Over the past week, as I have followed the response to the revelation that Josh Duggar sexually molested five girls as a teen, I have grown only more disheartened. At times I’ve started to hyperventilate. Many Christians are placing more emphasis on protecting Josh than on protecting his victims. Just as many have proven themselves unable to distinguish between consensual premarital sexual contact and nonconsensual premarital sexual contact. Even more have acted as though forgiveness should negate consequences.
Some of the responses make me want to curl into a ball and hide.
It is an unfortunate reality that evangelical Christianity in general and the patriarchal quiverfull homeschool world in particular have some serious problems when it comes to dealing with child sexual abuse. I’m not saying other groups are perfect! But these particular groups have a specific ideology and set of beliefs that make it especially difficult to address child sexual abuse in a positive and productive manner. This is something I’ve been saying over and over and over again on this blog for years now.
I want to take a few minutes to explore some of these themes through examining three responses to the Duggar situation. First I will look at a response by blogger Yankee Gospel Girl, then I will look at Eric Hovind’s reaction, and finally I will turn to a piece by Todd Friel of the Christian Post.
Yankee Gospel Girl and the Irrelevance of Consent
In her post, Yankee Gospel Girl equated nonconsensual and consensual sex and even argued that having sex education in public high schools is more sinful than child sexual assault:
Yes, all teenage boys struggle with the sexual transition through adolescence. Yes, sometimes this manifests itself in inappropriate ways, even among homeschooled families like the Duggars. Yes, Josh’s behavior was creepy and sinful. But frankly, what Josh actually did is a heck of a lot less evil than the systematic indoctrination of our highschoolers in the acceptance of every fornication and perversion under the sun. There are things he could have done that would have warranted an immediate police investigation and justly put him behind bars. And had he been attending public school, who knows how many of them he might have already learned about from his peers? If anything, the fact that he was not being sent to school should be regarded as a blessing. The fact that he was instinctively experimenting with inappropriate touching made it all the more vital that he be kept as far away from that kind of information as possible.
Yankee Gospel Girl speaks of Josh “instinctively experimenting with inappropriate touching,” but she clearly sees consensual premarital sex as “inappropriate touching” as well. What she seems not to realize is that there is a world of difference between a teenage boy sexually molesting girls as young as five and a teenage boy consensually making out with his girlfriend.
Do you see why I’m worried by the number of conservative Christian bloggers saying that they, too, would deal with their hypothetical sons’ sexual assault of young girls in house? If they see sexual molestation of children as just one more sexual sin alongside consensual premarital sex with one’s girlfriend or masturbation, they are in no position to be counseling a teenager through something like this.
Also, over half of all high school graduates graduate as virgins, so there’s that. Public high schools aren’t the nonstop morass of sex and drugs so many conservatives seem to think them.
When some of us have pointed out that ATI’s sex education curriculum doesn’t mention consent, and that Josh was probably completely ignorant on the topic, we see responses like this, also from Yankee Gospel Girl:
The author of that second article also complains several times that the curriculum “doesn’t talk about consent.” I’m not sure what his implication is, but it sounds like he’s annoyed that it condemns sexual immorality across the board without going out of its way to parse out the distinction between rape and consensual sex. Well I’m sorry, but 13-year-old boys don’t need to be thinking about rape. Period. And I’m also sorry, but the curriculum is completely right to issue a flat condemnation of all extra-marital sex, consensual or not. We can have a discussion about gradations of sexual sin with our kids when they’re approaching adulthood. But we’re talking about 8th graders here.
My children are six and three and I’ve already been teaching both of them about consent—and neither of them knows what rape is. Teaching consent does not mean teaching rape. Although also? There’s rape in the Bible. I knew what rape was long before I was 13 because my parents read the Bible to me. Ever heard of Dinah? I sure had. The issue here isn’t about whether children know what rape is—any child well versed in the Bible will know that already—it’s whether you teach children the importance of respecting others’ bodies and physical boundaries.
My daughter knows that if she’s tickling her brother and he tells her to stop, or shows signs that he doesn’t like it, she’s to stop tickling him immediately. My son knows that if he’s getting in his sister’s space and she tells him to move back, he’s to do so. They each know that their bodies are theirs, and that they have say in when and how they are touched. This is what teaching consent looks like. (For more, see here and here.)
But apparently that’s just too difficult.
As a final note, while Yankee Gospel Girl admits that there are “gradations of sexual sin,” she also stated above that teaching teenagers that premarital sex is morally permissible is more sinful than sexually molesting young girls. as a result, I don’t think we can assume her “gradations of sexual sin” are based on consent. Instead, I would guess that “gay” sex and kink are probably on her “very bad” list.
Eric Hovind and the Family as Supreme
Now we turn to Eric Hovind, who is apparently completely unaware of the ways his own belief system can contribute to child sexual abuse in particular and problematic family patterns and views of sexual activity in general:
First of all, Hovind discusses Josh’s violation of his victims like this:
. . . as a young teen, Josh fondled girls, which could damage their trust of men, which could damage their future marriage, which could damage their future family . . .
That is problem with Josh’s actions? That his victims may, presumably, have problems relating to their husbands as a proper submissive wife in a good Christian family should? Really?
I’m not denying that having suffered sexual abuse as a child may lead to problems in future relationships, with flashbacks and PTSD and so forth—I know people who have gone through this, and I weep for them. What I have a problem with here is the way Hovind is centering the issue not on the damage to the victims themselves—the violation of their persons and all that comes with it—but rather around the damage to their future families. Because it’s families that matter, not female-bodied persons.
. . . we should make Josh Duggar work the rest of his life to help families stay together and help them recognize how twisted the world is and how God offers instructions on how to live righteously!
Because helping families stay together (whether they want to be together or not), portraying comprehensive sex education twisted and ungodly, teaching that the proper order of marriage is one in which the wife submits to her husband, holding consensual premarital sex as just as bad as sexual assault or molestation, and inaccurately demonizing trans women as child predators is totally the way to make up for sexually assaulting young girls. Oh wait! It’s not! It’s not at all!
During his time at the Family Research Council, Josh promoted the same ideas that contributed to what happened in his family. Let me give you an example. If you think that sexual danger to children is something that comes from those outside of the family, especially from trans women or gay men, you are very likely going to minimize and downplay sexual danger that crops up within your family—because actual real sexual danger comes from outside.
Similarly, if you believe that the family should be supreme and the role of the government as minimal as possible, you are more likely to deal with sexual molestation in house rather than involving the authorities; if you believe secular counseling is evil and destroys families, you’re unlikely to seek professional help for your teenager should he molest children; if you believe sexual molestation is on the same level as any other premarital contact you’re likely to treat the problem as sexual sin rather than as something aberrant that merits counseling, etc.
There’s more, too. If a woman believes sexual virginity is critically important, she’s unlikely to leave an abuser if she’s already had sex with him. The same is true if she believes divorce is condemned by God. And if she’s told that she should try to change her husband by being a good submissive wife, she may start blaming herself for her own abuse. But when you promote sexual abstinence before marriage, teach that divorce is the worst thing that can happen to a person, and push complementary gender roles, well, this is what you get.
And of course, that victim blaming can extend to children as well. Why do you think Debi Pearl argues that little girls should wear bloomers under their dresses? It’s because their “immodesty” might invite molestation. Bill Gothard’s materials echo this same idea. When you push modesty and argue that women can be responsible for causing lust in men by how they dress . . . well, it should be obvious how quickly this leads to victim blaming in cases of sexual molestation or sexual assault.
But somehow, Hovind can’t see any of this. Perhaps this is because he believes sexual abuse is something that comes from outside of the family, and sexual assault is something that happens to women who are immodest or outside of their family’s protection. Given that Hovind elevates heterosexual nuclear families as the best environment for both adults and children and simultaneously demonizes other family forms, perhaps it’s not surprising that he winds up overlooking the abuse that can occur within heterosexual nuclear families—and they dynamics that foster such abuse.
As an aside, Eric Hovind finished his blog post, “Why I Love Josh Duggar,” with an advertisement for his “Conquer Series.”
For the men out there that have not been caught yet, I encourage you to start correcting your behavior. We have something that will help.
That’s right, Hovind really just said, “if you’re molesting children and you haven’t been caught, you should buy my video series on maintaining sexual purity!” Not, you know, maybe you should turn yourself in, or go to a professional counselor for help. Nope. Instead, take my series on standing strong against sexual sin! Because that’s all child molesting is—just one more sin, like having an affair, viewing pornography, or masturbating.
There’s family values for you.
Todd Friel and Josh Duggar’s Powerful Testimony
Finally, let’s look at a piece by Todd Friel of the Christian Post, who argued that we shouldn’t be surprised when a sinner sins because sinners are sinners and what everyone really needs is Jesus:
The subject line from an email sent by a popular Christian website stated: “Christian world rocked.” Really?
Based on his own admission, Josh sinned, repented and got saved. Why in the world would Christians be appalled to discover an unregenerate 14-year-old boy acted wickedly?
According to Josh himself, “I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life.” Sounds like a pretty typical conversion story to me.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (I Cor.6:9-11).
Have we forgotten that the Apostle Paul was a murderer before God saved him?
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (I Tim.1:15-16).
Josh is no worse than the Apostle Paul. Josh should not be shunned by Christians; he should be comforted by Christians who are just as wicked and just as forgiven as he is. Josh is nothing more, and nothing less, than a story of God’s amazing grace.
Here the author equates all sorts of sins and argues that other Christians are “just as wicked and just as forgiven” as Josh is. Because Josh’s transgression happened before he was saved (which, by the way, I don’t buy—it is very uncommon for a child in a family like this to reach eight or ten without making a profession of faith—I made mine at four years old), and because he repented of it, it is apparently irrelevant. This is how child sex offenders end up in positions of church leadership, and then go on to reoffend!
I’m sorry, but repenting of something should not erase the consequences of that action. Even beyond legal consequences, there are other consequences as well. Josh’s parents should not have continued to place him in a position of authority over his younger siblings after this came to light, and yet they did. They shouldn’t have allowed him to babysit his younger siblings, on his own, without supervision, and yet they did. They should have made sure other families with young children were aware of the risk, and yet they didn’t.
Oh and also? All sins are not the same. Yes, most people have told a lie at some point in their lives. But most people have not sexually molested children. And you know what else? The vast vast majority of “unregenerate” fourteen-year-old boys do not sexually molest children.
If we treat all unsaved individuals as equally sinful and wicked, we can overlook the fact that some transgressions need outside intervention and treatment. Being jealous of your friend’s stuff is not the same as molesting children. But too many Christians, like the author of this Christian Post article, see both things as equally sinful and equally in need of the same intervention and treatment—Christ. In this context, is it any wonder that Josh’s parents didn’t seek professional counseling for him?
Consider this, for a moment. If Josh Duggar repented and apologized but one of his victims refused to forgive him, who would evangelical Christians consider in the wrong? His victim. I mentioned once before on my blog that as a teen, I sometimes wished I’d done something really bad, like premarital sex or drugs, so that I would have a big sin to repent of and thus a more compelling testimony. We sometimes had people come speak at our church who had been horrible terrible people, but had repented, and were therefor lauded and held up as examples.
Todd Friel finished his Christian Post article with this:
Let’s not squander this opportunity to share the great good news that Jesus died for perverts, liars, thieves, drunkards, abortionists, Wall Street fat cats, skid row bums, suburban housewives, blue collar workers and every sinner who will come to Him in repentance and faith.
Josh Duggar’s story is more than a Gospel tragedy; it is a Gospel opportunity. Don’t waste it.
Josh has a testimony. Believe me when I say that this kind of thing is compelling in conservative evangelical circles. How do you think Chuck Colson become so popular in evangelical circles? He was indicted for conspiracy in the Watergate scandal, and sent to prison—and it was there he met Jesus, who turned his life around. Evangelicals love this story. Do you know what story evangelicals don’t love? The story of the person who refuses to forgive. If one of Josh’s victims had refused to forgive him, her parents would have treated her as the erring one.
This was emphasized in Bill Gothard’s handout for dealing with sexual abuse, which informed victims that while the perpetrator damaged their bodies, it was their spirit that mattered more and it was that spirit they would damage if they refused to forgive. In other words, yes, your abuser sinned against you, but you will commit a worse sin if you do not forgive your abuser.
Are those priorities messed up or what?!
Beliefs Have Consequences
This entire affair is bringing up memories of how I viewed the outside world as a conservative evangelical Christian. I was homeschooled, and didn’t have much contact with people outside of our church and Christian homeschool groups. I viewed the unsaved as wicked and evil and unregenerate and consummate sinners. In the decade since I left home for college, I have spent quite a bit of time among nonbelievers, and I have found them nothing like I expected. Nonbelievers aren’t the unregenerate hurtful sin-riddled population I’d thought them.
It’s only when I push myself back into my former headspace that I can understand the conservative evangelical Christian reaction to last week’s revelations. But what they can’t see is that it is that headspace that results in letting child abusers off the hook and leaving child molestation untreated and unaddressed. This is why Boz Tchividijian, grandson of Billy Graham and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), said in 2013 that evangelicals are worse than Catholics on handling and dealing with child sexual abuse.
I’ve spent years now blogging, watching sex abuse scandals pop up and seeing the same predictable evangelical excuse-making. “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.” “Everyone’s a sinner.” “That was before he was saved.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” “We all have skeletons in our closet.” And this past week? This past week has convinced me that absolutely nothing has changed.