Gender, Generations and Chinatown Syndrome

An earlier post about a father who might serve as a sperm donor for his son’s wife has sparked an extremely lively discussion here.   There’s an intermediate post with lots of comments, too.   I thought I’d offer one more collection of thoughts here and then likely I’ll move on to other topics.  (Of course, if the conversation continues in comments that’s terrific.)

There are a few things that strike me after reading over the comments and giving this all some further thought.  First, Kisrita was good enough to find me the link to an earlier post which is kind of the reversed gender version of this story.    In that earlier story a mother wanted to serve as egg donor for her daughter when the time came.   Now granted that post didn’t attract nearly the attention that this one did (it was a long time ago) but it is also noteworthy (to me, anyway) that no one suggested that situation amounted to incest.

Mind you, I’m not at all persuaded that this situation amounts to incest either.  Indeed, I don’t think either situation is incestuous, though I see the potential for complications.   But it does seem to me that the situations are sufficiently analogous so that if one seems like incest then the other should, too.

Beyond that, even though I don’t think either situation goes near the incest line, I think I might have slightly different reactions to the situations.   It think perhaps it seems more ordinary and therefore acceptable for a mother to want to help out her daughter this way than it does for a father to help out his son.

I don’t say that this difference in reactions makes me happy, but I do think it says something about gender.  Surely the gender stereotype would be that women are more caring, helping and nurturing than are men.  This assumption could make the mother’s action seem more normal, while the father’s action would seem a little odd.   I’m not assigning this view to anyone, I’m just thinking that I see a trace of it in my own reactions.

In any event, my reaction to either the mother donor or the father donor is different, I think, from my reaction to the sister or brother donor.   Using a sibling as a donor for a spouse/partner is actually not all that uncommon.   I cannot say that I’ve ever heard the specter of incest raised, although I have heard discussions of the social complications that can ensue.   And in truth, I don’t think the sibling donor seems all that odd at all.   And so that makes me wonder about the intergenerational thing.

I’m not persuaded this is just about incest.   Sex (my usage of the word sex, for what it is worth–see the previous post) between sister and brother is certainly incest and is (or should be) taboo.   I am not sure it is any better or worse than sex between parent and child.   So I don’t think referring to incest can explain the difference in my reaction.  It has, I think, something else to do with the parent/child relationship.   I am not sure I can push this much further just now because I’m not sure I know what to say.  But I’ll note that at least one commenter also speculated that there was something about the intergenerational nature of the transaction that mattered.

And that takes me to Chinatown–the movie, I mean.   Given my age, this movie was a shocking encounter with father/daughter incest.   (I guess I should have included a spoiler alert.)   It’s hard for me to shake it.   I think it probably shapes how I think about the father-in-law/daughter-in-law.

This suddenly dawned on me and I figured I should acknowledge it because it’s a false equation.   Whatever it was that made the relationship between father and daughter in Chinatown repulsive and horrifying, it isn’t the same as what is proposed here.   There’s no genetic connection.   The father-in-law did not raise the daughter-in-law.   The father-in-law has never been in a position of power, authority and responsibility vis-a-vis the daughter-in-law.    I don’t see an really see a legitimate basis for imposing that set of images on this family.    In writing this I seek to dismiss the notion from my own mind.


8 responses to “Gender, Generations and Chinatown Syndrome

  1. Its not incest, you are correct. In the case of the woman saving her eggs for her daughter to use later, we are not faced with the woman’s real life son-in-law reproducing all Oedipus-in-law style, with her the way the daughter-in-law is reproducing with her father in law in this latest story. But still your right its not incest. Its just that there is going to be this big charade put on for most of the people they encounter from here on out and that is just kind of lame and inauthentic, but not criminal or risky for the child’s physical health.

    Did you read the link I sent the ASRM position on inter-family gamete donation? They discuss inter-generational gamete donation from a parent in-law as being problematic as it gives the impression of incest. They consider reproducing with a blood or half blood relative incest and they won’t do it because of the risks to the child produced. I think its interesting they won’t do it themselves but they have no problem leaving the resulting children ill-equip to avoid the situations they find to dangerous to risk loosing their licenses over.

    • I am not sure I understand what you are saying here. Is there a difference between mother giving eggs to use in place of daughter’s and father giving sperm to use in place of son’s? It did seem to me that there was a difference in the reaction to these two scenarios. And I wonder what difference might explain the reaction.

      I don’t know why you assume that there is going to be this big charade. You mean because these families won’t tell everyone in the world about the manner of their reproduction? I think we’ve differed about this in the past–I think they have a perfect right not to tell the world and so I wouldn’t characterize it as a charade. And we know nothing about what they will say within their own households–what they’ll tell the kids.

      I have read the ASRM stuff and I think it’s interesting that they key on the suggestion of incest. I don’t know what you mean by “they have no problem with it”–it seems to me they do have a problem with it, which is why the consider it problematic.

  2. Perhaps my use of the word incest was extreme— although Judaism considers cross generational in law relationship to be akin to incest, american culture doesn’t- although it is quite close enough to incest to evoke the ick factor, and I think for good reason.

    • so i guess i’m cool that the ASRM sees it that way too…. although I didin’t read the link yet. thanks marilyn!

    • The cross-generational relationship is obviously incredibly destructive to the family. If the father runs off with the son’s wife, that’s going to put some strain on the father/son relationship, to put it mildly. But I don’t think it is incest. I think this is important because in some ways broadening the meaning of “incest” to include more different things dilutes it’s core meaning. That’s a problem because as it gets diluted the taboo might weaken–some say this has happened in our society and has had very bad consequnces for children.

      Of course, I don’t think providing sperm for the son and his wife to use is the equivilant.

  3. there’s another reasons why gender assumptions may be operating, but it has but EVERYTHING to do with sex- the sexual double standard which gives men far more leeway than women when it comes to sexual rules. Be it with multiple partners, or age and generation issues.
    Also the idea that pregnancy=motherhood is still entrenched in many people’s psychology.

  4. I also had differet reactions – viscerally, not rationally – to the two situations.

    Sex is still viewed as the active, aggressive male propagating his forming seed (cf. Aristotle) by subduing the passive woman. The last name is contitnued through the man.

    The infertile husband’s father is thus almost raping his poor DIL to ensure the survival his bloodline.

    The infertile wife’s mother is sacrificing herself in lieu of her daughter.

    This might be one subconscious, atavistically prejudicial interpretation for the different reactions.

    Rationally, they’re the same.

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