I is for Incest

Yes, a major taboo subject for romance writers!  But I wanted to be bold and bring it out in the open for a minute, and ask some questions about how you view the concept of incest.

I always found it fascinating that in many ancient societies–the Egyptians, Incans,

Table of Kindred and Affinity Located on the west wall of the inside of St Helen, Little Cawthorpe Church. by Ian Petersen

Table of Kindred and Affinity Located on the west wall of the inside of St Helen, Little Cawthorpe Church.
by Ian Petersen

Hawaiians and others–royal families practiced incest as a matter of course.  Even the British royal family has intermarried with cousins for generations.

So how close does the connection have to be for it to be considered incest?

Certainly parental and sibling couplings are incestuous.  But what about step-parents or step-children?  I teach drama and in both Phaedre and Desire Under the Elms a step-parent (mother) falls in love with her step-son.

And what of the marriage of Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, his girlfriend’s adopted daughter?  Incestuous or not?

Is it an incestuous relationship if there is no blood bond?  This question has generated lots of wonderful discussions in class because there are so many opinions on it.

So would such a plot device be considered taboo in romance writing?  Are there in fact romance novels with this type of plot?

What do you think?

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31 Responses to I is for Incest

  1. Carrie-Anne says:

    Some of my characters marry non-immediate cousins, like first-cousins once removed (who can be from the same generation if one of them has older than average parents), third-cousins, fifth-cousins, and second-cousins. I also have one stepsibling couple, though their parents (former sweethearts who broke up in 7th grade and always regretted it) remarried when they were preteens. They didn’t grow up seeing one another as brother and sister.

    Three of my characters are survivors of incestuous childhood abuse, but I definitely never show any of that onscreen, so to speak. And that definitely wasn’t done as some cheap plot device, but as a major part of their characters and backstories.

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  2. Thianna D says:

    I think the term ‘incest’ is too closely allied to the term abuse in many ways. I have no issues with incest in books as long as I know to expect it up front. In fact, incest fantasies are common – which is why I find it amusing that so many publishers won’t accept it.

    I just wrote a bunch of ‘Taboo” erotic romance stories, half of them about incest. But then I don’t think there is anything we shouldn’t be able to investigate via writing and reading. How else can we educate and continue to grow?

    Love comes in all forms – let it be, is my motto. And if a couple falls for one another and they are too close ‘blood-wise’ the writer can always write them as infertile which would get past the genetic issue.

    And you are right, inbreeding among blue bloods has been true in the past and is just as true in the present.

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  3. Interesting post, Jenna. I actually was worried that my Colton Gambling series in which some of the romanctic parings are 8th cousins would be too daring. But the concept doesn’t seem to bother anyone… At least not yet. I guess I’ll see when Gambling On A Heart releases in which the heroine is divorced from her eighth cousin and is now with another eighth cousin.

    But I’ve read a regency romance where the hero and heroine are first cousins who are forced into an arranged marriage through her father’s will. It was interesting, but I didn’t like the fact that a lot of people thought they were brother and sister because they looked so much alike. And part of the plot in the beginning even had the twist that it was rumored that the hero was the heroine’s BROTHER (Her dad was a duke and the hero was actually his brother’s child). That was too weird.

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  4. I think a blood bond romantic relationship is a bad idea mainly because of the potential genetic problems. But that wasn’t necessarily understood in ancient times, and/or people were far more interested in increasing their power by combining familial forces. Modern people “know better.” I don’t think it’s a taboo subject to talk about (though it’s not exactly business-dinner conversation material), but I do think it’s taboo to read about in a romance book. There are plenty of … well…. porn stories about it and especially step-parent/step-child relationships which are just squicky enough to titillate a certain group of people, but not frowned upon enough to prevent distributors from distributing them for an author. I don’t read material with incest themes, even pseudo-incest (like step-parent stuff) because I find it is just too twisty for me. I like to read about how people from different backgrounds come together and build common ground on nothing. For me, that’s more romantic.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      It is twisty stuff, Patricia, for sure. I wasn’t aware there was a genre of porn-incest stories although I’m not really surprised. I certainly wouldn’t care for it. But thanks so much for coming by and weighing in. This seems to have been a great hot-button topic for the blog today. Thanks again to everyone who came by!

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  5. Brenda says:

    Nature doesn’t like incest. A lot of dog breeders(I’ll stick to dogs for this post) and horse breeders–and probably other animals as well–breed the fathers to the daughters, son’s to mothers, etc, etc, to try and bring out the best traits from each parent and pass along to the offspring–try to keep the bloodlines pure and all that crap. But what has happened is dogs born from incestuous breeding are weak. they have more health issues than a dog that was born from a mother and father that didn’t share blood. This is one reason why mutts–mixed breeds–are generally healthier.
    So to me, incest is wrong and gross. If there is a blood link then the coupling shouldn’t happen. I will stop reading a book if the couple is related–I will forgive distant cousins–and I mean DISTANT. Cousins by marriage not blood.

    I know incest was a common practice in certain cultures throughout our history, but now that we know better, it is not something I cared to read about.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Health concerns are a top reason for the taboo, I believe. And it has a major gross-out factor for a lot of people, so I’m not surprised that publishers state up front they don’t take it. It would certainly be an unpleasant surprise for a reader unaware of the plot device. Thanks so much for coming by, Brenda. 🙂

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  6. danijace says:

    Interesting post with a wide range of views judging by the comments. Second cousins are legal to marry in most states. In one of my novella’s I made the hero and heroine step-cousins because I thought a publisher would balk.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      They do say no incest, but I wonder if they give guidelines about what they consider incest? I’ve never had that in a story, so I’ve not researched it. Perhaps it’s on a case by case basis. But step-cousins seem pretty far removed. I’d say you were safe with that one, Dani! 🙂 Thanks for coming by!

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  7. Liza OConnor says:

    In my opinion, I think this touches upon on our new odd rigid mores. While the majority of us, has accepted homosexuality, we have drawn excessively rigid lines against relations that our current mores are against, For example, relationships between what we see as children and adults, even if during the era the book is written, a young woman was considered a woman at such an age. Then there is incest, which is not acceptable even if the alien creatures are the only two left of their species and they have no choice if their species is to continue. Nor can they have relationships with humans, without running foul of the anti bestiality rules.

    Twenty years ago, none of those would’ve been a problem to publish, if done in a literary manner (Publishing House’s call). What was hard to publish back then was erotica. What changed? My theory places the blame on our ambiguous ‘obscenity law’ and the dramatic change in the publishing industry. The epubs can’t afford the liability and the current law is based on ‘current public mores’ to define obscenity instead of stating specifics. However, erotica is the epub’s bread and butter, so they have to take a risk there. However, most of them ban underage sex, incest, rape and bestiality, even if one is an alien creature, because those are risks they don’t have to take to make a living. Of course, you can self publish, but Amazon, the main channel for self published authors, gets a great deal of pressure on the obscenity issue and constantly tweaks its rules to appease the mores of the vocal religious right. Which means in the future they might either drop you or make it really hard to find your book.

    I actually expect matters to grow more restrictive as time progresses.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Also rape was an acceptable plot device 20 years ago. Now it’s a big taboo. As our sensibilities change, so changes our tastes in reading. And you are right–it’s liable to get worse as time goes on. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting!

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  8. Wildacre might be the book I’m thinking of where the brother was raised as a first cousin and rapes his sister to keep her from marrying someone else. She ended up giving the child to someone to keep it safe. I never read another of her books.

    I can’t remember when 1st cousin marriages were stopped, but I don’t get too bothered with them in historicals. Also in the bible is the duty of a man to marry his brother’s wife if the brother dies. I think what Woody did was horrible. I think if you’ve acted as a parent, you shouldn’t marry the child.
    Tweeted.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I don’t think that was the plot to Wideacre, I don’t remember it that way (I think the sister seduced him), but I could be wrong. It was a bit creepy to say the least. I understand that the Bible give conflicting info on the marrying of your brother’s wife. One book says it’s your duty, another books says it’s unclean. I guess it depends on which book makes the argument you want to foster. 🙂 Thanks for coming by, Ella!

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  9. Sheri Fredricks says:

    Other than in the Bible (Adam & Eve’s kids all had to marry each other, right?), I’ve been lucky and not come across blood ties intermarrying. That’s just way too gross for me.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I thought Adam and Eve’s kids married people from the “Land of Nod” but I could be wrong. I always wondered where they came from! LOL There is a big ick factor–because the taboo is so strong. Thanks for coming by, Sheri!

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  10. NancyS.Goodman says:

    It is a fascinating topic. I don’t have a problem with the dead husband’s brother or sister marrying the in- law. I do have a problem with a brother and sister or parent and child. Nuh uh-not interested in reading a romance about that. I remember reading Wideacre by Phillipa Gregory and I closed the book and never finished. Major turn off for me. Great post, Jenna. Tweeted

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I read Wideacre too. I got all the way through it, but man, they were some messed up characters. I love most of Phillipa Gregory’s books, but not this one. Didn’t read the rest of the series. Thanks for coming by, Nancy!

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  11. Daryl Devore says:

    Brilliantly fascinating and thought provoking post. If it isn’t a blood relationship, I’d see nothing wrong with the characters falling in love. And as you pointed out, Incas, Egyptians etc thought marrying your sister/mother was normal.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I also keep thinking about Oedipus, who married his mother not knowing he was her son. The ancient Greeks thought incest the most monstrous crime imaginable, so this play really pushed their buttons. But not the stuff of romance novels for sure. 🙂 Thanks so much for coming by, Daryl!

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  12. Sue says:

    I don’t consider it incest if not blood bond. Charlaine Harris in her Harper Connelly series (now ended) the main characters are step sibs, no blood ties. They eventually marry. The taboo for incest arose to prevent the spread of inherited diseases and to increase the gene pool. I’m sure there are other romance novels other than the one I cite here, as long as no blood ties.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Yes, I agree the blood bond is the issue for me. And with good reason, as you state about the health problem from a too close gene pool. Thanks for weighing in, Sue!

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  13. D'Ann says:

    One thing that has always grossed me out is the marriage of a woman to a dead husband/lover’s brother. Ick. It seems like incest to me.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      And that relationship is what was argued when Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. He cited he had married his brother’s widow and it was “an unclean thing” according to the book of Deuteronomy. You’re not the only one it bothers, D’Ann! Thanks for coming by!

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  14. ivorytamargo says:

    For me, it CAN be a turn off there’s blood ties, not because I think it’s “icky” or “wrong” but just coz it’s a bad idea when one considers the health risks to the the couple’s potential offspring. I know people have been marrying their cousins for generations but if it’s a brother/sister mother/son thing…I wouldn’t be able to read it without cringing. And I don’t want to cringe when I’m reading romance, lol.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Blood ties would be a major ick factor for me. That idea of taboo is so ingrained I can’t imagine it without cringing and the health issues are why it’s so ingrained. The step-parent/sibling doesn’t bother me, however, because there’s no blood involved. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting, Ivory.

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  15. caseamajor says:

    This is an interesting topic, Jenna. I love to test boudaries. To see if I can make the normal reader sympathize with a character in a situation that pushes societies mores beyond acceptable. I had plotted a story – a contemporary romance with a single lady mid-thirties. She’s had her share of rotten luck with men until she meet the perfect guy. They have an immediate attraction and fall head over heels, but he is adopted searching for his birth parents. And their perfect world crashes when they find out they are half-siblings. It is an interesting dynamic that I think would make facinating reading, but heartbreaking. When I was in school, VC Andrews Flowers in the Attic series was very popular. I loved those books and there was a in incestuous relationship between brother and sister.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I’ve heard of the Flowers in the Attic series, but never read them. And I wonder if one reason incest is so taboo as a subject in romance is because the ending must be heartbreaking, not an HEA. Your story sounds great–but it would have to work as mainstream fiction because there would be no happy ending. Thanks so much for joining this discussion, Casea!

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  16. Gina Danna says:

    Interesting conversation. Considering the latest in the Borgias but that too was based on conjecture at the time. Ancient Rome actually had no issue w/ the subject if it was bloodlines if the mother say was a slave, the father sleeping with the offspring wasn’t considered taboo. Actually, I’m using incest as part of the plot in my latest Rome story. You have to be careful with it though as some readers might be turned off but handled right, it can increase the tension, the blackness. IMO

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Do you think the publisher will approve of that plot point, Gina? I always see that disclaimer when I check the submission requirements. Do they give dispensation for historical accuracy? I can certainly see it as a high powered complication. Thanks for coming by!

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  17. Oh, wow. What a good topic. For me, this is a dangerous subject. If I run across it in a book, it is a major turn off. I will quite reading, and I never stop reading a book.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Does it turn you off in any form? Even if the society in which it was practiced condoned it? I think this is such a great discussion question because everyone feels strongly about it. Thanks for coming by, Stacey..

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