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|Written by Dahlia Liwsze|
|Tuesday, 07 July 2009 00:00|
The horrific Austrian incest abuse case involving Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter, Elisabeth, for 24 years and fathered her seven children, including a boy who died shortly after birth, makes people grit their teeth.
But what about the case of Sally (not her real name) who had a sexual relationship with her 30-year-old son less than a month after they met in 1996, the year British Columbia unsealed its adoption records? Both were consenting adults, and there was no force, coercion or betrayal of trust. While she and her son are now in a more conventional relationship, Sally told CBC's Current on May 7th that she "would've appreciated knowing about [genetic sexual attraction]."
Genetic sexual attraction (GSA) was a term first coined in the 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, who founded Truth Seekers in Adoption, a Chicago-based support group for adoptees and their newfound relatives. The Encyclopaedia of World Problems and Human Potential says GSA is "particularly noted in the case of adopted children who are subsequently reunited with the biological parents or siblings of the opposite sex [who bear a close resemblance], seemingly because the normal bonding mechanism has been disrupted. It takes the form of an overpowering, almost electrical grip of emotion, associated with an inability to keep away from the other person and an almost primordial sense of having belonged together all their lives [and may lead to a sexual relationship]."
The UK and US saw an emergence of GSA cases in the mid-1970s when adoption laws were abated. Adoptees had easier access to adoption records, which led to an increase in post-adoption reunions.
An activist, Gonyo benefited herself from the legislative changes when she met her 26-year-old son in 1979. While she initially struggled with sexual feelings, in the end, she was happy the relationship remained platonic. In her book, I'm His Mother, But He's Not My Son, the only one written about GSA, she testified that intense feelings at the beginning of reunions "will eventually subside."
However, Toronto-based therapist, Dianne Mathes, has pointed out that while post-adoption reunions will occur more easily in Ontario as its adoption records were opened on June 1, 2009, this does not mean there will be an astronomical number of GSA relationships. Quantifying GSA relationships is difficult, she said, because many people are "very ashamed and scared, so they often keep it a secret." She added: "It's hard to define exactly what GSA is ... some people would say it's GSA if a person even has sexual feelings in a reunion relationship. Others would say that a person has to act on the sexual feelings for it to be GSA."
Mathes, who has been practicing 25-plus years and is herself an adoptee, prefers to use the term genetic attraction (GA) to describe the total experience of what occurs for people.
Genetic attraction or reflection is what people are looking for ... some who looks like me, sounds like me ... It's a fundamental part of learning about who we are. We need the connectedness that comes from people who look like us and who think like us. People who are raised in biological families get this genetic reflection naturally, but people who are adopted don't- unless they are in contact with their kinship family."
While Mathes experienced "some very difficult feelings of loss and pain" of a non-sexual nature with some of her 10 siblings, she said that post-adoption reunions are difficult regardless of whether or not GSA occurs. "They're hard feelings to explain. It turns your life upside down ... because it's very painful and very hard to talk to somebody else. I was very lucky because I had a very supportive family and husband and was a therapist."
The factor of contact with one's biological family during one's upbringing is similar to the Westermarck theory, which was developed in the 19th century. Anthropologist Edward Westermarck believed that living in close domestic proximity to one another desensitized people to sexual attraction later in life. The Westermarck effect was also observed in the Israeli kibbutz system where children were raised communally and few sexual relationships and marriages developed among peers.
Of course, Ontario is not the only province where adoptees and birth relatives have experienced a diverse range of emotions following post-adoption reunions. Legislative change that opens up the door to the reunification of biological families is having a profound effect on our cultural definitions of family.
Dr. Michael Grand, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Guelph, reported that while Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia already have such legislation, while "Manitoba does not have parallel legislation." Along with Wendy Rowney, the president of Adoption Support Kinship, and Karen Lynn, the president of the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers, Dr. Grand co-founded the coordinating committee of the Coalition for Open Adoption Records (COAR) in 2001, which began advocating for legislative change.
Dr. Grand, who earned his Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in 1972, however, became involved in the cause earlier when he conducted "The National Adoption Study of Canada" with Dr. Kerry Daly, a colleague in the Family Relations and Applied Nutrition Department, which looked at "policies and legislation as well as attitudes about adoption throughout Canada."
Dr. Grand (under the name, Sobol) and Dr. Daly published their paper, "Adoption Practice in Canada: Emerging Issues and Trends," in Child Welfare in May-June 1995. "I think the study had a strong influence in that in 1996 B.C. opened its records, and I was told by one of their government officials that the study was part of the development of the legislation [and] that they were strongly influenced by recommendations of the study, one of which said to open up records. [The study] became the paradigm for the rest of the country," said Dr. Grand.
While he and his colleague recommended opening up adoption records in 1993 and suggested a disclosure veto, they later determined the veto was unnecessary. "By the time we looked at all the evidence across the world, we could not find any reason for having a disclosure veto because we didn't find any instances of contact veto violation."
Dr. Grand noted that B.C. has not had a single contact veto violation and pointed to Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Scandinavia, some parts of Australia and other countries, which have had open adoption records for decades. "Scotland opened its records in 1935. Now did the sky fall in Scotland? It didn't."
In a phone interview with (Cult)ure, Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community and Social Services, said that the two-plus years it took to draft an adoption bill passable in court was well-worth it.
"I believe the responses have been very positive. At the same time, we have received over 5,500 disclosure veto requests ... [B]efore we amended the legislation there was another process [through which] people could find their birth relatives. It was called the voluntary Adoption Disclosure Register, and 75,000 people have applied to that Register [since 1979]."
Ontario's new law, in turn, enables adopted adults and birth parents to find copies of adoption orders and birth registrations and information from these documents. While adoptees will find out what their own original names and those of their parents were, parents can learn the names their children were given after they were adopted. Of course, people who are uninterested in reconnecting have been protected as they could file disclosure vetoes if their adoption order was made before September 1, 2008.
Consequently, the need for adoption counselling will rise. What Ann Tasko, Mathes' colleague in Victoria, has been doing in her 24 years of therapeutic practice is "work on restructuring the relationship, so [patients can] have a relationship with that person without the intensity. It's longing in the beginning and ... there's a hole they're trying to fill. There's not a word to describe these relationships. They can't be mothers again. They can't be sons. In successful [reconstructed] and re-defined relationships, sexual and emotional boundaries are respected. Although the individuals carry the memories - both the pain and pleasure - of a more intimate relationship, their lives are able to move forward through their own healing journey to a place of greater peace."
Besides counselling, Tasko will be writing a book about GSA, where she will share her therapeutic perspective and her patients, who are part of the "loose support group" she leads occasionally, will offer theirs.
In 1992, Dr. Maurice Greenberg and Professor Roland Littlewood from University College in London conducted the only academic GSA study to date. Eight questionnaires were completed, and they also studied approximately 40 GSA case studies reported by counsellors. The pairings included parent/child, sibling, heterosexual and homosexual.
Greenberg reported in his paper, "Post-Adoption Reunions: Are We Entering Uncharted Territory," in 1993 that "the range of sexual experiences described varied from intense erotic feelings towards their relatives, which was described by all the people I interviewed, through sexualized behaviour such as touching or fondling, to actual sexual relationships reported by three." The reported consequences also varied. Two subjects felt "they had got it out of their system ... and now saw their parents in a new light." While some people "had continued or wished to continue their relationships," a few expressed "profound regrets."
Greenberg, the ex-advisor to London's Post-Adoption Centre and the former head of student counselling services at University College, added that subjects who had engaged in a sexual relationship with their birth parents "described a sense of revulsion at the thought of sexual relations with the adoptive parent, which they felt resembled more closely an incestuous reaction."
What Greenberg was adamant about was that "the consummation of GSA was 'incest' only in the strictest biological sense." He insisted that it was important to distinguish GSA from incest, and especially from child abuse, because "this situation ... [develops] ... between adults," which is different from the abhorrence... when an adult abuses their responsibility and trust by taking advantage of a vulnerable and immature child." Despite the rare occurrence of GSA, however, one thing remains inevitable for adoptees and birth parents.
"The bottom line is that people want to be found. The people have spoken," said Dr. Grand.