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Consanguineous

So I’m in bed with Bardia, 25, Persian, from Shiraz but has lived in the US for 4 years. I’m looking at our legs, crossed. His body is long and lanky, thicker around the hips and smaller around the shoulders. He shows signs of growth spurts, which I slyly map with my eyes so that my fingers don’t give me away as a weird fetishistic cougar. It’s enough that he’s my third Persian, and my second more than 15 years younger than I, do I really need to obsess over the scars of his freshly lost boyhood?

Yes. Currently fixated on the stretch marks across his knees. The contrast between his golden tan skin and black hairs crosshatched against the white slashes on and above his kneecaps is mesmerizing. I’m entranced. He pats my arm and I startle slightly, looking him in the eyes.

And he looks at me all lovingly and sexily and says:

“You remind me of a cousin.”

I have already been to just over 50 countries and immediately sense cultural differences and so am compelled to step completely, with a smile, into the role of the shocked upper middle class generic American who is almost 20 years his senior. I know not to, and yet, say:

“OMG, you naughty boy, what are you doing sleeping with your cousins?” 

“Is it illegal to sleep with your cousins in the United States?” he asks innocently.

I explain that there’s a huge stigma around cousin sex. He explains that his aunt and uncle are cousins.

A few weeks later, I’m talking to my friend who also has a thing for Persians. I tell her the funny little story about cultural differences.

“OMG, Mohsen said I reminded him of his cousin too.” she says. “I think for a lot of Iranians their early sexual experiences are with cousins.”

We then talk about how hot that is when it’s gay cousin sex, and feel a moment of sadness for the young horny cousins of Iran and their limited access to sexual partners.

I look it up. 

(Here’s where I don’t cite my research, which is likely dated anyway.)

There’s no research about cousin sex, but there sure is a ton about cousin marriage.

Is cousin marriage legal in the United States?

Is Cousin Marriage Legal in the USA?

It depends. In the US, 1st cousin marriages are legal in half of the States.

What is the rate of 1st cousin marriage in the United States? The rate of 1st cousin marriage in the United States is 1 in 1000. Is it illegal to sleep with your cousin in the United States? That really depends. Incest laws are complicated and vary from state to state. All of these laws pre-date modern genetics.

What is the rate of first cousin marriage in Iran? In Iran, 28% of marriages are between first cousins, down from 44% in the 1970’s. 

This sparks curiosity and I look up a few other countries. I find Ethiopia the most prohibitive. South Korea stands out. Taiwan, Philippines, all have laws against first cousin marriage. Europe and Latin America don’t have as many outright bans, but it’s still as rare as it is in the US in these regions. 

Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are pretty accepting of consanguineous marriage, and often prefer it. Islam seems to be the driver. This is easy to see by looking at the contrast between Hindu and Muslim rates of consanguinity in India. Pakistan is the world leader with 70% of marriages being between cousins. KSA and Qatar are over 50%, Iraq over 30%, Subsaharan Africa somewhere between 35-50%.

And the big kicker is learning that it is estimated that more than 80% of marriages throughout history have been to first or second cousins. This has me closely examine my stigma. 

It’s no question where cousin sex and cousin marriage came from. We’ve been doing it since the dawn of time… so…  where did the stigma come from? Specifically, mine, what is the history of the stigma I inherited by being American?

Was it observing the inbred royalty in Europe? Royals marrying cousins? Doesn’t add up. The stigma isn’t that old. Every European was marrying their cousins when the royalty was consanguineously marrying their cousins.

Have I received ethnic lessons I’m unaware of? My family did what they could to assimilate me and not have my ethics reflect those of my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage in any unexamined way.

Can Jews marry their cousins? It’s complicated. Ashkenazi Jews banned first cousin marriage when they immigrated into Europe. Only second cousins were marriage material. But some Middle Eastern Jews have among the highest rates of first cousin marriage in the world. And who knows about hot Jewish cousin sex? It’s a broad spectrum answer, and given that I grew up celebrating Xmas and Easter and I didn’t know any of this until looking it up, nope…

I think it was simply American culture that taught me that cousin sex is wrong.

Is it genetics? Can first cousins have a healthy baby? That’s what most people I’ve talked to bring up at this point. Well – the jury is not in. The science is conflicting. The conclusive science is very specific in its scope. It seems like it’s hard to measure increased risk of genetic abnormalities between cousins who repeatedly intermarry for hundreds of years. Maybe there’s an increased risk, but it certainly seems situational and the stigma doesn’t.

Diving deeper into this – how do we decide which genetic traits are favorable and which are not? Some of these judgments are surely contextual, and therefore cultural. If the majority of humans have first cousin marriage in their recent lineage, against what control do we measure?

And lastly, yes – there is absolutely proof that breeding between people too closely related causes genetic difficulties – but there is also proof that breeding between people too far in relation causes genetic difficulties. There is a sweet spot. Almost no one on the planet is intentionally breeding for it, so if the intention around breeding for genetic health slides on such a long scale, why does the stigma kick in at relatedness? 

In the end, the stigma I’m looking at here, though broadly – is not breeding between first cousins. It isn’t 1st cousin marriage.

It is 1st cousin sex.

A lover looked me in the eye with a mixture of lust and familial love that I had never encountered before that point. It’s seeing into a worldview where “You remind me of a cousin.” has a broad and complex set of positive emotional implications that I cannot grok, even if I can set aside my stigma long enough to theoretically understand and be amused by it.

I meet DH, 30, Iranian. He never has lived outside of Iran.

We are courting online, in messages, emails, voice and video calls. I’m continuously pressed against my expectations of what an Iranian is open to and can accept or even desires. I am wiped through my racism and ethnocentrism in every interaction. Soon, my habits change and I stop assuming he’ll take the person I am from some conservative mindset. Soon, I realize he’s madly in love with who I am, uncensored, and not as any form of protest against his own culture.

So of course to woo him I tell him the story and statistics. He laughs, and says

“That mostly that happens between uneducated people, in the countryside.”

“Yes, dearest, but in the US, it’s also uneducated countryfolk that are cousin-fuckers. But .1%. Yes that’s POINT one percent. Not 28%.” I retort.

I ask around, hit the Google, and look at maps of consanguineous marriage from around the world. Where there is and isn’t stigma makes no sense and follows no logic I can yet see. It fascinates me. And then I begin asking people through my travels – with no bias – what they feel, and what people in general in their country feel, about first cousins marrying. And the responses are fascinating in the diversity.

My favorite is my Japanese friend. I ask her about consanguinity in Japan, and she responds curtly:

“Koreans do that.” 

And then, there is a pause, as I try very hard not to giggle at her stereotypical racism. She continues “To strengthen the family name.” She pauses again and thinks. “And some Japanese do that too.” And repeats “To strengthen the family name.”

The place where I find the worst stigma in Europe is Croatia. Here there seems a violent distaste, as best told to me by those with no distaste, reflecting on their own culture. And then I see from traveling the Balkans that the stigma rapidly shifts along the lines between the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire, and it hits me. 

Maybe the stigma is simply anti-Islamic sentiment. 

Woven into European and American culture from centuries old wars. “That’s something those dirty Ottomans do.” being the version of it we’re still living into because we don’t even know anymore that Muslims marry their cousins and that’s why we think it’s wrong, and if we did we’d hit refresh on the issue and it’d be on the front page of every newspaper and we’d catch up to the West’s current iteration of anti-Islamic sentiment using inconclusive science for ugly propaganda.

It’s not until we’re in bed, some weeks later, deeply in love, and I reference my growing fascination with cousin sex again that DH says “So… I’m sixth generation.” 

“Sixth generation what?”

“Cousin marriages. My parents are the 6th generation of first cousins marrying in my family.” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

I take this in. My husband is inbred AF.

“Well, at least we don’t want children.” I respond with a shrug. We both laugh. And fuck.

I love the way he held the news, and the way he released it. Never was he trying to hide anything from me. He was waiting for the perfect timing to make it one of the funniest fucking things that has happened in my life. 

We break his family tradition by marrying, making him the first in his family over 100 years to not marry his first cousin. 

I still routinely make the mistake, when he tells me of some genetic trait or family tradition, of asking “Which side?”

He just looks at me patiently until I remember.

“Right. Baldness either runs or it doesn’t. Both sides. There are no sides to your family. Right.”

I still question people as I travel, and my sense of the world’s response shows me infinite permutations of acceptance and practice of hot cousin sex throughout the world, but only one kind of “ewww no”.

Myself, I am of two minds, and perhaps this reflects my Americanness in general. On the one hand, I accept and see that the practice exists and that a good portion of the people on this planet are products of first cousin marriages. I understand enough about genetics to know that there is a huge range of relatedness, and that it’s freaking complicated. I condemn the stigma for what I think it is: intentionally installed anti-Islamic sentiment. 

Happily setting the stigma far aside enough to not automatically react to stories of familial sex, love, and marriage, and also to fully enjoy that Bardia and I have started using a pet name for each other:

“Cousin.”

However, sometimes, in the dark of night, or maybe the heat of an argument, I will kneejerk to the comforting and protective space of the deep-seated, violent, racist, hatred of the West: whatevs, you backwards, defected, inbred, cousin-fucking terrorists. Oh, and I can justify it – after all, what percentage of cousin marriages involve underage women being forced into them? I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it is widespread.

I’m not feeling this meanness at all one day, maybe a year and a half into my marriage, when I’m washing dishes and staring at the Seventh Generation brand dish soap sitting on the sink in front of me, and I hand DH a plate to dry and ask

“Hey. What about the seventh generation?” wondering in my mind why I’ve never asked, and if there’s a really good story in there about a non-cousin.

My husband grins and I can tell he’s been waiting until I ask to tell me this information, and I already know what he’s going to say. He’s relishing the reveal that as far as his family knows: he could be the very first person in his lineage to NOT marry his first cousin.

“Oh.” he says with a wink, circling his arms around my waist and pulling me into the “we”. “We don’t know.”


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