In an interview with Megyn Kelly, Jill and Jessa Duggar said that they are victims, not of their brother Josh’s assault, but of the media firestorm that ensued since In Touch broke the story several weeks ago. During the same interview, which aired last Friday night, 22-year-old Jessa described the resulting scandal as “a thousand times worse.” I don’t blame them; If I were Jessa and Jill Duggar, I’d be horrified.
The reaction from the public and the media towards the Duggar family is understandable, given the nature of Josh Duggar’s crime and the family’s history of associating LGBTQ people with sexual assault. But as I’ve been watching the story unfold over the past several weeks, two things have stood out to me the most.
First, the way the story has been covered otherizes sexual assault cases; that is, it further perpetuates the idea that sexual abuse only happens in “those other families” but not our own.
Second, there has been very little empathy for the victims of Josh Duggar’s abuse, and consequently we wrongfully criticize the way the family and the victims handled the abuse.
To address my first concern, what happened in the Duggar family could happen to any of our families. In fact, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, “1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse,” and perpetrators are often well known to the victims. The fact that it’s common is not an excuse, and it doesn’t diminish the trauma that victims experience. Prevalence matters because though abuse is common, we don’t want to believe that it is. So when stories like this come to light, we usually distance ourselves from the reality of the NCVC statistics by blaming abuse on what makes the perpetrators different from us.
With the Duggar family, this is all too easy. After all, they have 19 kids, they’re extremely conservative Christians, Michelle Duggar willingly wears her hair like that, and they’re otherwise just creepy. When the story broke, it was so satisfying for us to say "I knew it! I just knew something weird was going on in that family." Much of the media coverage and general discussion about the scandal has been sensational for the point of being sensational. We gawk and discuss in fascination because we always have done this with the Duggars. And now that this has happened, it gives us an excuse to gawk at them some more, confirming our previous suspicions and judgments about the strange, ultra-religious family we watch on TV every Tuesday night.
Because we otherize families that experience sexual assault, we often fail to afford the victims any empathy. Their once private traumatic experiences are now a nationwide hot topic. The entire country is talking about the most shameful part of their lives as if it’s a good book or a riveting fictional TV drama. With every article, blog post, TV news segment, and comment thread, the public is picking their victims and their family apart. For example, many people believe that Jessa and Jill must have been brainwashed in order to forgive their brother.
This may be the case, but it’s also possible that they are grown women, with their own minds, who can come to a conclusion to forgive someone who has hurt them. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse someone’s behavior, it doesn’t erase the past, and it doesn’t make things right. Rather, forgiveness helps the people who were harmed get closure and move on. Forgiving Josh isn’t for Josh, it’s for Jill and Jessa, and we should allow them the right to do that without judging.
Also, as survivors, it’s understandable for them to say that they don’t consider Josh Duggar a child molester or a pedophile. Similarly, someone who has a parent who uses harsh corporal punishment may be reluctant to call them an abuser, or anyone who has ever illegally downloaded music would refuse to call themselves a pirate. Jill and Jessa are the victims, and therefore they get to define their own experience, no matter what the rest of us think.
It seems that people also judge the Duggar family for moving on and for wanting to keep this a secret. Again, if you look at this from a perspective of empathy, especially for the victims, it’s completely understandable for them to want to put the painful chapter of their life behind them. If I were Jill, Jessa, or any of the other victims, personally I’d be infuriated that this information came out, forcing me to relive the details of what happened in the public spotlight, and to justify my actions and my family’s actions, all the while being labeled as brainwashed or a bad example to other survivors.
No one who has ever been through a sexual assault would want that information broadcasted to the world. Their parents’ decision to put their lives on reality TV certainly made it more likely for the abuse to be revealed, but it definitely doesn’t justify it. No survivor of sexual assault should have their story broadcasted to the world without their consent.
None of this justifies the action of Josh Duggar, or of his parents Jim Bob and Michelle, who refused to get him or their daughters proper help, and stupidly justified what their son did by saying, “This was not rape or anything like that.” I’m here for Jessa, Jill, and the other victims who have had the most painful parts of their lives exposed for entertainment purposes. No one deserves to have their trauma made into a national spectacle, and every survivor deserves to have complete control over if, when, and how their story is told.