Genetic Secual Attraction (GSA), is a disorder where one develops strong feelings of sexual attraction towards a family member, a cousin, a sibling or half sibling, parent or grandparent. As gross or perhaps intriguing as this may sound to you, it is actually a fascinating insight into how we socially build boundaries and indoctrinate ourselves and our children to reject our own family as potential mates.
GSA may be something that we collectively go ‘eeeeewwwwwwww!’ at, and it’s probably a good thing that we reject our family members for potential mates, but GSA, or even just mating with a relative because there is no one else around, has been part of human history for thousands of years.
Ancient Egyptian royalty were possibly the most inbred bunch of people that ever lived. Siblings married siblings, half siblings married half siblings, parents, aunties, uncles and cousins were fair game for a husband or wife. The idea was to not dilute the blood of the gods from which they believed they were descended, so the obvious (!) solution was to hop into bed with a relative or two. In fact, the famous boy king, Tutankhamun had some anomalies and died quite young.
A more recent case is the Haspburg family who ruled Spain in the 15th-16th centuries. For six generations, they inbred with each other, resulting in the sixth king unfortunately being known as ‘Carlos the Cursed’ as he was mentally retarded and looked a bit… well… inbred. Needless to say, no child was born to him. Even more recently, Queen Elizabeth II married her cousin- Prince Philip. As Prince Philip was part of the Greek royal family who were then sacked from Greece, she was not raised around him, and ultimately she fell for him, despite being reasonably close. Queen Victoria also married her cousin, Prince Albert (and in the process she famously introduced haemophilia into the royal family, but that’s another story). Currently, small religious societies or cults may promote inbreeding with each other in order to maintain certain beliefs or those that are polygamists can make a whole range of half siblings, thereby creating chances for inbreeding in small communities.
Scientifically, I think we all know that inbreeding can lead to deformed or genetically unfit children. But why would genetic diversity be such an advantage?
The main reason to mix up genes is to avoid genetic disease propagation. If there is a single mutated gene that appears in a person, and they have offspring, there is a 50% chance the kids will have that gene. Now, as long each of the kids mates with someone not related, the chance of that gene being in the next generation is much less than if someone mates with a sibling who has an equal chance of having that same gene. Therefore the sibling/couple offspring have a much higher chance of the gene being passed onto them. A well known effect of inbreeding is the prevalence of Tay Sachs disease, a fatal cellular dysfunction disease common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community, which came about from a small tight knit community inbreeding with each other.
GSA was first described by Barbara Gonyo, in the 1980’s after she succumbed to GSA herself with her own son. GSA has been linked to various people who have been estranged, adopted or born via donor eggs or sperm. These relationships are more than just a fleeting attraction. These people will settle down together, have children and commit in seemingly impractical situations, with vast age gaps resulting in parents wanting children with their own offspring. While this may seem totally alien to many, it is actually a surprisingly common condition.
Though we read these cases with a strong dose of dislike and uncomfortable-ness, it is actually heart breaking for those who have their lives changed by law that states that they cannot marry despite strong feelings. Anyone who has experienced such strong attraction will know the effect it can have. With fertility options further increasing in range and availability, one donor can produce many half siblings, all without anyone’s knowledge. Single parenthood and other situations that require donations will only increase the chances of this happening since the advent of IVF and artificial insemination.
Some researchers hypothesise, I think quite correctly, that those who live with each other from under 6 years old onwards will experience some form of desensitisation to each other as to not pursue each other as prospects. Data from the Post Adoption Centre in the UK and University College London estimate that GSA happens in up to 50% of reunion cases.
Adding the concept of assertive mating which states that we seek partners that have similar traits as us, for example intelligence, education, smell, moral principles and other characteristics to the mix creates an added layer of attraction. Combining these two theories together, if two siblings had been not been exposed to each other, but then met finding they had a lot of similarities, this may actually lead to each sibling being attracted to the other one. The newness of the relationship may develop into something romantic (Segal, 2008).
Another theory called the Westermarck effect takes place in childhood years where children that grow up close to each other develop a sexual repulsion to each other. It is thought to develop to prevent inbreeding. This even applies to families who are formed via adoption where the children are genetically different even from each other and/or their parents. Where the Westermarck effectively serves as a safeguard to incest. As two family members reunite as adults, the desire to bond without this imprinted repulsive effect can increase the chances of GSA. Combining everything together, the circumstances are ripe for a relationship, sex and all. It could be argued that there is a natural need to bond with one’s own family. When the bond has not had a chance to develop between relatives in young childhood, the relationship could be an obsessive need to compensate for that missing bond, but without the psychological safeguard. (Sullens and DeNeen, 2013)
The key thing to understand is that like other attractions between people, it is not something controlled. It is worth remembering that those affected by GSA may be horrified themselves at what they feel, and mounting stigmatisation only compounds the problem, making the sufferers less likely to get help. (Sullens and DeNeen, 2013) In actual fact, often it affects their current relationships and any faith based beliefs. As so many people are wont to judge on one of the last taboos in society, who can these isolated people talk to? This isolation may in fact increase the dependency on each other and perpetuate the relationship.
In terms of prevention, they key is early intervention and an open mind to help people deal with these feelings. Judgement is never the way to assist anyone with any psychological problem, GSA is no exception. The prevention of GSA also raises the practicality of closed adoptions, where children cannot have any contact with their birth relatives until they are of legal age. An open adoption would allow the adoptee to have normal feelings towards their relatives by means of interaction from a suitable age. (Sullens and DeNeen, 2013)
All in all, GSA, like many psychological conditions, is not something to be mocked. It is an unfortunate effect of well meaning parents who adopt children to give them a better life, or choose donated gametes to increase their chances of conception. It is a product of experiences that have not been had, prepared for or dealt with appropriately. Like any secret, shame and stigma only serve to make things worse, so maybe we should start talking more about the things that make us uncomfortable and show compassion to those who clearly struggle with their feelings.
-Segal, 2008, Twin Research and Human Genetics Volume 11 Number 2 pp. 236–239-Sullens and DeNeen, 2013, Afin, Issue 51, pages 1-11.