Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Genetic Sexual Attraction: Urban legend or ticking time bomb?

Recent headlines announcing a British couple that discovered they were long-lost twins separated at birth (Parted-at-birth twins ‘married’, BBC, January 11, 2008), has born a new interest into the need for people to know their biological parents and subsequent siblings.  A friend of the couple told the House of Lords that the twins felt an “inevitable attraction”.  While it is not stated publicly it is assumed that this could only be a case of genetic sexual attraction.

So what exactly is genetic sexual attraction (GSA), or for better phrase simply genetic attraction (as it can be sexual or not)?  The founder of Truth Seekers in Adoption (a Chicago based adoption support group for adoptees who have recently found their biological relatives), Barbra Gonyo first used the term in the late 1980s.  It has been shown most commonly in the adoption community among adult adoptees meeting their birth parents or siblings later in life, where upon meeting there is an intense and sometimes sexual attraction to the parents, child, or sibling.  According to The Guardian (Genetic Sexual Attraction, May 17, 2003), some adoption groups estimate that some aspects of GSA occur in close to 50% of reunion cases, however due to the taboos that surround the phenomenon, the actual rate of occurrence is impossible to determine.  

Gonyo suggests that it stems for the lack of bonding that normally takes place between an infant and its mother or between siblings who were raised together.  Gonyo stated that since she became director of Truth Seekers she sees people struggling with GSA constantly. 

"Often, the attraction isn't sexual, but it's still frightening and alien, and therefore perceived as abnormal and sinful. One woman told me that she and her birth mother, soon after they met, slept together in the nude: there was no sex, only a strong need to be close as parent and child. Grown men tell me they've sat in their mother's lap, just being rocked and held. One man talked about his need to be sexual with his newly found brother, but not being homosexual they shared a woman instead" (Genetic Sexual Attraction, The Guardian, May 17, 2003).

Research on a type of reverse sexual imprinting called the ‘westermarck effect’ sheds light on the underlying biological urges associated with GSA.  According to Mark Schneider, the westermarck effect is a sexual inhibition found in individuals raised together that he argues is mediated by the olfactory system.  “Evidence suggests aversions develop during an early sensitizing period, attach to persons as much as to their scents, and are more powerful among females than among males.”  (Olfactory sexual inhibition and the westermarck effect, Human Nature, Vol. 11, March 2000, pp. 65-91).

This reverse sexual imprinting has been observed in several cultural systems such as the Israeli Kibbutz (communal living arrangements where children were raised in like-aged peer groups), and the Chinese Shim-pua marriage customs, where young girls were adopted by their future husband’s parents and raised as a ‘little daughter-in-law’.  In both of these cases the children later in life rejected marriage with one another (either not looking for mates in their peer group, or refusing to marry their fiancé), despite their parents hopes. 

Another well known case of GSA, was that of Gary Klahr and Micka Zeman who had a six-month relationship in 1979, and in 1998 discovered that they were both two of 13 children born to a couple and nine of those children were adopted to families in the area.  After realizing that they had sex with one another long before knowing they were siblings they felt sick, but knew there was no sense in feeling guilty, as they had not known and it could not have been prevented at the time.  Yet the connection that they felt was no doubt an unconscious biological attraction. 

[I]f you understand that nine out of 13 children from the biological family were adopted out to different families, with different names and different religions, within a 15-mile radius of the hospital where we were born, then something like this was bound to happen. I [Gary] never had an idea, until 1998, that I was adopted: how could we have known that we were brother and sister?” (The Guardian, May 17, 2003).  

So now lets jump to the 21st century, the age of test-tube babies and assisted reproduction.  The infertility industry states in response to the possibility of siblings meeting and falling in love, that the chance of that is so rare that it does not justify banning anonymity.  However, if we look at the fact that sperm bank regulations recommend that “In a population of 800,000 limiting a single donor to no more than 25 births would avoid an increased risk…” (Fertility and Sterility supplement, June 2002)  With that being said, lets take the city of New York for example.  With an estimated 2006 population of 19,306,183 (New York Quick Facts, US Census Bureau, 2008), that would mean a single donor could have 603 offspring just in the NYC city limits – not to mention across the country!!!!  These offspring would more than likely be of similar ages and races, and if we take into account that probably 80-90% of donor offspring have no idea they’re donor conceived, and now the idea of genetic attraction which could unconsciously bring two offspring together – this is a time bomb waiting to happen.

I think it’s about time that people begin to realize that this is an actual reality and that the consequences are beyond what we can imagine.  We’re not just worried about half-siblings meeting, but what about cousins and other degrees of consanguinity??  And while birth defects due to increased degrees of consanguinity are still low, take a look at the risks on a larger scale.

British born Pakistani’s (55% marry a first cousin) are 13 times more likely to have a child with a genetic disorder, or one in ten Pakistani children of first cousin marriages die in infancy or have a severe disability.  While Pakistani’s only account for 3% of the UK births, they produce “just under a third” of all British children with genetic diseases (J. Rowlatt, The risks of cousin marriage, BBC, November 16, 2005).

While GSA is still a highly controversial subject and hotly debated whether it actually exists and what the repercussions should be (treated as a moral/legal issue or not), it needs to come to the attention of those in the donor conception community as a risk that should not be taken lightly.  If anything, disclose your child’s means of conception so that in the future at least that knowledge is there!


Renee said...

Are we already seeing a ripple effect in the U.S. from situations in which the mother or father having children from different sexual relationships and divorce?

I have relatives living near by, even attending the same school with my children, yet they are like strangers to us because their mother and father split a long time ago breaking off those normal bonds cousins might have, even if it is a family reunion or a Christmas card. It's weird because when I visit the cemetery their grandfather is buried right next to my brother. Another situation I have while in college was one of the upper end administrators was my mother's first cousin, but because of divorce it was like they were no one to each other. Are we all going to compare complex family trees to make sure we're not courting a lost cousin on the first date.

Lindsay said...

It's true that divorce does leave families fractured as such, but in my opinion the difference is simply that in those cases even if you are like 'strangers' to that other person, there is that knowledge through someone (mom, grandma, etc) that you are in fact related, and by chance one of your children started dating their cousin unbeknownst to them, someone else in the family would realize what was going on and stop it.

However, for donor conceived offspring there is no one with this knowledge to step in and stop something. It's not even other donor offspring which we have to worry about, but also the donor's children his raises, first cousins, etc.

Is it that we must perform a DNA test with every possible mate? We joke about the 'need' to do something like that, but in reality it's a concern for all of us.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all that is said here. We need to address the issue of GSA and the fact that it is only going to get worse. I am an advocate here in Australia for support of those who find themselves in these situations and further research. Education and understanding within society needs to be strengthened.
Lindsay I would like to just challenge your comment on divorce. My parents divorced when I was a baby, too young to remember. Mum remarried a year later and gave me a new father and three step brothers. They where my life. My father was kept from me and my mother told me he was hopeless and did not allow me to contact him or see him. Years went on and at the age of 32, with children of my own, I felt a strong urge to track him down. To find the other half of me and the biological grandfather to my children. GSA hit us and the rest, well it is history. I had a dad so my biological dad will never be dad and can never fill that role. I did not know him until I was 32 so there was no father/daughter bonding. This is often the case in a lot of divorces, not to mention teenage pregnancies where dad does not stick around. Yes in these cases we do know we are related but their is no family feelings. The Westermarck effect can be used here - they do not live in close proximity for the first few years of life so are not desensitized to a later close sexual relationship. I see my step father and step brothers as my family and would not even consider overstepping the boundaries with them. The thought grosses me out hence incest not GSA.
I have started a GSA support and advice myspace and contact line. I would love it if you would join me on myspace. I hope it is ok if I post a link to this blogger as your article is thought provoking. Please join me and comment on the blog.
Alternatively you can contact me through the Skype support, advice and education line : gsasupportaustralia@gmail.com

I will need to verify anyone joining so please mention this blog and the reason of joining.


Anonymous said...

My long-lost brother and I had a bought of GSA; we were two people who loved each other but were confused. Because though love is a verb but it's really an emotion so as the emotion courses around one's system, it's as if it runs riot.

We didn't do anything about it and temporarily it made our relationship difficult.

I'm expecting someone who has not lived this out to object, but I hope for sympathy (or indiffernce) what with people needing to walk a mile other's moccasins in order understand.

I think GSA needs to be widely known and understood, it can be resolved and it's better off NOT being a surprise to people reuniting.

Lindsay said...


Thank you so much for your testimony. I do agree that the realness of GSA needs to be more publicized so that those who go through this situation can get the help they need without being judged and feel as though they are being judged.

viagra online said...

I would bet that genetic matters are not like gambling. What I mean is that everything has a reason to be, how? I still don't know, but I'm sure for that

Anonymous said...

To all reading for entertainment purposes or just to feed some superficial fetish, also to those on the outside looking in, I say to you..You simply have no idea how serious this issue is, I am living this right now. My sister and I were seperated at birth and met later as adults and are in love with one another, though we are both married with families of our own, we cannot deny the feelings we have for one another. Yes we have had sex and we have also comtimplated ways to be together, but because of society we know it could never be, and reluctantly give up on those aspirations though our sexual relationship continues. I do not expect society at large to understand, nor do I seek approval from it. I am simply in love with my sister PERIOD.

Anonymous said...

I (30yrs)just got to know a brother (34), our fathers are brothers. We are both married and have children. the attraction was there the moment he started talking, his voice just melted me, apparently mine melted him too. The more wrote and called each other it got so intense I couldnt belive I had fallen so helplessly in love with my brother. It got so strong, thank God we live in far away cities I could feel that i wanted to have sex with him, the subject of conversations changed to a more erotic setting and we both couldnt help it, he even asked that when I sleep with my husband I shouldnt give him all and reserve some for him, i felt dirty yet it felt good, irrestible , I couldnt help it. We have since become more of lovers than siblings. We always pray to God that he forgives us and we try invain to fight the feelings. we dont know what to do we're scared of rejection from from spouses and family. I love him and I believe ( funny) that he is my soulmate. I would love to get rid of this feeling, it's hard, really hard.

Unknown said...

I am a daughter who experienced GSA with my father. We are currently running an organization aimed to help people...

please check us out at http://www.geneticsexualattraction.com

Also- we will be featured on the Dr. Drew show this Thursday evening!

Anonymous said...

Yep, I have had GSA for many years. Ever since I was reunited, I have been puzzled and ashamed of the fact I was and still am in love with my half sibling. I have never discussed it or acted on it because it is just so illegal and illogical. Despite my rationale, my heart still pines for my half sibling. It sucks.

I only read about it last week and it has really blown my mind. I am relieved that it isn't just me suffering through this situation. The Westermark effect is real and powerful.

I hope the laws change and people can understand what we suffer through. Had I known about GSA I would never have reunited. It is a nightmare.

It makes me sick to my stomach because true love does not succumb to a love so strong that it is like we are soul mates. We think the same, eat the same, love the same and fortunately, we both have good self control.

I just don't know if I should continue the relationship due to the legal and emotional risks.

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to hide my GSA for many years. I was reunited with my birth family many years ago. I knew about the Westermarck effect from earlier so I put up some guard.

I just found out about GSA a week or two ago. I have never been in love like I am with my half-sister. I love her mind, the way she thinks, dresses, cooks, her voice, her temperament. it totally transcends sex but we haven't gotten close to sex because it is just so wrong. But what do you do when your sister's voice makes your heart pound so hard you think you'll die? Or you live in fear that she will confront you with "tell me the truth, are you in love with me?" And then rejects you forever.

wow, I just had a little realization that I am so scared of losing her that sex was meaningless/too risky. GSA is so crazy. I mean this is way bigger than some cheesey incest crap.

i've read some wide ranging views about GSA and personally, I'm just trying to find some hope. Can I ever conquer these crazy feelings I have for my sister. I feel so guilty and perverse and shameful because I think it is clear to everyone that I love and worship her. We can talk on the phone and all of a sudden three hours have passed. I feel terrible. I have such boundaries because if she just looks at me, she has total control over me. Thank God for boundaries.

I would love nothing more than to hold her but I know I couldn't handle it. I give her crappy slacker hugs because I don't want to light the fuse to something that would end up destroying us.

You know they say if you really love someone, your actions will show it. I never want to lose contact with her. to me, I would rather be stuck in this crazy limbo but still be able to talk to her.

Thanks to all the people trying to get the word out. I hope all those people in a situation where the lack of the Westermarck effect may impact you get warned and trained on how to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

I was adopted and reunited many years ago. I didn't know about GSA but I knew about the Westermarck effect and fortunately immediately put up boundaries. I am glad nothing has ever happened between my half sister and I because it is creepy to think about it and it is also a felony!

That said, how do I lose this overwhelming love and obsession with her? I thought it would go away but my love for her hasn't changed, if anything, I love her more today than I did in the past.

is there any hope of a cure? I can understand why genetically we dont want to run the risk. I don't know. I just started reading up on GSA a couple of weeks ago. In some ways I am very happy that boundaries have worked. I honestly just want to move on with out GSA. I want to be her brother because I don't want to destroy our lives. but it is hell. every woman I date pales in comparison. I know I should just ignore it but it hasn't gone away. as cheesy as it sounds, I can't deny how much I love her voice, her mind, her kindness. I can talk to her all night on the phone and it is the best.

I hope somebody can either change the laws or fix my feelings. All those seeking to be reunited need training and therapy so formal boundaries and strategies can be used to prevent the parties from succumbing to these intoxicating feelings. I do have hope that with proper preparation people can get through this with their lives in tact.

Otherwise, its time to be honest with adoptees and their birth families. This has been a struggle a that unless you have been through it, you won't understand it.

The craziest thing is not my GSA but the fear of losing the friendship I have with my half sister. I don't want to freak her out.