Safeguarding : Incest

Some of my readers are aware that I am an Adult Safeguarding Nurse for a large hospital in the south of England. This work leads to a lot of exposure to (among other things) the weird and wonderful diversity of human nature. I will relay some of the more interesting experiences in these posts if it is possible to anonymise the details enough to prevent a breech of confidentiality. In the case of this post I have changed some of the smaller details which don’t in any way impact the learning I have taken from it.

I received a call for advice from a department in the hospital regarding a patient in her early twenties who reported to being in a consensual sexual relationship with her biological father who was in his late thirties. Realistically this does not constitute a safeguarding concern as defined by Section 42 of the Care Act(2014) given neither individual was considered to have a cognitive impairment that would suggest an exploitative relationship. However as rule anything that doesn’t really fit anywhere else comes to my team. and I am going to be honest the research necessary for this case has fucked my browser history up and I am really looking forward to how it impacts my targeted adverts on sites.

My immediate reaction when the basic details were described to me was “ewwww” however that was a very quick instinctive reaction which led to me thinking “blimey, that felt like a programmed response”. I did some digging and stumbled across a psychosocial mechanism called The Westermark Effect. This is sort of like a a reverse imprinting from a young age. Sexual attraction is suppressed with people you live closely with, this is believed to be a clever biological mechanism to limit the damage inbreeding can do to any gene pool. I am from Cornish stock, my people are famous for inbreeding on a borderline industrial level however its usually not immediate family members. As a professional this led me to wonder how effectively I could support these patients given I am biologically programmed with a bias preventing me from understanding their situation.

There were some obvious human rights and criminal considerations so the obvious place to start was Section 64 of the Sexual Offences Act(2003). This led to a number of interesting incidental findings –

  1. Adoptive family are covered by this section. I presumed the reason for the Act was to legislate in a way that would prevent damage to the gene pool and prevent the birth of children with potentially avoidable life limiting physical health problems. Which thinking about it feels like legislating for Eugenics. However preventing intercourse with an adoptive family member who in theory has no genetic tie to you doesn’t fit that theory so I have no idea of the aim of this section.
  2. My patients believed they were not breaking the law because they apparently didn’t have penetrative vaginal intercourse, only anal and oral sex. It turns out according to the Act any sexual penetration is unlawful. Which again doesn’t support the theory that the purpose of the section is to protect against the consequences of a close familial pregnancy.
  3. The punishment for violation of this section is a custodial sentence of not more than eight months AND a fine OR a custodial sentence of not longer than two years.

This got me wondering how many people have actually been prosecuted under this section of the Act. I found a response to a freedom of information request submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service(CPS) indicating that between 2003 and 2017 eighteen people have been prosecuted. This doesn’t include arrests without prosecution. I know this is over a period of fifteen years but that was still considerably higher than I was expecting. I do however remember listening to a podcast which outlined a situation with some similarities to the case I had. I think it was RedHanded but I am afraid I cant remember which episode. However I do highly recommend this podcast, it is truly outstanding.

So the next question that presented itself was – Is legislating against sexual relationships with close family members a violation of a persons rights under the European Convention on Human Rights(ECHR) or the Human Rights Act(1998). The key article in question would be Article 8, the right to a private and family life. Honestly I have no answers here. In my work I assess situations against Article 5 (The Right to Liberty and Security) and Article 8 (The Right to a Private and Family Life) on almost a daily basis. If the spirit of the law was to protect society and the well being of hypothetical unborn children I would argue there is no violation in legislating against incest. However for the reasons listed above I have no idea what the spirit of this act is but it doesn’t appear to be about protecting genetic diversity or unborn children.

This case has offered a lot of reflection and learning. Both academically and in considering how I as a person respond to situations that I don’t understand or that don’t conform to even the broadest social-norms. I would totally invite discussion and debate around this issue.