Behind The Curtain: Metaphorical Incest, Fanfiction and Cultural Taboos

TW: As you might have gathered from the title, this column discusses incest, fanfiction policing, pedophilia, and abuse (of various kinds; child sexual abuse, relationship abuse and parental abuse all come up.)

Ah, the fanfiction wars. They’ll probably never end, and trying to determine when exactly they began is a matter of definition more than history; after all, people have been policing and trying to define what is and isn’t “okay” for literature as long as literature’s been around. Novels were deemed ‘unfit’ for Impressionable Minds at one point, so these are long-standing issues. 

The topics that come up in these wars vary a lot. I’ve talked about many of them before (here, here and here) but there’s another one that comes up a lot – incest. Obviously, before anything else, I’ll be clear. Incest is a complicated, heavy, distressing topic. there’s trigger warnings up top for a reason! So everything that comes up in this column starts from a place of curiosity, but also of compassion. 

So, when we talk about incest, what do we mean? Certainly not just in fiction, either. It’s easy enough to say that in one story or another, shipping step-siblings should or shouldn’t count, or that one or another situation is ‘convoluted’ enough not to matter. But immediately we run into cultural relativism, and not just across oceans or the cultural divides that most people think about. The definition of what is and isn’t incestuous can vary within countries, states, cities and even families.

1. So, What’s Incest?

It sucks that when talking about incest in fiction, we have to start with the literal definition, but at the same time, unlike pedophilia or abuse, it’s not a clear-cut topic. Incest, at its most broad, refers to romantic/sexual entanglements between family members. Usually it’s implied to mean specifically sexual relationships, but it can mean romantic non-sexual ones too; ’emotional incest’ is an important term particularly when discussing specific types of emotional abuse. Legally, what’s defined as ‘family’ varies. In Canada, for example, incest is prohibited between siblings (including half-siblings), a child and parent, and grandchild/grandparent, as long as the blood relationship is known. However, in other countries (ex. Japan and the Netherlands) as long as both parties are of consenting age, siblings can have an incestuous relationship. 

This only gets more complicated when discussing things like marriage between cousins. Marriage between first cousins used to be fairly common in the upper classes of Britain, only hitting a sharp decline in the second half of the 20th century. Additionally, the regionality and variability of the definition of incest really comes into play when looking at India. Cousin marriage in Islam is legal and acceptable, but proscribed in Hinduism… except that while in North India, cousin marriage is proscribed and seen as incestuous, in South India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, etc.) this isn’t as strict and there are more Hindu marriages between cousins, and between uncles and nieces. So, not so consistent! And that’s only discussing first cousin marriages, not second cousins, step-siblings, half-siblings, adoptions… and only in one country.

I’ve also only touched on incest between adults. The moment the discussion turns to incestuous abuse, things take on a darker note – not just because of the topic, but because the law ceases to be of any help. Child sexual abuse is enormously widespread, and a good majority of child abusers are parents, older siblings, or otherwise in positions of authority. It’s this that makes the topic so sensitive; incest and incestuous abuse are capable of being separated, but it’s not the first instinct for most, and certainly not for victims of the latter. Incestuous abuse has the terrible effect of combining the emotional and mental wreckage of domestic and parental abuse with the shame of any sexual assault; “I deserved it, I had it coming, I enjoyed it” mingling with the abusive parent’s standby that you owe them, you love them, they gave you everything in this world. It’s one of the hardest things about advocating for victims of CSA, particularly incestuous CSA; the person who created you and the person who destroyed you are one and the same, and that takes a long time to come to terms with, let alone process.

And finally, because this wasn’t complicated enough – what isn’t incest? While the topic of ‘found family’ and ‘like brothers/sisters’ has been big in fandom for a while now, it’s hard to really claim that either of those function on the same level as those discussed above. There’s a lot going on with the metaphors involved, certainly – and we’ll get into that later. But then there’s also the idea of ‘martial siblings’, which has come up a lot in the fandom for popular series The Untamed and danmei source novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. While the terms are explained and given here, in short, Chinese culture uses familial terms for friends, new acquaintances, and within martial sects. None of these are considered incest – they’re just the terms used! (Much like ‘brother-in-arms’ in English.)

Ultimately, incest is given different moral, legal and cultural weight all around the world, so before anything else, the base concept of ‘incest is bad’ has to be challenged. Not because I think incestuous abuse should be given a free pass (if you think that, come here, I have a sledgehammer…) but because our ideas of family, romance, sexuality and kinship are complicated.

And on the topic of complicated – let’s talk about incest as metaphor.

2. Incest, Queerness and Metaphor

Many of the incest examples I brought up above were very heterosexual. Laws around marriage usually have a lot to do with pregnancy, family lineages, etc. – as well as controlling (cis) women’s bodies. But queer culture has a completely different relationship with incest.

As much as I wish I could be as expansive as I was with the above, I can only really discuss North American 20/21st century queer culture here. (Although I’m always happy to hear more.) But even in that alone, most people reading this are probably at least passingly aware of the history of things like leather daddies, age gaps, the military/navy tradition of ‘brothers-in-arms’ etc. Perhaps not in detail! Our history’s very much kept from us. But one way or another, family relationships are an intrinsic part of it, both in sexual/romantic ways and in our platonic communities.

One of the glaring examples of this that I see written out of history is the idea of the ‘trans mom’, the ‘drag mom’, etc. I believe it comes up on RuPaul (of all places!) but I don’t see it acknowledged much beyond people talking about their own. To explain: many trans people have someone who was their parent for them when they came out, because it is so common for us to get disowned or kicked out when we do. Sometimes it’s literally the person who took them in; sometimes it’s the person who showed us how to put on a binder properly, or the person who gave us our first ‘girlmode’/’boymode’ clothes. It’s not uncommon for this person to also be a lover, and given the complex nature of trans generations, somebody can be our trans mom or dad, and be anywhere from five to twenty years older than us. So immediately, there’s already a complicated emotional relationship between parenthood and romance. Our “proper” parents often don’t care about us, and our “real” parents, the ones who show us how to be who we are, and show us how to navigate the world we want to be in, are also the ones who hold our hands, make us feel desired, and sometimes hold a place as our first true love. Obviously, this isn’t true for everyone – and nor is it positive for everyone. More broadly, the queer community’s history with age-gap relationships and older queers showing younger ones “the ropes” is a fraught one. But at the same time, while the parents of queer children still range anywhere from ‘cold’ to ‘violently homophobic’, it’s inevitable.

There’s more to it than just substituting for our parents, too – not all parents are homophobes. (These days ‘I have two moms’ is more than just a rarity or occasional joke, and I love that for us.) Queer love is often an exercise in translation. We can fantasize about a wedding, sure; but we have to translate it into ‘between two men’ or ‘between two women’, or for trans folks, we have to translate ourselves into the opposite role and see if it fits. Often it doesn’t; for non-binary folks in particular, it might never quite fit right. And we can read all the cis-heterosexual love stories we want, try to slide ourselves into them, but how much of the story do we have to change in our heads to make room for ourselves? (See also: why so many queer people write fanfiction.) Love – romantic love – in the stories we’re given is reserved for between cis men and cis women. Platonic love has more possibilities, but there’s also a shortage of stories that treat friendship as comparable to the overwhelming, intense emotions we might be feeling for a friend, an older teacher – whoever it is we might be crushing on, and usually the wrong person. The stories of sacrifice and heartbreak that come the closest to romantic love, while also allowing for “same gender” or otherwise inappropriate attraction, are often familial. Consider Anne of Green Gables, where Anne and Diana are ‘bosom friends’, and therefore ‘like sisters’; or Allison and Vanya’s relationship in The Umbrella Academy, which carries almost the full emotional weight of the narrative. Naruto and Sasuke in Naruto are ‘like brothers’, and Naruto’s intense love for him is the reason people kept returning, hoping for that emotional resolution. Edward and Alphonse Elric are the backbone of Fullmetal Alchemist in any iteration, and both Sirius Black and Remus Lupin’s parental attachment to Harry in Harry Potter serves as a reminder of the emotion and sacrifice underlying both their lives and his. None of these are romantic (although Anne and Diana does make one wonder at times) but all of them have attracted queer readers to them in droves.

As things change, we’re seeing this less – which is a good thing in its own way. If young queer folks have characters like Korra, Benson and Catra to point to and identify with, and use as a way to describe their attraction, then that saves a lot of heartbreak. But these are all new. Legend of Korra, credited with kicking off the new era of representation, ended in 2014; by then, I was two years out of high school and already out as trans. For my childhood, and certainly the childhood of those before me, “you’re my brother/sister” was how we tried to confess our love to our firsts, afraid of being rejected or even just confused about what we were feeling, trying to force it into a shape it would never fit. It’s all the more complicated for trans folks with attraction to multiple genders. Attraction to women as a trans man isn’t the same as being a lesbian, but it carries the same pressures; so you promise sisterhood while carrying the crushing weight of knowing that you aren’t a girl, and that you can’t be a sister. And so often, our attraction to men is, from its outset, tinged with something not quite normative; “attracted to men, but in a gay way” is often how it gets worded, and while I’m sure not everybody who says that is trans, it’s a very good summation of how it feels. We ask for brotherhood instead of romance, trying to capture a version of romance where we aren’t maidens or damsels, and just as often as not, it blows up in our face.

With this in mind, as I lead into the next section, I ask people to look at this infamous and much-discoursed-on screencap from Voltron: Legendary Defender a little differently.

in this house we stan the entire show — “You're my brother.” This line was  necessary...

3. Coping Mechanisms and Metaphor, Redux

Incest-as-metaphor clearly has a long history in queer circles, then. But in the above, I’ve still mostly talked about attraction – consensual, normal attraction – , and interpreting it through an incest or maybe-incest lens. Not everybody’s pain and trauma around attraction is as simple as being attracted to the wrong person at the wrong time. In fact, sexual assault is so frighteningly common in both women (as defined by various stats takers, but usually cis) and the queer community at large that it’s almost a fundamental piece of talking about queer identity. Whether it’s corrective rape, incestuous sexual abuse, date rape, sexual harassment or all of the above in various combinations, most of us don’t make it to adulthood without a heavy dose of sexual or romantic trauma.

In fanfic discourse, the idea of the “coping mechanism” comes up a lot. Usually, it’s navigated exceedingly poorly; anti-shippers will float the idea that only “real” survivors should write about certain things, and then with the other hand claim that survivors should only cope in private, or use “better” coping mechanisms. (Than something that doesn’t hurt anybody? I’d hate to see their suggestions; “get out of the house more” and “have you tried exercise” are probably on the top.) Before anything else, the idea of the Real Survivor should be challenged. If we keep thinking of sexual assault victims/survivors as some sort of rare object, of course we’ll idealize the concept of the ‘real’ survivor. But StatsCan belies that – “Although children and youth under the age of 18 made up only one-fifth of the population (21%) in 2002.. they were the victims of 61% of sexual offences reported to the police.” This is in Canada, and I can’t underline that last part enough. CSA is already less likely to be reported, since children often aren’t aware of what’s happening, and incestuous abuse even less so. Even without the rest of the terrifying statistics (83% of women and 32% of men with developmental disabilities, for example) this immediately flips the script. We aren’t trying to protect survivors by making sure only “real” ones have access. We’re all in the same boat, because there are fewer of us who haven’t been victimized in some way than there are who have.

Even aside from direct sexual assault in all its forms, romantic trauma and relationship abuse is a monster of its own. Especially in queer circles and particularly for mentally ill and developmentally disabled teenagers and young adults, the dating world that can end up mostly annoying for “normal” teenagers is full of unexpected landmines. I’ve known more than one friend who ended up in suicide pacts with romantic partners, and others who were forced into (or out of) closets. That’s only accounting for the age-appropriate relationships, too; despite my earlier rosy perspective on the role of older adults to young queers, one of the common distortions at play concerns the difference between playing that role to a fourteen-year-old and playing it to a twenty-year-old. If I (25) give support and aid to somebody in their early twenties, and also sleep with them, it’s at worst got some hinky power dynamics that can be navigated as long as everybody concerned is honest about them. If I give support and aid to a teenager and then sleep with them, I’m a predator, because they’re not fully-grown enough to know exactly what it is that they’re consenting to. (They’ll insist otherwise, but that’s the frustrating thing about adolescence; the instinct to try new things is part of growing up, but also sometimes what throws you head first into danger, because the instincts that tell you to stop only come with experience. Adults are killjoys, but it’s our responsibility to be.) The emotional trauma of these relationships has a powerful impact – whether they’re codependent or neglectful, bittersweet or nightmarish.

Sometimes it’s asked genuinely. Why would somebody write about incest if they aren’t a survivor of incest? Incest as queer metaphor is enough for me, certainly. But also, the horror of incestuous abuse is so much about being trapped. Sometimes, when the nuance of something is too messy and too complicated to explain in a way that’ll feel real to others, making the ephemeral concrete is the first step. Perhaps a writer never actually had an intense, co-dependent, self-destructive relationship with their brother; but it’s easier to write that and explain what they mean than it is to try justify why they would get into a suicide pact with somebody. It’s definitely less close to home.

The other element is one that I’ve brushed on a few times throughout this column, and that brings all three parts together.

4. Why is the Taboo Sexy…And Why’s That Important?

Incestuous relationships, censured queer attraction, child sexual abuse – at first glance, really, it’s almost ridiculous to be trying to spin connections between these, and almost offensive. There’s already so much history with making out queerness as taboo, that lumping it in with these three gets a strong reaction, and fairly so. Queerness isn’t inherently taboo, and the responses I talk about here are reactions to the Existing taboo – not something that is intrinsic to who we are.

But all three do have an important connection between each other, something that “normative” relationships often don’t have; a sense of deep, sexual shame. The ‘taboo’ around all three varies in how much it “should” be taboo, and that’s not the point; the consequences of the fact that they are taboo end up far more important. And that taboo is exactly what leads to the policing and wars that inspired this column; don’t depict this, or that, because it’s Nasty.

Re: queer attraction, it’s important to note that the most heavily censured part of queer attraction is queer sex and sexuality. Not the most oppressed – oppression or lack thereof is a pretty useless and subjective measure as it is. But consistently, the erotic side of queerness is the side that has to be most hidden away, the hardest to find, the last to be acknowledged. (Arguably, this is behind anti-ace sentiment as well; acknowledging a lack of sexual attraction requires talking about it in the first place.) As a result, it’s so, so common to have guilt and passion intertwined to the point of inextricability in queer circles and queer erotica. While not all kink needs to be or should be analyzed, it’s certainly interesting looking at degradation, hypnosis, genderplay, consensual non-consent, bondage, and dominance/submission as responses to or rejections of the guilt we’re so often forced to take on or told we should be feeling. “It feels so wrong… but so right,” is a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason.

By the same token, child sexual abuse carries a different, heavier, but somehow still similar guilt with it. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions of sexual assault in general but particularly of child sexual abuse that rape is always violent and painful, and easy to sort into the “Bad, Terrible Things” pile. In reality, CSA usually involves grooming and slow conditioning, which means that for many victims, part of healing from it is actually acknowledging that what may have been a pleasurable or physically enjoyable if embarrassing experience caused long-term trauma. (While I don’t intend on getting into the MAP discussion here, one of the most brutal parts of the ‘minor-attracted person’/’adult-attracted minor’ nonsense is how many on both ends are victims who don’t consider themselves to have been victimized for this reason.) “It feels wrong, but also feels right” is at play here too, even if the “appropriate” morals to an outside eye are inverted. Of course queer sex is good, and child abuse is bad. But emotions aren’t that simple, and for people who are both, experiencing this feeling about both, it can be a source of a lot of distress.

The reason I bring this up is because it’s another common topic in fanfic policing to say, well, writing about abuse is one thing, but you write this like it’s porn. It doesn’t have to be sexy. And. Sometimes it does! I have never met somebody who enjoys incest porn who has a thing for their own sister or mother, but an awful lot of them have been queer, survivors of assault, or both. The fantasy of a taboo relationship, and taboo sex, is so much more tied to the idea of “it feels so wrong, but so right” than anything else – and it’s also completely understandable that incest would be the vehicle for it. Who wants to write queer sex where the character in question genuinely thinks they’re a bad person? Some people do – but if that’s what you’re actually fighting off, no wonder you want something else to translate it into. And while there’s definitely people who will write stories about the kids who “secretly want it” and hate themselves for it, it’s often a lot less traumatizing to write about those complex feelings in a situation where you feel like you aren’t making excuses for your own abuse. Incest, by the immediate nature of being more complicated – by being something that doesn’t have its own consistent moral value – is a safer place for that taboo, especially for the sexual side of things.

Why sexual at all? If you’ve ever heard the term monkey brain or lizard brain, then that’s where a lot of this happens. While everybody copes with their trauma differently, fear responses end up fairly consistent at least in the moment. Most people know about fight, flight, freeze; and more often, now, people have heard about the ‘fawn’ response. But in addition to that, when you’re trapped somewhere, it’s exhausting to be afraid all the time. C-PTSD is a diagnosis that accounts for this; instead of the sharp trauma of a sudden shock, like PTSD, Complex PTSD accounts for the animal stuck in a snare. You can’t stay afraid or angry 24/7; your brain will break. So a common response, especially if there’s prior or current sexual trauma involved, is to turn what scares you into something that excites you. (NB: I don’t know the exact science behind this, but layman’s guess is that it’s a relationship between cortisol and dopamine.) Putting it behind a few layers helps, too, but this is a major force behind things like hypersexuality, and a massive reason why I hate the idea that coping mechanisms and pornography have to be separate. For many, they’re the same thing.

What people enjoy in fiction – SFW, NSFW, romantic, horror, fanfiction or original – is an expansive topic that thousands of scholars have written on in the last ten years alone. Kink is no less expansive, and while I’ve focused on trauma here, that’s only one piece in a massive puzzle. Ultimately, my stance is very simple: fiction is fiction, and should be treated as such – but I also think that when it comes to trauma, our understanding of how that can translate into fiction needs serious updating. Abusers can bite the dust. But incest is a complicated, interesting and multifaceted cultural topic, and even if it is always harmful, and always bad – it’s never been my understanding that shutting up about abuse made it go away.

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