More Perspective on Incest and “Modern” Sexual Ethics

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[Rey Carlos II of Spain]

A bit of perspective to Damon Linker’s post this week on incest and the modern sexual ethic. That post was part of a larger conversation Linker has been having for a while about the limits of contemporary ideas about sex. In this earlier post, for example, Linker wrote that contemporary standards leave open several questions that traditional sexual standards don’t:

Is the ethic of individual consent sufficient to keep people (mostly men) fromacting violently on their sexual desires?

What will become of childhood if our culture continues down the road of pervasive sexualization?

Do children do best with two parents of opposite genders? Or are two parents of the same gender just as good? Or better? How about one parent of either gender? What about three, four, five, or more people in a constantly evolving polyamorous arrangement?

Polygamy, sex with children, incest. Readers will recognize in there the holy trinity of slippery slope arguments—although it’s a shame he couldn’t work in bestiality.

I totally disagree that a modern, progressive sexual ethic can be boiled down to consent and nothing else, but I’m going to put that aside for now. Instead, I want to reach back into history, into a society that actually practiced a traditional Christian sexual ethic. How did that look in practice?

Before I go on, let’s make clear that when a traditionalist Christian (and Linker is not one) rails against “modernism” or “modernity,” he’s not talking about iPhones, or airplanes and automobiles, or even the 1913 Armory Show. No, he’s going w-a-a-a-a-a-y back. Expecially if he’s a Catholic: modernism for him is the necessary consequence of the Protestant Reformation. All our contemporary problems—the dictatorship of relativism, individualism, and what Rod Dreher calls “sexual autonomy”—have their roots in Martin Luther’s rejection of papal authority in 1517.

Yes, 1517.

Moving on.

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This is Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, also known as King Carlos I of Spain. If any one man can be said to have stood against “modernism,” in the centuries-spanning sense, it’s this guy. He launched the Counter-Reformation with the Council of Trent; he personally led armies against Protestant forces; he sought to spread Catholicism throughout the whole New World and, when he finally wore himself out from doing all that, he retired to a monastery in Extremadura, where he died four years later. Even if they won’t always admit it, his reign is pretty close to some traditionalists’ ideal for a ruler. Sometimes they do admit it.

One other thing to know about Carlos I: his wife, Isabella of Portugal, was also his cousin. First cousin.

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Ew.

It wasn’t all that uncommon back then, folks. In fact, inbreeding was so common among Carlos I’s Habsburg line that most people think that the dynasty fell apart due to the …um… shallow gene pool of its last ruler, Carlos II. He was called El hechizado, the cursed, and his idiocy and physical degeneracy became the stuff of legend. Now, as far as I know, the Habsburgs never married a brother to a sister, but they had no problem marrying a cousin to a cousin, an uncle to a niece, an aunt to a nephew. Technically, all of that was against Catholic canon law, which forbids marriage within the 4th degree of consanguinity. But, as I pointed out before, the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that marriage within the 4th degree is inherently wrong. And, as this passage from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, the pre-modern Church would grant dispensations to that rule for dozens of reasons.

Does that sound sick to you?

That’s because you’re a modern.

You’ve internalized centuries of cultural development that has led you to think that marriage is about love and romance, and that you should have sex with a person you’re attracted to, and that your choice—your desire—matters in deciding whom to marry.

But the Habsburgs, man, they lived in a different world. For them, marriage was about reproduction. And you had to reproduce with the right person, because marriage also wasn’t about choice but about doing your duty to your family, your country, your empire.

The results were disastrous.

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[Btw, guess who married a 16-year-old? This guy.]

See, it turns out that building a sexual ethic around consent is actually a good way of discouraging incest. Because, it turns out, most people don’t want to have sex with people closely related to them. Believe it or not.

And the same could be said about polygamy and child rape: most women don’t want to share their husbands with other wives, and most thirteen-year-old girls don’t want to marry fifty-year-old men (and none of them can consent to it).

On the other hand, a sexual ethic based on the idea that sex equals reproduction does nothing, in itself, to discourage those things. And if that ethic is combined with a notion that marriage/sex/reproduction are duties owed one’s family or society, then it becomes very easy for a society to encourage (or at least condone) all of the slippery slope terrors that everyone is freaking about now.

We know this is true.

Think about it: if I were to describe a society in which thirteen-year-old girls are married off to 50-year-old men, in which cousins marrying is relatively common and sibling marriage not unheard of, and in which men often take multiple wives, what type of place would you think I was talking about?

Berkeley?

Massachusetts?

Of course not. You would assume I was talking about someplace more isolated. More tribal. More patriarchal. Less modern. More traditional.

Which is what’s so frustrating about Linker’s post, and all the other slippery slope arguments surrounding contemporary sexual ethics. If anything, we’re moving up the slope, not down it.

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One thought on “More Perspective on Incest and “Modern” Sexual Ethics

  1. Pingback: If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution | Letters to the Catholic Right

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