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A Consent-Based Sexual Ethic Has No Answer for Incest

When people complain about Catholic sexual morality, I often ask them to put forward an alternative sexual ethic. The critic almost always presents the “consent ethic,” which basically goes like this: “As long the sexual activity involves consenting adults, then it is not immoral.”

Here’s a case that will test if these critics really believe in a purely consent-based sexual ethic. In the small town of Clovis, New Mexico, two consenting adults may face jail time because of their sexual relationship. The reason? The two adults are a mother and her adult son. According to one news site:

Monica Mares, 36, and Caleb Peterson, 19, appeared in court back in February when police learned of their relationship while investigating an “affray” [sic; possibly “investigating a fray”] near Mares’ home. “Caleb admitted to having a sexual relationship with Monica, whom he knows to be his biological mother,” police said in a criminal complaint obtained by the Clovis News Journal.

Mares is currently not allowed to see any of her children—and that includes Peterson, according to the Daily Mail. Peterson said if they are jailed, they will be together one day. “In two years time I can see us living together happily living our lives,” Peterson told the Daily Mail. “True love can do anything. This whole case is about whether I have the right to love somebody and I sure as hell have the right to love Monica. You can’t tell me who to love, who not to love.”

I’ve tried to be careful with this story, since it could be a salacious tabloid hoax, but it appears to be real. The couple claims to have genetic sexual attraction, or GSA, which is a real condition. It usually happens when family members such as siblings, or parents and children, meet for the first time as adults. (Mares, then 16, gave up Caleb for adoption immediately after giving birth; they connected as adults on Facebook). These people may be attracted to similar biological and personality traits in the other person and, because they weren’t raised together, they never developed an incest taboo toward one another (this is also called the Westermarck effect).

Can adherents of a consent-based sexual ethic oppose consensual adult incest? Here are three of the most common reasons critics give to explain the wrongness of incest even under a consent-based ethic and why each reason fails:

1. “It’s not really consensual.”

Some critics say adult incestuous relationships are the continuation of incestuous relationships that began when at least one of the partners was a child who was abused by an adult or older sibling. Since the relationship began when consent was impossible, this means the current relationship is immoral. However, the Clovis case—and most GSA cases—involve family members who meet for the first time as adults, so no child abuse or lack of consent is involved.

2. “It’s a choice, not an orientation.”

A few internet commenters have said this is nothing like consensual homosexual relationships, because homosexuality is the result of an innate sexual orientation, whereas incestuous behavior is the result of a poor relationship choice. But the consent ethic does not require that sexual behaviors be the product of an innate, immutable desire.

People in interracial relationships aren’t exclusively attracted to members of other races, yet defenders of the consent ethic would not say those relationships are immoral. If interracial couples are free to love a particular person even though that makes a minority of people uncomfortable, then, according to the consent ethic, incestuous couples should be given the same freedom to love another person, even if it makes some people (or almost everyone) uncomfortable.

3. “Incest is wrong because it causes birth defects.”

The birth defects associated with incest are probably one reason almost all cultures developed an incest taboo. But this fact alone does not make incest immoral. First, this fact would not explain the wrongness of homosexual incestuous acts that cannot, even in principle, produce children with birth defects. Second, many non-incestuous relationships involve people who are more likely to conceive a child with a birth defect (women older than 35 would be one such group). Since we don’t consider those kinds of relationships to be immoral, birth defects by themselves do not explain the wrongness of incest.

Consistent consent

It’s fine if defenders of the consent-based sexual ethic say incestuous acts are repulsive or seem unnatural and that is why they are wrong. But if they do that, they create an egregious double standard when they criticize people who oppose homosexual behavior out of revulsion or a sense of it being unnatural.

It is true that consent is a necessary condition for a legitimate sexual relationship, but it is not a sufficient condition. In order to determine the morality of a given sexual behavior, we must first understand the purpose of sex. Then we must determine if a certain sexual relationship upholds the intrinsic meaning of sex or if it perverts and distorts that meaning.

By answering those questions we see the beautiful consistency of Catholic sexual ethics, as well as the inconsistent and disturbing results of secular sexual ethics—especially the popular yet deeply flawed consent-based approach to sexual morality.









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