The latest scandal involving Josh Duggar, a former reality TV star turned conservative political operative and business owner, highlights how patriarchy and purity culture allows abuse to continue unchecked, says a noted licensed psychologist and human sexuality expert.
Dr. Camden Morgante, who practices in Knoxville, Tenn., said the Duggar case is complex but shows how several myths of purity culture play out in real life.
On April 29, Duggar was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and charged with downloading and possessing images of child sexual abuse. His arrest came nearly six years after he was accused of molesting his sisters. The oldest of 19 children, Duggar and his family were the subjects of the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting,” which featured the fundamentalist Christian Duggar family and their home in Springdale, Ark.
In 2015, Duggar was accused of sexually assaulting four of his sisters and a babysitter when he was a teenager. By the time the alleged assault, which he described as “touching over clothes,” was revealed to his family, the statute of limitations had expired. Josh Duggar was not charged and was sent to Christian counseling, his parents told reporters.
Subsequently, Duggar again made headlines, this time accused of engaging in extramarital affairs. Duggar’s defenders, which included his father, Jim Bob Duggar, played down the molestation charges as adolescent sexual curiosity.
Morgante strongly disagrees with that characterization.
“’Oh he’s just a boy. He’s just experimenting,’ or ‘He’s just curious’ — that kind of mentality excuses abuse,” Morgante said.
“This is a crime. Maybe some Christians are comfortable calling it a sin or calling it abuse, but it’s also a crime. It’s also illegal. It’s wrong on legal grounds, moral grounds, many grounds. And nobody wanted to treat it that way and call it what it is.”
Women as the gatekeepers of men’s sexuality
Purity culture teaches girls and women that they must cover up to keep boys from lusting. It also teaches wives that they must be sexually available to their husbands at all times to keep them from watching porn or cheating, both of which are sins.
Morgante points to Duggar’s use of porn–detection software set up to monitor his internet usage and send reports to his wife, Anna. The software was found during a forensic examination of Duggar’s devices, the Associated Press reported.
“Anna Duggar has been made the gatekeeper of Joshua’s sexuality and she has to monitor him with the software. This is a homeschooling mother of almost seven, and she doesn’t have time for that nor should that be her responsibility,” Morgante said.
In a series of tweets, activist and attorney Rachel Denhollander argued this gatekeeper mindset is often the norm in teaching Christian girls and wives about their partner’s sexual behavior.
Denhollander was the first woman to pursue criminal charges and speak publicly against USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar. Since, she’s also spoken out against sexual abuse in the Christian church.
“We’ve turned women into dangerous beings who control whether men ‘fall,’ and also into the solution for it. And, yes, defining women and sexuality this way is the norm, it’s not the exception. Telling women to be more sexually available to help their husband keep it in his pants is the norm, not the exception,” Denhollander said in a tweet referencing Anna Duggar’s monitoring of her husband’s internet habits.
“Women are taught (to be) the cause and solution to men’s sexual perversions. Until our theology changes to actually reflect Scripture, we shouldn’t be surprised at any of this. It’s a story I see every single day. It’s wicked. It’s evil. And it’s long past time that we called it that – not just the abuse, but the twisted theology that fuels it.”
Where do we go from here?
Morgante believes the Duggar story is an opportunity for Christians to distinguish between immoral and abusive behavior.
For example, Morgante said Christians should be careful to not conflate consensual sex between two unmarried people and child sexual abuse as equal moral “offenses.”
“If you have a more traditional belief that the premarital consensual sex is a sin, that’s fine. But don’t treat it in the same way as child sexual abuse,” Morgante said. “The unspoken message is that premarital sex is the unforgivable sin. But it seems like with offenses like this with Josh Duggar, there’s such a quick rush to forgiveness and reconciliation.”
She encouraged parents to learn about child sexual development and be ready to answer children’s questions about sex. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has materials that can help parents understand child sexual development and what to do if their child reports being sexually abused.
Having conversations about body parts and consent are also important for children as their sexuality develops, she said.
“When our children get older, and someone tries to touch them, they might be more confident and more able to speak up and say ‘Don’t touch my penis’ or ‘Don’t touch my vulva.’ They can have that language, and they can say that’s not OK because their parents have taught them that no one can touch you without your permission all along,” she said.
If you’re looking for better sex ed for your family, students or peers, here is a list of better sex ed resources for people of all ages.