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Incest Taboo: A Sociological Examination

Although once a viable means of safeguarding the royal bloodline incest is currently a topic that is incredibly taboo in modern society. It has been explored recently in programs like Game of Thrones, but the practice is still far from accepted. There are two competing theories about why this is the case, one theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, and another by Edvard Westermarck.

Freud’s theory is that all humans are innately incestuous, most famously espoused in his theory of the Oedipus complex. Due to this lust it is then necessary for societies to create incest taboos in order to continue to function. But, during the 20th century Freud’s theories largely fell out of favor with mainstream psychology, until they were built upon and reformulated by Jacques Lacan. Lacan states that incest taboo is the child’s ability to recognize the mother’s desire for something somebody else, usually the father. The signifiers of the mother’s desire will then separate the child from the mother-child symbiosis, which leads to the aversion to incest.

Naturally, Freud’s theories are quite uncomfortable as people are reluctant to acknowledge that traits that we view as undesirable are actually innate. But Freud’s theory has now been largely displaced by Westermarck’s theory of aversion to incest. Westermarck believes that when humans are raised together, their close proximity over a number of years nurtures an aversion to sexual relations. His theory is widely accepted, with much sociological evidence such as Shim-Pua Marriages in China and Kibbutz relationships in Israel. For example in in an Israeli Kibbutz it was found that those that married were rarely raised together.

It may seem at first glance that these theories are diametrically opposed, but this is not necessarily the case. The example of the Israeli Kibbutz has been revisited and it was discovered that close living is not enough discourage sexual relations, rather it was social pressures and norms that did so. Furthermore Freud’s Oedipus complex has recently gained more credence as it has been shown that people’s sexual preferences are influenced by how their parents look. What these two theories show is that incest taboo is perhaps more nuanced than first meets the eye, as it is an intermingling of different factors that create the societal pressures which enforce today’s incest taboo.