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Debunking genetic sexual attraction: Incest by any other name is still incest

Stories that minimize incest by calling it "genetic sexual attraction" are peddling pseudoscience


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Amanda Marcotte
August 16, 2016 11:14PM (UTC)

Last week a minor eruption of media coverage surfaced about an incestuous couple in New Mexico who is fighting criminal prosecution and a court order keeping them apart since sex between a parent and child is illegal. Monica Mares gave up her son, Caleb Peterson, when she was 16 years old, and they reunited after he became a legal adult. The relationship swiftly became romantic, and the government intervened, forcing them to separate and charging them both with a crime.

But Mares and Peterson are defending themselves by claiming that it's not incest, but something called "genetic sexual attraction."  This is a term that that surely sounds scientific. Certainly, much of the reporting on this case makes "genetic sexual attraction," or GSA, sound like a scientific phenomenon, beyond the control of the people involved. Take, for instance, this reporting from Mic:

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Their story fits the standard definition of GSA, which is when the child grows up separated from the parent, and then sexual attraction consumes both of them when they're finally reunited as adults. There is not a ton of research on the topic, but a generous estimate reported by one GSA forum said it occurs in as many as half of all post-adoption reunions.

A "standard definition"? Offering statistics, even as an "estimate"? Other media coverage used words like "phenomenon" or "raising awareness" — language that implies that genetic sexual attraction is a measurable, demonstrable reality, as opposed to some half-baked pseudoscientific nonsense that people dreamed up to justify continuing unhealthy, abusive relationships.

"Signs of pseudoscience?" asked Carol Tavris, social psychologist and co-author of "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)," over email. "Look for biological buzz words — genetic, neuro- (attached to anything), hormonal, hardwired — that are used to make a claim about some complex activity, solely on the claimer’s personal experience (anecdote) but lack any scientific research to back up that claim."

Added Tavris: "And attraction and sexual behavior are about as complex as you get."

It didn't take much digging for me to discover that genetic sexual attraction is not the scientifically determined phenomenon that its proponents portray it as, starting with the fact that the vast majority of these stories have been percolating out of tabloid publications like the Daily Mail and not from legitimate news sources.

Nicolas DiDomizio at Mic admitted "not a ton of research" exists to back up claims of genetic sexual attraction, but that is an understatement. A better way to put it is that there is no real research supporting the notion that sharing genes with someone makes you more likely to want to have sex with them.

I couldn't find any studies or mentions of this supposed phenomenon in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  or scientific articles with an in-depth look at it. The "generous estimate" came not from a scientist or any other kind of expert but from a random website that claims to have obtained the number from "some studies" but declines to point out who conducted them or where they were published. While I haven't read every paper published throughout time, even the most ardent proponents of genetic sexual attraction have not produced a shred of evidence that some people who are biological relatives are are more likely to be sexually attracted to one another than to those they are not related to.

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For a couple of decades now, stories like Mares and Peterson's have cropped up in the news periodically and followed the same basic pattern: a defensive couple, pseudoscientific posturing, poorly sourced statistics and no actual evidence that any of this is due to genetic sexual attraction and not unhealthy choices and abusive behavior.

Some searching around revealed that the term "genetic sexual attraction" can be traced not to a biologist or a psychologist but a woman named Barbara Gonyo, who coined the term in the 1980s. She is not a scientist or a doctor but simply a woman who met her son whom she had given up for adoption when he was in his 20s and she in her 40s.

By her own account, Gonyo sexually desired her son.

"I wanted to hold him," she told ABC News in 2007. "I just wanted to touch him. I wanted to hold him. It's the same physical feeling anybody would have when they feel like they're falling in love."

Gonyo told the Guardian in a similar story, "I was flirtatious, coquettish and playful."

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She added, "When getting ready to see him, I primped and primed, becoming like a 16-year-old in mind and body. I was trying to win him over, like someone I wanted to date or marry."

But despite Gonyo's insistence that a genetic link somehow draws two people into sexual attraction, she admits her son wanted no part of this supposedly irresistible passion.

Rather than accept that her feelings might simply be an unhealthy reaction to an unusual situation, she simply made up a biological-sounding term to describe them. It's an understandable urge because it lessens the personal responsibility for these feelings, making it seem like they are being caused by something out of one's control. But journalists should be careful to not be suckered into believing that something is scientific just because of science-y-sounding terms.

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Further digging around on the subject of genetic sexual attraction reinforces how flimsy the evidence for it really is. One major site purporting to "educate" on the subject has a books section, but a click on the recommendations leads not to psychological research but to a series of incest-based romance novels with names like "Love's Forbidden Flowers." The Kinsey Reports this is not.

A small, overlapping series of blogs and social media accounts are pushing this pseudoscientific theory, and it's essentially the same story everywhere: a lot of links, but no real research. There are a lot of comparisons to being gay, without acknowledging that incest is not an orientation like homosexuality. Big, science-y sounding words are used, but the evidence is mostly self-reported and anecdotal, not collected scientifically by researchers.

The dangers of this pseudoscientific approach became evident last year, when New York's Science of Us blog published an interview of a woman in an incestuous situation, with the title "What It's Like To Date Your Dad."

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The article started off with the usual evidence-free pseudoscientific framing of genetic sexual attraction as being rooted in nature and practically instinctual. But after one reads the actual interview, a different picture emerges — of a young woman who sounds like she's being manipulated by her father into a controlling incestuous relationship; the red flags are flying everywhere. (She's only 18. He groomed her sexually by pretending he was just cuddling or playing. She was a virgin when they first had sex. His ex-girlfriend pretends she's her mother, that sort of thing.)

It's a good example of why journalists need to be cognizant of the difference between science and pseudoscience. Any fool — clearly — can throw a bunch of big, scientific-sounding words around to justify behavior that people would otherwise see clearly as ill-advised or immoral. But journalists don't have to let them get away with it.

 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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Abuse Genetic Sexual Attraction Incest Pseudoscience

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