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Incest is a transgressive marital or sexual relationship with a prohibited kin member. As such, it is the product of the incest prohibition, which has long been considered a universal rule of culture and society. Although it is unlikely that one could find a society without the incest prohibition, the great variety among cultures and throughout history belies this universality. Incest encompasses the articulation of family, marriage, kinship (consanguinity and affinity), endogamy and exogamy, sexuality (reproductive and nonreproductive), eroticism, and love. For every attempt to argue for the universality of the incest prohibition throughout history and across cultures, a seeming exception to the rule can be found. For example, brother–sister marriage was socially sanctioned in Roman Egypt, and, more recently, petitions have been made in England for legal marriages between consenting adult fathers and daughters.

Thus attention to the historical variation in the incest prohibition necessitates the understanding of historical variation in incest itself—it is the form, not the content, of the incest prohibition that is universal. Furthermore, as Margaret Mead noted, “the fragmentation and the discontinuities that have characterized discussion of the incest complex have resulted in a vast proliferation of empty polemics.” Finally, although the etymology of the word “incest” leads one to a narrow focus on sexual relations, incest has long been associated with both marriage and sexuality, a conflation that often leads to confusion.

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Incest, in B. G. Smith (Ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, Oxford University Press