In “A Love That Multiplies,” Michelle Duggar recounts a story that her husband told his older children “to explain the importance of purity.”
“Imagine that your parents are going to surprise you and give you a brand-new bike for Christmas. Two weeks before Christmas, they buy your bike and hide it in the storage shed in the backyard. But then the boy next door sneaks into the shed and borrows your new bike; he stunt-rides it up and down the back alley.
“On Christmas morning your parents lead you out to the shed to reveal the special gift they bought for you, and as they open the door and say, ‘Surprise!' they’re just as surprised as you are. You’re all shocked to see that the bike looks like it’s been thrown off a cliff. The front fender is missing, and the front tire is warped so it rubs on the frame. It’s dirty, the paint is all scratched and chipped, and the seat has a big rip in it. It looks worse than something you would have bought at a garage sale.
“I’m sure you would still be grateful for the bike, and you would have fun riding it, but it won’t be in the condition your parents had hoped and dreamed it would be when you received it. You would miss out on a lot of the enjoyment they meant for you to have.
“In that same way, we don’t want any boy (or girl) to come and steal your purity.”
Note the emphasis: The onus to protect your purity is on you. If someone steals your purity, you are a ruined bicycle with warped tires and a ripped seat. Your value has been stolen. Your parents’ dreams are ruined. You are used and cheap and valueless.
This is a horrible thing to tell anyone.
But hearing this story now, knowing that Duggar son Josh has apologized amid allegations that he molested several young girls as a minor, is especially sickening.
And it’s not the only thing Jim Bob preached. Michelle writes on:
“Another story Jim Bob shares starts with a disgusting image: ‘What if we were at a meeting with about one hundred other people and the speaker asked that a large cup be passed around and that everyone spit in the cup? What if you happened to be all the way in the back — the last person on the last row — and when the cup finally came to you the speaker asked you to drink out of the cup? What would you do?’ ”
Certainly for the person who now thinks of him — or herself as a cup full of spit.
And that’s just scratching the surface. The Duggars built their “19 Kids and Counting” brand on a slavish dedication to ideals of modesty and purity, keeping their children away from Unwholesome Influences, even to the point of shouting “Nike!” when the family was out for a walk in the presence of a woman who was immodestly attired, in order to get them to stare at their shoes. Women must be “modest” and “godly” and pure to attract a godly man. This is where their value lies. Chaperones! Courtship! Side-hugs only! Even hand-holding is off the table.
The revelation of Josh Duggar’s molestation allegations is about more than hypocrisy. This is no occasion for glee. This is a reminder of how badly the cult of purity lets victims down.
“Once you open the door to being alone and enter into a physical relationship before marriage (kissing, touching, physical intimacy), you are allowing your partner to unwrap a precious, special gift that God intended you to hold on to until your wedding day, and you’re also creating a lot of guilt and distrust, and you won’t be able to fully enjoy the pleasure of the sin because of all the guilt it brings.” — the eldest four Duggar daughters in “Growing Up Duggar: It’s All About Relationships”
Elizabeth Smart has spoken eloquently about this. She, too, grew up “in a religious household where I was taught that sex only happened between a married man and a woman. After that rape, I felt so dirty . . . can you imagine going back into a society where you are no longer of value? Where you are no longer as good as anybody else?” A teacher had likened women to chewed pieces of gum, and the image stuck with her. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.” When a woman’s value lies in her purity, victims are victimized twice.
But it’s more than that. When all sexuality is a sin, when even holding hands is off limits, there isn’t a clear line between permissible, healthy forms of exploration and acts that are impermissible to anyone, not just the particularly devout. This gospel of shame and purity has the potential to be incredibly harmful because it does away with important lines. (Studies not only suggest that abstinence-only approaches to sex education do nothing to decrease the incidence of sexual behaviors, but also that they can make them riskier and that they deprive kids of the vocabulary they need to discuss when bad things happen.)
Patheos blogger Libby Anne writes, “Handling child molestation as ‘sin’ rather than addressing the psychology behind it is a serious problem. In their statements to People, the Duggars spoke of Josh’s past wrongdoing as ‘past teenage mistakes’ and spoke of growing closer to God through it. But it appears that Josh never had legitimate counseling or treatment to work through his problem. Some sexual things are normal for a teen to do — say, masturbating — but other sexual things are not typical behavior — say, molesting children — and those things need to be addressed professionally rather than simply as ‘sin’ issues. Failing to do so places other children at risk.” (The whole post is worth a read.)
Kay Steiger at ThinkProgress also put it well: When you treat this as a sin instead of a crime, you let everyone down. “Such a message can leave children confused about what is actually harmful behavior and what is merely something of which his or her religion does not approve. There is also evidence that using accurate medical terms to educate children in an age-appropriate way can be effective at allowing children to report abuse when it happens to them.”
The behavior alleged was a crime, not a sin.
The account of what happened and how it was handled — failing to report the incidents promptly to authorities? No consequences besides a stern talk from a cop and a few months of remodeling a house with a family friend? The whole thing shoved under the rug? — is painful to read.
Now the Duggars are off of TLC. But we need to start pushing back against these ideas, too. There is a line between normal and harmful forms of exploration. You are more than your purity. And people are not bicycles or cups full of spit.
Alexandra Petri is a blogger for The Washington Post.