Is Genetic Sexual Attraction a Real Thing?

Genetic sexual attraction refers to the notion that a powerful sexual attraction can develop between blood relatives that initially meet as adults.  This type of reunion could result from family members who were separated by adoption, immigration, or who were conceived via sperm or egg donation. The term, genetic sexual attraction, was created in the 1980’s by Barbara Gonyo, who established a support group in Chicago entitled Truth Seekers in Adoption. This group was created for people who were adopted and then reunited with their biological relatives. Barbara developed intimate feelings when she was reunited with her adult biological son, who she had previously put up for adoption as a child.

man and woman holding hands

Adoption rights advocates discuss that genetic sexual attraction is a fairly common response during reunions. Advocates state that relatives are often compelled to get to know each other on a deeper level, which can include sharing, touching, and spending significant amounts of time together.

Genetic sexual attraction is hypothesized to occur because individuals tend to be attracted to people that have similar physical, intellectual, and psychological traits. As genetics contribute to all traits to some degree, blood relatives often share basic similarities in appearance and mentality.  Genetic sexual attraction states that these individuals are simply prone to be attracted to the similarities that their blood relatives possess.

Another explanation of genetic sexual attraction asserts that individuals may possess subconscious memories of a family member’s smell, which can prompt a physical reaction when they meet again. This physical reaction is said to be in direct response to the familiarity captured by the subconscious mind.

Other researchers have explained that there is a desensitization effect called the Westermarck effect that occurs between family members between birth and age six, preventing individuals from viewing each other as sexual prospects. It is denoted as a type of reverse sexual imprinting.  Proponents of genetic sexual attraction state that family members that meet later in life never got an opportunity to experience this desensitization effect, thus explaining their attraction.

Discussions regarding this topic affirm that individuals impacted by genetic sexual attraction suffer from a significant amount of embarrassment and guilt. They are ashamed of their feelings and feel too vulnerable to share them for fear of judgment and condemnation. Individuals with genetic sexual attraction describe a sense of powerlessness over their feelings and admit that they lack control of their intense physical attractions.

Critics of this hypothesis point out that there are no scientific studies to support this theory and refer to it as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience refers to theories that are deemed to be scientific, but that are unable to be proven with the scientific method. Opponents have refuted that genetic sexual attraction is a scientific ploy to make incest seem less forbidden and point out that publications it have not been legitimate or based on fact.

In addition, opponents of this notion state that although sexual attraction between blood relatives may genuinely exist, it should never be acted upon or encouraged.  These individuals state that the notion of genetic sexual attraction is merely a glorified pseudonym for sexual abuse, especially when it occurs between a parent and child, or between relatives in which there is a significant age gap.

So, is genetic sexual attraction a real thing? As this is a relatively new theory, there is not a plethora of information or scientific research to support or to disclaim it. As with all hypotheses, it is impossible to prove without objective results. However, individuals may be discouraged to conduct scientific research or to explore this concept further, as it can easily be equated as a way to prove that incest is plausible and accepted. Thus, it is fairly likely that this debate will not conclude any time soon.

Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.