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Incest: Narcissism or Society? (International Conference Adolescent Medicine & Child Psychology)

Uploaded 10/11/2018, approx. 15 minute read

His esteemed colleagues.

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and other books on psychology and international affairs. I'm a visiting professor of psychology in Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, the Russian Federation, and a professor of finance and a professor of psychology in SIAS-CIAPS, the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies.


Today I would like to discuss a fraud issue, an issue which is widely considered taboo, and that is the issue of incest.

I would like to start with a quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Admittedly, the Britannica is not exactly an academic authority, but it's not so bad as a lordship pad.

So the Britannica had this to say.

An experience with an adult may seem merely a curious and pointless game, or it may be a hideous trauma, leaving lifelong psychic scars.

In many cases, the reactions of parents and society determine the child's interpretation of these sexual events.

What would have been a trivial and so forgotten act becomes traumatic if the mother cries, the father rages, and the police interrogates the child.

These are extremely brave and courageous words for a mainstream encyclopedia.

In contemporary thought, incest is invariably associated with child abuse and its horrific, long-lasting and often irreversible consequences.

Incest is not such a clear-cut matter as it has been made out to be over millennia of taboo.

Many participants claim to have enjoyed the act and its physical and emotional consequences.

It is often the result of seduction.

In some cases, two consenting and fully informed adults are involved. We know this in practice. We don't talk about it very often, because it's the wrong thing to do. It's politically incorrect, and it's taboo.

But I think it's high time to discuss incest in a forthright and honest manner if we are to overcome its pernicious, insidious and even dangerous affairs.


Many types of relationships, which are defined as incestuous, are between genetically unrelated parties, for example, a stepfather and a daughter, or between fictive kin, or between classificatory kin that belong to the same matriline or patriline.

In certain societies, native Americans and even in China, it is sufficient to carry the same family name, in other words to belong to the same clan, extended clan, for marriage to be forbidden.

Some incest prohibitions relate to sexual acts, others relate to legal acts such as marriage.

In some societies, incest is mandatory, prohibited, according to the social class, or particular circumstances.

In the Ugarit society, Bali, Papua New Guinea, Polynesian, Melanesian islands, incest was condoned. In other societies, the royal house started a tradition of incestuous marriages, which was later imitated by lower classes.

Of course, most famous are the ancient Egypt, Hawaiian, pre-Columbian mixtape. Some societies are more tolerant of consensual incest than others are.

Insist is better tolerated, shall we say, in Japan, India, until the 1930s, and some parts of Australia for this very day.

Some societies were founded on incest, Pitcairn, Ireland.

The list is long and it serves to demonstrate the diversity of attitudes towards theismos of universal taboos.

Generally put, we can say that a prohibition to have sex with or marry a related person should be classified as an incest prohibition.

Perhaps the strongest feature of incest has been hitherto downgrade, that it is essentially an auto-erotic act.

Having sex with a first-degree black relative is like having sex with oneself or a part of oneself. It is a narcissistic act, and like all acts narcissistic, it involves the objectification of the partner.

The incestuous narcissist overvalues and then devalues the sexual partner.

The narcissistic sexual partner in incest is devoid of empathy. He cannot see the other's point of view or put himself in her shoes.

Paradoxically and ironically, it is the reaction of society that transforms incest into such a traumatic and destructive phenomenon.

Remember the quote from the Britannica.

The condemnation, the horror, the revulsion, the attendant social sanctions interfere with the internal processes and dynamics of the incestuous family.

It is from society that the child learns the cues. Society teaches the child that something is morally wrong, that he or she should feel guilty, that the offending parent is a defective role model or even a criminal.

Psychologists from Albert Ellis to Boris Saranik. Psychologists have noted the critical importance of societal response and stigma in cases of both adult and childhood trauma in general and incest in particular.

As a direct result, the formation of the child's superego, to use a Freudian metaphor, stunted, and it remains infantile, ideal, sadistic, perfectionist, demanding, punishing.

The child's ego, to borrow another part of Freud's trilateral model, the child's ego, on the other hand, is likely to be replaced by a false ego version, a false self, whose job it is to suffer the social consequences, the trauma of the hideous act.

To sum up, what I'm trying to say is that society's reactions in the case of incest are pathogenic and are most likely to produce narcissistic or borderline patient, or in the case of women, a histrionic vision.

Descriptive, exploitative, emotionally lay by, immature, and in eternal search for narcissistic supply, such a child becomes a replica, in other words, of his incestuous and socially castigated parent.

So if so, if this is the case, why did human societies develop such pathogenic responses?

In other words, why is incest considered a taboo in all known human collectives and cultures almost? Why are incestuously as almost treated so harshly and punitively if it creates such counterproductive developmental processes?

Freud said that incest provokes horror because it touches upon our forbidden, ambivalent emotions towards members of our close family. The ambivalence covers both aggression towards other members, forbidden and punishable impulses, and sexual attraction to some other members, and it is doubly forbidden and doubly punishable.

Edward Westermark preferred an opposite view, that the domestic proximity of the members of the family breeds sexual repulsion, and that is the epigenetic role known as the Westermark effect. And this repulsion counters naturally occurring genetic sexual attraction.

The incest taboo simply reflects and kind of reifies emotional and biological realities within the family, rather than aiming to restrain the inbred instincts of its members. That's what Westermark says.

Though much disputed by geneticists, some scholars maintain that the incest taboo may have been originally designed to prevent the degeneration of the genetic stock of the clan or tribe through intra-family breeding.

Closed and dogmatic incestuous relationships are supposed to yield an unusual number of intellectually challenged and genetically hurt individuals. That is disputed, actually. It borders on an urban myth. But even if it were true, this no longer replies, of course.

In today's world, incest rarely results in pregnancy and the transmission of genetic material. Sex today is about recreation as much as procreation, if not more so. Good contraceptives should therefore encourage incestuous couples.

In many other species, inbreeding of straightforward incest are actually the norm, chimpanzees. And finally, in most countries, incest prohibitions apply also to non-genetically related people.

So we can't say that the aim is strictly genetic eugenics.

It seems, therefore, that the incest taboo was and is aimed at one thing in particular, to preserve the family unit and its proper functioning, and to regulate the intergenerational distribution and handling of accumulated family wealth.

It's about property.

Insist is more than a mere manifestation of a given personality. It's more than a paraphilia.

Some psychologists consider incest to be a subtype of pedophilia.

Insist harks back to the very nature of the family. It is closely entangled with its functions and with its contribution to the development of the individual within it.

The family is an efficient venue for the transmission of accumulated property, as I mentioned. It's also a very efficient transmission mechanism for information, both horizontally among family members and vertically down the generations.

In the process of socialization and acculturation, these processes largely rely on these familiar mechanisms, making the family the most important agent of society by far.

The family is a mechanism for the allocation of genetic, material, and information on wealth, institutional memory. Worldly goods are passed on from one generation to the next through succession, inheritance and residence. Genetic material is handed down through the sexual line. It is the mandate of the family to increase both by accumulating property and by marrying outside the family, exogamy.

Clearly, incest prevents both. It preserves the limited genetic poor and makes an increase of material positions through intermarriage whole but impossible.

The family's roles are not merely materialistic, though.

One of the main businesses of the family is to teach to its members self-control, self-regulation, and healthy adaptation.

Family members share space, they share resources, and siblings share the mother's emotions and attention.

Similarly, the family educates its young members to master their drives and to postpone the self-gratification which attaches to acting upon these drives.

The incest taboo conditions children to control their erotic drive by abstaining from ingratiating themselves with members of the opposite sex within the same family.

There could be little question that incest constitutes a lack of control, constitutes impaired impulse control, impedes the proper separation of impulse or stimulus from action.

Additionally, incest probably interferes with the defensive aspects of the family's existence. It is through the family that aggression is legitimately channeled, expressed, and externalized.

By imposing discipline and hierarchy on its members, the family is transformed into a cohesive and efficient war machine. It absorbs economic resources, social status, and members of other families. It forms alliances and fights other clans over scarce goods, tangible and intangible.

This efficacy is undermined by incest. It is virtually impossible to maintain discipline and hierarchy in an incestuous family where some members assume sexual roles not normally theirs.

Sex is an expression of power, emotional and physical. The members of the family in terms of incest surrender power and also assume power over the more regular flow patterns that have made the family the formidable apparatus that it is.

In other words, incest disrupts power matrices within the family. It's destructive.

These new power politics weaken the family both internally and externally. Internally, there are reactions such as jealousy of other family members and clashing authorities and responsibilities, these are likely to undo the delicate precariously balanced unit that is the family.

Externally, the family is vulnerable to ostracism and more official forms of intervention and even dismantling. Finally, the family is an identity and talent mechanism. It bestows identity on its members. Internally, the members of the family derive meaning from their position in the family tree and its organizing chart.

This chart conforms to the societal expectations and norms of course into the roles allocated by society, but it still provides identity via location and placement. Location in time, in space, location, vis-a-vis other members.

Externally though, through exogamy by incorporating strangers in the family, the family absorbs other identities, not to mention other genetic material and thus enhances social solidarity.

Claude Levitch-Strauss noticed it. This social solidarity is the expense of the solidarity of the nuclear regional family, but in some ways also enhances it.

Insist undoes all this. Insist unravels all these intricate interplays between genetic material, wealth, power, hierarchy, authority, responsibility, intergenerational relationships and so on. Insist chaotizes, creates chaos.

Exogamy is often noted, allows for the creation of extended alliances. The identity creep of the family is in total opposition to incest. The latter, incest, increases the solidarity and cohesiveness of the incestuous family, but at the expense of its ability to digest and absorb other identities of other family units and therefore prosper, thrive and grow.

Insist in other words adversely affects social cohesion and solidarity.

Lastly, as aforementioned, incest interferes with well-established and rigid patterns of inheritance and property allocation. This is especially true if incest results in pregnancy. Such disruption is likely to be led in primitive societies to disputes and conflicts, including armed clashes and deaths. To prevent such recurrent and costly conflict and bloodshed was one of the intentions, one of the original intentions of the incestible, hence its universality.

The more primitive the society, the more strict and elaborate the set of incest prohibitionsions and the fiercer the reactions of society to its violation.

It appears that the less violent dispute settlement methods and mechanisms in a given culture, the more lenient the attitude is to incest. The incestible is therefore a cultural trait, protective of the efficient mechanism of the family.

Society sought to minimize disruption to its activities, the activities of the family and to the clear flow of authority, responsibilities, material wealth and information horizontally and vertically cross-generation and among family members. It was to preserve the family as the basic functional unit of society that society invented that they post the incestible.

Insist threatened to unravel this magnificent creation, the family, alarmed by the possible consequences, internal external fumes, rise in level of aggression, violence, etc., disruptions, alarmed by the possible consequences. Society introduced it upon. It came replete with physical and emotional sanctions, stigmatization, ostracism, revulsion, horror, imprisonment, the demolition of the errant and social unit, family unit, family center.

As long as societies revolve around the relegation of power, its sharing, its acquisition and dispensation, there will always exist an incestible.

But in a different societal and cultural setting, it is conceivable not to have such a debate.

We can easily imagine a society where incest is extolled, taught and practiced and outbreeding is regarded with horror and revulsion. The incestuous marriages among members of the Royal House of Europe were intended to preserve the familiar property and expand the class territory. They were normative, not aberrant. Marrying an outsider was considered abhorrent, not the dumb thing.

An incestuous society where incest is a norm is conceivable even today.

As I said, the Royal House of Europe ceased to exist only 100 years ago. For well over 1,000 years, incest was the norm among the elites.

We can conceive of societies where incest is a norm.

For example, imagine the lot scenario. A plague or some other natural disaster decimates the population of planet Earth. People remain alive only in isolated clusters, cohabiting only with their closest kin. Surely incestuous procreation is preferable to virtuous extermination. Incest would become normative in such post-apocalyptic world.

Incest is as entrenched a taboo as cannibalism, yet it is better to eat the flesh of your dead football teammates than perish high up from the Andes. That is a harrowing tale of survival recounted in the book and eponymous film Alive.

So cannibalism happens and incest would happen in post-apocalyptic conditions.

And then there's the Egyptian scenario. Resources become so scarce, the family units scramble to keep them exclusively within the family, not to distribute them, not to involve other families in the distribution.

So exogamy, marrying outside the clan, amounts to a unilateral transfer of scarce resources to outsiders and to strangers, and incest becomes an economic imperative.

Some periods in ancient Egypt were like this. Incest is a culture-bound restriction, prohibition, and taboo. This culture-bound taboo has been internalized, of course, and has been transformed into a psychological inhibition and a physical revulsion, possibly because of close proximity, exactly as Westermark suggests.

But I do not think that incest is an objective, neutral, genetically-driven, or physiologically-driven, or even psychologically-driven natural behavior. I think it's absolutely socially and culturally determined, and therefore a world without incest is considerable, and a world with incest is considerable.

We live in a second type of world where the family unit is still so crucial that incest is frowned upon and prohibited.

And perhaps this is for the better, because our children take decades to mature much longer than a few hundred years ago. And these decades are spent within the family. It's very common today for children to live within the family until the age of 30.

Had incest become more normative or more acceptable, the disruption to society would have been unimaginable.

Ironically, we need the incest taboo now more than ever because our young ones are far less independent than they used to be.

Thank you for listening.

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