News broke a few weeks ago that Josh Duggar, eldest child of the notably fertile Duggar clan made famous on their TLC-produced reality show 19 Kids and Counting, had molested five young girls (some of whom were his sisters) when he was a teenager. While the exact details of the abuse are still emerging, the case has already highlighted some important truths about sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse is a silent epidemic. Statistics from the United States reveal that nearly one in three women, and one in six men, have been sexually victimized before the age of 18. But as frighteningly high as those figures are, the actual numbers are almost certainly much, much higher. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in the country, with as few as 1 in 10 incidents of child sexual abuse ever making it into official counts.
As upsetting, and tragic, as the Duggar family scandal has been, it has also increased awareness about how we can prevent sexual abuse by understanding the ways predators groom children; and how sexual abuse is less a tale of “stranger danger,” and more about the potential danger to children who are betrayed by a trusted adult or peer acquaintance. Because of this event, the norm of silence about child sexual abuse is beginning to become a more open and honest discussion. As this discussion plays out, here are some important truths to keep in mind:
1. Most victims know their abuser
The Duggars are known for being outspoken about their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, including their views on protecting children from outside (secular) influences. Last year, the Duggar matriarch recorded a robocall warning voters of Fayetteville, Arkansas, about a bill that would allow trans women to use the women’s bathroom: “I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space. We should never place the preference of an adult over the safety and innocence of a child,” she said, apparently without a hint of irony.
As the head of the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council (FRC) — one of 38 organizations designated as anti-gay hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center — Josh Duggar himself also has an extensive history of demonizing LGBT people as sexual predators. Last December, while campaigning against the same Fayetteville nondiscrimination measure, Josh said in an interview that the legislation “jeopardized the safety of children. This type of rhetoric is disturbingly common among right-wing social and religious conservatives, who seem to be under the impression that “persecution” means not being able to use your beliefs to discriminate against others.
But with so much attention focused on the the supposed sexual dangers posed by strangers and outsiders, the threat of abuse from within is completely overlooked. At the same time, many fundamentalist teachings induce a false sense of safety among followers by promising that they will be protected from harm if they abide by certain sets of rules and principles, such as foregoing dating for courtship, not attending college or working outside of the home, and never going out alone. This not only encourages victim-blaming (which, clearly, it does), but it also perpetuates the “stranger danger” myth that has persisted for years, despite clear evidence showing that the vast majority of victims are sexually abused by someone they know. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an overwhelming 95-97 percent of sexual abuse victims under the age of 12 know their abuser; in half of these cases, the children are abused by a family member.
2. A lot of child molesters are juveniles themselves
In interviews and public statements, Michelle and Jim Bob have repeatedly brought up Josh’s age in an attempt to minimize the seriousness of his actions. When asked by Megyn Kelly if Josh was a child molester, the Duggars denied that allegation, arguing that because Josh was underage at the time, he couldn’t be a child molester. “He was still a kid. He was a child preying on a child,” Jim Bob said, noting that Josh was 14 and 15 during the time of the incidents at the Duggar home.
But according to clinical and legal definitions, Josh Duggar is a child molester — defined as someone who touches a child for his own sexual gratification. To meet that definition, there must be a five-year age difference between the perpetrator and his victim(s). The youngest of Josh’s victims was just 5 years-old at the time — nine to ten years younger than him, which clearly fits the criteria for child molestation. In fact, this is in line with the typical profile of juvenile sex offenders, who often choose victims they feel they can safely control; usually, this means younger children.
It’s dangerous to suggest that underage children themselves cannot be child predators, as it ignores the very real risk posed by juvenile sexual offenders. According to the Department of Justice, juveniles account for more than one-third (35.6%) of those known to police to have committed sex offenses against minors, and up to one-half of those who have committed child molestation. The DOJ estimates that as many as 40% of the victims of juvenile sex offenders are siblings or other relatives.
3. Sexual abuse includes any non-consensual sex acts
During The Kelly File interview, both Jim Bob and Michelle downplayed Josh’s molestation of his sisters and another young girl, stating that most of the touching happened “over their clothes.” Jim Bob went on to say that there were also instances when Josh touched under the girls’ clothes, but it was only for a “few seconds.” Here’s the full quote:
“This was not rape or anything like that. This was, like, touching somebody over their clothes. There were a couple incidents where he touched them under their clothes, but it was, like, a few seconds.”
That may very well be true — but it’s still sexual abuse. The DOJ defines a sex offense as “any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will; or not forcibly or against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.” (By default, all of Josh’s victims were incapable of giving consent due to their young age.) Offering a similar definition, the World Health Organization says that “[c]hild sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”
Note that neither the DOJ’s nor the WHO’s definition of sexual abuse includes any qualifiers such as the type of sex act, the duration of the incident, or whether the victim was touched under or over their clothing — that’s because any type of sexual activity with a child constitutes sexual abuse, regardless of how it happened. In many cases, child sexual abuse does not involve sexual penetration; in fact, molestation is by far the most common type of abuse perpetrated by juvenile child predators. And in terms of re-offending, some studies suggest that juveniles who commit molestation are more likely to re-offend than those who commit rape. It’s also important to know that sexual abuse is not restricted to behaviors involving physical contact – it may also include exhibitionism, voyeurism, child pornography and other exploitative acts.
4. Developmentally-appropriate sexual curiosity looks very different than molestation
In defending Josh, the Duggars have repeatedly written off the abuse as a type of sexual exploration. In the The Kelly File interview, Jim Bob explained that his son molested his younger sisters because he was “just curious about girls,” while two of Josh’s sister-victims gave a separate interview in which they defended him as being just a “young boy in puberty who was a little too curious about girls.”
Conservative supporters of the Duggars have struck a similar tone in their blind defense of the family, comparing the teenager’s actions to children “playing doctor.” In the morally questionable “Christian Defense of Josh Duggar”, Krystal Heath cites the statistic that 48% of U.S. teenagers are having sex, which she says is comparable to Josh violating his own underage sisters because two teens on a date technically can’t give consent if they’re under 17 either. This intentional attempt to conflate molestation by an older brother to teenage sexual activity is appalling.
It is natural and normal for teens and adolescents to be sexually curious, as uncomfortable as that often makes their parents. It’s also normal for kids this age to be interested in their own bodies and the bodies of the opposite gender. And there’s nothing abnormal with masturbation or consensual kissing and sexual touching at this age. What is abnormal is to exercise that curiosity when the other party is either unable to or does not consent to sexual play. In Josh’s case, not only were his sisters too young to consent to sexual activity, but they were all sleeping when he fondled their breasts and genitals (with the exception of one incident). Obviously, as they were asleep they could not consent to sexual activity. This is the part that is most concerning here and that the scientific literature doesn’t support as being “normal.” ( This is also why it’s so ridiculous that Sarah Palin would attempt to conflate Josh’s predatory behavior as a teenager with Lena Dunham’s admission that she looked inside of her younger sister’s vagina and traded her candy for kisses as a 7 year-old).
5. Failing to provide proper sex education is failing to protect your children
In one of the most chilling moments of the recent interview, Jim Bob and Michelle told Megyn Kelly that Josh’s victims “didn’t really understand” what happened to them or that it was wrong. “[T]hey weren’t even aware,” said Michelle. “To them they probably didn’t even understand that it was an improper touch.”
Of course they didn’t know it was inappropriate — no one ever taught them
The Duggars, like many others who subscribe to fundamentalist teachings, have gone to extreme lengths to shield their children from secular education, including factual information about sexual development and healthy sexual activity. Sexual education and birth control are not just strictly forbidden, but explicitly demonized for supposedly “encouraging sex without limits” and “destroying families.” Even worse is the Duggars’ homeschooling curriculum, which is based on the teachings of Bill Gothard, a fundamentalist preacher who resigned in disgrace from his ministry last year after it emerged that he had sexually harassed and assaulted several female employees–in some cases, as far back as the 1970s. Described by one former student as “literal rape culture,” the curriculum features harmful fundamentalist rhetoric about “modesty” and “purity” that teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies and tells victims of sexual abuse that they only have themselves to blame.
With that sort of “education,” children are left wholly unprepared to deal with sexual abuse — they are not taught about their bodies, they don’t learn to distinguish good touches and bad touches, and they are never given a framework for healthy relationships. Without such fundamental lessons, children have no language to describe what has happened to them when they are abused, nor do they even have the ability to identify it as abuse in many cases. Women and girls “faced with sexually predatory behavior from family members or trusted authority figures often find themselves in a no-man’s-land of confusion and trained submission, without the tools to identify or object to the behavior,” writes one former member on Recovering Grace.
In contrast, research shows that children who participate in sexual abuse education and prevention programs (usually at school) are better prepared to deal with abuse if they ever experience it. In one recent study, children who were educated about sexual abuse in school were found to be more than three times more likely likely to disclose sexual abuse when it happened than children who had not received such education.
6. Sexual abuse is a pathological behavior, not a spiritual weakness
Michelle and Jim Bob have repeatedly portrayed their son as a “lost sheep” and discussed the molestation in terms of a “mistake” and a “sin,” apparently unwilling to admit that his actions were both illegal and indicative of major pathology — not simply a matter of bad judgment. We’ve also been assured that Josh “confessed his sins,” “humbled himself before God” and “sought forgiveness,” and that the incident caused the family to “seek God like never before.” Those who have pushed back and who aren’t willing to “move on” from this “teenage mistake” have been labeled as unforgiving, self-righteous, and a lot of other ugly pious words. At this point, the Duggars don’t even have to carry out this dirty work themselves, as a startling number of defenders have stepped forward to use all forms of spiritual guilt in an attempt to silence those who question the fundamentalist narrative.
With comments such as, “We all make mistakes, why are you being so self-righteous?“ or “God has forgiven, why won’t you?”, the Duggars and their defenders are problematically using “sin” as a catch-all term to describe all of the bad (and allegedly bad) things humans can do, and exploiting the Christian value of forgiveness to dismiss the seriousness of Josh’s crimes. (Creationist Eric Hovind’s “Shocking News: Josh Duggar is a sinner” is a good example of this.) Sure, we’ve all done bad things at one point or another. But there are degrees of “sin” or wrongdoing that are so far removed from one another as to be absurd to equate; yet this is, apparently, exactly what the “but we’ve all sinned” crowd argues. Stealing a candy bar and molesting a child are both wrong. Christianity would classify both as sins. But a moral system that refuses to acknowledge that there is a vast, powerful difference between the two is perverse to say the least — and this is precisely what we see on display when Josh’s crimes are dismissed with reminders that “we’ve all sinned.”
The Duggars and those who have jumped to their defense naively believe that because Josh sought forgiveness, God’s “grace, mercy, and redemption” have changed him into a new man who can be trusted not to molest minor children. As psychologist Paula Bruce told In Touch, “There is no awareness about this being a psychological problem. It is framed from [the Duggars’] perspective as a religious failing, that he humbled himself before God and it’s all done.”
7. Without appropriate counseling, most sex offenders will continue the abuse
While the sexual abuse itself is inexcusable, the family has arguably perpetuated even more harm in the way they’ve chosen to handle it. The Duggars have focused their public concern around Josh, the perpetrator, rather than their daughters or the other victims of his actions. Though Josh confessed his actions to his father years ago, the Duggar patriarch failed to report the crime for more than a year and continued to cover up the incident for over a decade, according to In Touch. Of course, handling — or more accurately, concealing — accusations of sexual abuse within the Christian church is nothing new. Under the Evangelical belief system to which the Duggars subscribe, matters of discipline must be addressed according to God’s order of authority, which places God first, followed by (in order of authority) the family (and within the family, the father has ultimate authority), church elders, church family, extended family, all like-minded believers… and at the very bottom, government and other civil authority. And like the majority of fundamentalist Christians, Jim Bob and Michelle reject pretty much every evidence-based approach to treating behavioral issues: psychology and psychiatry are “spiritually dangerous,” and modern medicine, therapy, and pharmaceuticals are equated with “witchcraft.”
This explains why, according to the police report, Jim Bob’s first response when he learned of Josh’s sexual crimes was not to call the police or social services. Rather, the Duggars decided to handle the situation themselves, and later sought guidance from the elders in their church. Although the elders all agreed that Josh should be sent to a “treatment program,” the Duggars eschewed that advice and instead sought “treatment” for Josh in the very questionable form of working for a family friend in Little Rock in the home remodeling business. Even when Jim Bob and the church elders did eventually take Josh to the “civil magistrate” upon his return from Little Rock, they only paid a visit to Arkansas State Trooper Jim Hutchens, a personal friend of the Duggars who gave Josh “a very stern talk” and took no official action (and who is now in prison serving a 56-year sentence for child pornography). Unfortunately, we’ve seen in the past that reporting sexual abuse to family friends or church authorities (rather than law enforcement or social services) often results in tragedy and prolonged suffering.
By rejecting professional help, the Duggar parents have failed all of their own children and put others at risk, choosing to protect their image instead of their children. Research shows that juvenile offenders who receive intensive, evidence-based treatment (like multi-systemic therapy) can be effectively rehabilitated in the majority of cases. But without such treatment, up to 75% of repeat juvenile sex offenders like Josh will be re-arrested for another sex offense within three years. In studies of sexual offenders, the strongest predictors of recidivism include early age of onset, sexual interest in children, and failure to complete treatment. Josh Duggar has all three of these risk factors. And now he has a little girl of his own with one more due next month.