According to the Duggars’ beliefs, the ethic of consent does not carry any serious moral weight. In fact, failure to gain consent can be seen as sparing the other person since you are not leading them into the sin of sexual desire.
To bring those of you who have been cozily ensconced under a rock up to date: TLC has pulled repeats of the reality show “19 Kids And Counting,” which made the huge Duggar family famous, amid pressure to cancel the show entirely. The network came to this decision after Josh Duggar, the oldest of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s 19 children, admitted that on multiple occasions he had touched the genitals and/or breasts of five underage girls, in most cases while they were sleeping.
However, much we as liberals might want to forget about the Duggars and move on, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to have a conversation about their sexual morals, and how those values have informed the purity movement and abstinence-only education. The majority of kids in our country are being taught about sex by people who have the same ideas and moral priorities as the Duggar family. And we absolutely must talk about that.
I admit that I sung a few bars of “Ding Dong the Duggars Are Done” when news of the scandal broke. It was not schadenfreude, but sheer, unadulterated relief. Since the show started in 2008, I have worried that when the Duggar’s 15 minutes of fame ended, our society would be left with the impression that their beliefs and way of life, while eccentric, is not only harmless but wholesome.
While the Duggars are most commonly associated with the Quiverfull movement, their primary religious identity is as Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB.) The majority of Quiverfull practitioners, but not all, are members of that loosely knit but ethically and morally homogenous group. IFB has stayed mostly under the radar of observers of the Religious Right. However, they are hugely influential, in the homeschool movement, the purity movement, and in the Christian Right faction of the Republican Party.
What is concerning about their affiliation with IFB is the groups’ history of violence against women and children. In recent years, journalists have started reporting on the sometimes deadly child abuse that has occurred in IFB families, and on the problem of sexual violence against women in IFB institutions. But for some reason, people did not seem to make the connection between the Duggars and the sexual assault scandals at Bob Jones University or the prominent IFB pastor, Chuck Phelps, who made a rape victim apologize to the church for the sin of being raped by a church leader.
As it happens, IFB is a religious group that I am intimately familiar with. As a teenager, I attended churches pastored by two of the most famous IFB leaders of that time. With the exception of second and third grade, I was educated exclusively in IFB schools. And when I graduated, I was shipped off to an IFB bible college.
This leaves me in the unique position of being well-versed in the doctrines, traditions, and culture of IFB. The formal education in the group’s theology that I received in bible college taught me their moral logic. And what I witnessed and experienced in IFB institutions gave me a horrifying education in the natural consequences of those beliefs.
Of course, I cannot speak to the culture or doctrine of every IFB institution or the experiences of every IFB member. This fact is one that apologists are only too happy to point out because they are eager to prove that neither the religious beliefs or the culture of IFB are problematic. They assert that the many instances of abuse reported in the media are simply cases of a couple apples gone bad.
Mike Huckabee was trying to make exactly that point when he made a statement in support of the Duggars: “No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story.” In other words: Josh Duggar’s bad behavior is an aberration in an otherwise good person and a complete surprise in this incredibly wholesome environment.
From the perspective of one who has studied and lived in IFB churches, families, and institutions, Josh Duggar is not the rare bad apple in a barrel full of wholesomeness and nurturing. He is rotting apple bobbing in a vat of raw sewage.
As I see it, the reason IFB has such a big sexual assault problem is that their “main thing” is a set of beliefs about sexuality and purity. Those beliefs are not just based on selected scriptures, they are grounded in an incredibly damaging moral logic that is dismissive of the ethic of consent and that discourages compassion for victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.
The moral logic of IFB beliefs about sex is important to understand since it is the bedrock of much of the purity movement and abstinence-only education. But it can be difficult for people who have never been exposed to conservative Christianity to understand. Like a lot of religious moral logic, it is contorted and makes leaps Superman would envy.
Before I explain the moral logic of IFB beliefs about sex, I must offer the following caveats: First, all IFB members are special snowflakes. And those individuals should be judged on their differences not their commonalities. Second, I am oversimplifying here. But that is to be expected when you have to condense a tome into something readable.
Having said that, here is a quick guide to the IFB moral logic of sex:
- All sexual sin is caused by a spiritual deficiency. Once the spiritual deficiency is addressed, any and all sexual sins are not only forgiven, their predisposition to that sin goes into remission for as long as they are sufficiently spiritual. (This is why Josh was welcomed home once his parents were satisfied that he was “right with God.”)
- Women are naturally pure because their sexuality is encased like a fire alarm behind the plexiglas of romantic love. A girl/young woman will not have sexual feelings until they are “awakened” in her by a romantic relationship. That awakening should not happen until after marriage. (This is why they don’t kiss before marriage.)
- Love is what not only awakens a woman’s sexuality, it is also what keeps her sexuality in check. If a woman’s sexuality is awakened in any situation other than marriage, she dissociates it with love. And without the governor of marital love, her libido rages out of control and she becomes a shameful and pitiful victim of her own wantonness.
- We are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings that we create in others. This applies not just to women who dress or act provocatively, but also to men who “awaken” a virgin, causing her to begin to experience sexual feelings which are sinful. Causing another person to sexually sin is considered as bad if not worse than committing a sin yourself.
- All of the pain caused by sexual misconduct or violations will be instantly erased if the person forgives their attacker and surrenders to the will of God.
- The ethic of consent does not carry any serious moral weight and is rarely considered. In fact, failure to gain consent can be seen as sparing the other person since you are not leading them into the sin of sexual desire.
- Under this rubric, flirting is worse than sexual harassment since the former is an invitation to sin and the latter is not. The expressions of homosexual desire can put immoral thoughts into another person’s head and is therefore much worse than molesting your kid sister while she sleeps.
The case of Josh Duggar makes it abundantly clear that it time to do away with abstinence-only sexual education. Even if it were effective at lowering the risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, which it is not, it does nothing to lower the risk of rape, sexual harassment, or sexual abuse. What we must advocate for and practice is consent-only sexual education.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.