Breaking Yet Another Taboo -- Is It a Good Thing for Our Psyche?

Incest in the arts and literature is not new -- going back as far as Greek mythology -- but it was almost always disguised or implied. Now these twisted romances are depicted in graphic detail for all to see.
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Among the five 2012 Golden Globe nominations for best series are two of television's most controversial shows, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Their story lines this past season dared to go where few have gone before, but where more and more seem to be heading: incest. So, is this trendy taboo on television a good thing for our psyches?

Incest in the arts and literature is not new, going back as far as Greek mythology (Oedipus Rex), Shakespeare (Hamlet) and Victorian romance novels. But it was almost always disguised or implied -- what went on between the sheets had to be read between the lines. Now these twisted romances are depicted in graphic detail for all to see.

In Boardwalk Empire, for example, we watch an unsettling, intimate relationship between a young mother and her son, dramatized, via flashback, by a deeply disturbing sexual encounter. Portrayed with longing, passion, shame and confusion, it culminates in the brutal murder of the biological father -- a tragic end to a true Oedipal triangle. In Game of Thrones, we witness brother and sister sexuality so often and explicitly that it almost desensitizes us to its distorted nature. Fans have even nicknamed their relationship, "twincest," giving it an identity that, in some ways, seems to normalize it.

Speaking of normal -- or not -- Modern Family, another Golden Globe nomination, also pushes new boundaries. Tamer, but still provocative, this national network show exposes the unusual household arrangements of real families today. Add to that, Two and a Half Men and Shameless, and clearly we've come a long way since Father Knows Best, The Brady Bunch and The Cosby Show. These former popular depictions of family life excluded not only taboo relationships, but even their mere mention.

With cable television coming of age, it has been breaking ground on a number of previously too-hot-to-handle topics -- think Big Love (polygamy), Breaking Bad (drug dealing), "Hung" (male prostitution) and Homeland (mental illness) to name a few. Some network shows have joined the bandwagon -- including Will and Grace (homosexuality), Law and Order SVU (child abuse) and 24 (torture). As scripted television experiments with increasingly inflammatory material, it comes as no surprise that incest has found its way up front and center on our screens.

No doubt, graphic display of taboos makes for intriguing TV. Deep secrets are revealed. Forbidden behavior is on view. According to psychoanalysts, these primitive urges lie hidden in all of us and are prohibited by our conscience in order to live in civilized society. But when these instincts are unleashed and acted out by others, we are fascinated by them. While the incest taboo may have originally served to discourage inbreeding (and a greater likelihood of genetic deformities), most believe it remains in place to keep the nuclear family intact and protect its most vulnerable members -- children.

And this is where things gets tricky. Families today are evolving into much more loosely structured entities, both in real and reel life. What constitutes family -- with unrelated members now living under one roof through divorce, adoption, same sex parents, in vitro fertilization, etc. -- is a great source of confusion to start with. But blur moral boundaries even further and we have a recipe for emotional disaster, especially for children who are developing an understanding of themselves in relationship to the world.

Should intimacy among unrelated people living in the same household be considered illegal? If not illegal, immoral? Should consensual sexual relationships between adults who grow up together, (but are not biologically connected), be prohibited? Surely we remember the outcry when Woody Allen married Mia Farrow's adopted daughter -- was it about their age difference, the betrayal or other boundaries being broken?

  • About 20 million American children are reported to have been subject to incest by a parent.

  • 40 percent of children who report being raped were victims of a family member.
  • Incest between father-daughter, step father-step daughter are most commonly reported.
  • Some believe that siblings engage in incest most frequently, but that it is underreported. Sibling sex is often most violent and last years longer than other forms of incest.
  • Father-son incest is less common. The least common incest involves mothers.
  • Parent-child incest is illegal and/or considered taboo in America, but consensual adult incest is not a criminal act in six other countries.
  • Most experts believe that consensual incest is never truly mutual and almost always involves a powerful, trusted individual who betrays a disempowered victim. We know what "horseplay" can really mean or "playing doctor" with siblings can lead to. These are often relationships born out of entrapment and coercion by participants who have few other options -- families that are dysfunctional, parents with little or no affection between them and children who are starved for it. Families depend on each other, which necessitates using strong defenses to cope with the shame, guilt and lawlessness of incestuous acts. With little opportunity to put an end to, or treat the abuse, children grow up with severe emotional trauma that often only emerges in adulthood.

    This once black and white issue has now become gray -- or lets say, multicolored -- at least according to television producers. It may be good fodder for scripts and for audiences growing increasingly unshockable, but it is an experiment on a theme that in actual, real life is a potential form of chronic sex abuse. While it has opened a forbidden topic for viewing and discussion, we can not minimize the psychological trauma incest can cause its victims.

    With that said, I was disturbed by a video that recently went viral showing a high school prank in Minnesota. Team captains were blindfolded and told they would be kissing their "special someone," only to find out that secret partner was either their mom or dad. Clearly a hazing gone haywire -- but sanctioned by the parents and school -- it reveals the casualness with which incest is being taken these days. What next, a reality show? A video game?

    An intriguing, stimulating plot line that pleases an audience is one thing. Family members who actually cross unacceptable boundaries is another. The result? Long-lasting pathology. Remember, the human body is designed to respond to sexual stimulation, even when accompanied by terror and physical danger. Very young children are unaware of what kinds of behavior and stimulation are true violations -- even when they are told "don't tell." There is enough confusion when it comes to morals and family life today, do we really want to invite more?

    People who have suffered incest cannot make light of losing trust in the very people they expect will take care of them. A television episode can be turned off with a click, but those dynamics can last a lifetime.

    Do you think breaking taboos on television is a positive or negative trend?

    Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

    For more information, please visit my websites at and Friend me on Facebook (at or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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