In her new book, Finding Normal: Sex, Love, and Taboo in Our Hyperconnected World , author Alexa Tsoulis-Reay explores what, if anything, it means to be “normal” when it comes to sexuality and desire and how the Internet (and other media technologies) are involved in the way people come to know who they are in the world today. Based on her interview column “What It’s Like” — in which she conducted in-depth conversations with outliers for New York Magazine from 2014-2018 — the first half of the book celebrates what she calls the “hyperconnected media era” a period she argues is characterized by an increased ability to connect with people “we might never have encountered in our everyday lives, share information, form community, and give birth to new identities or templates for normality.”
The stories in the second half of the book, which revisit some of her most controversial interviews, take a more critical approach to the freedoms afforded by the hyperconnected era. “They confront what for me were more troubling taboos and questions of consent,” she writes. “They may make you feel that I am listening too empathetically and, in the process, normalizing behavior that shouldn’t be normalized. In fact, for me, they had the opposite effect — forcing me to think hard about the limits of my generally open and permissive views about what is and should be normal.”
One of those interviews was with “Shelly,” an anonymous 18-year-old girl who was in a sexual relationship with her father. Tsoulis-Reay found this story deep in the internet, on forums where people discuss a phenomenon called “genetic sexual attraction,” or GSA, where relatives who have been estranged from early childhood or birth meet as adults and experience sexual attraction to each other. At 17, Shelly had reunited via Facebook with her father, who initiated a sexual relationship with her. They were going to get married, she told Tsoulis-Reay for the initial column. She was very much in love.
In the years since that story was published, Shelly ended the relationship, telling Tsoulis-Reay in a more recent interview that she understands now it was abuse. “It’s sad and scary how in denial I was,” she says. “Deep down, I think I knew it was wrong the whole time, but he convinced me it was okay. He told me to consent… he manipulated and groomed me until he got what he wanted.”
In this edited excerpt from Finding Normal, Tsoulis-Reay describes what it was like to interview Shelly, and the responsibility she felt in the aftermath.
Some names were changed by the publisher to protect the privacy of individuals.
I was on Reddit when I discovered a subgroup discussing a phenomenon called “genetic sexual attraction”. It wasn’t exactly a brand-new concept to me; in fact it was something I’d first heard about when I was a kid, in the 1990s on an episode of a daytime talk show. I’d watched biological relatives estranged by adoption discuss how they developed intense sexual feelings for each other when they reunited as adults. It’s as if it had sat there at the back of my head for nearly thirty years, and when I was researching ideas for “What It’s Like,” my column on New York Magazine’s human behavioral vertical I was curious if it was happening more in the hyperconneted era given that so many biological family members were finding each other with the help of social media, so I’d gone online to find out.
I searched around and sure enough found communities of people who said they had experienced sexual and romantic feelings toward immediate biological family members they’d reunited with after having been separated since birth or early childhood. Some people were there to make sense of what they were going through and get support, others were secretly living in what they called “consensual” sexual relationships with their relatives, and there were also those who said that they were “recovered” and warned against ever acting on these feelings; they spoke about the phenomenon as if it were an addiction or a disease.
Their narratives used a common language to describe the intensity of the attraction, and the familiarity of their partner they said filled a void that had left them feeling empty for their whole life. They described it as like having the perfect match designed in a science lab, or looking into a mirror and falling in love with your own reflection. Like magnets, they had to be together; it was as if the pull were too strong to resist. Many claimed that when they were in these relationships, they finally felt complete. They said the attraction was so fierce it was almost as if there were something in their shared DNA pushing them together. I was very surprised when I began to feel empathy for their situation. They seemed confused, distressed, and overwhelmed by emotions that didn’t make sense to them and were not the sort of thing they could comfortably talk about to people who they knew in real life. But at the same time, I was thinking, is it a good thing that people are gathering to talk about this? Does sharing their experience so candidly lead to an atmosphere where acting on these feelings is normalized? And more broadly, what is the downside of a completely virtual and anonymous community?
In those forums and communities many described experiencing something they called “genetic sexual attraction,” or GSA. The term emerged in the 1980s when a woman named Barbara Gonyo went public with the feelings she experienced following her reunion with the son she was forced to relinquish for adoption when she was sixteen years old. They reunited when Barbara was forty-two and he was twenty-six. In her self-published memoir, I’m His Mother but He’s Not My Son, Gonyo saw similarities between the bonding of a mother and child and feelings of sexual intimacy. As she put it, “Bonding and Genetic Sexual Attraction may be one in the same. If it would have happened at the usual times in life, it may have been an easy process. Adoption separation has added the burden of abnormal timing.” Gonyo is commonly credited with “inventing” this term that didn’t exist in the medical literature and was first spoken about in post-adoption networks or whispers in therapy rooms. But, as she pointed out when I first contacted her, she didn’t invent it. She first heard someone use the phrase at an American Adoption Congress conference in the early 1980s. In 2006 it found its way into the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, where it is defined as “erotic feelings between close relatives, often between siblings or between parents and children, who are separated early in life and reunited in adolescence or adulthood.”
They write as if they were sexual minorities, and in forums members very problematically adapt language from LGBTQ+ activism: think “love is love,” and “equal rights for all.”
The online GSA community is made up of “secret” groups on social networks like Facebook, subgroups on Reddit, and a handful of other private forums like Kindred Spirits and the GSA Forum, which grew out of a website that Barbara Gonyo created. On the GSA Forum, moderators and senior community members advise against acting on GSA; the purpose is to offer support. The general tone is that it’s a lifelong affliction and those who have experienced it must learn to live with the longing. They talk about “GSA recovery” and describe the feelings as being like a drug, which they support each other in abstaining from. As a moderator put it to me, “We are all victims but we will do more harm by acting on it, so we shouldn’t succumb to the emotions.” But on other forums, like Kindred Spirits, moderators and more established community members are explicit in their aim to normalize GSA relationships; they even advocate for consensual incest as a sexual orientation. The most vocal are a handful of figureheads whom I’d call anonymous GSA normalizers—that is, people who moderate the groups, respond to media requests, and act as advocates. They are active and responsive community members, but they all write using pseudonyms and refuse to step out from behind the screen and reveal who they are. They’re very up-front about their goal. They want to normalize what they call “consensual” incest and even speak as if their plight were the same as that of other groups who have historically been marginalized for their sexual identity. One day they’ll have a float at Pride, or at least they deserve one. They write as if they were sexual minorities who need law and culture changes, and in forums members very problematically adapt language from LGBTQ+ activism: think “love is love,” and “equal rights for all.”
When I heard from Shelly, who at the time was eighteen years old and living in the Great Lakes region in a secret sexual relationship with her dad, I was conflicted. I almost didn’t pursue the story. She was young, and she’d spent her early childhood with her father before they were estranged, and he was her father after all, a role that comes with a clear power dynamic regardless of how much time you’ve spent together as family. But she was willing to talk, which felt important (I’d been in touch with a handful of other people, but they would communicate only by email, and they had been clear that a phone conversation could never take place). After my time reading firsthand testimonies from people who had experienced GSA, I felt empathy for them, but I was very uncomfortable with the anonymous nature of this support system and the way that some members of the community borrowed activist language from the LGBTQ+ movement and argued that acting on this desire was acceptable. And like most people I had serious questions about consent and morality when confronted with these relationships, which don’t (and can’t) operate outside power relations. People in these relationships must navigate the implications of transgressing a prohibition that is both ancient and universal (if anything can be said to be universal). But I wanted to know the impact of acting on GSA and what it meant to live in a world where something like this could be normal, so despite all my reservations I decided to make the call.
I first spoke to Shelly from my tiny living room in New York’s East Village, and we’d been chatting for about twenty minutes, breaking the ice, when she made the very disturbing declaration that she’d lost her virginity to her biological father. “I’ve never been in a more passionate, loving, fulfilling situation with anyone, ever,” she said. She planned to marry him (she’d even started thinking about outfits and wedding decor), have kids, and move to New Jersey, where incest between consenting adults was decriminalized in the late 1970s. That physical space, combined with the support and activism she found online, gave her fuel to think that what she was doing with her father could be normal.
When my interview with Shelly was published, it went viral. The story was picked up by Fox News, which was one of the top referrers for traffic to the story on New York magazine’s Science of Us blog, and within two weeks it had reached 1.17 million readers. It was covered by online outlets like Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, and Bustle. There were stories about it in tabloids, and national and local news. I was also bombarded with questions from readers and interview requests from reality TV and documentary production companies who, probably excited by the sensational headline, wanted to interview Shelly themselves. I got emails from reporters pleading to be put in touch with her. But others expressed concern for Shelly’s welfare and anger at me for exploiting a young woman who was already being exploited by her father. They very sensibly pointed out the same concerns that I’d had when I was deciding if I should talk to Shelly: that it seemed like she was victim of an abuse of power by a man whose position as her father meant that despite her age she wasn’t capable of giving consent (as The Daily Beast put it, “Consensual incest is rape”). People noted angrily their feeling that by interviewing Shelly and presenting her situation without passing judgment, we’d effectively normalized GSA. Because she’d talked about her desire to flee to New Jersey, where she could legally live with her father as a couple, it attracted the attention of lawmakers who spoke about revising the state’s law that allowed incest between consenting adults.
I even heard from the legal team of a man who had embarked on a sexual relationship with a girl who was believed to be his fifteen-year-old biological daughter. He was nineteen when she was born, and they’d reunited on social media when she was a teenager. They left Alabama together and traveled through Mississippi and Pennsylvania — they were at the Port Authority in New York, perhaps even heading for New Jersey, when they got caught. During interviews with the accused man his line didn’t waver: they were in love. The legal team had not been allowed to interview the daughter, so they did not know if she was also claiming an emotional connection, but when I heard that, I felt sick. Had my interview with Shelly emboldened them to pursue a relationship? Of course, if they were in fact heading toward New Jersey, they could have got that information about the legality of incest there from any of the online GSA advocacy spaces, or even just an internet search, but the timing made me uncomfortable. Had this man used my interview with Shelly to justify what he was doing with his daughter? Given that our interview had been recycled on just about every online tabloid and was a staple of morning radio and TV for weeks, I knew it had reached a wider audience than people who were online googling their feelings. He’d pleaded guilty to traveling across state lines for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct, and his legal team wanted help with the tone of the sentencing submission. “It’s incredibly hard to put this phenomenon into words, striking the right balance of empathy for the client and showing that he accepts responsibility,” their intern wrote to me by email. They didn’t end up mentioning GSA in their sentencing argument; when they flagged it to the prosecutor and sent her all the literature they could find about it (including my interview with Shelly), her response was one of disbelief, as if this man were mining the internet for an excuse so his lawyers thought the judge would have a similar reaction.
Had her sexual abuse been normalized online as GSA? Did I have a duty of care to report what was going on?
Shelly was understandably frightened by the interest her story had generated; she never imagined her experience would become what historian Brian Connolly in the Los Angeles Review of Books called an “international sensation.” What if someone read it and recognized her and she got caught? I was worried about her: I wasn’t convinced that just because she couldn’t see it, or couldn’t voice it, her situation wasn’t abusive. I also knew that the secrecy added to her difficulty; it further isolated her. Yes, she had that online support network, but as we have seen, in the hyperconnected era online support doesn’t replace real-world support. Talking out loud to other humans matters, too. As Shelly later told me, “Back then there was nobody in real life I could talk to about it but you.”
Had her sexual abuse been normalized online as GSA? Did I have a duty of care to report what was going on? Was it worth trying to persuade Shelly to end it? Should I tell her mother, or the police? She’s an adult, and I’m documenting her life, not involving myself in it, I reminded myself. But still, I wrestled with all of this. I admired her for talking about what she was experiencing, for offering a detailed account of this experience that so few are prepared to speak about to a reporter, and I knew this wasn’t an isolated case. Just because we rarely hear about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and if something is happening, we can’t ignore it. But by responding neutrally and without judgment, were those critics right, had I normalized it for her, too?
After Fox News and the Daily Mail linked to the story, the comments became especially critical, and many referred to details of Shelly’s life as evidence that I’d made the story up. “This article has a distinct whiff of bullshit about it. Methinks the author is trial-ballooning an awkward young adult novel qua perks of being a daughter-wife. I am confident this interview occurred in the author’s fantasy-fanned salon. The responses to the interview are ridiculous,” wrote one. “I was wondering when this one would be published in a screenplay. Ridiculous . . . Normal pheromones would prevent this crap from happening,” typed another. “I recently found an email where I’d written to my editors asking if I could respond. ‘Definitely not, just don’t read the comments’ was the reply.”
I needed to meet Shelly. Maybe in person I could persuade her to end it? I also felt it was important to meet face-to-face. I was uncomfortable with the virtual nature of our relationship, and I wanted to see Jimmy, her father, for myself, naively hopeful that a physical encounter might let me properly assess the amount of danger she was in. And it’s very difficult to admit, but there was a very small part of me that thought maybe it could be okay. I didn’t trust Jimmy or his motives, but because Shelly insisted he made her happy, and because I didn’t want to treat her like a vulnerable child who didn’t know what she wanted, and because I understood the power of those GSA feelings because I had spent so much time communicating with people who were experiencing GSA — reading discussions in forums and emailing with people I’d met there — I’d reluctantly gone along with her version of his presence in her life.
I decided to drive west to spend the weekend with her and Jimmy. She trusted me enough to meet me IRL. Why? In a way we had become friends. We weathered a media storm together, and she’d become part of my life. She’d mentioned hoping to one day visit me; she longed to go shopping on Broadway and be in Times Square when the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the thought of talking to someone who listened without judgment was too appealing. Minnie, a woman I had met on Kindred Spirits once told me that even though she had the help of a therapist, a psychologist, and the anonymous contacts she’d met on the Internet, what she really craved was a friend to confide in; all that support was not the same as having “someone you trust to talk to about it like friends do.” Since we’d never met, Shelly wisely suggested we get lunch somewhere neutral. She directed me to meet her at a Mexican restaurant nestled between a Best Buy and an Applebee’s in the medium-size city in which she lives.
I was anxious about meeting Shelly and Jimmy alone, so I asked an old friend to come with me for moral support. We drove west from New York and along the way I felt a wave of nausea that I had been nursing in the buildup to the trip; I wound down the window and vomited, violently. We drove past cornfields, gas stations, and sepia antiabortion billboards, and I wondered what sort of reasonable man says to himself, “You know what? I’m going to go ahead and have sex with my daughter.”
From Finding Normal: Sex, Love, and Taboo in Our Hyperconnected World by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.