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Comment on "The Universality of Incest"

By Andrew Vachss
Originally published in The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 19, pg. 219, 200 [1991]

In my view, the significant contribution of The Universality of Incest is its blunt recognition of evil. I realize "evil" is not a psychoanalytic term, and I don't suppose even the periodic sea changes undergone by the various DSM editions will ever acknowledge its existence.1 However, as a combat practitioner of many years standing, (from USPHS investigator in sexually–transmitted diseases, to ghetto caseworker, to the Biafran war, to directing a re–entry center for ex–convicts and a maximum security institution for "aggressive–violent" youth ... and, finally, to a law practice which is limited to representation of children and youth), I have seen evil closely (and often) enough to venture an operational definition: evil is choice.

By documenting that incest is a product of the human (as opposed to cultural) condition, deMause gives cold comfort to its many apologists.2

In New York, for example, incest (PL §255.25) is a "Class E" felony. This is the lowest grade of felony charge, and axiomatically probation–eligible. This very classification represents a legislative assault on all incest victims in that it implies, even commands, the disenfranchisement of the jury's proper province. Incest is not "sexual dysfunction"—it is violent abuse of power, arising from a complex series of motivations.

In New York, incest is classified as an "Offense Affecting the Marital Relationship." So is adultery. Were this same classification proffered for rape or forcible sodomy, antagonistic public reaction would be near universal. Incest, as conceptualized by the legislature, implies a bizarre form of "consent" by the victim. (The Biblical admonition, essentially a form of species–protection—to prevent the birth of bio–genetic defectives—applies to consenting adults, hence the still-continuing "parallel" to adultery).

The incest statutes do not mention "force," which would compel a harsher judgment of the perpetrator. Yet a child's ability to resist sexual intrusion by an all–powerful family member is virtually non-existent. Unless and until juries are permitted to understand that incest is nothing less than rape–by–extortion, it will be perceived as a "mental health" issue. And its victims, especially teenagers, will be perceived as complicitous.3

Juries are (at least in theory) societal microcosms. In our society, we grant legislators a leadership role—the legislature sets the tone for our perception of criminal conduct.

Thus, we have two classes of child victims: those found within and without the "family unit." We cannot continue to reward a certain criminal sub–class simply because its members have biologically produced their own victims.

There are only three sources of the laws which govern us: the laws of nature, the laws of religion, and the laws of mankind. Incest violates them all. Incest is the rape of childhood. As deMause's article so clearly illustrates, incest occurs in private darkness, but is sanctioned in various ways by various cultures. It is systemically traumatic, profound in its consequences, and a monumental impetus to every known manifestation of personal dysfunction.4

All cultures aspire to cohesive achievement. Some call that standard "civilization." But any "civilization" which verbally elevates children to the status of "treasure" while sentencing them to that of disposable toys is unworthy of the name.

The authors make a strong case for the fact that incest has always been with us ... as a living embodiment of broader child abuse. So long as our verbal condemnation of this evil is subsumed into our active condonation, it will continue to cast its shadow over all societies. Incest is a chain. A chain that could be broken had we but the will to do so. We cannot stop every case, but we can, as a society, stop providing safe harbor to perpetrators.


  1. The diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder, for example, form a blanket which covers acute serial killers and some chronic petty thieves equally well.

  2. While researchers must confront apologists, those of us at ground zero must confront not only minimizers (court–certified "experts" who piously proclaim the "no real harm" theories and exalt "family re–unification" over victim protection), but active promoters. "Incest" is a specific category of pornography (photographic, video, audio, and written–to–specification) and advertised as such.

  3. Indeed, in New York, such victims qualify as "defendants" if of sufficient age to "consent," regardless of when the course–of–conduct crime began.

  4. And not all such dysfunction is limited to the original victims. Some include, but are not limited to, "re–enactment scenarios" wherein a former victim now becomes a procurer. My caseload and personal knowledge includes former victims who have literally "turned over" their own children to the individual who attacked them, former victims who "advertise" the availability of their children to pedophiles, and former victims who produce "domestic discipline" and "Daddy–Daughter" pornography.

© 1991 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


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