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How Have Anthropologists Attempted to Explain the Universality of the Incest Taboo, Including Rare Instances Where Brother-Sister Marriage Is Broadly Favored?

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Genetic material is handed down through the sexual act. It is the mandate of the family to increase both, either by accumulating property or by exogamy (marrying outside the family)

Clearly, incest prevents both. It preserves a limited genetic pool and makes an increase of material possessions through intermarriage all but impossible. Once allocated, the family is an efficient venue of transferring material wealth, as well as transmitting information and messages horizontally (among family members) and vertically (down the generations).

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In most, if not all, societies, incest taboos—perhaps the most universal of cultural taboos—include prohibitions on marriage between parent and child or between siblings. This universality suggests a biological origin, yet the considerable variation across societies in the full range of prohibited marriage relations implies a cultural origin. Correspondingly, theories regarding the origin of incest taboos vary from those that focus on the biological consequences (were marriage-based procreation allowed to include inbred matings) to those that focus on social consequences such as confounding social roles, especially within the family, or restricting networks of interfamily alliances, were marriages to take place between close relatives. For those focusing on the biological consequences, the sexual aversion hypothesis of the anthropologist Edvard Westermarck has played a central role through seemingly providing an empirically grounded, causal link from the phenomenal level of behavior to the ideational level of culture. Yet the matter is not so simple and requires rethinking of what we mean by kinship and how our ideas about kinship relate to the widespread occurrence of incest taboos and the extensive variability in their content.

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The subject of incest has in the past two decades received a lot of attention and representation in the literature. This attention has risen from the recognition that incest is the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse (Hendricks-Matthews, 1991). This abuse is a violation of the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing and it has far reaching consequences in the future of the abused child

Recent research has found that juvenile female prostitutes more often than not have a history of sexual abuse. A study indicated that nearly 70% of girls who were institutionalized for sexual delinquency or immorality were victims of incest (Pasko, 2010). A common after-effect of incest is negative attitudes towards sex by the victim. As a result of incest negative connotations such as fear, revulsion, and a sense of powerlessness are associated with sex by the victim. However, some of the victims of incest react by becoming overly active sexually.

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All things considered, the seriousness of the incest crime within a clan was so serious that anyone guilty was punished severely, by being physically and socially excommunicated, disowned by the clan and the community, without rights to property. A couple who has transgressed ka sang ka ma (incest) was usually driven out from the village to live in isolation forever. As noted by War, this isolation was not only for the present life but also for the life hereafter.

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Hendricks-Matthews, M. (1991). Conversion disorder in an adult incest survivor. Journal of Family Practice, 33(3): 298-303.

Pasko, L. (2010). Damaged daughters: the history of girls’ sexuality and the juvenile justice system. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 100 (3): 1099-1130.

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