A reminder for the Duggars: Sexual assault is still sexual assault when victims are sleeping

Jim Bob Duggar's efforts to minimize his son's abusive behavior offer an extreme example of our views on consent

Published June 4, 2015 2:23PM (EDT)

Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar           (Fox News)
Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar (Fox News)

The Duggars are a family of extremists. There's not really any way around it. What is perhaps most terrifying, though -- or what has stood out to me most in the weeks since the Duggars confirmed that their eldest of 19 children, Josh, molested several of his sisters when he was a teenager -- is that their conception of sexual assault isn't actually so far off from much of the public's.

Their understanding is one that warps consent into a nearly irrelevant factor, and one that's become all too common. And oh, how far it is from an understanding that actually recognizes and affirms the nuanced reality of sexual violence.

Duggar parents Jim Bob and Michelle sat down with Megyn Kelly on Wednesday in an exclusive interview, ostensibly meant to address their daughters' sexual assaults. In practice, the interview was an hour-long defense of Josh's actions and his "tender conscience," as well as a horrifying showcase of how little regard the Duggars seem to have for their daughters' well-being. And while perhaps the couple's apparent lack of concern for their female children reflects their indoctrination by a set of fundamentalist Christian principles, the excuses that Jim Bob, in particular, offered up on Josh's behalf don't sound so different from the mitigating self-defense so frequently invoked by, say, a frat boy accused of sexual assault.

"He said he was just curious about girls, and he had gone in and basically touched them over their clothes while they were sleeping," Jim Bob said. "They didn't even know he had done it."

She was sleeping. She didn't even know what was going on. She didn't say no. Doesn't it all sound so familiar? But wait, there's more: When the Duggars sat down with their daughters, after Josh confessed to sneaking into their shared bedroom to touch their breasts and genitals while they were asleep, Jim Bob and Michelle learned that "none of them [the girls] were aware of Josh's wrongdoings" and that they "really didn't know" what had happened to them -- as if to condone their son's behavior simply because his victims couldn't remember it.

"We asked them at first if anything happened, and then it was after some other things happened that we actually shared with them," Jim Bob said. "We took a lot of steps. First we tried to deal with this in house, as parents."

It remains not entirely clear what "steps" the Duggars took to protect their daughters, though it's clear from Jim Bob's own statement that whatever they did wasn't enough; he and Michelle waited for additional assaults to occur before they realized they could not deal with the "situation" on their own. And the assaults only got worse -- which is to say, they got harder to defend within a framework that allows people to blame victims for being unconscious and getting raped.

After sneaking into his sisters' room, Josh later molested two of the girls while they were napping on the couch -- and after that, as Kelly pointed out during the interview, he assaulted "a couple" of his sisters while they were awake. Still, his parents found a chilling way to minimize the violence as much as possible, to try and remove blame from Josh in a way that necessarily disregards the experiences of their daughters.

"This was not rape or anything like that," Jim Bob said. "This was touching somebody over their clothes. There were a couple of incidents where he touched them under their clothes, but it was, like, a few seconds. And then he came to us and was crying and told us what happened, and it was after that third time he came to us, is where we really felt like we have done everything we can as parents to handle this in house -- we need to get help."

To be honest, I'm not sure what else to say to the Duggars' defense except the obvious: Sexual assault is still sexual assault when the victim is sleeping. Rape "or anything like that" occurs when a person's bodily autonomy is violated without her or his consent, and a person cannot give consent when she or he is unconscious. The Duggar daughters were unconscious when their older brother came into their room and touched their breasts and genitals. They might not have remembered; they might not have understood. They definitely did not consent.

Frankly, I'm ashamed even to characterize Jim Bob's comments as a "defense," because his and Michelle's efforts to "protect" their sex offender son are something more than that. They are a perpetuation of cultural values that strip women of any and all agency and not only condone misogynistic violence, but blame women for it. The Duggars' acrobatic attempts to explain away this "incident," and to curtail the horror of recurrent incestuous sexual assault under their watch and with their knowledge, are merely another example of the ways we fail to grasp consent and abuse. Instead, we allow men to act violently with impunity. We try to shield them from the repercussions of their own "sins."

By Jenny Kutner

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