I get it. In the idiom of current college students, “incest” has come to mean romance among hall-mates or house-mates. Kirkland House’s annual dance, IncestFest, is a catchy name designed to celebrate a saccharinely close-knit house. It’s easy to become habituated to the name, lulled into prioritizing the slang meaning of “incest” over its formal definition.
But let’s talk about incest for a minute. Actual incest.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, in one year about 126,000 children are victims of either substantiated or indicated sexual abuse. 93 percent of these victims know their attacker; 34.2 percent of child victims are attacked by a family member.
If sexual assault can have long-lasting and pernicious effects—survivors are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide than the average person—incest is especially heinous. Childhood survivors often believe that they are the guilty party or that the relationship was somehow consensual, because both of these beliefs are less painful than acknowledging the culpability of their parent. In an article on CNN, psychotherapist Joanne Zuchetto explains, “They carry this belief that they may have flirted, that they may have worn a bikini, all this stuff makes them feel, ‘I’m not really innocent.’” It can take five to seven years in continual therapy to heal from such an experience.
Worse still is the invisibility of the problem. Sexual assault is a notoriously underreported and under-prosecuted crime, especially when its victims are children, one of the most vulnerable groups in American society. Meanwhile, the narrative of incest as a horrific crime against an innocent child is not necessarily the dominant one.
On the one hand, incest is seen as sexy and titillating, one of the final taboos left in an era of Fifty Shades of Grey. In a 1997 article, the New York Times described incest as “the sudden Zeitgeist zapping a jaded American audience,” and in a 2011 article on Salon.com, Tracy Clark-Flory points out that four recent shows—“Dexter,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Bored to Death”—have introduced happy incest plotlines because they evoke “the right amount of horror to keep us interested.” Relationships between half-siblings are even more common; “Pretty Little Liars” and Cruel Intentions, for example, both feature villainous women seducing half-brothers.
There is one point I must emphasize: the vast majority of cases of incest are not between two consensual adults. Generally a father is exploiting a daughter or an older sibling is exploiting a younger sibling. Even if we bracket issues of age, supposedly “egalitarian” or “happy incest families” cannot exist: the power differential between father and daughter or older sibling and younger sibling is so huge that it necessarily precludes the possibility of consent. The sexy siblings on TV and the image of the oppressed pedophile are lies that distract from a silent epidemic raging throughout the world.
I am writing all this to explain that I am not only objecting to the name “IncestFest” because it is offensive and insensitive—although, indeed, it is, and it saddens me that this is not immediately obvious. I am writing this because incest is notoriously invisible and leaves its victims burdened with shame and humiliation for the rest of their lives. This invisibility and this shame are directly enforced by the myths of incest as “sexy” and “misunderstood”—myths propagated by using “incest” as slang for “sex with someone I’m living with” and by dances that institutionalize this meaning. The name “IncestFest” is not sexy or cute or clever. It’s dangerous.
The denizens of Kirkland House are quirky, intelligent, and sensitive. We can do better than this.
Samantha Berstler ’14 is an English concentrator in Kirkland House. She is spending the year at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.