The Duggars: How fundamentalism's teachings on sexuality create predatory behavior

So, it's in the news everywhere: A Duggar son groped his sisters while they slept when he was 14. The family essentially hushed it up. And, now that he is buddies with Ted Cruz, it became a juicy news story. (Nothing like a political AND sexual scandal to sell ads...)

And the aftermath is predictable. The Duggars get their show suspended, and the (now adult) kid loses his job. And, there is a brobdingnagian pile of schadenfreude to be found in the tabloids.

I have been saying privately for years that something like this would absolutely come to light regarding the Duggars, so this is no surprise to me at all.

As an attorney, I have handled several cases involving fundamentalist families with sexual issues, and the facts seem very familiar.
I'm not going to get into specifics, because of attorney client privilege. However, there does seem to be a certain amount of commonality in how these go down.

I firmly believe that the beliefs within Christian Fundamentalism strongly contribute to these failings - and indeed make them inevitable.

First, let me note again that I spent a portion of my teens involved in Bill Gothard's organization. My law school education was at his law school, so I know of what I speak. The Duggars are big in the Gothard organization, and promote it through their TV show. So, I know the exact teachings that they follow and promote.

That's why, despite never having seen more than a few minutes of the show at a time, and having no idea which kid was Josh, I was able to make this prediction. All I needed to know was that they followed Gothard's teachings about sex and gender, and I knew that it was more likely than not that a sex scandal would surface sooner or later.

In addition, I have been discussing this with some friends, many of them also ex-Gothardites, and some common issues have arisen, and I decided I probably should address them a bit from the perspective of both a lawyer and a former Fundie.

Because the perpetrator in this case (and in my cases as well) was a minor - age 14 - a boy in the throes of puberty - the issues are not quite as straight forward as they would be in a typical pedophile case.

While I would not defend what this boy did - it was pretty clearly sexual assault - I do understand some of why, and strongly believe that Gothard's teachings contributed to the way he acted out.

Again: I am not minimizing sexual assault, or excusing perps.

What I intend to show is that Fundamentalist teachings on sex tend to lead to young men who would not otherwise be predators act out in predatory ways.

So here are my thoughts:

  1. How do we distinguish who is a predator and who isn't? And is a person always a predator?
This is important, because I have seen several people castigate the wife of this man for marrying him, and insist that he never be allowed around children. Some have gone so far as to call him unequivocably a child molester who will never change. Does an act at age 14 mean one is a predator in every case? Or could one grow and change and not be a threat?

I am not defending predators, and I am not defending what he did. However, based on my own cases and my personal experience of the terrible teachings of Gothard, I am not convinced that he is a real predator or pedophile. He may be, but he is not necessarily one.

One initial issue concerns the very nature of pedophilia. A true pedophile is attracted to children because they are children. The very age is the source of the attraction. In addition, true pedophiles are, more often than not, extremely skilled at identifying victims and seducing them, and then keeping them quiet afterward. Most true pedophiles have hundreds of victims by the time they are caught. And - very important - they are not really "curable" in any true sense. They absolutely must be kept away from children, with no exceptions.

In comparison to true pedophiles, there are others who might very well be attracted to sexually mature persons, but who take what is available, so to speak. For example, two kids who "play doctor" are unlikely to be pedophiles, even if they are experimenting with another young child. It is more likely than not that they will function sexually with adults when they grow up.

Thus, while, again, I am not defending what he did, I do think that more information is needed before we should be quick to paint this guy as a pedophile or sexual predator. I'll explain more later about why I believe the teachings lead to predatory behavior in otherwise normal teens.

2. The troubling thing about the case is the combination of an age gap and lack of consent.

The reason you get police involvement in this case (and in others that I have handled) is one or both of two things: a. A greater than 4 year age gap

b. Nonconsensual touching.

The cops are not interested in investigating two 14 year olds having sex, or two 9 year olds playing doctor. There is no crime there. The reason this became an issue was that there was no consent, and there may well have been an age difference. Thus, this was a sexual assault, which is why it was a matter for law enforcement.

However, I believe that the belief system contributed to a situation where a 14 year old lacked a healthy understanding of consent.

3. Gothard's teachings on sexuality strongly contribute to these sexual problems

And make no mistake, these teachings are NOT limited to Gothard, but have significantly infiltrated Evangelicalism as a whole. The root of the harmful teachings are an obsession with sexual "purity" and a terror that the kids might have sex before they are married. Most of Gothard's empire was built on feeding these fears and promising an escape. A guarantee that by following his formula, the kids would be good little virgins on their wedding night.

However, what really ends up happening in far too many cases is that the teachings cause sexual dysfunction of one sort or another. In some cases (known personally to me) the child is able to successfully repress all sexuality, but then has difficulty functioning sexually once married. In others, as in some of my cases, the lack of healthy sexual views leads to a really messed up response to puberty and acting out in harmful ways toward others.

Here are the teachings that I believe significantly contribute to the problem:

  1. Thinking about sex is lust, and lust is as bad as doing it.
This is a common thread in every one of my own cases. This idea is hammered into children by Gothard and others. The hope is that they would be able to banish all sexual thoughts and desires until that magical wedding night when the switch is flipped. I discussed this further in my series on Modesty Culture. The problem is that "lust" is defined for all practical purposes as any and all sexual thoughts or desires. For a young man going through puberty, this is, for all but a few, completely impossible. There is no winning, just endless frustration and shame. (I was never a pubescent girl, so I can't speak to that, but I would imagine this can be frustrating for girls too.)

The huge problem with this teaching is that it does not distinguish between having thoughts and desires, and acting on them in an inappropriate way. To the young person, just developing (one hopes) critical thinking skills, this can and does lead to problems in making decisions. After all, if one has already fallen into sexual sin in the realm of thought, why not at least get some satisfaction for the trouble. All the guilt and shame is already there, so why not try to at least get a little gratification.

Needless to say, this worldview is not very good at addressing the issue of consent. Since all sexual sin is the same (see Piper, John), then the difference between lusting and sexually assaulting someone is blurred.

b. "Modesty Culture" teaches that female bodies are the source of said sinful lust.

I won't rehash all of this, but I do recommend that you read my series on Modesty Culture. In essence, it is rape culture, rebranded for the Christian market. The source of male sexual sin is the woman, who, by virtue of being attractive, causes him to lust.

Thus, for someone raised in this worldview, the girl is as much at fault as he is.

I believe this also leads to non-consensual touching of very young girls.

© Gothard

I pointed this out in my post on "defrauding" and rape, and included a picture from Gothard's curriculum wherein a boy who was caught in the same sort of act as the Duggar kid blamed changing his infant sister's diapers.

The fact that this occurred is completely predictable in light of the teachings. The burden is placed on extremely small girls to keep their bodies covered at all times, or they could be sexually assaulted.

[Addendum: here is more on Gothard's advice for handling incest and abuse.]

Again, note that consent never even enters the discussion. Sexual sin is sexual sin, regardless of whether it is consensual or assault.

c. Sexual desire is presented in a gendered way.

This one plagues our greater culture too, but it is particularly popular in Christian circles. The idea is that women don't really want sex. However, they trade it (and their bodies) to men in exchange for commitment - that is, a promise of lifetime financial support.

Thus, females will always want to say no to sex, so the man will have to impose on them to some degree. (Ideally for the fundie, women would - as they are taught to - give men sex on demand after marriage as their "duty" and to keep those horny men from cheating.)

Again, this makes for problems when it comes to a discussion of consent. Because women will never say "yes" voluntarily, "no" is meaningless. As another Fundie, Doug Wilson put it, the man has to "conquer, plant, and colonize," while the woman "accepts, receives, surrenders." Not a good place to start for healthy consensual sexuality.

For a young man raised in this worldview, then, he has no real reason to hope that a woman might actually desire to have sex with him. Thus, at some point, he will simply have to take what he wants. And who might be available and weak enough to be imposed on? Perhaps young girls...

d. No outlets for sexual feelings are acceptable - until marriage.

It is hard to describe just how repressive Gothardism is to those who haven't experienced it, but I'll try. Keep in mind that what applies to Gothardism also applies to most Fundie systems, and in some cases applies in significant part to mainstream Evangelicalism these days.
Because of the obsession with preventing sex, these systems impose significant "safeguards" against it occurring.

For example, as I have already noted, they insist on constant work to repress any and all sexual feelings, because these are "lust."

Second, as I noted, they work to keep female bodies from being visible. They must be hidden away as best possible, because without them, (presumably), young males wouldn't want sex. This is what is behind the obsession with the way young girls dress, as I pointed out in my series.
Third, in many of these systems - including Gothardism - cross-gender friendships are discouraged, and in some cases forbidden altogether.
The young people must be kept from each other, or sexual feelings might develop. (I wrote about this in my wife's story.)

Fourth, many of these systems discourage sex education because it might lead to lust. This is particularly the case for girls, who ideally would learn about sex from their husbands on the wedding night. I wish I was making that one up. Certainly, a robust family discussion of sex is out of the question. Instead, sex isn't talked about, except to say "don't do it and don't think about it."

Fifth, the whole system of "courtship" or "betrothal" further separates the genders until that magical wedding night. For those not familiar with "courtship," it forbids dating of any kind until both parties are ready to marry. That is, until he has enough money and income to support her. At that time, he asks her father for permission, and the courtship takes place under closely supervised conditions. Chaperones are present always, and the couple is considered as essentially engaged from the beginning of the process. I've blogged about this before here.

Again, there is a constant and continual control until the pressure can finally be taken off on the wedding night. Good luck, young people! Now you can try to shove aside all the baggage we gave you about sex and have fun now!

Now, for a young man, in a system like Gothard's, where college is discouraged, and all relationships are rigidly controlled, there really isn't much of an out. He can't think about sex, because that is sin. Of course, he can't masturbate either, because that is sin. He can't even be friends with a girl. In fact, he his kept physically separated from them. He is staring at having to completely satisfy his future father-in-law before he can even try a relationship, and that could be many years down the road if financial prosperity doesn't come quickly. You keep tightening that lid. Pushing down on all sexuality. The pressure keeps building.

He has zero options.

So he has the new feelings of puberty, an environment that discourages talking about sex, overwhelming guilt about sexual thoughts, teachings that blame girls for his desires, a long time until he would have any approved outlet for his sexuality, and......the only females available to him in any way are his little sisters.

How could this possibly go wrong?

And that, in my opinion, is how young men who would not otherwise become predatory end up engaging in sexual assault.

Again, it is not my intent to excuse bad behavior. Sexual assault is wrong, and a crime. And I am not familiar enough on a personal level with Josh Duggar to know if he has the markers of a predator or not.

However, my experience in these cases is that the young men involved - again, not adults, but 12-15 years old - have seriously screwed up beliefs about women, consent, and sex; because the teachings are obsessed with preventing sex, not in creating a healthy view of sexualty, which embraces consent, female sexual desire, and equality within the sexual relationship. These young men are in need of substantial deprogramming, which is obviously anathema to Gothardites, who are violently opposed to any non-Gothardite counseling or input.

So is Josh Duggar a predator and a danger to children? Maybe. But maybe not. Did he engage in sexual assault? Absolutely. Would he be a risk to do it again? Not necessarily.

Did the poisonous doctrines believed and promoted by his family contribute to the problem? I believe that they absolutely did.

© Gothard

And I believe that, even more than that, the way that Gothard advises dealing with victims in cases like this will cause even more harm within the family.

Far from having a productive conversation about consent, there probably was just a little "repentance and forgiveness" charade. The doctrines have clearly remained the same since, and the root problems will never be addressed.

There are no winners here.

Now that this is public, Josh will be forever branded as a sexual predator, whether or not he is an actual danger to anyone now or in the future.
The girls have had their bodily autonomy violated, but they will be taught that they may have contributed to their own assault. They were and will be expected to do the "repentance and forgiveness" charade, and pretend nothing serious happened. Their violation will not be treated with the seriousness that it deserves. And they will be taught that what Josh did was just another sexual sin, no worse or different from what they would commit if they made out with a boyfriend. And therefore, it is entirely possible that they will be considered "tainted" in the Fundie community. And this, after their innocence and budding sexuality have been the selling point of the show for years.

The poisonous doctrines will remain untouched and unexamined. There will be no discussion of consent. And, if my past cases are any indication, the parents will instead double down on isolating boys and girls from each other and policing all interaction.

And the cycle will continue.

Even though Gothard personally has fallen into disgrace because of his own problems with teen girls, his ideas will be recycled by a new false prophet, who will profit from Evangelicals desperate to guarantee that their children will arrive at the altar as good little virgins, pleasing to God because of their innocence.

Note on Evangelicalism's ongoing issue with child abuse:

[Note, after a comment by a reader, I decided I wasn't clear about this part. I believe Fundamentalism tends to breed predatory behavior. I also believe Evangelicalism has become influenced by Fundamentalism in the last few decades.

However, the reason that I believe Evangelicalism in general is having problems with child abuse is this: churches have children (potential victims), and churches rarely have policies for preventing predators from operating. Leadership is rarely trained to recognize predators, and policies regarding reporting of abuse are inconsistent. Many states, including my home state of California make clergy mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, but many clergy do not realize this.

I also believe that few churches are really safe places for victims, and I am not alone. I recommend reading Boz Tchividjian's writings on child abuse and the church for more on this.]

These teachings also enable predators and abusers as well, as should be obvious with a bit of familiarity with how predators operate. Getting victims to blame themselves is much easier when the church lays the foundation. The teachings on authority - unquestioning obedience as to God himself - make it easier for those in leadership to prey on children, and keep them silent.

And let me say that our response to sexual predation by leaders has been atrocious. Our instinct is to protect and cover up, rather than expose and prosecute.

This obviously requires great vigilance, but also a reconsideration of how we talk about consent. Or more accurately: how we don't talk about consent. This is probably a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say that the teachings on sexuality tend to 1. protect predators and 2. create predatory behavior where it would not otherwise exist.

Note on why I say Fundamentalist:

I have also received some feedback that "fundamentalism" means different things to different people. So to clarify, see this follow up post.

Note on Pedophiles:

One of the questions that I do not see raised by those calling for him to be treated as a child molester would seem to be obvious: Is he primarily or even significantly attracted to children? That's important, because someone who is, is probably a continuing danger, but someone who is not attracted to children is not really a risk to offend in that way. Again, this seems obvious, but it apparently isn't.

Second, is he a risk to be commit rape or sexual assault in the future? There actually are identifiable risk factors for this as well. A propensity for violence is one. Violence in one area becomes violence in others. (Anyone who has helped victims of domestic violence know the connection between battering and sexual assault.) Perhaps a better way to put this would be to consider whether what he did was about sex, or about violence. In general, rape is about violence, not sex. On the other hand, these acts may not have been primarily about violence and control, but about a messed up view of sexuality and a lack of understanding of consent. A good way to check would be to see if there is an overall problem with control and violence.

For both of these risks, I would also add in that one should evaluate for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is probably a factor in Gothard and Doug Phillips' issues with sexual assaults. And the better the person plays the "repentance and forgiveness" game, the more likely they are to be a narcissist.

I should add in here again that there is a reason that we do not try 14 year olds as adults. I'm not going to get into all the developmental stuff, but the same acts committed by a 25 year old would obviously be more indicative of a true pedophile than the same acts committed by a 12 year old. As age and maturity increase, so does responsibility and the likelihood that a bad act is not an outlier, but an indication of a serious risk.

On a related note, the problem with taking the easy route and labeling Josh Duggar a Child Molester:

We have a tendency as a society and as a religion to dismiss bad actions as being done by "bad people." That way, we can just say that somebody evil did something evil, and never look at the underlying structural and philosophical issues. So, domestic violence is just bad men beating women. Get rid of the bad men, and everything will be fine. It clearly has nothing to do with belief in the inferiority of women or the necessity that they obey and serve men. Move along, nothing to see here...

Similarly, we do this with racism. Other people, bad people, are racists. And some cops are jerks. That way, we don't have to look into structures of privilege, or bad law enforcement culture that leads to dead bodies. We don't have to actually clean house, just throw a few bad people out, and bam! utopia.

Similarly, in the cases of all these cases of sexual assault within Patriarchy, we want to be able to dismiss them as outliers. Bad acts by bad people. Josh Duggar is a child molester, so we just keep him away from kids, and everything will be fine.

And then we NEVER have to address the damage that our poisonous teachings on sexuality are causing. It is not an accident that we are attracting (and paying) narcissistic predators like Gothard and Phillips. And it is not an accident that there are problems with assault in Patriarchal families. At some point, one can't just blame bad luck for the lightning strikes. We have to admit we have been standing outside in the storm, holding a metal pole. We attract bad actors, and we make predatory acts by those who would not otherwise have been predators more likely.

True, let's remove the bad actors, but let's not ignore the other source of poison: bad beliefs and teachings.

Maybe Josh Duggar is a pedophile. Maybe he is a narcissistic jerk who will tend to rape and assault. But it is also possible that at age 14, the bad teachings simply bore their entirely predictable results.

Note on the Duggars and the media:

One of the annoying statements that I keep hearing is that this is somehow a "liberal media" attack on Christianity. This argument is getting a bit old, particularly when it is used to deflect the truth of a particular allegation.

I believe that it is super duper easy to see why this is huge news. And also why it should be huge news.

At the outset, I will say that I have grave moral misgivings about anyone who would put their family in the spotlight like that, as I do not believe it is healthy for them. But that is not all.

The whole reason the Duggars have made multiple millions selling their family is that they are essentially selling sex.

It starts with the premise: the Duggars are "quiverfull," which means that they believe all forms of birth control are sinful, and that "godliness" requires having as many children as physically possible. That philosophy is also taught by Gothard and other Patriarchists. It also is the way that you end up with 19 kids, and why every one of their children (so far) has ended up pregnant right after the marriage. This isn't just a philosophy about Christianity, but one that is central to their view of female sexuality.

Just as the Duggars promote the quiverful philosophy on their show, they also promote their view of "courtship," which I already mentioned. Unless one has been living under a rock, it is impossible to miss the fact that they loudly proclaim their belief that one should not even hold hands or kiss before marriage. The first physical contact is to be after the vows.

© US

Make no mistake, this is all about selling sex. You have these attractive, virginal young ladies, and their sex lives are on display for all to see. The invitation is to think about the girls and sex. I would call it "Virginity Voyerism."

This is the reason for the show. To promote Gothard's teachings on sexuality, gender, and marriage. As Gothard puts it, to "show the world a better way of life." These teachings are sold on the idea that they will prevent bad sexual things from happening. That they will deliver our kids to the altar as good little virgins. That the dress codes and the separation of the sexes will stamp out all this horrid lust and perversion and all that.

And then one more thing: lately Mrs. Duggar has been in the news for saying that transsexuals are a grave threat to children, equating them to child molesters. Furthermore, Josh (until his recent resignation) worked for the Family Research Council, which has been designated as a hate group for claiming (against the evidence) that homosexuals are child molesters seeking to prey on children.

Both of these claims were made after Josh assaulted his sisters in their sleep.

The hypocrisy is just astounding, and it is no wonder the media is all over this. This family, like Gothard and Phillips, made their fortune - millions of dollars - promoting a particular view of sexuality, and (in my view), trading on the pretty innocence of their daughters. And then used the platform to make unsupportable claims about LGBT people. And all the while, it wasn't the gays that were fondling the daughters.

Of COURSE the media is all over this.

It isn't just the Duggars, of course. Within the last two years, the three most visible representatives of the Patriarchy movement have all gone down in sexual flames. Gothard resigned after more than 30 women came forward with stories of how he assaulted and harassed them. Phillips (Vision Forum) folded his organization after it came out that he had sexually assaulted a young woman who worked for him. And now the Duggars, who were extremely close with both Phillips and Gothard have proven (as I predicted) to have some serious sexual skeletons in their own closets.

At some point, this ceases to be "bad luck" and "media conspiracy" and becomes what can only be described as bad fruit. The teachings themselves are incurably rotten, and lead to rotten, reeking, putrid fruit.

As I note, I believe Gothard's teachings are a deadly poison which has tainted generations of Evangelicals, and a part of me is glad to see yet another spokesperson for his organization and ideas go down in flames. But I do hurt for the kids, who didn't have a choice to become involved in Gothardism or have their lives on camera

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