Recently, there seems to be a glut of anime focusing on sibling incest. Known as the big bother complex or little sister complex, sibling incest has become a subgenre of romance. The level of romance varies. Most of the time, the complexes appear between siblings without any genetic ties or removed cousins. Sometimes, you have blood relatives flirting with each other but never going all-in to a romantic relationship. As you can guess, I’m staying away from hentai for this discussion. I also recommend you check out the article at Manga Therapy in addition to my analysis here. In any case, the complexes center around an attachment toward an elder brother by a younger sister, as in Oreima, or an attachment toward a younger sister by an elder brother. The attachment goes behind normal sibling behavior and into the realm of dating and romance.
When I started to research this topic after noticing just how many anime on Crunchyroll center on this lately, I had wondered if it was unique to anime. But it turns out that western Romantic literature teems with incest between siblings and cousins. Lord Byron writes about it in Manfred, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein features an incestuous relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his cousin Elizabeth. Throughout romantic literature is a single theme: love is agony (Reed, 2012). Manfred describes his sister using this theme:
She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
To comprehend the universe: nor these
Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,
Pity, and smiles, and tears—which I had not;
And tenderness—but that I had for her;
Humility—and that I never had.
Her faults were mine—her virtues were her own—
I loved her, and destroy’d her!
In Frankenstein, Victor accounts of how painful his affection for his cousin is:
“Sometimes, indeed, I felt a wish for happiness; and thought, with melancholy delight, of my beloved cousin.”
He goes on:
“At these moments I often endeavoured to put an end to the existence I loathed; and it is required unceasing attendance and vigilance to restrain me from committing some dreadful act of violence [upon myself].”
Romantic period literature introduced a sibling story line we’ve seen in Star Wars. A brother and sister were separated a birth and fall for each other only to learn about their blood relationship after they become involved. Only Luke and Lea didn’t get as involved as in Romantic period stories. Anime usually involves stories where the siblings grow up with each other. Sometimes they go through a period of separation. Of course, the siblings aren’t always blood relatives, such as Sword Art Online’s Kirito and Leafa. Nor do they always develop full romantic relationships. Anime likes to flirt with sibling romance rather than fully commit as English Romantic literature does. But anime fans would readily recognize the 3 main relationships found in Romantic literature (Richardson, 1985):
- Erotic relationships between foster brother and sister who are raised as siblings and believe they are blood relatives.
- Brothers and sisters who are close and share a common fate but lack a sexual relationship.
- Brothers and sisters who share a sexual relationship.
The first type of relationship is the most common in the literature and fairly common to anime too. All three types involve a death of sort sort that relates to the consummation of the siblings’ romantic feelings. The death may be a physical death or an emotional death, but either way, the theme ties back to the idea that love is pain. I have to point out that anime touches on this theme in many stories too. Oreima, for example, while not a full-on incestuous romance touches on how the taboo of incest can make the feelings of affection feel painful and unnatural. Romantic writers linked pain with pleasure, considering them inseparable. Incest, with its pleasure and destruction (incest being unacceptable) represents the single theme that captures the Romantic view (Reed, 2012).
The Taboo of Incest
Among traditional societies, death was the most common form of punishment for sibling incest (Yates, 2016). Most societies, but not all, have a taboo against sibling relationships. There are times when this taboo broke down, such as during Ptolemaic Egypt. Language sometimes confuses things. People sometimes think all of Egyptian history involved incest among the pharaohs. Hawaii and Peru also confuse because of the custom of referring to a spouse as sister or brother and how the language didn’t distinguish between siblings, cousins, and unrelated peers (Bixler, 1982). Sometimes incest isn’t a matter of language. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it was common for lower class brothers and sisters in Roman Egypt to marry.
There are two explanations as to why the taboo is almost universal, the Freudian view and the Darwinian view. In the Freudian view, incest is a universal feeling that must be repressed. The Darwinian view considers the taboo to be a built-in avoidance mechanism because incest hurts the ability of genes to survive (Tidefors, 2010).
Despite the near universality of the sibling relationship taboo (blood relatives or otherwise), modern studies have found incest to be more common than originally thought. Some of these studies seem to contradict each other, but the problems come from the definitions used in the studies. Surprisingly, the definition of sibling incest varies–some require one or both parents in common. Others count it as among those who call themselves as a family. The definitions of sexual relationships also varies from study to study. And these definitions give us the variety of numbers we will see, but in the end, it seems sibling relationships are common enough to explain why anime and English literature feature them.
Medical Studies of Incest
In a study in the 1980s, a sibling incest study in New England found such behavior in 25% of respondents and the majority of them regarded it as a positive experience. This study and others like it, shaped medical professionals’ view that sibling sexual behavior is usually harmless. This view leads many to downplay sibling sexual abuse as a problem. Other studies estimate anywhere between 2%-13% of the general population has engaged in sibling incest behavior during childhood. Again, definitions explain the strange data ranges (Yates, 2016). Researchers have drummed up a few other trends (Kokkola, 2016): most incidents happen between 13-15 years of age and consensual fondling is the most common event with 80% of respondents reporting this in various studies.
The taboo of incest along with the apparent commonness of it makes it hard for medical professionals to know what is medically normal and what is abusive. Literature and anime also normalizes what is essentially abuse. From the medical studies I’ve read, abuse comes down to a few indicators. Harmful sexual behavior usually distracts the siblings from other important developmental tasks” but defining what is harmful is still up for debate (Yates, 2016). The three indicators: large age gaps between involved siblings, the use of threat or force, and the use of bribes and other forms of manipulation. What constitutes normal sibling sexual behavior remains unclear to medicine, making it more difficult for nurses and other professionals to know when they are required to act.
Parents shape the chances of sibling incest. Researchers have found families with parents who are victims of abuse sometimes reinforces abusive behavior between siblings–including witnessing abuse and not stopping it, such as what happens in Oreima. Parent absence results in a higher degree of bonding between siblings and that comfort-seeking can become sexual (Tidefors, 2010).
Westermarck and Childhood Friends
A common theme in romance anime is the childhood friend who has romantic interest with the protagonist who doesn’t share the same feelings. This trend in story telling comes from observation and the Darwinian view of relationships. If you remember, the Darwinian view states there are natural mechanisms against incest that are built in by natural selection. Edward Westermarck developed this idea by hypothesizing that people lack sexual attraction toward those they had lived with during childhood. Anime’s childhood friend falls directly into Westermarck’s idea. A few studies have put Westermarck’s idea into question: “…people brought up in small involuntary groups with high levels of social cohesion are less likely to be sexually attracted to each other, and less likely to act on attractions, in order to maintain the social order.” Some studies suggest incestuous marriages were encouraged in human societies when they preserved social harmony. Some cultures, like the Hoti in central Venezuela lack defined family boundaries. Incest has no meaning for them and marriages between ‘siblings’ are not uncommon (Yates, 2016).
However, more studies support Westermarck’s conclusion. A 2003 study found a correlation between the time children live together and sexual aversion in males and females. Females also report higher aversion than men. De Smet’s study (2014) was the first to study women and this aversion:
Our study is the first to indicate that, at least in women, frequently shared “sibling-typical” experiences (i.e. bathing together and sleeping in the same bedroom) with an opposite-sex sibling during early childhood (0–6 years) correlates positively with later sexual aversion…
The studies that support Westermarck’s idea suggest blood-relationship doesn’t matter as much as time spent together during the most formative years. Romantic literature mostly ignores Westermarck, but anime often follows this observation. In many–though not all–sibling romance stories, there is some type of early childhood separation, either emotional or physical, that halts the bonding process found to correlate with incest aversion. Of course, this becomes comedy fodder when a sibling or childhood friend, often the lady, wants to try to recapture this lost bonding by bathing with the guy. Westermarck explains why the childhood friend rarely becomes the protagonist’s romantic interest: they are too close. Of course, this is also a piece of the rom-com formula anime has perfected.
Anime doesn’t focus as much as the Romantic period on the idea that love is agony. If anything, anime finds love amusingly awkward, but I guess you could argue that embarrassment can be painful. Anime, like the Romantics, enjoys flirting with the sibling incest taboo. As Kokkola (2016) points out, sibling relationships disgust and fascinate. The dichotomy of comfortable bonding and understanding with the taboo against such relationships attracts many people. After all, forbidding something makes people curious. As we’ve seen, incest has deep roots in history and language. Most cultures have forbid it, and it appears humans have natural mechanisms that reduces attraction toward those we share childhood.
Sibling relationships aren’t unique to anime. English Romantic literature teems with it more than anime does today. It is a relatively small subgenre of romantic comedies. Sibling relationships of all stripes gains more appeal as we fragment and struggle to connect with others. Communication has become superficial and rife with problems. Siblings, on the other hand, mostly skip the awkward getting-to-know you period. They also share a closeness (usually) that many romantic couples wish they could achieve. While the Romantics viewed sibling relationships as the best representation of “love is agony,” anime views sibling relationships as a stand-in for the state of relationships today–often a forbidden place rife with problems but still containing a deep level of connection people often can’t achieve.
Of course, anime avoids the problems of real-life incest: abuse, psychological issues, and birth defects. It avoids the fact Japan forbids sibling marriage even if it doesn’t criminalize such relationships (Kokkola, 2016). Despite these problems, anime will continue to explore these relationships for as long as audiences remain interested. Sibling relationship stories will remain a part of world literature because of its built-in conflict and tension between disgust and appeal.
Bixler, Ray. (1982) Sibling Incest in the Royal Families of Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii. The Journal of Sex Research. 18 (3) 264-281.
Bryce, Mio (2008) Another half and/or another individual: representation of twins in manga. The International Journal of the Humanities. 5. 143-153.
Kokkola, Lyida & Valovirta, Elina (2016) The Disgust that Fascinates: Sibling Incest as a Bad Romance. Sexuality & Culture. doi: 10.1007/s12119-016-9386-6.
Reed, Mandi (2012) The melancholy of sibling incest in British Romanticism. LOGOS: A Journal of Undergraduate Research. Fall 2012. 111-120.
Richardson, Alan (1985) The Dangers of Sympathy: Sibling Incest in English Romantic Poetry. Studies in English Literature. 1500-1900. 25 (4) 737-754.
Tidefors, Inga, Arvidsson, Hans, et al (2010) Sibling incest: A literature review and a clinical study. Journal of Social Aggression. 16 (3) 347-360.
Yates, Peter (2016) Sibling sexual abuse: why don’t we talk about it? Journal of Clinical Nursing. 26, 2482-2494.