Incest is generally considered "unnatural" and "disgusting" by many people, but it has been around for a long time. Obviously, that's not about to change any time soon, which is probably why the legality of incest is a hotly debated subject throughout the globe.
The question we are trying to address today is why incest is a crime in the first place, and whether or not that makes sense. We will also briefly take a look at the legality of sexual relationships between family members in various places around the world.
You will be shocked to learn that incest laws are practically non-existent in some countries. Strangely, in other countries, some forms of incest are legal, while in others, those found guilty of incest face the death sentence.
Why Is Incest A Crime?
There are many reasons incest is considered a crime in many countries. Some countries ban the practice because it is frowned upon by society. After all, incestuous relationships are considered taboo by many societies, even in cases where there are no laws that outrightly ban the practice.
Still, in many cases, incest is illegalized because it tends to strain family relationships. Additionally, because incest can result in genetic defects in children, many countries have chosen to ban it.
Note that the meaning of incest from each country's legal standpoint varies based on the closeness of those involved, their age, or even the nature of the sexual activity in question. That is why incest laws vary so widely.
Basically, incest laws that make incest a crime seek to restrict marriage and sexual relationships between close family members. More importantly, these laws seek to prevent sex between children and adults, which is common in cases of father-daughter incest. Such relationships are considered a form of child sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, the fact that countries have such diverse laws regarding incest proves that the real reason the practice is illegalized or legalized is difficult to explain. In the United States, incest laws vary from one state to another.
As we are about to find out, those responsible for incest can face the death penalty, life in prison, penalties, or even zero legal consequences depending on where they commit the crime. For this reason, a universal justification for or against incest is still quite elusive, and that's not likely to change any time soon.
Many Countries Consider Incest A Crime On The Basis Of DNA Similarity
We consider incest a crime based on the degree of relationship between those involved. For instance, identical twins share 100% of their DNA. Parents and their children, as well as full siblings, share 50% of their DNA.
Half siblings, uncles/aunt and nieces/nephews, and grandparents and their grandchildren, share 25% of their DNA. First cousins, who can legally get married in some cultures, share only 12.5% of their DNA. On the other hand, second, third, and fourth cousins share less than 4% of their DNA.
Most laws try to prohibit any form of incest that involves a DNA similarity of more than 25%. When it comes to marriage, such laws are even stricter, requiring 12.5% or less in shared DNA. In some US states, marriages between cousins are prohibited regardless of the amount of DNA they have in common.
Some Countries Consider Incest A Crime, But Others Don't
Is incest a crime if two consenting adults are involved? The answer depends on the laws of the jurisdiction you are talking about.
Obviously, the issue of victim and perpetrator no longer applies when consenting adults such as grown-up siblings or cousins get into an incestuous relationship. As far as many people are concerned, this is largely a victimless crime.
Nevertheless, many laws around the world are pretty harsh as far as such relationships are concerned. For instance, countries like Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and UAE consider incest a crime even when consenting adults are involved. These countries punish the violation with the death penalty.
In many other countries, those responsible for this crime face up to 20 years in prison. As for the United States, punishment for incest between consenting relatives varies from one state to another.
In India and Bangladesh, when adults are involved in an incestuous relationship, the perpetrators are typically punished based on sexual exploitation laws. Technically, these countries don't consider incest a crime.
On the other end of the legal spectrum, incest between consenting adults is legal in countries like Belgium, Brazil, China, Luxembourg, Netherlands, South Korea, Slovenia, France, Thailand, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Serbia, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Ivory Coast, and Argentina. In Israel, incest is only legal if the adults are over 21 years of age.
In the Philippines, although consenting adults can engage in sexual relationships without any legal repercussions, it is illegal for them to get married.
Germany and Ireland consider incest a crime even when it happens between consenting adults unless they are of the same sex. Incestuous opposite-sex couples can face up to three years in prison or pay fines in Germany. In Ireland, incestuous heterosexual couples face up to 10 years behind bars.
Obviously, there are countries that lack any incest laws. Consequently, those who are involved with consensual adult incest don't face any legal consequences, although their cultures might consider incest taboo.
Is Incest A Crime In The US?
In the US, incest laws vary from one state to another. The differences start right from the way the term incest is defined by various states. Generally, in most states, marrying a close relative is illegal, and so is getting sexually involved with someone you cannot legally marry.
A "family member," according to US laws, is a relative you cannot legally marry. These people are usually close relatives like parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and first cousins. Distant relatives are not considered close relatives.
Nevertheless, there are also scenarios where adoptive relatives and stepfamilies are considered family members.
Most US states consider incest a crime, whether or not it involves consenting adults, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, in New Jersey, consenting adults over the age of 18 face no legal consequences for engaging in incest. The same case applies to Rhode Island.
Similarly, incest is legal among consenting adults in Ohio as long as those involved have no parental relationship.
Finally, in some cases, incest laws only kick in if the family members get married. As long as there is no marriage between the parties involved, these states will not seek prosecution. In states that consider incest a crime, those found guilty could end up spending life in prison.
The Problem With Enforcing Incest Laws
Even in jurisdictions that consider incest a crime, it is not very easy to prosecute this crime. After all, incestuous relationships are often a secret.
Therefore, authorities are unlikely to learn about the illicit relationship unless someone comes forward with information about the relationship. At this point, it might already be too late to prosecute due to the statute of limitations.
There are also a number of defenses against incest charges. For instance, proving that you were not aware that you were related to the other person could be used as a defense. Similarly, the statute of limitations is also a good defense.
Consent, unfortunately, is not a valid defense in states that consider incest a crime.
In many cases, incest itself is not usually the targeted felony, but rather an issue like child abuse. Additionally, when those involved in incest have a huge age gap, prosecutors normally consider incest a crime for the older person and leave the younger person alone.
Otherwise, in cases where the two consenting adults are about the same age, they both end up getting charged.
Illegal Or Not, Societal Perceptions On Incest Are Mostly Negative
Whether or not a country or a state legalizes incest, most societies tend to have a very strong negative opinion about these kinds of relationships.
Even in places where incest is legal, those discovered to be incestuous typically get very severe backlash from the public and even family members.
The truth is that many people consider incest abnormal. After all, we are hardwired to avoid sexual relationships with those we consider close relatives. This is despite the fact that incest between siblings is the most common romantic relationship between family members.
Generally, based on societal perceptions, most people seem to think that incest (even in cases where it's consensual), does more harm than good. Without a doubt, countries that illegalize and severely punish incest generally share this view.