Q: My wife and I just had our first child six months ago, a girl. I was expecting a boy so I was pleasantly surprised. However, now I’m concerned, my wife is a very attractive woman and I’m expecting my daughter to also grow into an attractive young lady. Am I destined to be attracted to my daughter? How can I safeguard against this?– Jon, Palm Beach
A: Dear Jon,
There are different ways in which one can be attracted to one’s daughter. You might one day find yourself thinking, “my, what a lovely, intelligent young lady she is becoming, no wonder I so enjoy our time together.” We would hope that it turns out that way. But if something goes wrong you might find yourself thinking, “nice rack, kiddo, want some candy?”
The reason I say that something might go wrong in the second case is that you may be pre-programmed not to be attracted to your daughter, in the icky way, if biology has anything to say about the matter.
Evolution doesn’t like incest because it tends to advance dangerous genes. Let’s say, for example, that you carry a recessive gene for hemophilia, a life-threatening disorder that slows the clotting of blood. Since it is recessive, you can carry the gene without the unpleasant effects. You can even pass the gene to your offspring and it will remain recessive as long as the other parent doesn’t also pass it on.
However, if both parents carry the recessive gene, chances are increased that the offspring will develop hemophilia, become European royalty, and die before he or she can reproduce.
Evolutionary psychologists believe when that particular offspring dies, along with others like him, so does the tendency toward the behavior of incest. What we are ultimately left with, many generations down the road, is a widespread genetic aversion to mating with relatives.
Why we don’t diddle the kinfolk
When a behavior like incest interferes with creating healthy offspring, says evolutionary theory, that behavior tends not to survive in subsequent generations. This is probably why diddling the kinfolk is a serious taboo in almost all cultures. Cultures with no rules against incest would be less likely to produce healthy offspring.
Another cultural commonality is that the aversion to incest tends to be strongest in relation to our closest relatives – such as our kids. The more closely those people are related to us, the more genetic information we share, and the less sense it makes to mate with them. At least, that’s the genetic point of view.
Incidentally, you might feel that incest is clearly, obviously disgusting and you don’t need no stinkin’ gene to tell you that it’s wrong. If so, thank your genes for telling you that. The revulsion that you feel about groovin’ with cousin Betty may be your genes’ way of preventing you from engaging in the behavior. Not that you would.
Why some people do it anyway
Now you’re asking: So if incest is against the genetic rules, Dr. Smarty Pants, why do some people do it? Well, Jon, some people are crazy. To be more precise, some people are deviant, meaning that their proclivities don’t match yours, mine, and the great majority. Some people, for example, are pedophiles, and here’s where your question comes into the picture.
Psychology, in its never-ending quest to prove the obvious, has discovered that pedophiles are aroused by pictures of children. As they were testing this scientific breakthrough, researchers noticed a useful and non-intuitive tidbit: men who molest their female daughters are different in some important ways from men who molest non-relatives (Rice & Harris, 2002; Seto, Lamuliere, & Kuban, 1999).
For one thing, some research suggests that men who molest their daughters typically don’t molest outside the family, and they are less likely to repeat the crime with new victims.
This stands in contrast to non-familial pedophiles who are notorious for recidivism and multiple victims. What’s more, familial pedophiles aren’t as aroused by children as your garden variety pedophile would be. So what makes them ignore the genetic rules against incest? How do they get past the stomach-turning reaction that most of us have? The research suggests a couple of explanations (Seto et al, 2002).
Be a good dad
First, it’s possible that fathers who have minimal involvement with their daughters may not be giving themselves the opportunity to develop a normal sexual aversion to their kiddos. Some evolutionary psychologists believe that ongoing, familial-type involvement with other people triggers a behavior that says “hey, I’m spending an awful lot of time with that one, so she must be related. Stay out of those genes.”
Another possibility is that fathers who molest their daughters have trouble getting their needs met in normal, healthy, adult relationships. Lacking normal intimate partnerships, dad begins to notice the one female who depends on him, understands him, and loves him: his daughter. Confusion and/or desperation leads him to take their relationship to the next level. Creepy, I know.
So, Jon, here’s what you can do to avoid being sexually drawn to your daughter when she matures into that attractive young lady. First, realize that paranoia is typical with new fathers. What you are experiencing now may be nothing more than your desire to protect your infant daughter from everything, including yourself.
Second, stay involved with her and become the best father you can be, every single day. Do you remember the “quality time” nonsense from the 80s? The idea was that busy parents would spend very little time with their children, but by God, they would make those precious few minutes count! Sadly, this is a steaming pile of rationalization that some parents use as an excuse to focus on things other than their kids.
Quantity time is the key, Jon. The quality will follow, and the chances of dysfunction in your family will be greatly reduced if you are there every day to change the diaper, walk her to school, help her with her homework, and even veg out in front of the TV (for those of you who somehow manage to question the significance of fatherhood, see Rohner & Veneziano, 2001). One day she will be looking for a man of her own (or a woman – let’s not confine her) and she will be looking for someone like you. Set a high bar, Jon.
Finally, make sure that your own relational house is in order. Maintain mature, adult relationships with people your own age. And when it’s time to get your ashes hauled, call on Mrs. Jon. Hopefully, having read this, she will be happy to oblige.
Update: Anonymous Writes:
“I love your site. About your answer on incest ‘Destined to be attracted to my daughter.’ You mentioned that genes are the cause of one being disgusted by incest, although I don’t have your education I beg to differ. Please let me differ.
Mommy Sue has two kids, Billy and Mandy. Sue dies while in labor and Billy and Mandy are split up and adopted, Billy in Ohio and Mandy in Maine. Years later they go to the same college and meet. The gene does not say, ‘hey you guys are brother and sister.’ They could be sexually attracted to one another yet be disgusted with having sex with their step brother or sister, which is not incest in the genetic sense.
This would imply that it is not genes but rather an emotional bond formed by the feeling of family.
Thanks for reading my two cents. If I am totally off base then I would like my two cents back.”
Two cents? Is this some kind of money making scheme?
One of the theories of evolutionary psychology suggests that sexual aversion to relatives comes about after we spend large amounts of developmental time with them. That theory answers your question. If full-siblings Billy and Mandy were not reared together, then they might not develop a sexual aversion to one another (though the knowledge that they are brother and sister will probably be enough, Luke and Leia Skywalker, who were separated at birth and who can argue with Star Wars?). Unrelated step-siblings reared together, on the other hand, will most likely develop that aversion.
By the way, this article is, hands-down, one of the most widely-read in the archives. Make of that what you will.
Rice, M. E., & Harris, G. T. (2002). Men who molest their sexually immature daughters: Is a special explanation required? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 329-339.
Rohner, R. P., & Veneziano, R. A. (2001). The importance of father love: history and contemporary evidence. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 382-405.
Seto, M. C., Lalumiere, M. L., & Kuban, M. (1999). The sexual preferences of incest offenders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108(2), 267-272.