Josh Duggar didn't make a "mistake" -- he's going to get away with sexual assault

If we accept the family's minimizing language, are we endorsing the Duggar son's crimes?

Published May 26, 2015 2:34PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Frank)
(Reuters/Brian Frank)

Just before the long weekend, Josh Duggar apologized for having "acted inexcusably" when he was a teenager. Because we have access to recently unearthed police reports and other accounts published by In Touch magazine, we know the connotation of Duggar's phrasing: He is requesting forgiveness for sexually assaulting multiple young girls.

It is a crime for which Duggar will never be charged; which neither he nor his family will likely ever call by name; and which he'll get away with committing. He admitted to something -- ostensibly, to committing acts of violence against children, against his own sisters -- but it doesn't matter. Duggar might have resigned from his job, but otherwise, the whole situation has been set up to play out in his favor.

Duggar's parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, are well-known Quiverfull adherents, members of an extremist Christian denomination steeped deeply in the purity movement. As several commentators have already pointed out, that movement grants Duggar and other abusers like him a reprieve from ever being held accountable for their actions; it is a culture that places blame on the victims of sexual abuse, and demands not only mercy for abusers, but protection for them as well.

As Stephanie McNeal points out at BuzzFeed, that's exactly the sort of response Jim Bob and Michelle have already had to their son's confession, and could cause irreparable harm to his victims. The language the Duggars have chosen to describe the assaults -- that they were merely "mistakes" -- undermines the seriousness of the abuse, McNeal writes:

Abuse survivors and experts told BuzzFeed News the Duggars’ description of the abuse as a “mistake” diminishes both the effect on victims and the seriousness of the crime.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a mistake, I would say it’s sexual abuse, something that is such a serious crime,” one survivor of sibling sexual assault, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “You say, oops I dropped my coffee, that’s a mistake.”

[California School of Professional Psychology] Professor [John] Caffaro agreed, telling BuzzFeed News that the incidents described in the allegations against Josh Duggar are “clearly more than a ‘mistake.’”

“[The abuse] potentially signals the presence of individual psychopathology, developmental trauma, and significant family dysfunction,” he said. [...]

The family environment can also play a factor in sibling sexual abuse. Research suggests this type of abuse is more common in large families where there are blurred lines between who is a parent and who is a child, Caffaro said.

“Emotionally and/or physically absent parents may empower older siblings to assume parental roles,” he said.

Parents in these types of families are also more prone to dismissing the abuse, he said.

“If sexual behaviors are noticed, they are likely to be minimized and misinterpreted as a normal aspect of childhood development,” Caffaro said.

But as Samantha Field points out on her blog Defeating the Dragons, it is not simply the size of the Duggar family that could allow for the perpetuation of abuse and protection of an abuser, but also a very specific set of teachings that echo the most fundamental, dangerous messages of rape culture (emphasis original):

Rape is referred to as “non-consensual sex,” and Josh sexually assaulted five little girls by groping their breasts and genitalia but that’s not what the media is calling it, and it certainly isn’t what anyone connected to the Duggars is calling it. It’s not being described as child sexual assault, not as the felony it is, but as molestation. Over and over again I’ve seen Christians calling it a “mistake.” In the different announcements we’ve gotten from the Duggars, it’s been coated over with a thick layer of Christian Speak. Anna, his wife, called it an “offense,” as if the sexual assault of a five-year-old were the same thing as calling her carrots.

It’s not just the Duggars that do this. We see this every single time one of these “scandals” comes to light. Whoever was responsible “apologizes,” but they never admit to anything. Josh said he “behaved inexcusably,” which doesn’t mean anything. If Josh had gotten up in front of everyone and said the words “I committed a felony, I sexually assaulted five little girls, and I’m sorry,” it would make it obvious to every single last person on the planet that oh, I’m sorry isn’t going to cut it.

What's at stake for victims, Field notes, isn't forgiveness, but justice. And the chances of finding it can be reduced by the language people choose to describe the crimes the experienced.

"This is why I never use softening, minimizing language," Field writes. "I say assault and rape and abuse. And, if it comes to light that Josh digitally penetrated his victims, I’m going to start saying Joshua Duggar is a rapist."

By Jenny Kutner

MORE FROM Jenny Kutner