, 2010

    There is so much wrong with this article. The author is an idiot.

    This is not an “innocuous” case. The power relationship between father and child is what makes what he did wrong wrong wrong. Would the author argue with the ban against therapist-patient relationships also? There do have to be lines drawn in the sand about what is legal and what is illegal in terms of sexual relationships. I think incest is a good place to draw that line. Incest between a father and his barely adult daughter (she was 18 when the affair began) is in the same category as rape in my book. Even if she was the perpetrator, I consider it rape because of the power relationship. Just as it is for a therapist, or when an adult sleeps with a child under 18.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 27, 2010

      This reductionist rhetoric is precisely the sort with which the article takes issue. I should thank you for such an illustrative example.

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