David Epstein, the Columbia University political science professor accused of having a consensual 3-year-long affair with his 24-year-old daughter, is back in the news with the recent statement from his lawyer, Matthew Galluzzo, that incest is not all that different from homosexuality. “Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so,” he told ABCNews.com. “At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms.”
“It’s OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home,” he continued. “How is this so different? We have to figure out why some behavior is tolerated and some is not.”
Galluzzo also asked why consensual incest wouldn’t implicate Epstein’s daughter, whom prosecutors seem to be treating as victim rather than accomplice, along with his client, and reminded everyone, “these are only allegations.”
That’s a lot of controversial thinking all at once, and we’re not sure if it’s Galluzzo’s intent to philosophize on social mores or just to befuddle everyone into not thinking about the three years of incest allegedly committed by his client. But why compare incest to homosexually, which we are not all morally opposed to?
He does this because it may be the best argument he has.
We all have issues about sex, of course, especially we Americans. But why are we so viscerally anti-incest? Aside from getting over the initial yuck (and it’s a big yuck to get over), sociologists say it relates to the internal power relationships in families — it’s the same reason a professor shouldn’t have an affair with a student, except a million times amplified. Thus, the tsk-tsking in the case of the elderly prof and young coed is something very different to the public disgust and horror over a well-liked Ivy League professor who’s allegedly had an affair with his own twentysomething daughter for three years. (Incest is not supposed to happen to those types of people, only brother and sister-marryin’ types down in Bama.)
A link between incest and homosexuality is tenuous, but Galluzzo is grasping at the straw of sexual privacy to connect them. He brings up Switzerland, where authorities have proposed decriminalizing sex between siblings and between parents and their adult children in consensual cases that don’t involve minors, as a matter of privacy. (FYI: around 60 percent of the Swiss public thinks the proposed law is a bad idea.)
In the U.S., a Supreme Court ruling back in 2003 upheld sexual privacy by striking down sodomy laws, determining that states could not criminalize “private, consensual, sexual or intimate conduct that does not involve minors or coercion.” What you do in your own bedroom is your own business, they essentially said — and hence, most of those laws have disappeared from the books, minus bigamy and incest. Why not bigamy and incest? They had “implications for the institution of marriage.”
Connection two: Marriage between a parent and child is illegal — so is homosexual marriage in most states! But why is gay marriage and marriage between parents and children illegal? In order to ensure healthy children, which ensure the future of our civilization…right?
Thus, the triumvirate in the incest-homosexuality comparison: Privacy, Marriage, Biology. Galluzzo’s argument would probably go something like, homosexuals have the right to practice homosexuality as a matter of privacy, and so should those who commit incest, because, like homosexuality, incest also a) has “implications for the institution of marriage” because b) biologically, they either can’t or may not have healthy children “naturally.” And therefore can’t, in most places, get married.
And yet the connection is a fallacy. If we’re going to consider this institution of marriage based on the institution of family argument — and we’ll all agree that healthy families are important, marriage or not — let’s look to the numerous gay couples raising well-loved, safe, happy children in secure family environments. Who aren’t necessarily married, and who may have adopted, or used surrogates or sperm donors to have their children. And let’s look at all the heterosexual couples, for that matter, who can’t have children without “help” or adoption, and raise their kids in good environments anyway.
Then show us some examples of that in the case of incest. Hm. Mackenzie Phillips, who had a 10-year consensual sexual relationship with her famous dad, ended up abusing drugs, with various mental health problems, and, eventually, on Celebrity Rehab.
Regardless of certain similarities with regard to sexual privacy, biology, and the “institution of marriage,” incest and homosexuality can’t be compared, really, because they involve very different relationships, from the start.
Look at the expected relationships between parents and kids, and even siblings. There’s supposed to be this “unconditional love” you hear about, support, caring, fulfillment, that can only thrive without the tension and instability that a sexual relationship (healthy or not) inevitably brings. Sex is, by comparison, easy. Those deep familial bonds of trust and caring and mutual, non-sexual love are what’s hard — and why it’s important to keep them safe.
Meanwhile, two unrelated adults engaging in a relationship, straight or gay, don’t face this issue. Men who date men or women who date women (or women and men who date each other!) — are looking for what will, given a bit of luck, turn into a sexual relationship, and love, in the first place. They’re looking for what everyone looks for in a romantic partner. It’s hardly the same thing as “transitioning” the familial love you have into a sexual one.
At the end of the day, regardless of any criminal conviction for Epstein, the question is what’s important to us, and what works for society now. As the institution of marriage falls by the wayside, can we focus on healthy families — healthy people — as what’s important to the future of society? Regardless of how we define “healthy family,” can a family unit in which parents and kids have sex ever fit that?
Beyond that, do we really need some lawyer to co-opt homosexuality as a “justification” for parents sleeping with their children? Hasn’t it been through enough, already?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 16, 2010