While I haven’t been following the Mackenzie Phillips story that closely, I’ve been catching enough of it that I’ve got to add my own two cents here. I did not see the Oprah interview—and maybe I’m glad I didn’t, because frankly, the feedback I’m hearing about how Oprah conducted the interview is a little disturbing. But I have been seeing the news bits and headlines and reading some of the blogs and the commentary, and I’ve just gotta say it:
You cannot give consent to incest.
I understand—oh boy, do I understand!—that “consent” is a difficult concept for people–even survivors themselves—to grasp. And I understand how easy it is to confuse consent with “compliance” or “going along with.”
I find it particularly disturbing the way this confusion is perpetuated by the media, who use the word “affair” to describe an abusive or exploitative relationship. My local paper, in discussing the story, dubbed it an “incestuous affair.” I don’t know what your definition of “affair” is, but to me an affair suggests a relationship that takes place between two consenting adults of equal power, where each party is capable of making a clear and conscious choice to enter into the arrangement. When there is an imbalance of power—whether father-daughter, cleric-congregant, teacher-student, therapist-patient etc.—there is no such thing as consent, so please don’t call it an affair! To call it an affair completely diminishes the victimization that occurred and assigns power to the victim that she or he simply did not have.
We need to be very careful about the language we use to speak about these things. When we use words like “affair” or even “sexual relationship” to describe abuse and exploitation, we perpetuate misunderstanding and misperceptions about what actually occurred. Unfortunately, when a victim first gets out of one of these abusive situations, that’s exactly what she or he is likely to call it. I know, because I did the same thing. We don’t automatically know that we’ve been abused and exploited, especially when we were adults at the time. We have to have someone explain it to us. And by that point, we’ve usually told a dozen or so people that we had “an affair” with our therapist or doctor or priest or whomever. We ALL need to be educated.
I hope that Ms. Phillips is soon able to understand that she did not consent to be incested by her father and can stop calling what happened “consensual incest” (which, in the words of one Huffington Post blogger is “an oxymoron if there ever was one”).
And please, let’s stop giving survivors crap for speaking out! Do you really think that keeping these terrible secrets about our lives helps us heal? No way. Keeping secrets can have a devastating effect on not only mental but also physical health. Speaking out helps us understand what happened to us and allows us to move through our pain to healing. And when we receive support and empathy from our families, friends, and communities, then we can start to let go of our shame and heal from that as well.
* * *
Here are some of the better posts I’ve read about the Mackenzie Phillips story:
Trish Kinney on the Huffington Post: “Oprah, Mackenzie, and the Fam”
Alex Leo on the Huffington Post: “Mackenzie Phillips’ Rape: Incest Is NEVER Consensual”
Alison Rose Levy on the Huffington Post: “Mackenzie Phillips and the Stockholm Syndrome”
The Curvature: “Rape Apologism and the Response to Mackenzie Phillips”
I also recommend the following resources:
Why It Is Not An Affair (SNAP website)
Marie Fortune’s book Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited, in which she writes at length about consent and what it means to give “authentic consent.”
Therapy Exploitation Link Line’s article on Consent
Also, you can check out my own posts: