The incest taboo is something anthropologists have grappled with for ages. Besides the negative biological consequences of mating with your close relative, there seems to be a need for a differentiation of social roles of familial relations and lovers. Getting carnal with a sibling is just not cool. There is something inherently repugnant about the very thought of it, both for us and for people in most cultures. Maybe our attitude towards incest was ingrained in us as part of natural selection, to prevent genetic defects of our offspring. Or maybe our relationships to our siblings and parents just wouldn’t be functional if they included sex.
But if social life at Princeton is organized into “families” of students with mutual interests or living spaces, incest abounds. Residential advising groups, campus publications, debate groups, and musical performance clans all spend a great deal of time together in “family”-like settings, yet a great deal of sexual activity stems from those very encounters. Is there something especially attractive about hooking up with the drummer next to you in the band? Something extra sexy about dating the guy who lives next door? Zooming in on a few sites of “incest” will illuminate our discussion.
A Capella Groups
Whether male, female, or co-ed, a capella groups are very close-knit. With hours of practice every night and lots of performances on the road, these singers get to know each other very well. They also get to know each other’s significant others very well. One source said that among girls in all-female groups, the idea of “sharing” a guy is extremely common. Arch sings promote sharing. After a guy and an a capella girl have broken up, he will continue to come to the arch-sing performances and meet other girls in the group.
One source said that on her group’s e-mail list one alumna will mention her husband, and at least two or three alumnae will chime in that they once dated or hooked up with the same man.
If such unabashed girl-hopping goes on, why do we not see cat fights in 1879 Arch every Saturday? One WildCat said that she has not witnessed any awkwardness among girls who have dated the same wild man. Dating can also promote intergroup relations, she said. If a WildCat is dating someone in another a capella group, the two groups will be more likely to organize an activity together.
Among the co-ed groups, the Katzenjammers and Shere Khan are both rumored to exhibit “incest,” but neither could be reached for comment.
Sitting on a bus for eight hours to Dartmouth in orange-and-black plaid jackets, or tooting their horns at football games, band members have a tendency to look to each other for love. At several points in band history a “hook-up web” has been constructed detailing who has hooked up with whom in the course of the last six years or so, marking certain people as “hubs” because they have links to the most people. Such webs do not even have the luxury of reaching out into the Dartmouth, Yale or Harvard bands, whose members have more-than-befriended a few Princetonians in the last two years. Beyond the lightheartedness of the web, though, many serious and fulfilling relations have come out of what is affectionately deemed bandcest. Such relations have even led to several engagements and marriages.
The story of Rebecca Gillespie ‘05 is particularly revealing, against all odds. Her ’05 friend was dating an ‘04 cymbals player named Chuck, and convinced him to join the band. Eventually they broke up, and Chuck started dating Rebecca. Amazingly, Rebecca and her friend still decided to share a one-room double. Even more amazingly Chuck, who graduated in 2004, visited nearly every weekend Rebecca’s senior year, and the roommates remained good friends. In fact, her friend will be the maid of honor at Rebecca and Chuck’s wedding next fall.
The band falls into relationships easily, as the group hangs out in other contexts. Friendships form quickly, people room with each other, common band experiences make for great small-talk. “It’s easier to strike up a conversation with someone who also remembers that crazy guy at the Yale basketball game that with someone random from precept you don’t know if you have anything in common with,” Rebecca points out. The band also attracts certain types of people. “You’re more likely to be attracted to someone who shares your geeky passions or your outrageous sense of humor,” Rebecca said. Proximity is another factor: Bandies spend a lot of time together at rehearsals and on the road, and they’re not ashamed to give each other hugs and backrubs. This combined with a dirty sense of humor makes it easy for friendships to slide into something more.
Few Forbesians are ashamed to admit that “Inncest” is widespread. Forbes is isolated from the rest of campus, so residents get to know each other very well. When it snows, no one leaves. In fact, some people just never leave. One sophomore is part of a group of nine Forbesians in which everyone has dated someone else in the group. Eight of these people live in the same hallway, and the other lives around the corner. So far there have been four break-ups, there are two current couples. “Now if that’s not incest, I don’t know what is,” she said.
Buyers also seems to be a popular mating ground. One girl met her boyfriend and started dating him the first day of Freshman Orientation. They were partners in an RCA group activity, involving finding out three things they had in common with each other. “The rest is history,” she said. They are both currently RCAs in the same residential college and involved in a bunch of the same organizations.
More complicated webs of hooking up and dating also ensue in Buyers. The same girl and her boyfriend each lived in quads, and the two rooms were “totally incesturous.” Besides their relationship, one of his roommates Z was in love with her roommate Y but later made out with her roommate W, and another roommate T had a thing for her other roommate P, and the fourth guy G later developed a thing for the same P. Wow!
Current members of Whig-Clio did not have much to say about incest in their organization, but one former debater definitely had his share of fun. During his freshman year, he didn’t sleep with the debate team five weekends in a row because he “found housing elsewhere.” By his estimation, “The debate club is a breeding ground for people who want to go around being naughty with people off campus without anyone knowning.”
Several seniors agreed that study groups lead to couple formation, sometimes with not-so-great consequences. One engineer said he started dating the girl he did problem sets with in an advanced Economics course. They broke up, but the problem sets kept on coming. “I never wanted to see her again, but she was always in lecture!” he lamented.
Whatever “nasstiness” goes on at the Nass shall not be revealed here and now. As the editor-in-chief of the science-minded Innovation and the now-defunct multicultural journal Prism, I did not observe any coupling in either of those groups. But there are publications that are far more close-knit, that meet more often, and do generate some steam. Two male students from one publication happened to see each other at “Two Articles of Clothing Night” at Cloister, which led their feelings for each other to surface. As they kissed for the first time, the older one passed out, leaving the younger one feeling awkward. Nonetheless, they hooked up twice after that, including on the dance floor of Cottage. “It was very romantic,” the younger one said. Another student in the publication was also in love with one of the students, and kept trying to stop it and spread rumors. But the original two had a nice fling until the older one graduated, they e-mail occasionally.
Clearly, Princetonians have no qualms about dating people in close proximity. Though some have had to deal with the awkwardness of breakups, most groups of friends remain stable, and even roommates who have dated the same guy are still great roommates. In this sense, groups of Princetonians really are like families, sticking together even through jealousy, hurt, and rejection. Three cheers for Old Incestuous Nassau!