On one hand you have the mythical story of Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father and makes love to his mother, only to gouge out his eyes in shame when he realizes what he’s done. On the other hand, you have the tantric wisdom which holds that sexual intercourse between mother and son is a powerful, even enlightening experience in which, to quote Rufus Camphausen in The Encyclopedia of Erotic Wisdom, “the circle that was broken at birth is once more completed.”
Clearly, incest occupies something of a schizophrenic position in the sexual history of humankind. In societies around the world, it is one of the most ingrained of all taboos. Yet many societies have condoned sexual relationships between family members. At various times in ancient (and not so ancient) civilizations from Egypt to Western Europe and the Americas, marriage between siblings or members of the same bloodline was seen as a way to keep power, riches and real estate under the control of the same family.
The taboo against incest has a physical and an emotional component. Once humans realized that the sex they enjoyed was also bringing new humans into the world, we also realized that there were more deformities and miscarriages when the procreators were in the same family. However some siblings fared better than others. Richard Lewinsohn’s A History of Sexual Customs points out that Alexander the Great’s successors, the Ptolemies, practiced brother sister marriage for three centuries “without noticeable bad physical effects.”
But not all sex is for conception, so it’s the emotional and psychological taboos against incest to which we probably respond most profoundly. A major reason for this prohibition is the likelihood that incestuous relations (especially between parents and children, or older and younger siblings) aren’t about pleasure but abuse. Ironically, however, Camphausen argues that incest might help alleviate some of the horrors of the sexual abuse of children. “An enlightened society in which mental and/or chemical control makes contraception possible,” he writes, “could and should allow incest between consenting adults. Such tolerance, together with a generally wise and free attitude concerning sexual matters, would probably reduce neurosis and true sexual abuse and misconduct, occurrences all too common in present day ‘moral’ societies.”