[As you’d expect from the subject line, TW for discussion of incest, sex crimes & rape culture.]
I’ve never seen 19 Kids and Counting; I think it’s shown on one of the UK’s cable channels, but it’s certainly never been the phenomenon here that it has been in the US. Still, given English-speaking culture is saturated with American media, I’d heard of the Quiverfull family and had some vague ideas of what I could expect from them – a focus on “wholesome family values” that probably included retrograde attitudes to sexuality and gender roles, evangelical fervour, and the likelihood that a few years down the line some of those nineteen-and-counting kids would go off the rails.
In the last week, the internet has exploded with the revelation that one of the Duggar sons, 27-year-old Josh, confessed that twelve years ago he sexually molested several young girls, including his sisters. Recently more evidence has emerged that suggests rumours about Josh Duggar’s conduct have been circulating for years, including in media circles. His family knew about it at the time, and their response has been timelined by Gawker here. Essentially, he was scolded and sent out of town for a few months, purportedly to attend a Christian camp for counselling, but in fact actually to stay with a family friend. In 2006, allegations of sexual abuse were investigated by the Springdale Police Department, but no charges were brought.
A great deal of the commentary online about this has focused on the evangelical Christian context in which the abuse occurred. This is unsurprising, given that prominent members of the evangelical community have reiterated their support for the Duggar family. I do wonder, though, how much of this focus is also because the trappings of Quiverfull life, so strange to mainstream Western society and peculiar even to mainstream Christians, make it easier to perceive Josh Duggar’s crimes and his family’s response to those crimes as an aberration entirely owing to their religious culture, rather than recognising ways in which current American evangelism manifests traits with deep historical roots in Western culture.
For instance, several articles have pored over documents provided by the Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling program used by the Duggars. The chapter “Lessons from Moral Failures in a Family”, dealing with a hypothetical case where a teenage boy was found to have molested his sisters, has provoked outrage because of its emphasis on factors in the home that “contributed to immodesty and temptation”, including the teen boy being asked to change his sisters’ nappies, and seeing his siblings run around naked after their baths. The victims are meant to consider why they may have been at fault, which includes immodest dress and being away from their parents’ watchful gaze. This resonates uncomfortably closely with my discussion of medieval literature in this post, where I talk about women being blamed for their rape because they left the safety of their homes, and because their beauty was too tempting for men to resist.
So the Duggars are medieval, right? Evangelical Christians are stuck in the middle ages? Well, yes and no. What I’ve repeatedly tried to show on this blog is both that medieval attitudes toward rape are more complex than we might initially think (see Kathleen E. Kennedy’s recent great take on this for Vice for a useful 101 on medieval attitudes), and that modern culture – elite, popular, mainstream, marginal – is still deeply indebted to the same ideas we find in the middle ages that have made misogyny a pillar of patriarchy for the past, oh, few thousand years.
I am not an expert on sibling incest, neither in a medieval or modern context. I do, however, know quite a bit about father-daughter incest, which I’ve written about on this blog several times (and which provides me with some of the more disturbing search results for my blog).
Well into the twentieth century, it was a psychotherapeutic commonplace to assume that daughters shared culpability for their fathers’ incestuous advances. (This post provides references for the discussion in this paragraph.) Victims of father-daughter incest are characterised as “unusually” attractive, intelligent and charismatic, the implication being that their appeal to their fathers is easy to understand. Daughters are described as complicit in their fathers’ actions, perhaps because they enjoyed their privileged status within the family as “daddy’s princess”. It was only in the 1980s(!) that this narrative was comprehensively attacked and its therapeutic assumptions dismantled, led by the pioneering feminist psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman.
Let me reiterate: until very recently, respected mental health professionals considered that children could be complicit in their own abuse. Meanwhile, the “seductive daughter” trope is one that elicits feverish search terms that result in hits on my blog – “incest daughter makes daddy jealous” “incest daughter loves to fuck and make daddy jealous” “my princesses daddy incest stories” – and magazines like Penthouse and Playboy were still flirting with incest stories into the 1980s (and possibly beyond – if you have any up-to-date refs on this score, pass them my way). At first glance, the values of Playboy magazine and of the Quiverfull family seem leagues apart, connected only by a contemptuous assumption that evangelical men must be secretly and hypocritically consuming pornography. But of course the real connection is more profound than that: our culture likes to blame women (and little girls) for their own victimisation. That may be dressed up in academic language, or coarsely pictured in a centrefold, or piously written in homeschooling documentation, but they share the same origins. While the Duggars’ particular brand of misogyny is now thankfully less mainstream, it springs from the same place that means child abuse is still a “silent crime”: the apparently endlessly-deep well of patriarchy.