You can't really help who you're attracted to, but what if the person you're the most attracted to ever happens to be a blood relative? Like your father? Such was the case for an 18-year-old woman who dropped some real talk about her now two-year relationship with daddio in a recent interview. BUCKLE UP, somebody's getting their deepest assumptions challenged!
First things first: You've no doubt heard of genetic sexual attraction, if not by name or abbreviation—GSA—then by concept. It's when two people who are related to each other experience strong sexual attraction—kissin' cousins!—but it's especially common when estranged relatives meet as adults, either in adoption or sperm donor scenarios, or when absent parents or siblings find each other later in life and become flooded with a witches brew of mixed-up longing.
It's also said to happen in 50 percent of such reunions, which is fairly bewildering. Some people theorize that it's possible because, in addition to the many reasons you might be drawn to someone genetically similar to you—they look like you, act like you, talk like you, share some of your interests and DNA—that because you didn't grow up together, you missed out on normal bonding, and also the so-called Westermarck Effect, a reverse sexual imprinting where familiarity breeds a kind of necessary repulsion that's thought to desensitize you to sexual attraction for your siblings and parents on purpose. Nature's defense against inbreeding.
Barbara Gonyo, who coined the term GSA and noted its emergence alongside relaxed adoption laws in the 70s and 80s that gave adoptees easier access to their birth parents and siblings, experienced the phenomenon herself with her son Mitch. From a 2003 piece in The Guardian by Alix Kirsta on the subject:
Gonyo's reputation as the world's leading GSA "expert" came about largely as a result of her own experience of strong sexual attraction, when, in 1979 and aged 42, she was reunited with her adult son 26 years after she had given him up for adoption. Now a 65-year-old grandmother, she admits, like Lytton (whom she has been counselling by email since he contacted her via the Truth Seekers website), that what saved her marriage and allowed her eventually to build a healthy relationship with her birth son Mitch was that she did not have sex with him, due to his unresponsiveness.
An energetic, cheery and straight-talking woman, Gonyo estimates that it took her a dozen years to overcome the desire to sleep with Mitch. "Believe me, the state of arousal, which grew as I got to know him, was as erotic as anything I felt for my husband. I wanted to get naked with Mitch, feel his flesh against mine. The first time I hugged him, it beat any feeling I've experienced in my life. If he had felt the same way, I don't know if I could have stopped myself. But Mitch was very afraid of my feelings, and wouldn't ever talk about any of this, or how he felt."
Later, when Mitch got married, Gonyo was able to set aside her frantic efforts flirting with him and trying to "win him over" like someone she wanted to date or marry. But again, it took her 12 years to do so. She believes:
…romantic love and erotic arousal may be the delayed by-product of "missed bonding" that would have normally taken place between a mother and her newborn infant, or between siblings had they not been separated by adoption. "Many such people, as adults, need to go through that early missed closeness. It may become sexual, or it may not."
Sufferers in Kirsta's piece—and in some instances suffering is absolutely the apt term—report being obsessively consumed by the sibling or parent, utterly besotted, infected with a need for them, as if by a virus. It sounds pretty hellish—these don't sound like people who normally experiment in a world of fetish and taboo, and reunions without such feelings are fraught enough as it is—and it's been known to wreck marriages and destroy the relationships themselves, especially when it's one-sided, but even when it's mutually felt. In one particularly sad anecdote in The Guardian piece, a son describes having sex with his mother for years, until she cut it off. He told this story to Gonyo:
"He simply said, 'I slept with my mother. I was 21 when I found her. We were very much in love. After several years, it stopped.' His mother had ended the relationship because it was too painful for her; she felt guilty and was afraid of being discovered. That was more than 10 years ago, and he said he'd not only lost his lover but what was even more important: his mother. He said he had never regretted having sex with his mother, only that losing her was a high price to pay."
If you're feeling horrifically repulsed, as most of the responses to stories like this appear to be, know that often the sufferers themselves are filled with shame and disgust at their own feelings, which is part of why it's so difficult for so many of them to talk about (some of them even become suicidal). Incest is a known taboo, and is illegal in every state in some form or another (between an adult and a child, it's rightly considered child sexual abuse), though some states, like New Jersey, have no laws against it for adults. It's also a popular porn/erotica/GoT subject.
But consenting adults? Even still. Kirsta writes:
Because of the revulsion aroused by incest, and the stigma attached to anyone who admits experiencing GSA - let alone those who embark on sexual relations with a parent or sibling - the condition remains obscured by myth, tainted by smutty innuendo, under-reported by sufferers and, worse, virtually ignored in academic circles. Although, occasionally, a story involving GSA is given predictably lurid tabloid coverage, ignorance prevails. Why GSA occurs only in some reunions, whether certain people are more predisposed to GSA than others, or whether it manifests itself differently between parents and children or siblings, is simply unknown. Above all, GSA raises serious questions about what factors influence sexual attraction: are the origins of GSA social, environmental or biological?
Consider all that as you read the story (which may or may not be entirely accurate) of an 18-year-old woman in the Great Lakes region who has been dating her dad, 39, for two years, after having gone 12 years without seeing him. In an interview at New York mag's The Science of Us blog, Alexa Tsoulis-Reay takes us through the details.
In short, the woman's parents had her at age 18, conceived on prom night. Her mom was bipolar, the relationship didn't work out, and her dad wasn't around when she was born, and was only intermittently in her life up until she was 5. Her mom's breakdowns led to her being raised by her mom's grandparents for a period of time as well.
I'll warn you now: it's difficult to read her description of her childhood relationship with her father, knowing that they're dating now. That given, here it is:
Can you remember much from your time with your dad when you were little?
I have some memories. He spoiled me rotten. I had this giant storage tote of Barbie dolls and I had my own Mary-Kate and Ashley bedroom. It was a little girl's dream. We'd sit in the yard blowing bubbles together, and he took me to the zoo where he bought me a stuffed animal that I kept until I was 16. I ended up washing it and stupidly put it in the dryer, which melted all its fur. I remember he gave me a miniature tea set. I still have it.
Her dad emailed to get in touch when she was 15. He'd been trying to get in touch sooner, but her mom had control of her Facebook account and was denying his requests for contact. She finally met him when she was 17, and, boom:
So can you remember what it was like the moment you and your dad were reunited? Was there an instant attraction?
It was so weird and confusing. I was seeing my dad for the first time in forever but it was also like, He's so good-looking! And then I was like, What the hell are you thinking? What is wrong with you? I saw him as my dad but then also part of me was like, I'm meeting this guy who I have been talking to over the internet and really connecting with and I find him attractive.
Was there a single moment you realized that you were sexually and romantically attracted to your dad?
After I had stayed with him for about five days.
According to her story, she was sleeping on the floor with her dad on the couch.
Why was that?
Sleeping in new places makes me very anxious so I asked him to stay with me in case I had one of the terrible nightmares I usually experience. The second night I had him sleep on the couch again and then the third night I fell asleep with him on the floor lying on his chest, in his arms. The fourth night rolls around and we ended up on the floor again. This time we actually cuddled. When he woke up, we were spooning. I didn't know this at the time but later, after we admitted our feelings, he told me he had had "morning wood" and had gone to fix it.
AND HERE IS THE SEX PART:
Do you mean he went to masturbate?
No, he just went to pee. He didn't want me to see that he had an erection. Later that day, we went shopping because I had grown out of all my shorts, so I asked him if he could buy me some new ones. I was trying them on and asked him how I looked and he said I looked good and I felt like I was picking up on something more, but I pushed it out of my head. That night we were play-wrestling in the room I was going to sleep in and I bit him. He was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top and after I bit him I could see goose bumps pop up from his toes to his shoulders. Then he pinched my inner thigh and I got goose bumps.
We stopped and said that we didn't know what was going on but admitted that we had strong feelings for each other. We discussed whether it was wrong and then we kissed. And then we made out, and then we made love for the first time. That was when I lost my virginity.
Did you tell him you were a virgin?
Yes. I told him I wanted him to be the first person I made love to. We talked about how it could be awkward if it didn't end up working out. He also said that if I didn't feel comfortable at any point I should tell him.
She says she told her dad she was a virgin and "wanted him to be the first person I made love to." Her dad, she says, let her know that "if [she] didn't feel comfortable at any point [she] should tell him." This negotiation is extremely difficult to read about:
What was it like?
There's a reason I lost my virginity to him — because I'd never felt comfortable with any other man. It was insanely sensual. It lasted for about an hour and there was a lot of foreplay. We both had orgasms. We are so similar so it's so easy to sexually please each other. For example, we both hate neck-biting. I've never been in a more passionate, loving, fulfilling situation.
Even the first time, because often it's not the best sexual experience …
That's what I said! I'd heard that it would hurt so I was expecting pain but we were both so careful with each other. I think it was also a good experience because most guys my age are only interested in having sex with you. I could tell that wasn't the case with him.
The woman, whose side is the only side we get, admits to having grown up with chronic depression, being bullied as a child, and of course, having a mom with a mental illness. But the majority of what we get in this story is part erotica, part naïve young woman's excitement at a real relationship—she doesn't seem to have had one with any other man—and part disturbing tale of a grown man and father's clearly overstepped boundaries. Yes, at 18, the law declares her fit to consent, but WTF is this dude thinking?
Some of the saddest parts are her admitting that getting with her dad made her feel beautiful and confident—things that should absolutely come from positive healthy relationships with one's parents, only, you know, without the sex part.
And then there are the things that make you shudder:
Did you tell [your dad's now-ex-girlfriend] about the nature of your relationship?
She found out when she heard us making love. I guess we didn't realize how thin the bedroom floor was. She really didn't mind. Now we're like a little family. She calls me her daughter.
Is the father-daughter dynamic part of your sex life?
Not usually, but it has come up a couple of times when one of us blurts out "baby girl" or "daddy" or something. Last time it happened, we both stood up and stopped doing what we were doing. It caught us off guard.
Do you ever call him Dad?
When I need my dad I say, "Hey, Dad, I need you." And then he's not going to be my fiancé or my boyfriend, but my father.
See, that, to me, is illustrative of the real need being filled here: That the real desire for a relationship with a father has been conflated with sexual interest and romantic interest.
And then there are the parts that are just inadvertently hilarious:
Will you have a wedding? Do you have it planned?
Yes. I want it to represent our uniqueness, so we aren't doing a white wedding. The color scheme is black and purple, and we are both going to wear Converse tennis shoes. He's wearing jeans and a nice dress shirt. He says he's not wearing a bow tie, but it's my wedding and I am saying that he is. My best friend will be my maid of honor and she'll be dressed in purple. My grandmother and grandfather — my fiancé's parents — are going to attend and my grandpa will give me away. The tables will have bouquets of trees without leaves to represent our marriage, which will be like a growing tree. My dress will be black.
Is he physically your type?
Definitely. He's alternative and has piercings and tattoos.
BTW, she took her dad to prom. His parents—her grandparents—totally support the upcoming marriage and everyone thinks they are the "cutest couple they've ever seen." And yes, of course they are planning on having kids:
Do you worry about the potential genetic problems associated with having kids with your biological father?
Nope. I wouldn't risk having a kid if I thought it would be harmful. I've done my research. Everybody thinks that kids born in incestuous relationships will definitely have genetic problems, but that's not true. That happens when there's years of inbreeding, like with the royal family. Incest has been around as long as humans have. Everybody just needs to deal with it as long as nobody is getting hurt or getting pressured or forced.
There are so many people having kids who will be passing on health problems, people with diabetes or mental health issues, or AIDS. My mom was allowed to have kids and both her and her mom were bipolar. My research tells me that the only real genetic risk is high blood pressure, which is controllable. I think people only worry about it because they look to the genetic problems that occurred when incest was happening generation upon generation. They say, Well, look at King Henry VIII — but he was only a genetic mutant because they had kept it in the family for so long.
(Mallory Ortberg at The Toast clears up this egregious error here, because King Henry VIII was, in fact, robustly healthy.)
And then there are parts that are just really deeply sad, and warrant compassion and not mockery, a reminder that this relationship is clearly primarily about the absence for this woman of a real father—about what Tsoulis-Reay calls a "primordial sense of having always belonged to the estranged relative" and that the rest is well, somewhere between crazy, repulsive, erotic to some, and all too common, and still the sort of thing we as a society just can't explain away. (Also: How could we ever prevent it from happening?)
Assuming this is even a true, real narrative we can even believe (many friends have pointed out they think it reads like trashy erotic fantasizing and not a real encounter) her chance for a relationship with an actual father has been obliterated, and instead, she got this guy.
Go read it all, and I will leave you with this sad thing:
What do you like most about him?
I can go to him with anything and he will listen to me and give me good advice. He helps me fix problems. I love everything about him, but the extreme closeness and the special bond is what I really cherish — most people don't have that. Right from the start we were comfortable being so open and close because we are so similar. I've never felt this close to anyone.
Image via Shutterstock.