The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Surname
What's wrong with marrying your cousin?
If you still won't cry uncle, let's look at hard-core incest. Advocates of cousin marriage say they're against sex between siblings, but they can't explain why. Cousincouples.com, the Web site to which the NSGC study refers couples for support services, wants to keep Big Brother out of the bedroom. The site argues that "sexual relations between consenting adults [are] no one's business but their own." Aunt Kate, the site's advice columnist, tells a reader who's shacking up with her half brother that "if you are consenting adults there is no prohibition on simply enjoying your relationship." The site's "Statement of Principles" touts the "special intimacy" of romance between cousins: "The love and chemistry of cousins is typically astronomical as compared with other couples. If non-cousin couples would take the time to educate themselves, they would be jealous of cousin couples!" By that logic, wouldn't sibling couples be even better?
Yes, the risk of disease in offspring of sibling couples is much higher. But why couldn't genetic screening take care of that problem? As cousincouples.com points out, "Current studies indicate that cousin couples have a lower ratio of miscarriages—perhaps because body chemistry of cousins is more similar." Wouldn't the chance of miscarriage be even lower for siblings?
Many advocates of cousin marriage dismiss bans on the practice as racist. The authors of the NSGC study urge counselors to be "culturally respectful" of immigrant communities in which cousin marriage is "traditionally preferred." Why do these traditions promote cousin marriage? In some cases, because it promises "better treatment by in-laws" or because it keeps "goods and property within a family," says the study. That sounds more like pressure than freedom. Maybe we should worry more about whether people in these communities are free not to marry their cousins.
If cultural respect is your principle, how far do you carry it? According to the study, some African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures prefer marriages "between an uncle and niece." Should we respect those cultures by permitting those marriages? The question isn't just hypothetical: Minnesota law has a grandfather clause allowing uncle-niece marriages when "permitted by the established customs of aboriginal cultures." And what about people from Jewish or Christian traditions that stigmatize cousin marriage? Should their genetic counselors reflect that stigma?
As Frame Game found in the case of bestiality, the best argument against a questionable practice comes, inadvertently, from within it. In this case, the answer comes from Aunt Kate's advice column at cousincouples.com. "I tell almost ALL my correspondents who are considering expressing a more than casual affection for their cousin to remember a few important things," she writes. "The first one is that you already have a guaranteed, life long relationship that you will live with for a very long time. Don't mess it up."
This is the problem with sleeping with your cousin. You can move on from an ex-spouse or ex-lover, but there's no such thing as an ex-cousin. How are your parents and your ex's parents supposed to handle a nasty divorce or a breakup? How can they support their kids without antagonizing their siblings and their siblings' kids? You've wrecked your whole family. It isn't as bad as if you'd slept with a sibling, but it's a lot worse than if you'd slept with a friend or an officemate. We don't ban you from dating people at the office, but we don't tell you it's a great idea, either.
If you get into bed with your cousin, there's no need for Uncle Sam to throw you in jail. If it works out, great. If not, you'll find yourself in a jail no uncle will let you out of.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.