I Once Courted Too (Some Thoughts on Jessa Duggar)

Reader Marguerite had this to say in a comment on a recent post about Jessa Duggar’s courtship:

Since I am not directly familiar with purity culture, I find this all very shocking. Jessa is an adult, and yet her father is dictating to her whom she can even associate with, reading all her texts, and in general completely controlling her life. I doubt she feels that she has any other options at this point, which makes her more or less a helpless pawn in her parents’ hands. At twenty! I find this horrifying.

As someone raised very much like Jessa, let me see if I can explain some of this.

Jessa Duggar has grown up in a world where guy-girl relationships are portrayed as incredibly scary. She has grown up in a world where divorce is a dirty world. She has grown up in a world where women’s only accepted role is wife, mother, and homemaker, making marriage the most important decision she will ever make. In fact, I remember my mom telling me that the most important decision anyone would make is whether or not to accept Jesus as their savior, but that women’s second most important decision was marriage. For men, she said, the second most decision was what career to go into. But women’s careers, I was taught, were their marriages, so I guess fair’s fair.

I once told my dad that I would trust him to arrange a marriage for me. I was so frightened that I would pick the wrong guy and my entire life, forever, would be ruined. It seemed like such a huge and monumental decision I just couldn’t see how I could be trusted to get it right, and my dad was the smartest, wisest, most amazing man I knew. With his life experience and knowledge of the world and of what makes men tick, I figured he would be more likely to pick right than I would. His response was not reassuring. He told me he wouldn’t want the responsibility of picking for me for fear he would get it wrong, and then never be able to live with himself.

I had a very fairy tale view of the world, even as a teen and young adult. Once I married, I thought, life would be bliss and I would be set. I would birth and raise sweet cherubic children, and then educate them at home, finding fulfillment in teaching them algebra and history. My husband would bring home a solid paycheck and would be there to roughhouse with the children. I would can and sew and tend large gardens. We would have plenty of money and time to visit museums and go on nature hunts. My numerous children grow up to live successful lives and my advice would often be sought by other women in the community. The ticket to that fairy tale was marriage—and marriage to the right man. Make the wrong choice, and all those hopes would be dashed, forever.

Having a career outside the home wasn’t even something I ever thought about. From girlhood, my sight was trained on marriage, and, I thought, the earlier the better. When I hit 18 and there was no one interested in my hand, I felt something must be wrong with me. I felt I was wasting time that could be well spent on birthing children. I headed off to college, but I chose a degree I felt would fit well with my future life as a stay at home homeschool mom, and I immediately viewed college as a place for finding a mate. If I had graduated without a ring on my finger and a wedding that summer, I would have considered myself a failure.

When I was 20, like Jessa, I was courting too. I met him at college. I pegged him as a potential husband almost immediately, but I had some concerns about some of his less than orthodox doctrinal views. Even as my college friends were (gasp!) starting to date without first talking it through with their parents (something that was inconceivable to me at the time), I went to my father and told him about the young man who had caught my eye. While visiting college to see me and meet my friends, I arranged for my father to vet the young man I’d become interested in. Much to my surprise, my father did not grill my young man. Instead, after a short conversation about ephemeral topics and a short lecture about the importance of not becoming to physically involved, he approved the relationship. My college friends called it dating; I called it courtship.

To be honest, I felt a bit let down by how hands-off my dad was. I wanted him to take a more active role to protect me from getting hurt. This was the biggest decision of my life, after all, and I felt he was approaching it too lightly. Didn’t he want to protect me? Looking back, I think my dad was dealing with some demons of his own at the time and was a bit distant and distracted as a result. But that was not to last. Several months after I started courting—which in practice looked like dating because my parents were so hands-off—everything changed. My parents decided that my young man, Sean, was not a good match for me. The change was so sudden it sent my head spinning. And there, laid bare, was the parental control. They ordered me to break up with him. They felt they had the right. I was 20.

At that point I disobeyed my parents, broke with courtship, and stepped out into the world of dating. At that point too, though, I had found myself far enough outside of the community of my upbringing that doing so wasn’t so scary or unthinkable as it once would have been. I was in college, my friends no longer shared my background, and I’d started to learn and discover things about the world around me that made me question my parents’ worldview. Jessa has none of those things. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine breaking with my parents’ advice and wisdom on romantic relationships, and I would think that’s probably where Jessa is today. I, too, remember having complete and total trust in my father and his judgement. And if Jessa were to strike out on her own her relationship with her parents would be irrevocably changed, forever. I know. I’ve been there. Jessa’s parents believe that they have the right to control her romantic relationships and, well, her life. The fact that Jessa currently (to all appearances) very much wants them to do so goes a long way toward covering up that ugly reality.

In the end, Jessa Duggar is acting rationally within the context of the world in which she has been brought up and lives. To young women like Jessa, courtship offers the promise of safety and a foolproof process that will unlock the door to happiness and to the rest of their lives. In a world where guy-girl relationships are viewed as fraught with danger, a failed relationship risks the stigma of no longer being completely pure even if a couple never had actual physical contact, the choice of a spouse is the (second) most important choice a girl will make, and fathers are held up as especially wise and discerning, courtship makes sense.

But courtship offers only an illusion of protection, something I have written about in What about Love? and Whose Choice? (You can find additional related posts on my purity page.) The thing is, Jessa hasn’t heard these sorts of critiques or warnings. Jessa has instead heard courtship being held up as the antidote to heartbreak, a protection against divorce, and a way of remaining safe in a dangerous world. And to the extent that she may have heard courtship criticized, she has likely heard it criticized by those who do not understand her view of the world enough to explain the problems in a way she can understand. I wish Jessa could read what Hannah has written about how courtship didn’t save her from divorce. I wish she could read what Samantha has written about how courtship didn’t save her from an abusive relationship.  I wish she could read Joy’s story, and Dulce’s story, and Melissa’s story. I wish she could read Darcy’s advice. And who knows, maybe someday she will.

I remember the first time I found out that a friend was courting. I was jealous. There was a buzz in the community, and everyone was talking about it. They were the center of attention. My friend’s parents carefully laid out the rules for their relationship, allowing the couple short walks but no hand holding. They could sit side by side on a couch, but only when siblings or parents were present. My friend was practically glowing, and I imagine that Jessa is the same. My friend’s courtship didn’t work out. It is too early to tell for Jessa’s.

A Case for Calling the Duggars ATI Rather Than Quiverfull
The "Real Men" of Evangelical Christianity
When Courtship Means Regret
Your Child's Virginity Is None of Your Business
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.