Strict regulations prohibiting coitus between parents and their offspring and between siblings are nearly universal. It is possible to identify only one or two societies that permit or require incestuous unions, and they are between individuals of a specific social status. In all such instances, the permissible unions are socially- approved mateships rather than casual liaisons. Thus, for instance, the royal families among the Incas and in ancient Egypt are reported to have been perpetuated for a brief time through brother-sister marriage (Ford and Beach, 1951, p. 112).
The extent to which incestuous encounters occur in the United States is not known. Statistical data is at best unreliable because of the remarkable extent to which the incestuous family is isolated from public knowledge and censure. Reported cases usually come to the attention of authorities only after months and sometimes years of incestuous encounters, and then in many cases because of some problem other than incest such as a quarrel or a pregnancy.
In a study of reported father- daughter incestuous encounters made by the Children's Division of the American Humane Association under a grant from the United States Children's Bureau, some characteristics of such encounters come to light.3 The encounters reported by legal authorities took place in the home, often at night, over a period of months or years, and the offspring had not only been involved in incest, but the incest was supported by a family norm.
That is, there was a clear indication of the mother's unwillingness to interfere in the relationship between the offspring and the father. Most of the parents were relatively young (under 39), and the offspring were in general around fifteen or sixteen years of age. The mother of the incest family was characterized by a lack of contact outside the home, despite her husband's meager earnings in many cases. A strong home-centered pattern seemed to be the rule. Incest families had young children in the home, and the oldest daughter appeared to be especially vulnerable to the father's advances. His personality seemed to dominate the household with the mother passively accepting his behavior.
From verbal reports given by mother or daughter, incest was not the only problem in the home. Frequently mentioned were chronic alcoholism, brutality, fear, and friction. The fathers appeared to be as ineffectual outside the home as they were grandiose inside it. The study sample consisted of some (but not a random sample of) cases that came to the attention of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children throughout the years 1960-1965. All were intact families, all involved incestuous encounters with a girl sixteen years old or younger, and all came to the attention of legal authorities.
On the other hand, in incestuous families where physical abuse did not appear to be a problem, where the fathers did not use threats or force to attain sexual encounters with their daughters, the fathers were described as tender, overprotective, and jealous. The father had a great deal of interest in the home. He dominated it, as did the brutal father, but in a different way, such as being occupied with household chores and the children to such an extent that the wife counted for little or nothing. This was in marked contrast to the brutal father who often was accused of having no interest in the home and of running after other women. In both types of families, however, the mother seemed to have been deprived of self-fulfillment even within the family. Either her husband was brutal or by superior initiative deprived her of her wife and mother roles.