The Grammar of Incest: Boundary Violation, Disgust, and the Slippery Slope Trope


This Article examines the role that the incest taboo has played in shaping a normative vision of the family in the law, and argues that the law must reappraise the extent to which disgust, rather than reasoned argument, sustains laws governing sexual and familial choice. It takes issue with the claim that discussion of the taboo has led to its erosion, and contends that it has remained a powerful symbol of non-normative sexuality that is used as the extreme case against which kinship relations are measured. In order to explain why the taboo has persisted over time as a point of comparison to any non-normative family arrangement (interracial marriage, same-sex marriage), it maintains that incest, more than any other taboo on the slippery slope of sexual deviance, represents an archetypal form of disgust and boundary violation. This theory of incest as a core symbol of disgust looks to other disciplines, including political theory, anthropology, and psychology, that have described disgust in similar terms, namely, as a mechanism triggered in response to any perceived instance of boundary violation. After situating the taboo within this theoretical framework, this Article explores more fully how, and why, the law has relied on the taboo to discriminate against consensual sexual relationships, and suggests reasons why the law has an investment in casting the taboo as a symbol of non-normative kinship. It concludes by suggesting ways in which the law might turn away from the taboo and embrace other models that conceive of kinship in more expansive and less disgust-driven ways.


Sexuality and the Law

Date of this Version

September 2004