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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Fanny and Edmund Got Married
I'm curious about attitudes to first-cousin marriage.

First, to get the medical side out of the way, I can see good genetic reasons for not marrying one's first cousin, reasons which may indeed be powerful enough to justify measures banning or restricting the practice. I don't feel qualified to judge that, and for the present purpose I'm not interested in it either. It's clearly less than optimal, like having parents over fifty, but whether it's a sufficiently bad idea to pass laws about it I just don't know.

What I'm interested in here is the visceral ickiness some people clearly feel at the idea of first-cousin marriage - the feeling that it breaks some powerful incest taboo, perhaps just a notch down from marrying one's sibling, child or parent.

I wasn't brought up to feel like that at all, and I'm curious as to why not - or, conversely, why other people do. Since these things are cultural, where are the cultural dividing lines, in terms of geography, generation, or belief systems? My impression is that the taboo feeling is stronger in the States, but I also think that in the UK it's stronger with the younger generation than with my own or older. There are also ethnic groups within the UK where first-cousin marriage is common, notably within the Pakistani community where I believe it runs at over 50%, and of course that has meant that the subject has inevitably become embroiled in rows about race, religion, etc. Has that altered the broader terms of the debate?

In short - as I see it, when I was growing up first-cousin marriage was considered unusual but in no way taboo, at least in my little bit of the world. I think it was even seen as romantic. Now, the feeling that it's taboo is much more widespread.

How does this tally with your experience of your own and other people's opinions? Have things changed?


Isn't there just! Thanks for the link: I've read it over quickly, and it confirms my general impression, but it's hard to see any evidence of whether this is a shifting picture. Perhaps it's just me, but it does seem there's generally less acceptance of the practice than there used to be, and I can't help wondering why - but perhaps I'm wrong in the first place?

I've always thought it was icky. I heard a Radio 4 programme a year or two ago about a project called "Born in Bradford" where the local health trust was doing a survey of genetic defects in local babies. Almost all of those defects seemed to be in Pakistani cousin-marriages. I recently worked with two Pakistani Muslims who both have rare blood disorders - one is a woman with a form of haemophilia, which is unusual in itself - and both put it down to their parents being first cousins.

I don't think there's much doubt that it leads to higher levels of birth defect, but to my mind that makes it inadvisable rather than icky.

How does this tally with your experience of your own and other people's opinions? Have things changed?

I don't think cousin marriage registers as either genetically or socially close enough to trip any squick triggers with me, although if one grew up in a family with a large group of cousins around the same age, I can see it impinging on incest taboos the same way as the famous effect with communally raised children on kibbutzim (they related to one another as functional siblings, not potential sexual partners). On the other hand, one of my romantic partners is my third cousin's wife—whom I refer to as my cousin—so I may not be a good test subject.

Gosh, now I'm trying to remember the name of that effect (it has a name, I think?).

The first person I ever had a crush on was a first cousin, now I think of it. But since think of it was all I did at the time, there were no ill effects.

(no subject) - nightspore, 2012-10-14 09:55 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-14 10:01 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-15 12:26 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-15 03:24 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-15 09:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-16 01:27 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-16 04:19 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-16 04:36 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-16 05:03 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-15 03:49 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-15 07:27 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-15 12:40 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sheenaghpugh, 2012-10-15 08:59 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-15 12:52 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-15 01:02 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-16 04:16 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-16 06:39 am (UTC)(Expand)
in my in-no-sense-comprehensive experience, it's been Americans I've found reacting with squick/isn't that illegal? while British folk seem to shrug and if they have an opinion, reckon it's that it's inadvisable for genetic health but not morally wrong per se.

I may find an opportunity to canvass my students, to see if this reaction extends to younger people, or whether (as I suspect) a more "American" attitude is making headway here.

(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2012-10-16 04:23 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-16 06:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-16 09:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - heleninwales, 2012-10-15 12:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
...whatever this says about me, the first thing I think of is Frank and Caroline Chant. (The second is the real life Christopher Robin.)

I'm not terribly squicked out by the idea, but would definitely be a bit squicked out by the idea of fancying any of my actual cousins.

would definitely be a bit squicked out by the idea of fancying any of my actual cousins.

Well, you can't choose your family, as they say...

(no subject) - ashkitty, 2012-10-15 01:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
As I pointed out on the Making Light thread, there was a faction in the UK saying cousin marriages were a bad idea -- I quoted Charlotte Yonge there, and I was just reading today about Beatrix Potter's mother lecturing her at some length about cousin marriages being unhealthy. I can't find the exact quotation just now, but BP noted something to the effect that "I am afraid she particularly wishes me to know her views on the subject," i.e., that her mother was hinting that she should by no means become attached to any of her male cousins in that way.

There are still people in the UK making that argument on health grounds - I remember the MP Ann Cryer calling for a law to ban them a few years ago (in her area, 75% of Pakistani Britons marry their first cousins). It's interesting though that even Charlotte Yonge - in the passage you quote - objects simply because of the likelihood of genetic conditions (even if she gives that risk a religious spin by calling it "tempting God"), not because she sees cousin marriage as incestuous.

I was grown before I found out cousin marriage was legal anywhere in modernity; I knew Charles Darwin had married his first cousin but assumed that had become illegal since. Where I grew up it is on the level of a sibling taboo, i.e. would not even cross most people's minds as possible.

One of my lovers is my wife's third cousin (see above), which is about at a level where people in my area of birth would start shrugging shoulders and saying well if you really must-- the way this would go down would be a lot of people saying in gossipy scandalized tones 'they're cousins' and getting the instant, not-quite-excusing reply from their respondants 'by marriage'. Of course since we are both female that trumps everything in terms of unacceptable-in-those-parts.

If I were involved with anyone with that degree of consanguinity who was biological instead of by marriage I would never ever hear the last of it from my extended family. Third cousin also gets scandalized but-if-you-must. Fourth is no longer scandalous but gets mentioned in the way that people get mentioned who are unusually tall etc. I have the data readily accessible to what I think would be ninth.

So this is a U.S. thing then? I had assumed it was a rural-vs.-urban divide in that way where people care less after you move to the city.

Third cousins is really pretty distant. I'm the only person I know who even knows any of her third cousins. And that's only because my parents were good friends with my dad's second cousin and his wife. In that case the friendship was by far the main thing; their actual relationship only explained why they happened to meet.

With more folks having second marriages quite late, lots of people are suddenly introduced to adult stepsibs -- I've got three myself. It would seem extremely awkward to be attracted to them, but not necessarily squicky.

(no subject) - kalypso_v, 2012-10-15 03:37 am (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-15 07:55 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2012-10-16 01:31 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-10-15 09:00 am (UTC)(Expand)
Slightly OT, but I'm reminded of, of all things, the US dubbed version of Sailor Moon. In the Japanese version, Sailors Uranus and Neptune are very clearly lovers. The US producers, a bit leery of having an out lesbian couple on their children's show, removed any verbal references to their relationship. They became "cousins"...

...except that the censors kept in all the longing looks, affectionate smiles, handholding, romantic fingerplay, etc etc. So to the amusement of the North American audience, not only did they look like the lovers they were in the original, they appeared to be incestuous lovers. In denial.

The Sailor Moon censors, in general, in their flailing attempts to avoid any and all controversy, usually made scripts raunchier with unintended innuendo. In one poolside scene, a couple of young men make appreciative comments. In the original, the line was "Look at the cute girls!" followed by a camera pan up one woman's body. The dubbed version is "Look at the all you can eat buffet!"...as the camera pans up her body.


Mistranslations of anime deserve a post all of their own. That one's rather marvellous.

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Some natural phase of starting to look at boys that way at all, rather.

Perhaps it was something like that with me and my first cousin. Only seeing that branch of the family once in a long while may have inhibited the Westermarck effect, too.

I feel quite strongly about this because my husband and his siblings are the product of a first-cousin marriage and they all have the normal number of heads. I really don't get the "eww" reaction; obviously it wouldn't be a good plan to do it generation after generation or in a family with serious hereditary disease (though personally I don't think families with something like haemophilia or Huntingdon's should have biological children anyway). When I was growing up in the 60s, the couple next door to us were first cousins, and had decided to remain childless; I don't know if that was purely down to the relationship or because there was a medical problem in the family they didn't wish to pass on.

Presumably the ewww reaction varies with culture, because I recall reading that in Denmark, uncles are in season all year round?

I'm assuming it's cultural too. I mean, I know many religious taboos have their ultimate origins in Health and Safety Legislation (which may be the literal meaning of "Leviticus"), but that connection is often fairly vestigial.

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I suppose the thing that groups where cousin marriage is common have in common is that the pool of available partners is limited, either because of geographical isolation (as in the rural backwater scenario), or because of cultural exclusivity (as with the Pakistani Britons or the royal family). The ironic thing is that in some cases the isolation is associated with social prestige, and in other cases with its opposite, which makes cousin marriage a socially ambiguous practice.

Coming at it from a different angle. I've been married nearly 50 years to, in effect, the boy next door (no blood kinship). Like D.H. Lawrence and Frieda, we got married and ran away to see the world. The older I get, and the farther away from that home we get, the more I appreciate having a common background.

In theory, I've always thought it would be nice to add a sexual partnership to an existing close relationship; just sort of 'fold it in', as in cooking. 'Love by the rules of friendship' (in the same-sex case), or in any case without disturbing the existing (healthy, consensual) dynamics.

Ah, that's the ideal soufflé - but oh so prone to collapse!