One of my lovely tumblr anonymice recently asked me, “Why do you think people ship incest?” And I thought a big question deserved a big answer, so I spent some time pondering the subject, reviewing my discussions with other shippers, and muckraking in the frightening depths of my twisted mind, and I’ve come up with 22 whys and wherefores.
– Firstly let me say I think incest shipping appeals to different people for different reasons. It’s not a one-reason-per-person or all-reasons-for-every-person deal. (Or one reason per ship or all reasons-for-all-ships either.) And I’m not out to oversimplify anything – I think shipping is a psychologically complex process. It’s hardly fair to reduce it to a three sentence explanation.
-Not every reason is going to be true for every family. Obviously circumstances vary wildly.
-This list was made with brother/sister incest shipping in mind, but most of the reasons will be applicable towards other kinds of incest ships. If by any chance you want to quote something, feel free to change the words “brother”, or “sister”, or “siblings”, etc., in order to make it relevant to your subject if need be.
-I hope it goes without saying that this is a discussion about consensual incest.
-These are in no particular order.
1) The appeal of forbidden love isn’t going to surprise anyone. It’s titillating. And incest is the forbiddenest of forbidden. It has been called the last taboo, and while I think an imaginative few of us can come up with some remaining taboos (…yuck), the point remains: incest continues to be “not ok”. That’s exciting. On top of that, incest isn’t just against the rules (/social conventions) – it’s considered to be “wrong”, to be a dark and twisted thing. Again, that’s exciting. (For some people.)
2) There’s another element of excitement in incest shipping, and that’s the “danger” of procreation. When it comes to our incest ships, we don’t generally imagine or want them having children, but I would argue, in some cases, for some people, the idea that there’s a danger of some sort of troubling consequence just adds to the thrill. (Of course the likelihood of birth defects from incest is much lower than what most people think and generally only a factor in multiple generations of inbreeding, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Without incest, this kind of danger you can only find when sci-fi or fantasy elements are introduced.
3, 4) The joy of the ship is in watching (/imagining) the pairing overcoming the obstacles that keep them apart. You see them, you want them together, but you crave the journey. The harder the road, the more rewarding the destination. Incest is an arduous road. (There are like steep hills and bandits and shit. It’s rough.) So another appeal of incest shipping is that it’s a mountain of an obstacle keeping the two parties from realizing/consummating their love, and perhaps even more so from their happily ever after.
And incest provides two different kinds of obstacle: an internal obstacle and an external obstacle.
Internal obstacles are not always easy to come by. When one person wants another person, there’s not usually a lot to hold them back in their minds. But incest does. Perhaps they still feel an aversion to incest, and they have to grapple with that. Perhaps it remains so unthinkable to them that whether they feel an aversion or not, they still haven’t realized what they’re actually feeling. Or perhaps they’re simply too afraid the other person would never return their feelings to act. It’s a richly tortuous progression.
But there’s a bonus external obstacle that comes along with it: it’s forbidden. Which means it either cannot be acted upon, or it has to be kept secret. The fact that it’s not allowed by other people – will be prevented by other people – is another hurdle that keeps them apart. And they won’t just be stopped, they’ll also be despised – it’s something to be ashamed of.
So inside they’re saying to themselves, “I can’t do this, it’s wrong,” and then on the outside there are others saying, “Get away from each other! You’re disgusting!”
5) Incest ships can also be delightful because they’re unconventional. It’s not boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl go on date, boy and girl get married, etc. No, boy and girl have known each other their entire lives. They don’t remember meeting, and at least one of them was a baby when it happened. There was definitely no love at first sight or meet-cute. They don’t grow to love each other over a series of dates, and they sure as hell won’t be getting married. It’s fun because it’s different and it’s not straightforward or formulaic.
6, 7) Next we come to what I have started calling levels of love. Incest is like an onion. (Or a parfait.) There’s the love you feel for someone who is your family, an obligatory, involuntary love. There’s the love you feel for someone in your family whom you’re close to, a sort of friendship multiplier. An affection. And then there’s the incest. The love for a romantic partner and the love for a sexual partner. You know, layers.
So these levels of love spawn two different shipping appeals: “no matter what” levels of love, and “intensity” levels of love.
Incest is almost unique in that the parties loves each other no matter what: if they’re “together”, if they’re not “together”, if they’ve never been “together” before – it doesn’t matter. There’s a baseline of love. They can hate each other, have a dynamic that constantly places them in opposition, be literal enemies – it doesn’t matter, there’s still a love connection. The levels of love are particularly delightful in two situations: 1) when the pairing has a hostile tension and typically does not get along. Your hate sex ship floats down a river of deep love, and 2) when the pairing parts ways. There might be “not together” in incest, but there’s no clean break, no getting over each other, and no escape. Hard on the characters, sure, but grrrrreat for shipping.
And incest is almost unique in that the parties love each other in a billion different ways. This makes for a more intense relationship. Every up and every down has higher stakes. The love is more intense, the anger has farther reaching consequences. It’s love on crack.
8) An interesting appeal of incest is that it’s the ultimate codependency. Codependent characters who are also each others’ family are that much more codependent. No, it’s not the healthiest situation, but there’s just something about a pairing that only has each other, who are each others’ everything. The taboo nature of incest ostracizes them even further, whether it’s because they’re keeping a secret together, or because they’ve been rejected by others because of the incest. It becomes them against the world.
9) It’s also a matter of undivided loyalties. A character who meets and falls for a stranger is still going to have ties to their family. If they have to choose between their lover and their sibling, it’s going to be an agonizing choice. If they have to leave to go somewhere with their romantic partner, then they have to leave their family behind, and it’s tainted. It becomes a “mostly happily ever after”. But when the lover and the sibling are one, then that’s not the case. No divided loyalties.
10) The concept of Yin and Yang is also a powerful draw. Because the brother and sister share an origin, they are counterparts – complementary versions of each other. There’s both something primal about it and a perception of perfection and equality. What it comes down to is that it feels like they belong together and fit together, like two puzzle pieces.
11) In the same vein is the idea that no one else is good enough for them. This is the pure-blood/first family/aristocrats trope. Whether they’re gods or blood of the dragon or royalty or just think they’re something special, there’s definitely some shipping satisfaction in putting together two characters who think no one else is good enough for them but each other. (And it’s a thrilling inversion of the isolation or white-trash-incest tropes in which the incest occurs because there’s no one else to choose from. In this case the other options exist, they’re just considered sub-par.)
12) Siblings are an embodiment of always. Their relationship started at birth and reaches until death. They’ll always be siblings. There was no “before” and there is no “after”, not once they both exist. It’s an unvarying constant. Their relationship can change, their relationships with others can change, but they’re always brother and sister. Family is forever.
13) Family is forever, and it’s also not by chance. Perhaps every human interaction is one giant orchestration, or perhaps only the big events. Or perhaps it’s all random. But there’s no chance when it comes to family. We meet people, or we don’t meet people – it’s happenstance. But a brother and sister don’t meet by accident. They were born into this relationship. It’s their place in the universe. They were going to be together no matter what. I see the shipping appeal in that.
14) A character’s family sees a different side of that character than everyone else does. They’re most vulnerable with their family because their family knows them best, and first, and in a way that no one else does. They see through the public mask. A brother knows his sister, and she knows him. There’s a deeper and more intimate knowledge than most people ever find with anyone else.
15) Incest is also a universal concept, which means it can apply across eras and cultures. While other types of relationship dynamics or obstacles might be predicated upon a certain societal situation, incest isn’t. Particularly for the AU-minded it’s full of possibilities. And for the non-canon shipper, it’s a useful narrative kink because you can find an incest ship in any genre, in any story well-rounded enough to mention family members.
16) For the non-canon shipper, there’s a nice relief in incest shipping because you’re guaranteed “shippy” moments whether the romantic/sexual element is canon or not. The siblings are going to have sweet moments, significant moments, intense moments, emotional moments, pretty much no matter what. The shipper of incest is going to see their ship be shippy, even if they don’t get to see their ship kiss.
17) Another charm of incest shipping is a delivery on the trope what-they-really-wanted-was-in-front-of-them-all-along. It’s not exclusive to incest by any means but incest is a great conductor for people who enjoy that trope. It could be representative of an anti-stranger or xenophobic attitude, but not necessarily. I think incest-shipping holds an appeal for people who like the idea of someone finding out their true love was already someone familiar and comfortable, someone safe. Or perhaps even more so that they didn’t have to search out love. That finding the person they were meant to be with didn’t mean moving to the big city and spending a decade on disastrous first dates.
Similar in concept is an anti-change attitude that might reflect itself in incest-shipping. Perhaps even a Peter Pan complex. The idea that someone again might not have to look elsewhere for their fulfillment in life, might not have to leave behind their happy childhood, might not have to “grow up”, that they can have their cake and eat it too, is appealing.
The following two examples are slightly more specific to certain kinds of ships.
18) The first is the unexpected. Experienced viewers are used to tropes and formulas in what they watch, and many people can see a new romantic relationship coming from a mile away. But with incest, you’re not expecting it. It’s almost always revealed in a manner meant to shock you, and you don’t see it coming because it’s so rare. And I find that surprise incest – given it fits into other parameters – can be delightful enough to give you a certain dedication to that ship. Just like the unconventional reason given above, we’re drawn to subversions of tropes and we love seeing things that are new and different.
19) The second reason revolves around a certain kind of character. For me there is an intangible pleasure imagining smug characters, or powerful characters, or gorgeous characters, or brilliant characters in incestuous relationships. There’s just something about someone like that being undone in love in such a way that despite everything they’ve got going for them they’re vulnerable because of a shameful romantic relationship. They fell for the one person they couldn’t have (/weren’t supposed to ever want).
20) One of the biggest reasons, and something that I think anti-incest-shippers don’t always realize, is that a lot of these incest ships would have been shipped anyway if incest hadn’t been a factor. The shippers who do ship these ships simply weren’t bothered by the fact that it was incest or managed to overcome their aversion. This is usually the case with the most popular non-canon incest ships. Fans saw that these were two characters were simply perfect for each other, and they weren’t going to be stopped from shipping it just because the characters were siblings.
Lack of choice is a part of that. In shows with small casts, in movies where almost every dies, or other works where there simply aren’t a lot of normal regular human characters around the same age, then incest ships are going to be happen because shippers gonna ship. A shipper is a shipper is a shipper. And they will ship what they’re given. (So basically it would have been shipped anyway, because there was no one else to ship.)
21) Another big reason is sexualization. It can come from a confusion or it can be intentional.
If you’re a fan of a familial relationship, and you care about that relationship, but you’re used to romantic shipping, it can be very confusing. And frustrating. Because when you’re used to shipping and how shipping expresses itself in you – writing fanfic, writing commentary, coming up with headcanons, playing out scenarios in your head, yelling dirty comments at the TV – to do that for a platonic relationship can really throw you off. So much so that sometimes the line becomes blurred and all of the sudden you’re treating it and thinking of it like a regular ship.
This process can also be totally intentional. You enjoy a familial relationship but it’s just not fun for you if it’s not sexual. You’re sure as hell not going to write a gen fic when it could be smut. So you make it a romantic ship because why not. Some people really do have that kind of control/lack of f–ks to give.
This sexualization can remain mild or it can totally take over. It can certainly go from “oops” to “OTP to end all other OTPs”.
22) And the last reason is a reflection of your real life desires. Shipping habits can be (and almost always are) 100% divorced from real life behaviors. But for some people they’re not. If you had real life incestuous feelings, then the appeal of incestuous shipping makes complete sense. But I’d like to add that I think the inverse is almost more likely: shipping habits become real life desires. You spend so long romanticizing your narrative kink, it’s understandable that it becomes a fantasy for your own life, even though in many cases that’s not a good thing. I still trust that everyone has the common sense to realize what’s going on in their head and know it’s no good even if they can’t control certain thoughts.
I was hesitant to add this as a reason because it’s something that gets lobbed at incest-shippers by haters, but I think that for some people it’s true and so I think it belongs on the list.
It might also happen that an identification with the forbidden/stigmatized nature of incest leads to incest shipping, even if it’s not a case of specifically incestuous desire.
I did not want to illustrate any of the reasons with examples, but I’d love to talk examples in the comments if anyone wants to, and I’d also love to hear if you can come up with any other reasons or have any ideas about elaborating or clarifying some of the reasons I listed.
And thank you to my anon for sparking the discussion and forcing me to think about this in depth.