Genetic Sexual Attraction
Genetic sexual attraction (GSA) is a phenomenon of sexual attraction between biological family members that typically occurs after close relatives, such as siblings or parents and children, are reunited after a long period of separation — typically separation from birth. It is important to note, however, that the term “genetic sexual attraction” can be misleading, because the phenomenon often does not lead to actual sexual contact between family members. Genetic sexual attraction, on the other hand, occurs between consenting adults who know nothing of their familial ties prior to meeting and, in some cases, have no idea they are related even when they meet. This phenomenon is believed to be caused by several factors, most notably basic human attraction and a lack of the bonding with family members that typically occurs in the early stages of one’s life.
The term was popularized in the US in the late 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, the founder of Truth Seekers in Adoption, a Chicago-based support group for adoptees and their new-found relatives. Genetic sexual attraction is presumed to occur as a consequence of genetic relatives meeting as adults, typically as a consequence of adoption. Although this is a rare consequence of adoptive reunions, the large number of adoptive reunions in recent years means that a larger number of people are affected. If a sexual relationship is entered, it is known as incest. GSA is rare between people raised together in early childhood due to a reverse sexual imprinting known as the Westermarck effect, which desensitizes them to later close sexual attraction; it is hypothesized that this effect evolved to prevent inbreeding.
These may sound like important and timely advances but they don’t, in fact, add up to much. Because of the revulsion aroused by incest, and the stigma attached to anyone who admits experiencing GSA – let alone those who embark on sexual relations with a parent or sibling – the condition remains obscured by myth, tainted by smutty innuendo, under-reported by sufferers and, worse, virtually ignored in academic circles. Although, occasionally, a story involving GSA is given predictably lurid tabloid coverage, ignorance prevails. Why GSA occurs only in some reunions, whether certain people are more predisposed to GSA than others, or whether it manifests itself differently between parents and children or siblings, is simply unknown. Above all, GSA raises serious questions about what factors influence sexual attraction: are the origins of GSA social, environmental or biological?
The lack of any serious scientific research is especially disturbing in view of the growing number of reunions between adoptees and their birth parents, and the prospect of many future reunions between children born through IVF involving sperm and egg donors. In the view of Sue Cowling, deputy director of the Post-Adoption Centre, “Genetic sexual attraction associated with IVF births is a time bomb waiting to go off.” Cowling, like many professionals, suspects that the subject has remained a no-go area, even for psychologists, because even in a society wide awake to the specter of pedophilia and sexual abuse in families, GSA – which falls into neither category – threatens to explode too many cozy assumptions about “normal” and aberrant sexual instincts.
In an interview conducted, most interviewees described the period before a reunion as already exceptionally emotionally charged, filled with excitement and fantasies about meeting their relative. Reunions were characterized by so-called “mirroring” – the shock of familiarity and self-recognition on first meeting. Even where there is little physical resemblance, the emergence of shared interests, similar traits, mannerisms and instincts, often subtly transmitted through sense rather than verbal communication, tended to have a profound impact on one or both relatives.
Under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956, sexual intercourse between a brother or even a half-brother and sister is an offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. Even where such relationships do not end in turmoil and trauma, the effects of the taboo itself remain inescapably powerful.
It may be a long time, if ever, before we can identify the complex interplay of nature and nurture behind the dramas of love and loathing played out in the kibbutz and in Taiwan. Or know precisely at what stage in the sweaty rough and tumble of shared childhood that the potential for mutual sexual desire is switched off. But one thing seems clear: GSA is neither a horror, nor an illness, nor a perversion. Indeed, given what we already know, might it eventually prove to be not that much of a mystery?
1. A brother and sister couple in Germany, the Stübings, fought their country’s anti-incest laws. They grew up separately, met as adults, and have had four children. Their appeal was rejected in 2008, upholding Germany’s anti-incest laws.
2. Kathryn Harrison published a memoir in the 1990s regarding her four-year incestuous relationship with her biological father, whom she had not seen for almost 20 years prior to beginning the relationship, titled The Kiss.
3. A couple in South Africa who had been together for five years and are expecting a child discovered that they are brother and sister just before their wedding. They were raised up separately and met as adults in college.
4. Garry Ryan at 18 left his pregnant girlfriend and he moved to America. The daughter, Penny Lawrence, grew up and later set out to find her missing father. When they met, they “both felt an immediate sexual attraction”. They then lived together as a couple and as of April 2012 were expecting their first child together.
5. In August 2012, a 32-year-old father and his 18-year-old daughter were convicted of incest after they admitted to having an incestuous relationship which began in August 2010 when the girl was 16. The incest continued until May 2012 and resulted in the couple having a daughter, who was born in 2011. The teen, who was conceived in an incestuous relationship between the male offender and his 30-year-old foster mother, told the court she was in love with her father and that they had been living as ‘husband and wife’ after meeting each other in 2010.