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.
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