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When blood relatives reunite for the first time, they sometimes feel attracted to each other. ((iStockphoto))

Two weeks after Sally reunited with her biological son, she began to have sexual feelings for him.

"This is feeling really bizarre, but I think I'm falling in love with this person," she recalls thinking.

Sally, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had given up her son for adoption when she was 16, but vowed as she cradled the little boy swaddled in a blanket that she would someday, somehow become part of his life again. She never imagined that their reunion some 30 years later would lead to a sexual relationship.

After their first meeting, the two found themselves spending more and more time together. "We kind of gave ourselves permission to do more hugging," said Sally in an interview with CBC's The Current. Eventually, it progressed into a sexual relationship.

"I do remember the night we did and it was amazing … the most amazing thing I've ever experienced," Sally says. "He said, 'I've finally found the most perfect person in the world for me in every way and she turned out to be my mother.'"

Sally's not alone in feeling a deep attraction to a blood relative upon meeting as adults for the first time.

Genetic sexual attraction, as it's called, is a little known consequence of reunions with adoptees and their biological family members, where attraction is felt and sometimes acted upon. It has been known to happen between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, uncles and nieces, and even same-sex relatives.

While recognized by some adoption agencies and psychologists, there is little information on the subject. As Ontario, Canada's most populous province, gets set to become the fifth province to open its adoption records on June 1, there are calls for more education and support on GSA.

Though some adoptees and birth parents will likely use their power to veto access to their files, the change of law holds the possibility of affecting some 250,000 children officially adopted in the province in the past 88 years.

Single study on subject

Sally, who met her son after B.C. unsealed its adoption records in 1996, wishes she had known more about GSA at the time. "I would've appreciated knowing about it," she says.

 Facts in brief

 

  • About 250,000 adoption orders have been filed in Ontario since 1921.
  • Nearly 75,000 people have sought information about their birth relatives under Ontario's voluntary disclosure registry since 1979.
  • Ontario is the fifth province to open its adoption records, behind British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador.
 Source: Government of Ontario

A B.C. adoption counsellor said that when the province unsealed adoption records there was an increase in GSA occurrences.

It's difficult to quantify genetic sexual attraction since many of those who pursue a sexual relationship with a blood relative won't even reveal it to adoption counsellors or psychiatrists.

Pastor Bill Bossert, a former president of the Oregon Adoptive Rights Association, says he believes at least one person feels a deep attraction in about half of adoption reunions.

In what remains the only academic study on GSA, Dr. Maurice Greenberg looked at 40 cases and concluded the sexual attraction was a normal response to an extremely unusual situation of blood relatives meeting as strangers.

Greenberg, the former head of student counselling services at University College London in the U.K. and ex-adviser to London's Post-Adoption Centre, says interviewees described emotionally charged meetings and the shock of familiarity as they noticed the same interests, traits and mannerisms in their relative. Many described it as feeling like they were looking into a mirror.

Combined with the feelings of loss and trauma associated with being put up for adoption and the excitement and fantasies of a reunion, the adoptees often felt vulnerable to such attraction.

Not seen as incest

Paul, also from B.C., recalls the strong attraction he felt when he first met his biological sister.

'I treated it as if it was an occurrence in life, one of the growing pains of life. I didn't want to harm them, and I didn't want them to hate their father.' —Paul's wife

"I just felt like I had met my soulmate. The one that you don't think you possibly will ever meet," says Paul, whose name has also been changed.

"My heart wanted to just leave the rest of my life and walk away into the sunset with this person."

While technically the sexual relationship was incest, Paul says that "tawdry" term never crossed his mind and doesn't describe the deep connection he felt with his sister of wanting to blend with her "physically, emotionally and soulfully."

His wife soon learned of the affair and confronted him at a coffee shop.

"He cried. He couldn't understand why he was feeling the way he was because he was so frightened," his wife said.

The couple decided to stay together and to explain the situation to their two children, telling them Paul and his sister never experienced the sibling rivalry that occurs between most brothers and sisters but only the "pure love."

"I treated it as if it was an occurrence in life, one of the growing pains of life. I didn't want to harm them, and I didn't want them to hate their father," says Paul's wife.

Desensitized by living together

Dianne Mathes, a Toronto expert on GSA who counsels people involved in GSA relationships and is herself an adoptee, says relatives who don't live together miss out on the daily events that prevent such attraction from occurring.

"The birth mother … has not raised that child, hasn't done all the parental roles with that child whether it's diapering him or being there when he was sick," said Mathes.

According to the Westermarck theory, developed by anthropologist Edward Westermarck in the late 19th century, people living in close domestic proximity during the first few years of life are desensitized to sexual attraction later in life.

The Westermarck effect has been observed in communal child rearing in the Israeli kibbutz system where few sexual relationships and marriages developed among peers.

While there are rare cases where GSA evolves into a stable relationship and the couple makes peace with the societal taboo, many others soon break up but are left with a psychological scar.

"Some people are saying, 'I've lived my whole life being a good husband, a good father, a good provider, being a stable citizen. I've met this woman, I've never felt like this in my life. I've never been happier,'" said Mathes.

"These are people who have had a need and a feeling stirred in them so deeply that it's rocking the core of who they thought they were, what they needed, how they understand things and their worlds, and they're struggling."

Those who have experienced the turbulence caused by GSA say the only way to prevent others from the same heartbreak is through education and support.

Struggling to move on

Barb Gonyo, a leading expert on GSA and author of I'm His Mother, But He's Not My Son, says people need to know that the intense feelings at the beginning of a reunion will eventually subside.

She spent more than a decade struggling with feelings for her son and runs a website, www.geneticsexualattraction.com, aimed at raising awareness about the issue.

"I've known many people who have gotten through this without having a sexual relationship and have been glad that they didn't because they still have a good relationship. Then there are people who have had a sexual relationship that still have a good relationship but they might have had to put up with an awful lot of pain," said Gonyo.

For Sally, her sexual relationship with her son crumbled in the face of ostracism from their friends and the shame and guilt they felt about the secrecy of it all.

She realized they had a choice: start a new life elsewhere where their situation wasn't known or stop what they were doing.

The two decided to stop their sexual relationship and have remained close. A new feeling has since evolved between the two.

She says her son now feels sick to his stomach when he thinks about the fact that they slept together.

"And that's good because that's normal. I finally got to a place where I'm like his mother, kind of. Not really, but kind of. And that's a good thing. That's a blessing."

With files from Aziza Sindhu