The Limits of Lawrence -- Consensual Adult Incest:

After the Supreme Court declared Texas' anti-sodomy law unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, there was substantial speculation about the implications of the decision for other laws targeting consensual sexual activity among adults. If state prohibition on consensual homosexual activity was unconstitutional, some reasoned, then it might be difficult to maintain state prohibitions on incest, at least among consenting adults. Not so, ruled the Ohio Supreme Court earlier this week.

In State v. Lowe, the Ohio Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the state's prohibition on incest as applied to consensual sexual relations between a step-father and his adult step-daughter. After first concluding that the statute, by its terms, applied to adults as well as children, a six-justice majority rejected the defendant's constitutional challenge, concluding that the statutory prohibition passed muster under the rational basis test because the state has a legitimate interest in prohibiting sexual relations between relatives, even those related by law rather than blood.

Lowe cites Lawrence v. Texas to argue that he has a constitutionally protected liberty interest to engage in private, consensual, adult sexual conduct with his stepdaughter when that activity does not involve minors or persons who may be easily injured or coerced. In Lawrence, a Texas statute criminalizing homosexual conduct was held to be unconstitutional as applied to adult males who had engaged in private and consensual acts of sodomy. Lowe contends that Lawrence named a new fundamental right to engage in consensual sex in the privacy of one's home.

However, the statute in Lawrence was subjected to a rational-basis rather than a strict-scrutiny test, with the court concluding that the Texas statute furthered no legitimate state interest that could justify intrusion into an individual's personal and private life. In using a rational-basis test to strike down the Texas statute, the court declined to announce a new fundamental right arising from the case.

In addition to emphasizing that the court in using a rational-basis test did not name a new fundamental right, the state in this case distinguishes Lawrence as being limited to consensual sexual conduct between unrelated adults. Lowe and his stepdaughter were not unrelated. The state argues that since Lowe has no fundamental right in this case, and the state has a legitimate interest in prohibiting incestuous relations and in protecting the family unit and family relationships, the rational-basis test should apply. . . .

We agree with the state that a rational-basis test should be used to analyze the statute. Lawrence did not announce a "fundamental" right to all consensual adult sexual activity, let alone consensual sex with one's adult children or stepchildren. Because Lowe's claimed liberty interest in sexual activity with his stepdaughter is not a fundamental right, the statute affecting it need only have a reasonable relationship to some legitimate governmental interest. . . .

. . . as applied in this case, [the statute] bears a rational relationship to the legitimate state interest in protecting the family, because it reasonably advances its goal of protection of the family unit from the destructive influence of sexual relationships between parents or stepparents and their children or stepchildren. If Lowe divorced his wife and no longer was a stepparent to his wife's daughter, the stepparent-stepchild relationship would be dissolved. The statute would no longer apply in that case.

Justice Pfeifer was the lone dissenter. He argued that the true purpose of the statute was to protect children, not prohibit consensual sexual activity between adults who lack any blood relationship. He also speculated that the only interest this application actually serves is providing the state with a "shortcut to conviction," because the statute provides "a strict-liability, slam-dunk sex offense that does not allow the defendant to present any evidence regarding the consent of the victim." "This sort of use of the statute demeans its true purpose," Pfeifer wrote.

Key to the majority's ruling was its conclusion that Lawrence failed to announce a fundamental right or apply heightened scrutiny, making it easier to sustain other state laws governing consensual sexual activity. This interpretation makes Lawrence a less significant decision as it limits the "threat" Lawrence poses to other state efforts to regulate morality and makes Lawrence a much less effective weapon against the criminalization of victimless crimes.

Why Might It Make Sense To Bar Stepparent-Adult-Stepchild Incest?

The post below, and the discussion in the comments, leads me to ask: Precisely why might it make sense to outlaw sex between stepparents and adult stepchildren? I don't want to ask whether such a ban should be constitutional, or whether criminal penalties are ultimately a good idea. (One might conclude, for instance, that outlawing such sex may make sense, but that on balance it makes more sense not to have the legal system try to investigate and criminally punish such things.)

In the course of describing the rational basis for the law, the court gives what might be an answer to my question:

Ohio has a tradition of acknowledging the "importance of maintaining the family unit." A sexual relationship between a parent and child or a stepparent and stepchild is especially destructive to the family unit. R.C. 2907.03(A)(5) was designed to protect the family unit by criminalizing incest in Ohio. Stepchildren and adopted children have been included as possible victims of the crime of incest because society is concerned with the integrity of the family, including step and adoptive relationships as well as blood relationships, and sexual activity is equally disruptive, whatever the makeup of the family. As the "traditional family unit has become less and less traditional, * * * the legislature wisely recognized that the parental role can be assumed by persons other than biological parents, and that sexual conduct by someone assuming that role can be just as damaging to a child." This reasoning applies not only to minor children, but to adult children as well. Moreover, parents do not cease being parents -- whether natural parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents -- when their minor child reaches the age of majority.

Accordingly, as applied in this case, R.C. 2907.03(A)(5) bears a rational relationship to the legitimate state interest in protecting the family, because it reasonably advances its goal of protection of the family unit from the destructive influence of sexual relationships between parents or stepparents and their children or stepchildren. If Lowe divorced his wife and no longer was a stepparent to his wife's daughter, the stepparent-stepchild relationship would be dissolved. The statute would no longer apply in that case.

But this strikes me as pretty abstract -- how exactly is the "family unit" threatened, and what exactly does "the integrity of the family" mean? Even if you're confident that there's some harm here, it helps to know concretely what the harm is, since that will help us understand what boundaries the incest rule should have.

For instance, is the threat simply the threat of dissolution of the stepfather's and mother's marriage? If so, should the law apply when the mother is dead (in which case I take it the stepfather would still be the stepfather) -- and why should the law apply even when the mother is alive, given that other forms of adultery are no longer criminally punished?

Is it the threat of damage to the stepfather's/stepdaughter's familial relationship, in the event that the stepfather/stepdaughter break up their romantic relationship? If so, why shouldn't the law apply even if the father divorces the mother? (It may be that it literally doesn't apply, given its text, depending on how you read "stepparent," but maybe that just means it should be amended.)

Is it the threat of damage to the mother/daughter relationship? If so, then again why shouldn't the law apply even if the father divorces the mother to sleep with the daughter?

Here's my very tentative thinking on the matter. First, I don't think that the "abuse of authority" argument raised by some commenters is terribly powerful here, if the argument presupposes that the stepfather is using his authority or even his father figure status coercively. Parents, including stepparents who have raised the child for many years, have notoriously little ability to control their adult children; at most, they'll know which psychological buttons to push, but that doesn't seem to help that much. Perhaps in unusual cases stepparents would have some sort of psychological power over their adult children, and maybe cases of stepparent-stepchild incest disproportionately involve those unusual cases. But I'm not sure why we should assume this, and why we should think such psychological power is that much greater than in many other situations where the relationship isn't criminalized. (Even boss-subordinate relationships, for instance, are almost never criminal, and aren't even by themselves cause for civil liability, though they may carry the risk of civil liability if the jury finds some threat of employment retaliation underlying the relationship.)

Second, I don't think that the concern can just be that the stepfather is breaking up his marriage with the mother (that's no different from normal adultery, which, while bad, is generally not treated as a crime) or even jeopardizing the mother's relationship with the daughter (though I might be mistaken on that point, since stepparent-stepchild incest is unusually likely to jeopardize the parent-child relationship).

Third, it seems to me that the problem with a stepparent-stepchild sexual relationship is not that it jeopardizes the relationship between this stepparent and this stepchild. That's a risk that this stepparent and stepchild can be expected to assess for themselves.

Rather, it seems to me that the most sensible argument for banning stepparent-stepchild sexual relationships -- and perhaps other familiar sexual relationships -- is to diminish (as much as possible) the risk that normalization of sexual attraction in stepparent/adult-stepchild relationships will color others' stepparent-stepchild relationships, including ones that involve minor stepchildren.

When a stepfather looks fondly at his stepdaughter, we want her thinking "he loves me [as a daughter] and thinks I'm beautiful," rather than "he lusts after me." When a mother looks at her husband's looking fondly at his stepdaughter, we want her thinking "he loves her [as a daughter], which is what I want," rather than "he lusts after her." When the stepfather is thinking about his stepdaughter, we want him to banish lustful thoughts as much as possible, rather than thinking about how he might arrange things so that he can sleep with her -- even if he waits until she's 18.

And this is an especially compelling problem for stepfather/stepchild relationships because, as best I can tell, there really is nothing biologically unnatural about them; it's naturally for adult males to be sexually attracted to young postpubescent females with whom they're not genetically related. (Perhaps some innate psychological taboos may undermine that when the adult male has raised the girl from early childhood, but many stepparent/stepchild relationships start when the stepchild is no longer a very young child.) There is thus special social need to desexualize these relationships as much as possible. Of course, we don't want incest to be so unthinkable that it becomes unreportable if it happens nonconsensually, but we do want it to be thought of as little as possible unless there's really solid evidence of its being imminent.

If I'm right, then the behavior control here is a means of affecting other people's understanding and expectation of how people behave and think (as well as how they should behave). I should say this is not necessarily a pretty story: Rather than relying on not-very-far-from-libertarian concerns about coercion (even of adults) or violation of promises (such as the marriage vow), this argument for not allowing stepparent/adult-stepchild incest is a form of thought control. Yet it seems to me to respond to a more serious problem than the other arguments, because it suggests that control of this incest is needed not just to protect a few adults from emotionally damaging decisions, but to protect millions of adults and children from the harm that may stem when their stepparent-stepchild relationships become perceived as potentially sexual even when they themselves firmly resolve not to allow the relationships to actually become sexual.

Moreover, if this story is right, then this suggests that the incest ban should apply even if the stepfather and stepmother divorce, and even if the stepfather is a widower. Any stepparent/stepchild sexual relationships risk normalizing such relationships and thus potentially sexualizing people's attitudes towards such relationships more broadly. And it also suggests that adult stepsibling sexual relationships may likewise be harmful in a way similar to what I describe (though again I should note that this doesn't necessarily mean they should be criminalized).

I may well be wrong on all this. This isn't my core area of expertise, I haven't thought about it a great deal, and thankfully I don't even have personal experience with it (lacking either stepparents or stepchildren). But I thought I'd mention this, and see what others have to say.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Bashman on the Limits of Lawrence
  2. Why Might It Make Sense To Bar Stepparent-Adult-Stepchild Incest?
  3. The Limits of Lawrence -- Consensual Adult Incest:
Bashman on the Limits of Lawrence

How Appealing's Howard Bashman's latest column explains that fears Lawrence v. Texas would result in the wholesale invalidation of morals legislation "have proven to be overblown" -- at least thus far. As evidence, Bashman cites the Ohio Supreme Court's Lowe decision I noted last week and a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upholding the state of Alabama's statute restricting the sale of sex toys.

If two recently issued appellate court rulings are any indication, the post-Lawrence fears of those concerned that public morality would no longer remain a valid basis for legislating consensual sexual conduct have proven to be overblown. Instead, these rulings demonstrate that, even where consenting adults are involved, Lawrence has failed to usher in an "anything goes" era, free from governmental interference.

Other cases seem to confirm this (lack of a) post-Lawrence trend. For instance, as some commenters on my prior post noted, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also upheld a state law prohibiting consensual incest between adults in the 2005 decision of Muth v. Frank. Thus, it seems, Lawrence is has having less impact than some of its proponents hoped and critics feared.