August 30, 2016

Genetic Sexual Attraction: A Parent’s Love that no Child Needs.

couple holding hands

A friend recently posted an article about a mother and her adult son’s incestuous relationship and how they are both facing prison sentences because of it.

The mother, Monica Mares, placed her son, Caleb Peterson, for adoption shortly after his birth. They’d had no contact throughout his childhood, but connected on Facebook after he was 18. Shortly thereafter, they embarked on a romantic and sexual relationship.

My friend’s calm assessment of the situation is what initially caught my eye. He’d posted the article with the following comment: “You or I may feel disgust at the thought of this. However, these are consenting adults. Do they deserve to be imprisoned for a victimless crime?”

What struck me the most was his use of the terms “consenting adults” and “victimless crime.”

Comments on his post, in general, agreed with my friend. While most people expressed a strong personal “ick” factor, commenters felt that, since the son was legally an adult, the law should stay out of it. Most concerns centered on potential pregnancy and the high risk of genetic defects.

The discussion was cordial, erudite, dispassionate and…wrong.

My friend—and his commenters—completely missed the point.

The issue here is that, despite their numeric ages, these are not two consenting adults. There’s an imbalance of power—and a victim.

The steam spewed out of my ears and through my fingertips. “The relationship may not be worth incarceration,” I typed angrily, “but it is coercive. This is not about consent. Take it from someone who knows.”

As an adoptee, the tug of longing to know my birth parents is all-too-familiar. It lies within the deepest recesses of my soul, an ache that I can barely admit to most of the time, though it lives and breathes despite my trying to wish it away for 56 years.

Those who haven’t personally experienced the hole left in the heart of an adopted or abandoned child will never fully understand the deep-seated hunger to know a birth parent. They will never know what conscious or subconscious lengths even an adult child might go through to connect to a birth parent and to keep the connection going.

The comments made me think about how all of us approach complicated issues from very different perspectives.

My life began from a place of parental loss, leaving a hole that is never quite filled. And I understand how easily I—and those like me—could be manipulated into a relationship that feels like a semblance of parental acceptance and comes the closest to a love we’ve sought all of our lives.

However, individuals who’ve been reared with positive adult role models and no sense of parental abandonment assess a situation such as this far differently than someone like me. They come from a perspective of privilege: They simply can’t identify with the emotional costs.

To be fair, birth parents can be flooded with unexpectedly strong emotions toward their adult children. But, while the birth parent might become as enamored as the child, the imbalance of power makes the adult child far more vulnerable to being manipulated, according to adoption therapist Susan Brancho Alvarado.

So it doesn’t matter how old the parent and child are.

The birth parent holds the power.

That makes the relationship coercive, not consensual.

That makes the child a victim.


After their arrest, Mares and Peterson attributed their relationship to Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA), defined as sexual attraction between close relatives who first meet as adults. Mares and Peterson are fighting to stay together, in part, by increasing public awareness of GSA.

Genetic Sexual Attraction is a term first coined in the 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, who told her personal story in the book, I’m His Mother, But He’s Not My Son. While there’s little to no hard scientific evidence to fully validate GSA, its champions claim GSA is a real affliction that renders sufferers powerless to resist. Support groups have sprung up all over the internet.

Amanda Marcotte of online magazine Salon disagrees with GSA proponents: “For a couple of decades now, stories like Mares and Peterson’s have cropped up in the news periodically and followed the same basic pattern: a defensive couple, pseudoscientific posturing, poorly sourced statistics and no actual evidence that any of this is due to genetic sexual attraction and not unhealthy choices and abusive behavior.”

Psychologists weigh in by saying that birth family members who grow up together are desensitized to sexual attraction, something known as the Westermarck effect. It’s believed this effect evolved to keep biological relatives from inbreeding.

Birth relatives who do not grow up together have developed no such boundaries. Thus, when biological family members meet for the first time as adults, they might experience a delayed bonding that can be construed as romantic love.

But the point isn’t determining whether or not GSA is real. It’s about doing what’s right.

I understand that, when intense emotions are in play, the heart often trumps the head. But when it comes to “normalizing” incestuous relationships between birth parent and child, I draw a hard line. There’s no gray area for me.

Parent-child incest is wrong.

We can love with all our hearts. We can yearn for someone we can’t have.

But we do not have to act on our impulses.

We are all born with free will and the power to make hard decisions.

True love acts in the best interest of the child—no matter how old that child is.


Author: Melinda J. Matthews

Image: Michael Patterson at Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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