In the late ‘80s, the founder of a support group for adopted children who had recently reconnected with their biological relatives coined the term “Genetic Sexual Attraction” (GSA) to describe the intense romantic and sexual feelings that she observed occurring in many of these reunions. According to an article in The Guardian, experts estimate that these taboo feelings occur in about 50 percent of cases where estranged relatives are reunited as adults (GSA’s discoverer had herself become attracted to the son she’d adopted out when she met him 26 years later, but her feelings were not reciprocated).
Though the research is scarce, those who have studied GSA offer a range of possible explanations for it, including a primordial feeling of always having “belonged” to the estranged relative, a sense of wanting to experience the bonding missed out on during childhood, or simply an overwhelming closeness based on similarities: like meeting a mate who was designed for you in a science lab. Perhaps GSA accounts for Kevin Gates’s attraction to his first cousin.
Consensual incest between fathers and their daughters remains the least reported and perhaps the most taboo sort of GSA relationship. Keith Pullman, who runs a marriage equality blog, has personally talked to over 20 GSA couples and notes that he’s only had a few father-daughter couples speak out, speculating that many of them fear that others will assume the daughter must have been abused in childhood (it should be said that when these unions lead to children, those children can face potentially serious difficulties as a result of the genetic implications of incest, even if some online communities downplay these risks).
Here, an 18-year-old woman from the Great Lakes region describes her romantic relationship of almost two years with the biological father she met after 12 years of estrangement.
What was your family like when you were growing up?
My parents had me when they were 18 — they met in high school and I was conceived on prom night. They were serious for about six months but broke up while my mom was still pregnant with me. My dad wasn’t there when I was born. I think my mom’s psychological problems meant the relationship never really worked out. She has bipolar disorder and some other mental health issues. They just weren’t happy and didn’t really keep in contact after I was born. She wanted to do it alone. When she’s manic it’s hard to know what she’s going to say. After I was born she had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t take care of me, so I lived with her grandparents until I was about 2. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve never been close: We didn’t bond when I was a baby.
Did you have any contact with your father when you were a child?
He briefly came back into my life when I was about 3 or 4 and I saw him on weekends until I was about 5. He lived about an hour away from us and my parents constantly argued about visitation. He was always doing the drive to see me because my mom wasn’t very fond of it — she wouldn’t even meet him halfway.
Can you remember much from your time with your dad when you were little?
I have some memories. He spoiled me rotten. I had this giant storage tote of Barbie dolls and I had my own Mary-Kate and Ashley bedroom. It was a little girl’s dream. We’d sit in the yard blowing bubbles together, and he took me to the zoo where he bought me a stuffed animal that I kept until I was 16. I ended up washing it and stupidly put it in the dryer, which melted all its fur. I remember he gave me a miniature tea set. I still have it.
So then there was zero contact or word from him?
When I was about 15 he emailed my mom saying he’d like to see me. I vividly remember the moment she told me. I said I missed him and wouldn’t mind seeing him. She asked me how I could miss someone I hadn’t been with for such a long time. But what I missed was a fatherly figure. My mom’s always picked the wrong guy out of the crowd and she’s had a couple of divorces. I’m still not really close with my current stepfather even though they’ve been together for ten years. For whatever reason, my father and I didn’t end up meeting for two more years, so there was no contact for 12 years — we were reunited when I was 17.
So what were your feelings toward him when you were growing up? Did you think about him much?
I’d wonder where he was, what he was doing. Why haven’t I seen him or heard from him? What did my mom do? What did he do? What did I do? My abandonment issues really hit when I was a teenager. My mom and my stepfather took a break because they were fighting so much and I cried the entire time he was gone. I missed him, which was weird because we didn’t have much of a relationship. I asked myself, Why am I crying over someone I’m not even close to?
Do you think it triggered the abandonment you felt from your own dad?
Yeah. I think I was subconsciously replaying what I’d been through.
How many stepfathers have you had?
Near the end of the time my parents had joint custody of me I had a stepdad. He took good care of my mom but she went through one of her stages again, so it ended. She had another husband who went crazy and tried to kill her. He was schizophrenic. Then she got with my brother’s dad and they dated for a while but when my brother was born the dad didn’t want anything to do with him, so I helped my mom raise him. Once he was about 3 she got together with my current stepdad and had my baby sister. My brother and I are 9 years apart and my sister is 12 years younger than me. I think of them as my brother and sister, and I also think of them as my babies because I helped raise them.
Why didn’t your father try to get in touch with you?
My mom said that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. But she was very controlling and kept me under Fort Knox–like conditions. She’s had my Facebook password since I’ve had an account. One day, after I got my Facebook privileges back, he added me as a friend. At first, I figured it was my grandpa because they have very similar names. I thought, Maybe Grandpa got techy?
Then I realized it was my dad. I was like, Oh my God, where have you been? I don’t know if I can get close to you. I told him I thought he was dead and asked why it took him so long to contact me. He said he’d been adding me on Facebook but I’d always decline his requests. But that was my mom controlling my account. After we reunited, he showed me emails he’d sent trying to contact me.
What happened next?
We chitchatted online for a few days and found out we were similar. We shared the same favorite TV shows — The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory — and we both love to draw. He came to see me about a week later. You wouldn’t have believed we hadn’t been around each other for 12 years. The idea of “getting to know him” seemed strange because we are so much alike. He came and hung out all day and then I asked to come spend a week with him — he lived in a small town about 30 minutes away. I think my mom knew I was going to move out and it really was getting to the point where I needed to escape, she was so controlling.
Has she always been that way?
Not when I was younger — she was going through a wild stage and she wanted to be more of a friend than a mother. She was still in her 20s and she worked at a bar. When I turned 13, she cracked down military-style. I didn’t have a voice and I had to do everything she asked, just to keep the peace.
Did you date when you were a teenager?
I didn’t really have a social life. I stayed home a lot because my mom didn’t trust me, and most of the kids my age were hooked on heroin, so it was hard to find friends. I lived in such a small town where there was nothing to do. In fifth grade I dated a boy for two years. But one night he got drunk and had sex with a girl who ended up pregnant. It fucked everything up. I told him he had to go and be with this girl and take care of the kid.
She ended up falling asleep with a cigarette in her mouth and their house burned down, so she left town with the kid and never came back. I supported him through that and we ended up half-ass dating, then my mom found letters we had written to each other about making out. She said things were getting too serious and sexual and took me out of class and homeschooled me for a while.
Did you have sex with that boyfriend?
No. I had a girlfriend in middle school and that was the most major sexual experience I’d ever had. But she was very religious and every time we were intimate she would sob and read me verses out of the Bible. It made me feel like I’d hurt her. The second time we did it she cried and said we’d done something wrong and she was worried her grandmother would find out. I was done after that. No more crying, and no more Bible transcripts. She had me in tears because I felt so guilty.
How do you define your sexuality?
I’ve always identified as bisexual.
So can you remember what it was like the moment you and your dad were reunited? Was there an instant attraction?
It was so weird and confusing. I was seeing my dad for the first time in forever but it was also like, He’s so good-looking! And then I was like, What the hell are you thinking? What is wrong with you? I saw him as my dad but then also part of me was like, I’m meeting this guy who I have been talking to over the internet and really connecting with and I find him attractive.
Was there a single moment you realized that you were sexually and romantically attracted to your dad?
After I had stayed with him for about five days.
He was living with his girlfriend. On the first night he slept on the couch and I slept on the floor, just to make sure that I was okay.
Why was that?
Sleeping in new places makes me very anxious so I asked him to stay with me in case I had one of the terrible nightmares I usually experience. The second night I had him sleep on the couch again and then the third night I fell asleep with him on the floor lying on his chest, in his arms. The fourth night rolled around and we ended up on the floor again. This time we actually cuddled. When he woke up, we were spooning. I didn’t know this at the time but later, after we admitted our feelings, he told me he had had “morning wood” and had gone to fix it.
Did you feel it?
No, I was asleep and he quietly snuck off to the bathroom.
Do you mean he went to masturbate?
No, he just went to pee. He didn’t want me to see that he had an erection. Later that day, we went shopping because I had grown out of all my shorts, so I asked him if he could buy me some new ones. I was trying them on and asked him how I looked and he said I looked good and I felt like I was picking up on something more, but I pushed it out of my head. That night we were play-wrestling in the room I was going to sleep in and I bit him. He was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top and after I bit him I could see goose bumps pop up from his toes to his shoulders. Then he pinched my inner thigh and I got goose bumps.
We stopped and said that we didn’t know what was going on but admitted that we had strong feelings for each other. We discussed whether it was wrong and then we kissed. And then we made out, and then we made love for the first time. That was when I lost my virginity.
Did you tell him you were a virgin?
Yes. I told him I wanted him to be the first person I made love to. We talked about how it could be awkward if it didn’t end up working out. He also said that if I didn’t feel comfortable at any point I should tell him.
What was it like?
There’s a reason I lost my virginity to him — because I’d never felt comfortable with any other man. It was insanely sensual. It lasted for about an hour and there was a lot of foreplay. We both had orgasms. We are so similar, so it’s so easy to sexually please each other. For example, we both love neck-biting. I’ve never been in a more passionate, loving, fulfilling situation.
Even the first time, because often it’s not the best sexual experience …
That’s what I said! I’d heard that it would hurt so I was expecting pain, but we were both so careful with each other. I think it was also a good experience because most guys my age are only interested in having sex with you. I could tell that wasn’t the case with him.
I’m curious, given the age gap and the perceived power dynamic, did you feel forced or coerced at all?
Absolutely not. He made sure I wanted to do it. We both initiated it and he kept asking me if I was okay, not because he thought I was distressed but because he wanted me to know that we could stop at any point. It was like any other man and woman having sex after they had each admitted their feelings.
What was it like afterward?
It wasn’t weird at all. It felt so natural. It didn’t even feel taboo. I felt like I had just made love with a man who I’d been with for years.
Did you think that a relationship was a possibility?
We discussed it before we had sex. I told him I was saving myself for someone who I’d be committed to for the rest of my life. It was important for me to make it clear that if I made love to him he was in a relationship with me. I didn’t regret it at all. I was happy for once in my life. We fell deeply in love.
Had you been depressed before that?
I’ve struggled with chronic depression, and I was bullied at school.
What were you bullied about?
Mostly my weight and the fact that I wasn’t pretty enough. But when my dad and I started dating I became more confident, and it’s funny how much more attractive that makes you feel.
How quickly did he end things with his girlfriend?
We made sure to move out of the girlfriend’s immediately because we knew we couldn’t be together there. Before her, he was with a woman for eight years and she’s now our roommate. Talk about awkward for the first three months!
Did you tell her about the nature of your relationship?
She found out when she heard us making love. I guess we didn’t realize how thin the bedroom floor was. She really didn’t mind. Now we’re like a little family. She calls me her daughter.
How many people know about it?
Everyone on my mom’s side of the family sees us as father and daughter. Those who know that he’s my dad, and that we are engaged, include my father’s parents (they can see we are happy together and they can’t wait for us to have babies — they treat us just like any other couple), the woman we live with, and my best friend.
I’m planning on a full-on wedding but it won’t be legally registered. And personally, I don’t believe you need a piece of paper to prove that you want to be with the person you love. When you get married, you are signing part of yourself over to somebody. We’ll tell everybody that we got our marriage license, but they don’t have to see it. One of our friends will act as the celebrant.
Will you have a wedding? Do you have it planned?
Yes. I want it to represent our uniqueness, so we aren’t doing a white wedding. The color scheme is black and purple, and we are both going to wear Converse tennis shoes. He’s wearing jeans and a nice dress shirt. He says he’s not wearing a bow tie, but it’s my wedding and I am saying that he is. My best friend will be my maid of honor and she’ll be dressed in purple. My grandmother and grandfather — my fiancé’s parents — are going to attend and my grandpa will give me away. The tables will have bouquets of trees without leaves to represent our marriage, which will be like a growing tree. My dress will be black.
How do you manage to hide it from your mom? Is it difficult to keep it a secret?
She doesn’t live in the same town as us and we visit her, together, a couple of times a month. Occasionally we slip up and call each other “babe” or other goofy little names. She acts like there’s something up but she doesn’t know what the hell it is. We recently got tattoos together. Mine says, “I love my peanut butter,” because I call him my peanut butter. His says, “I love my jelly,” because that’s what he calls me. What father and daughter do you know who have names for each other and tattoos like that? She just said, “Oh, those are cute.” She plays dumb about it.
Do you think you’ll ever tell her?
We plan to move to New Jersey where we can be safe under the law, since adult incest isn’t illegal there, and once I’m there I’ll tell everyone. I’ll call my mom and let her know that we are in love and we are having children. If she wants to see her grandkids we’ll send her money and she can drive to see us. Once we are out about it I won’t be comfortable going back to my hometown. What if someone calls the cops?
Is that what’s stopping you from telling her now?
Part of me thinks she won’t give a crap and then another part of me thinks she’ll want to hunt us down and get the police to lock us up and throw away the key. She’s very unpredictable, so I just don’t know how she’ll react.
What about your sister?
I get the sense she knows. We’re so close that we always pick up on each other’s emotions. When we were younger and I was sad she would crawl down from her bunk into my bed and comfort me. I’ve noticed that she relates to my dad as she related to my ex-boyfriend. She used to call him “your dad,” but now she hugs him and uses his name. But I do want to tell her because she’s very important to me. If it weren’t for the legal issues I would tell everybody. It doesn’t feel right to me that we have to hide, but I have to do this to keep my relationship safe.
So would you have kids together, or would you adopt?
We’ll have kids together.
Will you tell your kids that their father is your dad, and their grandfather?
We’ve decided that most likely we won’t. I don’t want to give them any problems.
Would you feel comfortable keeping such a big secret?
That’s something I’ll have to figure out. His mom and dad will want to spend time with the grandkids, so we will have to decide how everyone will be known.
Do you worry about the potential genetic problems associated with having kids with your biological father?
Nope. I wouldn’t risk having a kid if I thought it would be harmful. I’ve done my research. Everybody thinks that kids born in incestuous relationships will definitely have genetic problems, but that’s not true. That happens when there’s years of inbreeding, like with the royal family. Incest has been around as long as humans have. Everybody just needs to deal with it as long as nobody is getting hurt or getting pressured or forced.
There are so many people having kids who will be passing on health problems, people with diabetes or mental health issues, or AIDS. My mom was allowed to have kids and both her and her mom were bipolar. My research tells me that the only real genetic risk is high blood pressure, which is controllable. I think people only worry about it because they look to the genetic problems that occurred when incest was happening generation upon generation. They say, Well, look at King Henry VIII — but he was only a genetic mutant because they had kept it in the family for so long.
Is the father-daughter dynamic part of your sex life?
Not usually, but it has come up a couple of times when one of us blurts out “baby girl” or “daddy” or something. Last time it happened, we both stood up and stopped doing what we were doing. It caught us off guard.
What is it like to know that your fiancé once dated your mom and has had sex with her?
That was so long ago. It’s really just the same as thinking about your boyfriend having sex with an ex-girlfriend. I never experienced them as a couple.
Do you think you have something special that other couples don’t?
I think we have a better relationship than any couple I’ve met because our bond is so strong. I just feel so close to him and so in love with him. We are almost two years into the relationship and I’m still head over heels with that “first few weeks in love” feeling. Everybody says we are the cutest couple they’ve ever seen. I took him to prom.
Didn’t he and your mom conceive you on prom night?
Do you ever call him Dad?
When I need my dad I say, “Hey, Dad, I need you.” And then he’s not going to be my fiancé or my boyfriend, but my father.
Do you ever think about what would happen if you broke up?
I honestly don’t know what I would do. My life would come to a complete standstill; I wouldn’t be happy or confident, and I wouldn’t know how to express myself the way I do when I’m with him. If people found out about this he’d probably get jail time. It’s typically the man who gets arrested when there’s an incest case.
Since you grew up without him and didn’t know where he was for such a long time, do you worry that if you broke up you’d lose both your fiancé and your father?
We’ve had that talk, and I do have abandonment issues. For example, he has to walk away when we have arguments and once he walked outside and I told him, Please don’t go outside because the last time someone had an argument in my household and walked away they never came back. (That was one of my stepfathers.) He’s promised that if either of us decides the relationship can’t work he still wants to be there as my dad.
Is the large age gap an issue?
I hate immature people, I can’t stand drama, and I want to smack most teens because they act like they are 5. I feel like a 37-year-old trapped in an 18-year-old’s body.
What do you like most about him?
I can go to him with anything and he will listen to me and give me good advice. He helps me fix problems. I love everything about him, but the extreme closeness and the special bond is what I really cherish — most people don’t have that. Right from the start we were comfortable being so open and close because we are so similar. I’ve never felt this close to anyone.
What sorts of things do you have in common?
We both like being outdoors and we are interested in artistic things like photography and painting. We both have an extreme love for animals — we have five dogs and we like the countryside and equine activities. He was in FFA when he was in high school and so was I. Our favorite food is chicken, our second favorite is fish. We both like computers and video games. We both want a big family.
Is he physically your type?
Definitely. He’s alternative and has piercings and tattoos.
Do you look alike?
I don’t think we do — people really just take us as boyfriend and girlfriend. I guess we have similar bone structures. But he’s dyed his hair and he looks young for his age, so most people think he’s in his 20s.
How much time do you spend together?
The only thing we do independently is go to work and school. He’s a maintenance man and I am studying cosmetology, but other than that we are together 24/7.
What’s your response to people who just can’t get their head around your relationship?
I just don’t understand why I’m judged for being happy. We are two adults who brought each other out of dark places. People need to research incest and GSA because they don’t get it and I don’t think they understand how often it happens.
What would you say to people who might think that this is an abusive relationship, that he’s your father and you are still a teenager?
When you are 18 you know what you want. You’re an adult under the law and you’re able to consent. I can take care of myself. I don’t need protection. If I were in a situation where I needed to get out I would. I’m not afraid to defend myself. My mom taught me self-defense, whether it be stabbing someone in the eye with a mascara brush or kicking a man in the crotch, and she was careful to teach me about inappropriate touching. From a very young age she told me not to listen to the classic things an abuser might say, like when they tell you to keep it secret or that they will kill you or your family.
Why did she focus so much on sexual abuse?
Her stepfather sexually abused her and her mother didn’t know about it until they’d split up because she was too scared to tell anyone.
Were you ever sexually abused when you were younger?
No, and my dad has told me that the thought of being involved with me when I was little is appalling to him. Once when I was about 4 I was in a golf cart with my great-great grandma’s husband and he touched me on my inner leg. It wasn’t super-aggressive, but I felt very uncomfortable about it. I told my father and he called my mom and they took me to a children’s hospital to get examined. There were no signs of abuse.
Were you suspicious of men when you were growing up?
Yes, because I’ve always known what they are capable of.
Do you think that’s why you didn’t date a lot of men?
It was and it wasn’t. There weren’t a lot of people who caught my eye, for one thing, and I didn’t really want to waste my first sexual experience with someone who I couldn’t guarantee I’d be with forever. My first kiss was with my boyfriend of two years. It’s always been important to me that it’s serious. I grew up without a father and my mother has had a lot of different partners. I don’t want that for my kids. I want them to be in a happy and stable household with two people who love them.
This interview has been edited.