Columbia Professor’s Affair With Daughter Raises Questions About Incest

The revelation that David Epstein, a 46-year-old professor of political science at Columbia, was charged last week with having a 3-year sexual relationship with his 24-year-old daughter has, over the weekend, raised new questions about cultural incest taboos.  The relationship began in 2006 and involved “twisted text messages” as well as sexual intercourse.  Epstein was charged with third-degree incest; if convicted, he could face up to four years in prison.

The issue, for most people, is that we have no reason to think the relationship was not consensual.  Epstein’s daughter was over the age of 18 when the relationship began, which should mean that according to New York law, she should be equally culpable.  But strangely enough, she hasn’t been charged with incest.  And although for some, the sordid details are more important, I’m interested by the many feminist bloggers who have questioned why our immediate reaction is to see Epstein’s daughter as the victim, and what exactly makes us see this relationship as immoral.

On Broadsheet, Tracy Clark-Flory explained some of the rationale, after talking to a law professor who has a significant background with legal aspects of the incest taboo.  The professor explained that for the courts, the typical reaction is to assume that the parent is the perpetrator and the child is the victim.  “We don’t normally prosecute a person falling within the protected class, and you remain a member of the protected class even above age of consent,” he explained.

“Regardless of the age of the child,” he continued, “there’s still a theory that a parent is always a parent, a child is always a child and, as a result, there truly can’t be a consensual sexual act.”

In other states, both parties would be charged.  Writing for Jezebel, Sadie Stein explains why our legal system is even involved in a case like this, where the sex (as taboo as it may be) took place between two (apparently) consenting adults.  The threat is genetic mutation, which seems like a mask for a deep cultural distaste for incest, one which I’m not sure should be legislated.

The case, needless to say, is raising more questions than it’s answering – especially the extent to which incest should be a subject for public, legal morality.  What do you think?  Should the state be involved in a relationship like this, and if so, should the daughter be charged too?  What’s the role of child protection, and at what point is the daughter responsible for her own decisions?  And how would the conversation change, if at all, if the child was a son and the parent was his mother?  Especially because incest is often invoked as a taboo that will fall if we permit gay marriage, this is a conversation we need to be having.

Photo from Flickr.

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177 comments

Desmond C.
Desmond C.4 years ago

I belive she went looking for him after she was already an adult, so how does that equal him having some sort of connection with him. Nothing, and neither does the question of support, because if she came looking for him, then she had her own means already and so, did not need him anyway. He had nothing to hold her there if she didn't want to stay, so Michelle M's allusions to the father's dominance is only a desire to insist that somehow, even though she initiated the contact, the father must be somehow accountable for it. She is being a 'feminist' rather than looking at it logically.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle5 years ago

I agree, Norma V. I couldn't even answer the question.

All I know is that most societies prohibit incest because of the possible flawed DNA mixing, should a child be produced.
Also, I sort of feel that a parent is always a parent, and a child is always that parent's child -- and there are parental responsibilities that go along with that. A 24 yr old is an adult, yet as a child of that man, she is always under some psychological influence with him. (I strove long into adulthood for my father's approval) It just doesn't seem right to me. It is also illegal in this country? Or is it just illegal to get married? I'm completely confused by this! Help!

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal5 years ago

Sounds like a therapist can have a field day with this one.

John Doe
james rico5 years ago

this seems like something thats at best could only be acceptable if they both were stranded on an island with no chance of being rescued and only then if the doughter being younger asked for it as their was no other way to fullfill her needs even then most normal men would not want to do this the same could be said in reverse a mother and son and i think these kind of things happened in dire situations like these this should only be an emergency resort at best

John Doe
james rico5 years ago

well i would never do such a thing it should not be a crime as long as it was agreed to by both with no force or harrassment used its a personal thing the law should stay out of it if they both are of legal ageand they were as long as no threats were used or any money changed hands its their business period

Philip K.
Philip K.5 years ago

Were they planning to have a child together? If not, then the argument about potential birth defects (which is scientifically dubious anyway) falls apart. They're both adults - people may disapprove, but if the affair was consensual it should be no concern of the law's.

Michelle M.
Michelle M.5 years ago

The daughter should not be charged. The father has power and authority over the daughter, so their relationship could NEVER be equal, no matter her age. Frankly, I'm surprised that no one has considered that he held financial support or a comfortable home over her head to make her "consent" to sex.

Keep in mind that the police are HORRIBLE about sexual abuse and rape, so I don't take the cops word that the relationship was consensual. And hello, she could always LIE about whether she wanted to do it or not if she feared violence from her father. Investigation and THERAPY is needed here.

Lucy Miranda
Lucy Miranda5 years ago

I completely agreed with Monica.

Doug G.
Doug G.5 years ago

The problem with consensual incest is the potential for birth defects due to homozygosity of recessive alleles. This is reason enough to make such relationships illegal. An exception could be made in one or both of the couple were certified sterile.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons5 years ago

Its only a matter of time before the government is telling us who our officially approved sex partner is going to be.