As word spread this week that Aimee L. Sword had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for tracking down and having sex with the 14-year-old son she gave up for adoption, her name rocketed to the top of Google's list of most-searched terms. The frenzy was no doubt fueled in part by people's desire to understand why on earth a birth mother would seek out her biological son and then sleep with him.
Sword, it seems, is asking herself the very same question. Her lawyer recently told the press: "When she saw this boy, something just touched off in her -- and it wasn't a mother-son relationship, it was a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship."
Regardless of how it felt to the 36-year-old, it was clearly a case of child sexual abuse. That said, it does bring up a lesser discussed, and certainly rarer, phenomenon: Attraction between close biological relatives who first meet as adults. Genetic sexual attraction, as it's called, was first dubbed in the 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, author of the memoir "I'm His Mother, But He's Not My Son." She gave up her son for adoption at the young age of 16 and reunited with him when she was 42 and he was 26. "When I found him, I found my feelings were very strange and I was very upset," Gonyo told Salon. "It felt like falling in love" -- and, eventually, she found she wasn't the only one having this taboo experience.
But just how common can this phenomenon be, exactly? It's hard to estimate the prevalence of GSA, as people generally aren't very forthcoming about incestuous feelings. There's a total dearth of research on the subject; only one academic study has focused on the issue, and it surveyed only 40 adoptees (all of whom reported "erotic" feelings toward their long-lost relative). Absent cold-hard facts, there is anecdotal evidence to be found on GeneticSexualAttraction.com's message board, which Gonyo herself started. She's convinced that the experience is none too rare, based on the flood of thank-you e-mails she's received and the stories she's heard in her adoption support group. Ahead of reunions, some adoption agencies have even taken to providing clients with information on the possibility of experiencing GSA.
You might also wonder how any of this makes biological sense -- after all, aren't we supposed to be wired against such a thing? That's up for debate, as is the how and why of the universal incest taboo. According to a theory developed by anthropologist Edward Westermarck, it's actually the experience of early bonding and cohabitation that discourages strong sexual attraction to our close relatives. GSA believers also point to studies showing that people tend to show a preference for sexual partners that look like their opposite sex parent. Gonyo likes to point out that when people share their stories of GSA, the first thing out of their mouth is almost always that it felt like finally meeting their soul-mate, or the opposite-sex version of themselves.
Ultimately, though, she attributes GSA to "missed bonding." "When you get together like that, and you start talking on the phone several times a day -- because you have 20 some years to catch up on and you want to tell them everything -- it is all so strong and you can't even stand to be away from each other," she explains. All of the emotions surrounding adoption -- especially abandonment, loss and long-term longing -- are channeled into an intense sexual urge, says Gonyo, who never actually slept with her son, largely because he didn't feel the same way and was, understandably enough, a bit freaked out by the whole idea. Gonyo says her attraction was rooted in a desire to fill a significant role for him -- the one she gave up when she was 16. Sex, it turns out, can be used as a shortcut to all sorts of intimacy.
Sword's case is dramatically different from the examples given by the GSA community, because her sexual experience with her underage son was, by definition, non-consensual. Gonyo suggests, though, that a certain emotional inequity exists even in adult GSA relationships. "This child may be coming to you as a 30-year-old, but mentally they are your child, they are still a little boy coming to you looking for a parent. And it's up to the parent to say no."