According to researchers, the average person has 40 to 60 thousand thoughts every day. These thoughts can range from the mundane (“Remember to buy toothpaste”) to the worrisome (“Am I safe?”) to the intrusive and disturbing (“Did I really just feel an attraction toward a relative?”).
If you’re having thoughts about being attracted to a family member and you’re finding them upsetting, you’re not alone. As a therapist, I’ve worked with many people who have this fear, and I’ve helped them uncover the reason behind it. Let’s look at one example.
At a family reunion, Jenny noticed she had some intrusive thoughts about how her cousin had changed over the years. Her braces came off, her skin cleared up, and her figure made Jenny do a double take. Just a minute later, her mind started spiraling, and she kept worrying about what her thoughts had meant, ruminating over and over about whether she was attracted to her cousin. She avoided spending time with her cousin alone. She backed out of the family activities like volleyball if she feared there could be physical contact with her cousin. How could she trust herself?
Whenever Jenny was near her family, her mind told her distressing messages, like “You wish she was your girlfriend” or “Those thoughts are as bad as incest.” At times she would have a groinal response (a sensation of arousal in her genitals) after one of these intrusive thoughts, which made her feel even more ashamed, afraid, and disgusted.
For Jenny, her fear of being attracted to a family member turned out to be explained by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If your only familiarity with OCD is compulsive hand washing or ritualistic tapping, you might be surprised to learn that unwanted sexual thoughts about a family member can have anything to do with this mental health condition. But there are many manifestations of OCD, including a theme called Incest OCD.
Understanding Incest OCD
A person with OCD experiences two primary types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations, or images that come into your mind and cause a large amount of distress, anxiety, or fear. Compulsions are mental or physical acts that you feel compelled to engage in as a way to alleviate the distress of the obsession or avoid something bad happening—but only temporarily, because the obsession always returns, bringing even more distress over time.
Incest OCD is a subtype of OCD that involves intrusive and unwanted sexual thoughts, images, sensations, and urges about family members. You may experience intrusive images of sexual acts with a parent or sibling, or relentless thoughts such as “Are you attracted to your dad?” As with most sexual obsessions, they can feel deeply shameful and confusing for the person experiencing them, and they may lead to compulsions like avoiding their own family members because they’re so afraid of their obsessions being triggered or of the possibility that they could lose control and act on them.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that having a fear that you are attracted to a family member doesn’t automatically mean you are suffering from Incest OCD. That said, my goal in this article is to provide information that may help you understand the condition and decide whether it’s time for an evaluation.
Why Incest OCD is not a sign of real attraction or desire
A common misconception about sexual themes of OCD is that sexual obsessions are the same as fantasies. When fear of being attracted to a family member is a result of OCD, this could not be further from the truth. OCD often latches on to the things we care the most about, such as family. People with OCD don’t want to have these thoughts and urges, as they bring on pain and discomfort—in fact, they want nothing less than their obsessions.
Groinal responses only complicate the feeling of confusion. Feeling a tingling or “turned on” sensation after an obsessive thought like “Could I be turned on by my cousin?” can lead a sufferer to believe that the incestual thought is something that they actually want. This is not the case—the groinal response is not accompanied by feelings of excitement and healthy anticipation. Rather, this unwanted groinal response brings on feelings of fear and disgust. It’s simply due to a cruel twist in how our bodies work: sometimes, the genital region responds to stimuli even though we’re not aroused at all. In fact, these responses can even be a result of our anxiety and the attention we give to them—when we’re focused on sensations in our body, our brain can actually create those feelings.
Examples of Obsessions in Incest OCD
- Unwanted sexual images about one’s family member
- A relentless fear that a person could be attracted or in love with a family member
- Fear that one will snap and act sexually towards a family member
- Unwanted urges to kiss or touch a family member sexually
- Unwanted groinal response or other feelings of arousal that cause distress and worry
Examples of Compulsions in Incest OCD
- Mental rumination about intrusive thoughts
- Researching the internet for answers about incest and why it occurs
- Constantly checking their body for feelings of arousal around family members
- Avoiding media that may involve themes of incest
- Mental review about past interactions with family members
- Avoiding interacting with family members
Why it’s important to get help
When OCD is untreated, it typically spirals into a much bigger problem. When a person is engaged in the OCD cycle and continues to do compulsions, their OCD symptoms will continue to get stronger, and the urge to continue doing compulsions gets more intense. It can feel like OCD has taken over their life.
In the case of incest fears in OCD, a person’s fear could get in the way of having a healthy relationship with their family. Avoidance and other rituals or compulsions may hurt one’s family members, who are likely completely unaware why the person with OCD has pulled away. This type of OCD can also affect current intimate relationships or get in the way of dating. A person who struggles with this fear may avoid sex with their partner because they are worried they will picture a family member during sex.
What type of therapy is best?
A common misconception with mental health disorders is that any kind of therapy works across the board. This is completely false—when it comes to OCD, for instance, a specific kind of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the best way to find relief. ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and is backed by decades of clinical research.
To give you a specific example of how ERP works, let’s take Jenny from our example above. She might consider not going to a family holiday again because of the fear of experiencing an attraction to her cousin. An ERP therapist would work with her to gradually work on sitting with her fear about being attracted to her cousin, without engaging in compulsions like avoiding family events.
But don’t worry, this kind of therapy happens gradually so that patients feel comfortable with the process and don’t get too overwhelmed too soon. For instance, maybe Jenny would start by simply imagining staring at her cousin, then get the courage to talk to her for one minute at an event, and then eventually commit to sitting next to her at family dinner. Over time, her brain learns that she can feel anxiety about this topic, but it will eventually go away, and it doesn’t have to rule her life and keep her from the experiences and people she cares about.
Where to get help
As an OCD/ERP trained therapist with NOCD, I have seen this fear come up for many of my members—and I’ve seen them overcome it. If you’re experiencing something similar, please know that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to keep worrying and suffering in silence. There are qualified professionals who understand what you’re going through and can help.
If you’re interested in taking steps toward treatment, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to OCD and anxiety treatment. We would love to help you get on the road to recovery.