home Society, Women Incest rape in the media: from Elisabeth Fritzl to Mackenzie Phillips

Incest rape in the media: from Elisabeth Fritzl to Mackenzie Phillips

The horrifying connection between incest and rape continues to dominate headlines across the world this year. Mackenzie Phillips, a popular child TV star of the 1970s, has come forward with allegations of extensive drug use, sexual abuse, and rape by her father, singer John Phillips of the American vocals group, The Mamas and the Papas. In her just-released memoir, High on Arrival, Phillips details the extensive incest rapes of her adolescence and adulthood at the hands of her father. American tabloids are scrambling to provoke readers with outrageous headlines and conjecture about Phillips’ motivations in coming forward with her story of incest rape today.

Celebrities are not the only ones who are coming forward this month with allegations of long-term incest and rape. An Australian man was reported last week to have raped his daughter for more than three decades and siring four children with his daughter. The abuse was reported by the survivor in 2005 and again in summer of 2008, yet police took no action. In Victoria State, the unnamed man has now been charged with five counts of rape, five of incest, two of indecent assault and one count of common assault.

The Australian case represents one of several high-profile cases throughout the globe involving crimes such as incest rape, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. A 56-year-old British citizen is currently serving a twenty-seven year sentence for the rape of his two daughters from 1980 through summer of 2008; his erratic, violent sexual assaults resulted in nineteen pregnancies and seven living children born to his two daughters. The presiding judge described the case as “the worst I’ve ever seen.” In a case of eerie similarities, Austrian man Josepf Fritzl held his daughter captive for twenty-four years in a concealed basement dungeon within his family home; he beat and raped her daily during her imprisonment, resulting in his daughter’s delivery of seven children and a miscarriage.

Cases which involve long-term incest rape often share common threads of abuse. Survivors are often isolated from outside intervention and assistance, with some abusers, like Josef Fritzl, imprisoning their children in order to secretly perpetuate sexual violence and total control of their victims. The convicted Brit, referenced above, “moved frequently from village to village in the county of Lincolnshire to avoid detection,” according to The Earth Times.

Within the confines of the home and private sphere, these men used brute power and dominance to ensure their children would not come forward and bring them to justice. Though many often decry the absence of intervention from the law, these abusers are willing to go to any lengths in order to conceal their motivations and deeds. The extended periods of unreported rape are a reflection of the abuser’s actions, not the survivor’s inability to seek help. Yet the implicit blame falls too often on the shoulders of these courageous survivors.

For survivors of rape and incest, reading the media coverage of these cases can be a highly traumatic experience. People broke the story of actress Mackenzie Phillips with an attention-grabbing headline: “Mackenzie Phillips: I Slept with My Own Father.” Using a tell-all confessional style in this manner suggests that Phillips was complicit in her rape and casts doubt within readers as to whether Phillips could have consented to being sexually assaulted.

Yet the magazine quotes Phillips as saying, “Had this happened before? I didn’t know. All I can say is it was the first time I was aware of it.” In her drugged state, Phillips was in no condition to consent to sexual activity and to this day remains confused as to whether her father had previously attempted to rape her. Well, I suppose it’s only fair to admit that no one ever claimed People needed to make sense; the publication just needs to sell magazines.

Paparazzi are notorious for crossing the boundaries of privacy and propriety in order to obtain an illicit photograph or a quote. Many survivors in these cases go into hiding to escape the media glare and seek recovery. In March this year, paparazzi invaded the home of Fritzl’s daughter and began to photograph her in her kitchen. Not only did the paparazzi break the law in this instance, but they also further traumatized a woman who has undergone many, many years of isolation, torture and abuse – all for a much-coveted photograph. In these cases, there is little respect shown by many media outlets for the extensive recovery and healing required for survivors to move forward with their lives. All that seemed to matter was a snapshot obtained at any cost.

As discerning readers, we are responsible for the financial support we provide to media publications that misreport on cases of incest-rape. Whether it’s People magazine or an Austrian tabloid, a survivor’s health and sanity is compromised by a severe lack of journalistic integrity. Yes, it’s all too important that major media publications, and even entertainment rags, cover these cases and bring awareness to issues of rape, sexual assault, and incest, all of which are traditionally stigmatized within the public sphere.

However, conflating “sex” with “rape” and invading the homes of survivors are two ends of a media spectrum that lacks any sensitivity or critical understanding for these tragic experiences. In showing respect for the experiences and privacy of incest rape survivors, we bear witness to their testimony and offer what little justice can be gleaned from their trauma.

2 thoughts on “Incest rape in the media: from Elisabeth Fritzl to Mackenzie Phillips

  1. Small nitpick: The title of Mackenzie Phillips’ book is ‘High on Arrival.’ I’m curious to read it, but I’m not sure I could handle it.
    Apparently Phillips has been on ‘Oprah’ twice now. The first time to tell her story and again the next day to defend herself from and apologize to her own family members for telling it. I hope there’s somebody in her life with enough decency to tell her she has nothing to apologize for.

  2. I have a question though.

    I agree that at least the first time was rape, and I think she’s said that there were more times where she did not consent (so those are all rape).

    But she herself says that it “became” consensual years after the first rape, and that she is partially accountable for the latter years.

    Now I would be 100% willing to say that it was all rape b/c it started out that way and he, as her father, was in a position of power, so it could never “become” consensual after he raped her.

    But is it ok to override what the survivor herself thinks? If she says it was consensual, can we just say “no, it wasn’t”?

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