Is father-daughter incest always rape?

Feminist bloggers take issue with Mackenzie Phillips' claim of "consensual" sex with her dad

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet,

You’ve likely read the tabloid reports or watched the explosive footage on TV: On Wednesday, Oprah Winfrey aired an exclusive interview with Mackenzie Phillips in which the “One Day at a Time” star reveals that her father raped her. She says John Phillips, the deceased cofounder of the Mamas and Papas, first sexually assaulted her on the eve of her wedding at the age of 19. In the years that followed, she described waking up many times “after drug-fueled events with my pants around my ankles and my father sleeping beside me.” Eventually, she said, the rape turned into a consensual relationship. Several feminist bloggers have responded in disbelief.

A couple of things are clear: The blackout incidents Mackenzie describes are clearly rape, and the concept of transitioning from repeated sexual assaults to a consensual sexual relationship with one’s attacker — regardless of whether they are a close relative — is a psychologically thorny one that she rightfully compares to “Stockholm syndrome, where you begin to love your captor.” But the larger question Mackenzie’s story raises is whether it’s ever possible for father-daughter incest to be consensual when both parties are adults.

In asking that very question, Anna of Jezebel mentions the author Kathryn Harrison, who detailed her incestuous relationship with her father in “The Kiss.” She writes:

It’s clear from that book that the ties of love, obligation, and power that bind a father and daughter change the whole concept of “consent.” Harrison didn’t grow up with her father, and their incest began when she was an adult — like Phillips, her story is not the (relatively) familiar one of child molestation. But it does call into question whether even an adult daughter really has free choice in having sex with her father. And even if she does, it’s hard not to see his role in the act as a very serious form of abuse.

On the Huffington Post, Alex Leo responds to Phillips’ description of the relationship’s eventual transformation: “Nope. Not consensual. Not even close. Whether this is the media’s understanding of her lack of outward protest or her own internalization of such heinous events, it’s not true. She could not have given consent.” She aptly notes the specifics of this case: Phillips was raped by this man, her own father, when she was incapacitated from drugs at the young age of 19. Leo adds that “she was in no way capable of saying no to a man who had so much influence over her” and, I would add, supplied her with drugs. Then she turns to the broader question of consensual incest: “I doubt incest victims ever are ever capable of consent with their abuser.” On a similar note, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville says, “I’m not sure that a ‘sexual relationship’ with a parent can ever be truly consensual.”

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It is no doubt an appealing argument, first and foremost because of the near-universal incest taboo, which is firmly rooted in legitimate concern about the high health risks of reproduction, and a desire to protect the security of the family unit and the innocent bond between parent and child.  The degree of meaningful consent also seems questionable: There is an inherent power imbalance between father and daughter, and the potential for children being destructively “groomed” — through emotional manipulation or an inappropriate physical relationship — until they are of legal age. As with all discussions of sexual consent, the issue of age quickly arises: When exactly is a woman mature enough to be able to make such a decision about the man that brought her into this world? And, finally, there is no question that most adult women would see a sexual advance from their father as a supreme emotional betrayal.

All that said, I have a hard time agreeing with the argument that adult father-daughter incest is always, without exception, rape. Unfortunately, sex can be fraught with pressure and indirect coercion — because of a power imbalance or manipulation. Emotionally unhealthy and profoundly destructive sexual relationships abound: Are all of these varied situations necessarily rape? I don’t think it’s that straightforward. Our visceral reaction to this cultural taboo warps the debate.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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