A new study by the University of East Anglia suggests that, while people are often told that “incest is a crime” and that it’s only appropriate in certain circumstances, “incidence of incest is high in many communities and this is likely due to cultural norms”.
The study found that only one in ten British people knew that incest was illegal in England and Wales.
While there are no specific laws prohibiting incest in England, some jurisdictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland do.
And even if they did, it would still be taboo.
The study, published in the journal Current Sexual Health, analysed the social, economic, legal, and cultural contexts that shaped attitudes towards incest and its taboo status in the United Kingdom.
“We found that a wide range of social, legal and cultural norms were associated with low or high prevalence of incest,” said study author Professor Mark O’Neill, from the University’s Centre for Social and Cultural Anthropology.
“Our findings also highlight the role that cultural norms play in how we understand and deal with incest.”
He said the research revealed a “culture of secrecy and shame” that “may have been created in the context of the family and extended to the wider community”.
This is likely because of the “great deal of shame and stigma that the incest taboo carries” and the “large-scale social support system in the British community that fosters a sense of guilt and shame”.
The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, involved an ethnographic survey of 1,300 British adults and children.
The results showed that: • The majority of respondents had never heard of the taboo in England or Wales.
• Only 12 per cent of the respondents had heard of a crime committed against a sibling, child, parent or adult sibling, but only 6 per cent had heard the crime against a parent or child sibling.
• About one in five people had heard a story about a sibling who was raped or forced to have an abortion, but less than 1 per cent knew the details.
• Almost three in ten people believed that the crime was not a crime, but was a personal problem.
• Many people thought that incest had no social or legal consequences, while less than one in three believed that it was a criminal offence.
• The taboo on incest was most common among young people.
“Young people in particular appear to have a high rate of ignorance about incest,” Professor O’Neil said.
“The taboo seems to be particularly salient among young women.”
‘Risk of stigma’ The findings show that many people are unaware of the crime of incest, including older people.
In the UK, almost half of those surveyed had heard someone who had experienced incest being a victim of domestic violence or rape.
More than one-third of people were unaware of a conviction for incest being based on a false report.
The findings also reveal that many are unaware that it is illegal in the country to be in a relationship with someone who has had sex with someone under the age of 18.
About one-quarter of people believe that incest should not be an offence, but about one-fifth believe it should be illegal.
One in five respondents said they had no idea how many people have been charged with incest in the last year.
About half of people said they have never been asked if they would like to have sex with their sibling.
The researchers say that people are “unable to understand the social and cultural context that allows them to be unaware of an offence”.
They are also “unlikely to take steps to challenge and prevent the perpetration of the offence”.
Prof O’Niall says that the research shows that the taboo on “incestation” is “a risk of stigma” that is “not limited to sexual offences, but also includes offences that are committed by family members or others who share the same sex, such as child abuse or incest”.
This could be “a factor in the low prevalence of sexual abuse of children in the general population”.
“Our research suggests that many communities are also struggling to understand what they do not understand about the prevalence of a particular offence, and how to prevent the commission of such offences,” he said.
Dr Laura Smith, a consultant psychologist and lecturer in social work at St John’s University, London, said that the findings showed that “the taboo on the incest offence does not appear to be limited to just the sexual offence that it pertains to, but is also relevant to other forms of sexual behaviour”.
“We know from research that the prevalence rates of some of these other crimes are much higher than the prevalence rate of incest.”
She added that while “incidentally” incestuous relationships are not necessarily a problem, the fact that there is no law against them makes it harder for victims of incest to come forward.
She added: “This research is a significant step forward in exploring the extent to which the taboo around incest and related sexual offences in the wider society has influenced the perception of