Sunday, June 27, 2010

Genetic Sexual Attration Part 2: Intergenerational Love

Given the recent news of Phil Bailey and Pearl Carter we thought we would do a follow up to our September post on Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA).

As recently reported the 26 year old Phil Baily is romantically and sexually involved with his 72 year old grandmother Pearl Carter. This relationship follows almost exactly the characteristics we previously reports for GSA. Pearl had a daughter at a young age who was put up for adoption and who never had a relationship with her mother. This daughter had a son, Phil who was told by his mother on her deathbed that she had been adopted and that he had biological grandparents. After his mother died Phil began to search for his grandparents and eventually found Pearl. As in many cases of GSA both Phil and Pearl immediately experienced strong feelings for each other that quickly evolved into a sexually active relationship. Apparently their relationship is stable as they have now been together as a couple for four years. They recently decided to have a child using a surrogate - the child will be Phil and Pearl's son or daughter, but will be also be Pearl's great grandchild.

Besides the general features of GSA Phil and Pearl's relationship also has two unique features. The first is that the couple was fully aware of the GSA phenomena. However, unlike Barbara Gonyo, who used her awareness of GSA to understand her feelings for her son so she could have a normal relationship with him, Pearl and Phil cite GSA as something that makes their relationship legitimate! As Pearl said, "I could now understand my feelings and realize they weren't wrong...".

A number of research studies have made it increasingly clear that the Westermark Effect exists and the strength of incest avoidance and moral sentiments around incest are related to the amount of time close relatives (most of the studies looked at siblings and even unrelated children), live with each other, regardless of genetic relationship (Lieberman, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2003).

For instance, a recent study (Lieberman, 2009) of the Westermark effect in Taiwan indicates that cues for incest avoidance may be different for younger and older siblings. This study found that younger siblings are cued for incest avoidance by the amount of time they live with their older siblings, while the cue for older siblings is the experience of their mother caring for a newborn infant.

Given these studies of the Westermark Effect, it is not much of a stretch to see how the lack of time Phil spent living with, or even knowing his grandmother as a child, might contribute to his attraction. However, the Westermark Effect doesn't explain the unique intergenerational nature of this relationship - the couple are 46 years apart in age. Phil claims he has always been into 'older women', and it may be he has some sort fetish for older partners. However, the vast age difference seems to go beyond the typical 'May-December' romance and it might be a stretch of the imagination to label Pearl as a 'Cougar' - her attraction to Phil seems baffling.

Intergenerational romantic relationships are not well-studied. One study from Africa has shown that some men prefer older female partners because they are less likely to be infected with HIV than younger women (Leclerc-Madlala, S., 2008). It is also known that sexually abusive grandparents are mostly male (Margolin, 1992). And Goldstein (1992) describes a case where a grandmother was found to be sexually abusing her six year old granddaughter. None of these studies begin to explain the dynamics of the relationship  between Phil and Pearl. 

Predictably enough, when I describe this case to my students their collective reaction is "that's digusting!". Until more research is done on intergenerational incestuous romance our understanding will be limited to this understandable sentiment.

References:

Goldstein, E. (1992). Sexual abuse in families: The mother-daughter relationship. Issues in Ego Psychology, 15(1), 63-64. 

Leclerc-Madlala, S. (2008). Age-disparate and intergenerational sex in southern Africa: The dynamics of hypervulnerability. AIDS, 22(Suppl4), S17-S25.

Lieberman, D.,  Tooby, J., and Cosmides, L. (2003). Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest. Proceedings of the Royal Society London, 270, 819–826.

Lieberman, D. (2009). Rethinking the Taiwanese minor marriage data: evidence the mind uses multiple kinship cues to regulate inbreeding avoidance. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(3), p. 153-160.

Margolin, L. (1992). Sexual abuse by grandparents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 16(5), 735-741.

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