What are incestuous relationships

The legal prohibition of a sexual relationship between siblings is legal: this was decided by the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. A judgment that started a heated debate - even among the readers of Süddeutsche.de. How does incest between brother and sister come about? What is the role of upbringing and a childhood spent together? Peer Briken is head of the Institute for Sex Research and Forensic Psychiatry at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf. A conversation about one of the last taboos in our society.

Süddeutsche.de: Mr. Briken, how often do siblings have incestuous relationships?

Peer Briken: There is data that, in a broader sense, sexual experiences between siblings are not all that rare. A study in the 1980s named the number of ten percent of all children. But this is usually about fiddling or touching. Actual sexual violations of boundaries are, for all we know, much less common.

Süddeutsche.de: What do you mean?

Briken: In the case of incest between siblings, i.e. children, there is seldom a balance. There are age differences and thus possibly also a power imbalance. In such cases, coercion can also play a role, sometimes also subtly exercised. Practical experience shows: The psychological consequences of such a border crossing are sometimes no different from those of sexual abuse by the father or stepfather. There are also factors that can favor different types of incest.

Süddeutsche.de: What are these factors?

Briken: An oversexualized atmosphere can play a role, for example when children are forced to watch pornography. When children are deprived of the opportunity to develop feelings of shame. When violence and addictive substances play a role in a family. When there is a lack of emotional relationships or the roles of the different generations are not clearly assigned. The parents' experiences of abuse can also be relevant.

Süddeutsche.de: Does it make a difference if the incest takes place between siblings, i.e. within a generation?

Briken: So far, such cases have not been scientifically investigated. This is also due to the fact that a very large number of unreported cases can be assumed. But I suppose that the closeness between siblings affects shame and feelings of guilt in a different way. Also, the boundaries of what is allowed and what is not may be less clear.

Süddeutsche.de: Can brother and sister fall in love?

Briken: Crushing for siblings is the order of the day and is part of child development. Long-term love with a sexual relationship is rather the exception.

Süddeutsche.de: Does some kind of natural incest barrier develop in children who grow up together?

Briken: There are indications that boundaries develop in childhood that do not exist when, for example, brother and sister only meet in adulthood. Such boundaries are drawn through shared childhood experiences, including upbringing and socio-cultural factors. The prohibition of incest is anchored in many parts of our society. This social taboo probably also has biological causes.

Süddeutsche.de: Do you know anything about the children that result from such relationships?

Briken: I have had contact with some of these children who were very psychologically attacked. But that doesn't have to be representative, it has to do with the clinical environment in which I work.

Süddeutsche.de: How do you rate the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which declared the German prohibition of incest to be legal?

Briken: As with many normative decision-making processes, there is probably no absolute right or wrong here. In the background there are simply a multitude of difficulties that should be taken into account. I think it is questionable that sibling incest is placed in a row with homosexuality and adultery. Because in terms of numbers, sibling incest is more of a marginal phenomenon.

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