genetic sexcual attraction gsa incest intergenerational romance Pearl Carter

Genetic Sexual Attration Part 2: Intergenerational Love

Given the recent news of Phil Bailey and Pearl Carter we thought we would do a follow up to our September post on Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA).

As recently reported the 26 year old Phil Baily is romantically and sexually involved with his 72 year old grandmother Pearl Carter. This relationship follows almost exactly the characteristics we previously reports for GSA. Pearl had a daughter at a young age who was put up for adoption and who never had a relationship with her mother. This daughter had a son, Phil who was told by his mother on her deathbed that she had been adopted and that he had biological grandparents. After his mother died Phil began to search for his grandparents and eventually found Pearl. As in many cases of GSA both Phil and Pearl immediately experienced strong feelings for each other that quickly evolved into a sexually active relationship. Apparently their relationship is stable as they have now been together as a couple for four years. They recently decided to have a child using a surrogate – the child will be Phil and Pearl’s son or daughter, but will be also be Pearl’s great grandchild.

Besides the general features of GSA Phil and Pearl’s relationship also has two unique features. The first is that the couple was fully aware of the GSA phenomena. However, unlike Barbara Gonyo, who used her awareness of GSA to understand her feelings for her son so she could have a normal relationship with him, Pearl and Phil cite GSA as something that makes their relationship legitimate! As Pearl said, “I could now understand my feelings and realize they weren’t wrong…”.

A number of research studies have made it increasingly clear that the Westermark Effect exists and the strength of incest avoidance and moral sentiments around incest are related to the amount of time close relatives (most of the studies looked at siblings and even unrelated children), live with each other, regardless of genetic relationship (Lieberman, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2003).

For instance, a recent study (Lieberman, 2009) of the Westermark effect in Taiwan indicates that cues for incest avoidance may be different for younger and older siblings. This study found that younger siblings are cued for incest avoidance by the amount of time they live with their older siblings, while the cue for older siblings is the experience of their mother caring for a newborn infant.

Given these studies of the Westermark Effect, it is not much of a stretch to see how the lack of time Phil spent living with, or even knowing his grandmother as a child, might contribute to his attraction. However, the Westermark Effect doesn’t explain the unique intergenerational nature of this relationship – the couple are 46 years apart in age. Phil claims he has always been into ‘older women’, and it may be he has some sort fetish for older partners. However, the vast age difference seems to go beyond the typical ‘May-December’ romance and it might be a stretch of the imagination to label Pearl as a ‘Cougar’ – her attraction to Phil seems baffling.

Intergenerational romantic relationships are not well-studied. One study from Africa has shown that some men prefer older female partners because they are less likely to be infected with HIV than younger women (Leclerc-Madlala, S., 2008). It is also known that sexually abusive grandparents are mostly male (Margolin, 1992). And Goldstein (1992) describes a case where a grandmother was found to be sexually abusing her six year old granddaughter. None of these studies begin to explain the dynamics of the relationship  between Phil and Pearl. 

Predictably enough, when I describe this case to my students their collective reaction is “that’s digusting!”. Until more research is done on intergenerational incestuous romance our understanding will be limited to this understandable sentiment.


Goldstein, E. (1992). Sexual abuse in families: The mother-daughter relationship. Issues in Ego Psychology, 15(1), 63-64. 

Leclerc-Madlala, S. (2008). Age-disparate and intergenerational sex in southern Africa: The dynamics of hypervulnerability. AIDS, 22(Suppl4), S17-S25.

Lieberman, D.,  Tooby, J., and Cosmides, L. (2003). Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest. Proceedings of the Royal Society London, 270, 819–826.

Lieberman, D. (2009). Rethinking the Taiwanese minor marriage data: evidence the mind uses multiple kinship cues to regulate inbreeding avoidance. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(3), p. 153-160.

Margolin, L. (1992). Sexual abuse by grandparents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 16(5), 735-741.

By Bizarre Behavior & Culture Bound Syndromes

Dr. Kevin Volkan is a psychologist, writer, and educator with over twenty years of clinical, corporate, and academic experience. He is Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and is on the graduate medical Faculty in the Community Memorial Health System. Dr. Volkan was one of the founding faculty at CSUCI which is the 23rd campus in California State University system where he teaches a course on atypical psychopathologies titled Bizarre Behaviors and Culture-Bound Syndromes. This course explores the outer range of extreme human behavior including paraphilias and was the inspiration for this blog. Consonant with his interest in deviant psychopathologies he also teaches clinical psychology and a course on the psychology of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Dr. Volkan has been a Silberman Seminar Fellow at The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 and 2014. Before coming to CSUCI, Dr. Volkan was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School where he researched ways to measure medical student and physician performance, and the psychological origins of medical error. While at Harvard, Dr. Volkan also taught for the prestigious Harvard-Macy Institute, a joint program run by the Harvard Business, Education, and Medical schools. In this program he taught medical students and physicians from Harvard as well as from all over the world. Dr. Volkan’s background in psychology is varied and he maintains an active interest in several psychological approaches to understanding human nature – including socio-biological, psychoanalytic, psychometric, and cognitive-behavioral. He has had a long-standing interest in the psychology of compulsive drug use (which has similarities to the psychology of paraphilias), and has published a book on the subject. Dr. Volkan worked as a clinical psychologist for many years. This experience included serving as staff psychologist and Vice Chair of psychology at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. During his tenure at Agnews, Dr. Volkan worked with patients who demonstrated many severe behavioral problems, including profoundly autistic, psychotic, self-injurious, and developmentally disabled individuals. Dr. Volkan was awarded the Sustained Superior Accomplishment Award from the State of California for his clinical work. In addition to his hospital work, Dr. Volkan also maintained a private practice in psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a psychologist for the California Victim Witness program, seeing patients who were victims of crime and/or abuse. Dr. Volkan’s clients included a diverse population of people representing a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and psychological distress. Dr. Volkan received a BA in Biology from the University of California, an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University, an EdD in Educational Psychology from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in Clinical Psychology from The Center for Psychological Studies, and a MPH in Public Health from Harvard University. In his spare time he practices martial arts and plays guitar in a rock band.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s