The crime of incest is committed when people who are related to one another engage in sexual activity, get married, or live together as man and wife. While the precise behavior that is considered incest varies across different states and cultures, almost all societies consider some forms of incest taboo, and laws reflect those beliefs. In the United States, child sexual abuse is always a crime, and incest between adults is a crime in all but a few states.
Incest is defined differently in different states. In some states, incest is limited to sexual activity. In other states, people can commit the crime of incest by engaging in sexual activity, marrying, or living together romantically.
Generally, in the U.S., incest laws ban intimate relations between children and parents, brothers and sisters, and grandchildren and grandparents. Some states also ban relations between aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Laws vary as to half- and step-relatives and adopted relatives. Second and third cousins are generally free to marry and first cousins are free to be together in most states.
Some state's incest laws are limited to heterosexual sexual relationships. For example, in Georgia, incest is defined as sexual intercourse between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons, including step-children; siblings and half-siblings; grandparents and grandchildren; aunts and nephews; and uncles and nieces. In North Dakota, incest includes not only sexual activity, but also marriage or cohabitation between first cousins, as well as people who are more closely related than first cousins, whether whole or half-relatives.
Almost all states criminalize incest between adult relatives. Some legal scholars have argued that incest laws as applied to adults should be rethought. Rhode Island repealed its criminal (adult) incest statute in 1989,and New Jersey law imposes no criminal penalties for incest where both parties are adults, although marriages between related adults in both states are still void. Other states also prohibit marriage between related people, in addition to imposing criminal penalties for incest.
While adult incest is not very common, many, many children are the victims of incest. In all states, sexual contact with a child under the age of consent (usually between 16 and 18) is a form of child sexual abuse. Up until the age of consent, any sexual behavior against a child – including incestuous sexual activity – is considered a forcible sex crime. In some states, incest is punished more severely than other sex crimes against children. So, while it is illegal for anyone to engage in sexual activity with young, adolescent boys, people who do that to their own grandchildren may face longer prison terms.
In some states, “consensual” sexual relations between older teens and related adults are a form of statutory rape. In such a state, an intimate relationship between a 17-year-old girl and her older half-brother might be considered statutory rape, even if a sexual relationship between the girl and an unrelated man would not be criminal. In such states, the determining fact is the familial relationship between the two people. It does not matter whether the victim acquiesced to or even pursued the intimate relationship. In some states, sex with a teen is also illegal if the sex act occurs between two people in the same household, whether they are related or not.
Incest between adults is a felony, punishable by five years’ to life imprisonment, depending on state law. Incest against children is punished just as severely, if not more so, as other cases of child sexual abuse, usually by lengthy prison terms or life in prison. In some states, people convicted of sex crimes may also be committed to mental hospitals if they pose a danger to others.
For more information, see State Civil Commitment for Sex Offenders.
While state laws vary, people who are convicted of incest may be required to register as sex offenders. Almost all sex crimes against children require sex offender registration.
For more information, see State Sex Offender Registration.
If you are charged with incest, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney immediately. A conviction for a sex crime can have serious and lasting ramifications, including time in prison and lifetime sex offender registration. An attorney will be able to explain the legal process to you and help you present the strongest possible defense.