(Reuters/Brian Frank)

Josh Duggar's victims deserve better: Voyeurism and torture porn only make their lives worse

Where do we draw the line between responsible coverage and a tabloid fixation on schadenfreude?


Katie McDonough
June 4, 2015 10:00PM (UTC)

In an interview that aired Wednesday night, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar sat down with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly to talk about their son Josh’s history of sexual abuse. According to police reports and the Duggars themselves, Josh molested five girls on multiple occasions when he was 14 and 15 years old. Four of the girls were his sisters and one was a babysitter for the family. The youngest of the victims was five at the time of the assault.

The Duggar parents confirmed the abuse during the interview, but did everything they could to minimize it. And Kelly, who cooed through most of their exchanges, never really pushed back when Jim Bob deflected responsibility and described the abuse with a string of euphemisms. (The incidents were “more just like a fondling, a touch while they were asleep,” he assured.) It was very much what you would expect when two adherents of Biblical patriarchy and a conservative news host content to lob softballs get together to chat.

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But something Michelle said, while she was putting her own minimizing spin on the abuse, stuck out to me for a different reason:

Our children poured out their hearts, they shared everything. And then, to have their trust betrayed. For all of their information they shared to be turned over to a tabloid. For those things to be twisted and shared in a slanderous way, story after story, tabloid after tabloid…. As a mom, that breaks my heart for my girls because I think this is such a horrible… they’ve been victimized more by what has happened in these last couple of weeks than they were 12 years ago because they honestly didn’t even understand or know anything had happened until after the fact. [...]

Now what’s happened is they’ve been victimized by people with an agenda and for whatever profit they think they’re gonna get.

Her comment is a disturbing bit of rape apologia mixed with a persecution complex, but there is one element of truth in it: the Duggars who were abused by Josh deserve better than the recent media spectacle. Jill Duggar Dillard and Jessa Duggar Seewald said as much to Kelly in their first interview about Josh. In a clip of their conversation that also aired Wednesday night, Jill said, referring to the coverage: “We’re victims. They can’t do this to us.”

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of good work that’s been done to cover the case, or even that daily coverage of the story is inherently exploitative. There have been powerful pieces written about the Duggar parents’ religious justifications for their negligence (which is not an isolated case), stories on how experts address sexual abuse perpetrated by minors and within families, critical takes on thecurriculum the family used to teach their children destructive, patriarchal bullshit about sexual violence and a lot of necessary pushback against TLC for turning a profit on all of it.

But let’s not shit ourselves: the media circus playing out around this family is not the same thing as responsible coverage, and it is not some noble pursuit to hold abusers accountable. A lot of what's out there has been a salivating frenzy, and it’s happening at the expense of five people who had no control over what happened to them as children and are now experiencing a different kind of powerlessness.

This isn’t new territory, just another reminder of how we often fail to consider the victims of sexual or other trauma while covering their stories. It’s the same reason we saw video of Janay Rice being knocked unconscious playing on a loop on cable news. (Rice, like Jill, alsospoke out about being exploited by a news cycle that seemed to feed off of her trauma.)

The answer isn’t to ignore these stories, but to try to do better than torture porn or trauma played over and over again as schadenfreude. Pushing for restraint in coverage isn’t the same thing as calling for media blackout on the issue. For an issue as underreported and misunderstood as sexual violence, more silence isn’t the answer.

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Michelle and Jim Bob homeschooled their kids using a Christian curriculum that blames sexual abuse on “immodest dress” and not listening to your parents. They are alleged to have lied to the police about the extent of Josh’s abuse. They did not get their son real counseling. They put their daughters in harm’s way by failing to act responsibly to address Josh’s abuse, even after he repeated it. They have, generally speaking, really fucked up their kids. And judging from the lack of remorse and perspective on display on Wednesday night, they seem poised to keep doing it.

There are stories to tell here. More questions of accountability to put to Jim Bob and Michelle and TLC. There’s commentary to be written on the Duggars themselves. There are investigations into how child protective services can fail vulnerable kids. How law enforcement get it wrong. The role consent education and medically accurate sex ed have in preventing abuse and empowering victims to get help.

There may be a lot to unpack about trauma and self-protection in Jill’s comments about her brother, but her feeling of exploitation by a salivating news cycle seems remarkably clear-eyed. She and her sisters have been thrust into a spotlight they never asked for. The story of what happened deserves to be covered, and the people it happened to deserve better.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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