Women and Children Should Not Bear the Burden of Josh Duggar

The family’s recent response to his child pornography charges only underscores how complementarianism elevates men over the vulnerable, leaving women to deal with the fallout

This week Josh Duggar appeared in court on child pornography charges. Duggar became a public figure after starring in the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, which was canceled in 2015 after news surfaced that, as a teen, Duggar had molested four of his sisters and a family friend.

At the child pornography hearing, a Homeland Security Investigations special agent described the more than 200 images said to have been downloaded on Duggar’s devices in May 2019. They depicted sexual abuse of children ages 18 months to 12 years old. Those images, the agent Gerald Faulkner said, were “in the top five of the worst of the worst that I’ve ever had to examine.”

While Duggar pled not guilty and his defense attorneys said they will fight the accusations in court, what’s distressing — beyond the horror of the charges — is the elevation of Duggar and his father Jim Bob’s wishes surrounding his release. They’re placed above the concerns of others, namely women in their lives, underscoring the disturbing gender dynamics within complementarian families like the Duggars, who believe men and women have different but “complementary” roles (that happen to put a woman a role submissive to her husband).

When the Duggars first appeared on TV, with their ever-expanding family population, mainstream viewers absorbed the numerous kids and modest daughters in skirts with blithe curiosity. The roots of their beliefs were sanitized, but what didn’t make it to the screen represents a reality that traumatized many kids growing up in similar families.

The Duggars were followers of Bill Gothard, a pastor and homeschooling advocate who taught children and wives fall under an “umbrella of authority,” with the father in a God-given role of authority over them to protect them from Satan’s influence.

Gothard’s teachings defined how women should act — down to what angle women’s hair should be cut, so as to direct the eye to her face and avoid shifting a man’s attention to “eye traps.” Other prohibitions to keep women from tempting men included banishing pants for women, above-the-knee skirts, and shoulder-baring tops.

Though the family has shied away from using the word “Quiverfull” to describe their beliefs, their lifestyle matches those of families in that movement who view husbands as Biblically-ordained heads of the household. Women must submit to their husbands’ leadership and sexual urges and avoid birth control. Children are a blessing from God — and the more the better. In this worldview, which is rooted in fear of growing populations of non-Christian Americans, women reproduce to create a full quiver of young Christians, a metaphorical arsenal for confronting God’s (non-Christian) enemies.

Reportedly, when it surfaced within the Duggar family that Josh had forcibly fondled five underage girls as a teenager, the patriarch Jim Bob took Josh to a personal friend who was an Arkansas state trooper who gave Josh a “very stern talk” but did not charge him with a crime. (The officer himself was later convicted on child pornography charges and given a 56-year sentence.) The family sent Josh to an Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP) facility, a “training center” run by Gothard’s ministry. Survivors of Gothard’s ministry filed a case in 2015, accusing Gothard and his ministry’s staff of enabling and covering up sexual abuse of program participants, interns, and employees, noting IBLP training center employees often received reports of sexual abuse, harassment, and inappropriate touching but never reported those allegations to law enforcement. (Gothard was removed from any leadership, board, or counseling role within the ministry he founded.)

After news of Josh Dugger’s teenage sexual abuse of five girls became public in 2015, two of his sisters who described themselves as his victims did an exclusive interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox’s The Kelly File, in which they defended their brother. One said, “he was a young boy in puberty and a little too curious about girls.”

The family’s Baptist pastor, for his part, merely underscored that God can forgive everyone (without going into detail about what repentance for Duggar might entail). He then gave a sermon focused on Caitlyn Jenner instead and stated, “You dads, make sure you raise your sons around men who are manly.”

Within evangelical subculture more broadly, there is a sense that men all struggle with lust. This is articulated in best-selling books such as Every Man’s Battle, which argues wives can help their husbands in the war against temptation by offering sexual release every forty-eight to seventy-two hours. Language of pornography and sex addiction is rampant and an industry has cropped up within evangelicalism with seminars, treatment centers, books, online communities, and apps to help the broad numbers of men who have been taught even a stray thought about sex is a sign of a problem. The construct leaves large numbers of Christian men convinced they have a pornography addiction even when they’ve never watched it alone; but it also makes pornography a common — and manly — sin to bear.

If married, women are expected to freely offer sex, and in some schools of thought, Biblically obligated to do so, in order to keep decrease their husbands’ likelihood of outside temptation. Even Michelle Duggar shared similar advice on her blog in 2015, encouraging married women to say yes to sex even when uninterested.

Meanwhile, unmarried women are taught that they must be modest to assist the men around them from falling into lustful thoughts — the thoughts themselves a sin. The moral responsibility falls to women.

Duggar reportedly was using a porn accountability app, Covenant Eyes, which sends a report to one’s accountability partner if a user strays to pornographic websites. Duggar’s wife, Anna, was his accountability partner, but Faulkner noted Duggar’s activity was not monitored because he used a password-protected network. A work-around.

There are double dangers illustrated in this situation: calling passing sexual thoughts of the average person an addiction (and layering on pressure to erase all “lustful” thought) creates a gap where the two extremes are morally fused. Failing to differentiate passing thought and abusive behavior normalizes highly damaging activities, such as downloading video of children being abused and raped.

There is a vast moral chasm between momentarily noticing an adult stranger is attractive and enjoying watching the sexual torture of toddlers. There is great harm done in conflating it all.

Layer in too, that responsibility for a man’s sexual sin — mere thoughts or true aberration — is made to be the responsibility of the women around him.

It’s a system that vests authority in men without mandating accountability. Both damage the women and children around them.

At the hearing this week, a federal probation officer, Diem Nguyen, noted that Josh Duggar’s father had asked family friends Lacount and Maria Reber to house him in once on bail, but Maria had expressed concerns to the probation officer about Duggar’s release to their home because her husband is out at work full-time and she would be alone with Duggar. Nguyen also was concerned because Maria sometimes teaches piano to children in the home.

But in her testimony this week, Maria said they could relocate the piano lessons. Asked if she had agreed to have Duggar live in her home, Maria answered “my husband made the decision and I’m here to support that decision.”

As attorney and sex abuse survivor advocate Rachael Denhollander detailed in a powerful thread of tweets, “Everyone — EVERYONE else, from Josh’s own children, to a woman afraid to have him in the home, to his own wife, are bearing the risks and costs of his behavior. And they are being told it is godly and right to do it.”

The judge in the case granted bail to Duggar as he awaits trial. He will go live with the Rebers and have “unlimited contact” and visitation with his six children (some the same age as those in the allegedly downloaded videos), by court order, under his pregnant wife’s supervision.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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