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In September 2009, Mackenzie Phillips revealed an explosive family secret for the first time. For years, she'd been involved in an incestuous relationship with her famous father, John Phillips. Since then, Jennifer Wilson, director of the national sexual assault hotline for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), says more survivors have found the courage to come forward. Jennifer reveals how Mackenzie has helped raise awareness. Plus, what you need to know about this underreported crime.
Q: Since Mackenzie first spoke out about her incestuous relationship, what sort of response have you seen at RAINN?

Jennifer Wilson: We've definitely seen an increase in our hotline traffic. The calls that we get to see personally here at RAINN are the ones on our online hotline . We've definitely seen in an increase in sessions. People are coming forward, talking about abuse when they were younger and abuse from family members.

Q: What's the difference between the online and phone hotlines?

JW: The online hotline is accessed through our website. They can go to RAINN.org 24/7. And it's instant messaging based. And it's secure, confidential and anonymous. It's a live, real-time support crisis intervention the same way a phone hotline would be, except it's online.

We find that a lot of people do use the online hotline who aren't ready to talk. They can't talk about it out loud. We see it as a precursor to a phone hotline.

Q: At first, when Mackenzie discussed the sexual relationship she had with her father, she called it consensual. Now, she's saying that's the wrong term for what it was. Can you explain why?

JW: Usually, we don't put names or labels on people's personal experiences. … A lot of times people stay in incest relationships, and the reason [it] often takes place is the power dynamic that's present. People come to terms at different points in the healing process. It seems as though, from what I've read, she's talked to a lot of people since first coming out and saying it was consensual. [She's] really realizing that there were other dynamics there that wouldn't necessarily allow that relationship to be consensual on any level.
Q: Has her story encouraged more people to speak openly about incest?

JW: Definitely. I think this is one of those topics in our country and society that's really avoided, perhaps even more so than rape. When it comes to talking about incest openly, you really open yourself up to criticism and shame and stigma and all those things. For her to be courageous and speak about this has really lifted a lot of the stigma and shame that has prevented other victims from coming forward.

Q: In the '60s and '70s, incest rates were lower. Do you think this crime was underreported or are there more victims now?

JW: I personally believe that it was probably due to underreporting, lack of resources and just overall lack of public education about it. Unresponsive people when the victim discloses, I think, could also lead to lower reporting numbers.

Q: Can you explain the different types of incest?

JW: We believe incest to be any type of inappropriate sexual contact between blood relatives—a father-child, mother-child, brother-sister perpetrator. But we also believe it includes stepfamilies and foster families, as well.

Q: And it encompasses all sexual behavior, not just intercourse?

JW: Correct. In some cases, we've seen a perpetrator forcing a family member to watch sexually explicit material, and there's never been any type of physical contact, but that would still be considered inappropriate.
Q: What advice would you give an adult who's involved in an incestuous relationship?

JW: Typically, when we're working with an adult who's in an incest situation, there's one thing that determines two different paths that you take. The first would be, 'Is this a relationship where if they were to end it, they would be in imminent danger?' Because, a lot of times, what we see with adults in incest situations is that relationship, whether it started when they were adults or when they were minors, it kind of morphs into a situation that's involves partner violence. So safety would be the number one priority in that situation.

If they're not in imminent danger, if it's a situation they're easily able to leave or escape from, just find support. Whether it's a nonoffending family member or whether it is a best friend or a partner, or obviously, available to everyone, are the national sexual assault hotlines. We want them to know that even though they may feel like they're all alone in this, which we hear a lot, you know, "I can't talk to anybody about this," there is hope. There are people out there who are willing to listen.

Q: If you suspect that a child is a victim of incest, what steps should you take?

JW: If a child discloses or if anybody discloses to you that this is happening, you need to believe them. When they first disclose, this isn't the time to try and figure out whether or not this is happening. That first reaction could make a really big difference in terms of the person's long-term recovery.

Then, try to find resources. Every state has different mandatory reporting law, so that would be something a teacher or someone like that should be knowledgeable of. But if it is a neighbor or something like that, [I suggest] reaching out and talking to somebody in their community or local rape crisis center or talking to the proper authorities about what you suspect is happening.

Q: Should you ever confront an abuser?

JW: I would probably say to use other resources first because you could endanger the victim further if that perpetrator still has access to the victim. When you confront them, they may take that anger out on the victim.

Q: Are there warning signs of incest or sexual abuse that people should look out for?

JW: There's no standard or typical symptom of an abuse survivor, but there are things. For example, if the person is withdrawing or having sudden changes in behavior, attitudes and moods. … Also, know that there's not always going to be a bruise or a scratch. If there's no physical trauma, don't automatically assume that nothing's going on. Also, a lot of time perpetrators will tell their victims that it's a secret. "This is just between you and me. You shouldn't tell anybody." So if a child is talking about secrets they have to keep or something like that, that would be a big red flag as well.

Q: How often do nonabusing parents know about incest? And after they find out, how can they help the child and themselves heal?

JW: Unfortunately, I don't think we know or have any type of data on how often the nonoffending parent or family member knows. But we do hear of a lot of situations on our online hotline where a nonoffending parent does not believe the child and either belittles what's happening to them, like, "Oh, that's not that big of a deal," shrugs it off or pretends like nothing happened at all. Sometimes, in more extreme cases, they're willing participants in the abuse.

In terms of positive ways to respond, first and foremost, is to believe your child. It's not an easy thing to come forward and say. Recognize that was very courageous of a kid to do. Then, reach out and try to find help and support. And, obviously, try to minimize contact or eliminate contact with the perpetrator until a long-term safety plan has been established.

Q: Are there support groups for nonoffending parents, as well?

JW: There are and they vary from community to community. That's another piece of information they'd be able to get from their local rape crisis center.

Q: Can incest affect personal relationships later in life?

JW: It definitely can. Especially when they do disclose or if they seek help, they're not supported. Or if they never have told somebody, incest survivors are much more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, which can include unhealthy relationships. They're also more likely to be revictimized in the future, in terms of sexual violence. And, as Mackenzie Phillips talked about, substance abuse and things like that.

Q: Is there anything you want people to know about incest?

JW: It's important that this is something people really continue the dialogue about. Just know that this isn't something that happens few and far between. This is something that, unfortunately, is common. It's very important to support people who come forward to get help. That means that the next person that this happens to, we'll have resources in place for when they choose to come forward.


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