Genetic Sexual Attraction: What Is Reuniting Igniting?

12/12/2013 13:41 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Incest; is there anything more shudderingly repulsive? The internet may have desensitised us to many formerly unspeakable acts, but sexual relations between family members are still morally repugnant and utterly disturbing.

Or are they?

Incest normally conjures chilling images of vile old men 'grooming' children and assaulting prepubescent teens. Forget Ariel Castro and Joseph Fritzl. What if there is no force, coercion or betrayal of trust? What if there is no sexual predator and no victim? What if they are adults and it is consensual?

The mere thought is grimace-worthy but there is a small and vocal online community, mostly found in chatrooms and forums, who claim that incest is too broad a term for relationships involving consenting family members. They claim that any two consenting adults should be able to share love, sex, residence and marriage. They claim that they are not hurting anyone. They claim that laws and prejudices need to catch up with reality.

So, do they have a point?

By no means are these online defenders exonerating any paedophiles of their wicked sins. They are defending those who fall victim to Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA); the curious phenomenon where relatives who have been separated for years are gripped an intense physical and emotional lure upon reuniting.

It may sound like something straight out of a trashy gossip magazine or Jeremy Kyle's archive, but there are plenty of documented instances of GSA. The most famous is that of the Stübings brother and sister who failed to beat anti-incest laws when they spawned four children in Germany. GSA has even been covered in pop culture; think Oedipus Rex, J.R.R Tolkein's 'The Silmarillion' or Luke and Leia in Star Wars.

Credible, academic research is scant, probably because few prominent scientists would risk tarnishing their name with such evocative subject matter, but there is a consensus about where GSA happens most - in post-adoption reunions.

In recent years, these reunions have become a source of much media attention. We see them regularly on TV, in movies and in books. In 2014, there will even be a fourth season of 'Long Lost Family' on ITV - the show dedicated solely to finding and reuniting relatives separated by adoption.

The danger is that we view these reunions through rose-tinted glasses. The popular media panders to what we want to see; long lost relatives bounding happily into each other's arms. We are rarely shown any outbursts, accusations of blame or eruptions of pent-up frustration. TV presenters squeeze every last joyful tear out of their interviewees, but they forget to tell us that some reunions go terribly, terribly wrong...

They don't tell us about Genetic Sexual Attraction. They don't tell us that academics at University College London found that as many as 50% of post-adoption reunions are marked by strong sexual feelings in one or both participants.

Obviously, there is a lot to manage in an adoption reunion. They are unpredictable and exhausting. There is intense emotional upheaval. There is anxiety, confusion and restlessness. There is fear, excitement and anger. There is denial, avoidance, projection and rationalisation. There are anxious waits, miscommunications and false assumptions. There are pitfalls and hurdles. So many years have passed, there are so many feelings to feel, words to speak and tears to shed. Rational thinking is understandably difficult during such extreme emotional stress, but can a reunion really convert normal people into characters of a Greek tragedy?


GSA is linked to the 'Westermarck Effect', which hypothesises that infants are desensitised to those who they live with in early life because the bonding process prevents sexual attraction later on. It is thought to be a result of evolution; to supress prevent and lower the prevalence of disabilities or recessive traits.

Infants separated from their biological family avoid the Westermarck Effect. They were not desensitised to their relatives and when they reunite, ostensibly as strangers, the unprecedented feelings of connection, the unexplainable magnetism and the discovery of genetic resemblances blur family boundaries. In the worst cases, feelings can be expressed sexually, even if the erotic attraction is as much an emotional longing to be intimate as a sexual one.

GSA is always a risk in reunion because there will always be a fierce and profound bond between an adoptee and their birth mother. Not everyone who has a reunion feels a sexual attraction and not everyone who does, acts upon it.

Yet some people do, so GSA is a reality, not a salacious theory. It may be kept shrouded in mystery and spoken about only in whispers, but it is not going to go away anytime soon. Adoption reunions are increasingly common, especially since social networking has simplified tracing. Increasing rates of IVF, sperm donation and even divorce will only create more opportunity for family members to be separated then found later in life too.

The potential for GSA will not stop reunions. Many adoptees possess an instinctive need to reconnect with a birth mother. Searching for genetic roots can quell the pain caused by the initial separation. Reunions are about finding emotional stability and self-discovery. They can help adoptees understand themselves. Yet anyone engaging in post-separation contact should know that an unexpected and shocking discovery is possible, one which may turn a temporarily distressing experience into a permanently traumatic one.

More reunions mean more debate surrounding the legality and morality of Genetic Sexual Attraction. Certain questions will remain:

Is there a difference between biological and sociological incest? Should we condemn those gripped by GSA? Or is it an ordinary response to exceptional circumstances?