Note up front: This is not a WSE “official” position. This is my personal position on the topic. I am including it in a WSE entry because of its connection with sex education, communication, and boundaries.
I’ve been approached a few different times, and in a few different ways, about my thoughts/insights to the Josh Duggar fiasco. Most comments have been made to me publicly in various threads on my facebook timeline, some in comments on people’s own timelines, a few privately…and one post from a friend directly to my wall with a question. Or really, a set of questions.
It’s probably not altogether surprising that I would be approached with questions like this, given my education and exactly what it is that I do. The question, although singularly phrased, is layered…“what are the moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities of a (normal) family that encounters this kind of abuse among siblings?” — and it is definitely a very nuanced question to try to answer in any meaningful way. I needed time to really think about it, given the various conversations I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with, and the different things I’ve read by different people regarding the Duggar situation itself.
Rather than try to answer the question within the confines of a facebook thread, I decided to bring the discussion into my own space, where I can try to expand on the thoughts that surfaced. Teasing out the different strands is a challenge, because this is not an easy subject to write about. So, up front, I’ll open with what I’m going to address: the matter of actual pedophilia (what it is, what it isn’t, etc); a comparatively recent story of friend of mine, along with a bit of family history; the matter of what the law has to say on this subject; morals and ethics; my personal take on the topic as a parent; and how I feel about serial child molesters, rapists, and anyone who tries to make excuses for them. Those are the different strands that will be addressed. You have the choice to read…or move on to something else…because this will be a lengthy entry.
What I do, and why I get asked the question.
Parent-child communication is vital -and at the earliest stages- to later decision-making during the tumultuous teenage and young adult years. This parent-child communication is also the foundation for establishing and fostering healthy boundaries in children. My general approach to this subject is directed to parents, not to children or teens, because the origin of discomfort begins with parents (again, generally). My focus as an educator is to help guide parents toward open, honest, and healthy communication with their children about anatomy first by helping parents become more comfortable with medically-accurate terminology. The aim of WSE in this regard, in the long-term, is to hopefully elevate awareness about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and hopefully reduce that prevalence through (1) education, (2) communication, and (3) knowing where to access tools (such as preventive measures and treatment services if necessary). Because STI awareness and education is my primary focus, I have not gone into many other areas of education at this point. That said, I have connected with a local organization that fights sex trafficking and plan to attend a meeting in the near future where I may address matters of sex and communication from a parental standpoint, also.
I share these things to make clear that the matter of child molestation is not far off of my radar, but neither it is my area of expertise. While I can speak to the subject professionally where the matter of parent-child communication intersects with my focus, it would be dishonest to attempt to speak to the subject of child molestation or predatory sexual behavior as though it is something I specialize in – because I do not. And I’m glad that I do not. I deal with some messy topics, but the matter of child molestation is one that is beyond my scope professionally. I probably never would have chosen it as an area of concentration because it intersects with my personal history in such a way that it is a topic that is difficult to speak to objectively. The only way that I can speak to the topic is from a more personal level. In this entry, I’m not speaking as Dr. Alvarado-Wirtz…but as Denise. With these things in mind…
So, to start with, I want to ensure that there are very clear distinguishing lines drawn between three things: Mistakes of youth, pedophilia, and predatory sexual behavior. I want to be very clear about these things, because they all exist, they all matter, they may intersect but not necessarily, and the lines quickly blur when emotions are hot. I also want to draw the distinctions because I am sick to death of reading variations of “but he was just a horny teenager.” I’m sick to death of apologetics that focus on the abuser and disregard the victims. So Josh Duggar is “sorry”…now, that it’s out in the open. He’s “sorry”…now that the reality TV family’s skeleton has been put on public display after repeatedly chastising the LGBTQ community in the name of “family values.” He’s…sorry. Victimizing multiple children (to include his sisters) was a “mistake.” And of course, now, the discussion of pedophilia coming forth from members of the mental health community in the face of details about this family nightmare unfolding like the reality TV show that the Duggars ironically created.
Let’s separate out the strands here. Let’s talk about mistakes first. We all make them. Many of us, during our youths, made plenty of mistakes…sexually and otherwise. Things that we might go back and change if we could. Things we’re genuinely remorseful about. Things that we have tried to make right. A good example is a situation a friend of mine endured just a few years ago with her son. When he was about 13 years old or so, he made a mistake. He was visiting his non-custodial family, and violated the boundaries of his younger half-sister. There was no touching involved whatsoever, nothing physical occurred. There was simply a boundary violation, sexual in nature but not in action. There was an emotional explosion that occurred after he went home to his custodial family, when his younger sister said something to the non-custodial parent. My friend was called, chewed out, the son called every imaginable name by his non-custodial parent, told that he was never allowed in their home again (never mind that there was little involvement to begin with). It was horrifying for my friend, who immediately confronted her son. He was deeply ashamed, embarrassed, and above all, remorseful. She got him into counseling immediately. She wasn’t worried about whether or not he would violate her other children’s boundaries (and that has never happened). It was an extraordinarily stressful time for the family for many different reasons, but he received love and support, necessary counseling, and…above all…he was held accountable. He wanted to apologize directly to his half-sibling (though that opportunity was never afforded by the non-custodial parent at the time). Years have passed since this incident occurred, and the other parent is only now saying that maybe he handled it improperly. He was (understandably) concerned for his daughter, but had no concern for his son. He has since tried to reach out to his son…only to discover that the window of opportunity to make right with his son slammed shut. It is unfortunate, but that is how it happened. Thankfully, this young man’s mistake…and it was a mistake…didn’t wind up turning his life upside-down. He’s now in a very loving relationship, is extremely close to his mom, is equally protective of his younger siblings. That situation…a one-time event in his life…was a mistake. Nothing will ever undo it, but he’s working to make right.
Now let’s talk about pedophilia. Pedophilia in the clinical sense is comparatively rare, but unlike other conditions that people seek out treatment for, pedophiles are not likely to seek treatment because of the social realities connected with the condition. Pedophilia, as a fantasy, is not a choice (catch your knee)…but pedophilia is not a sexual orientation. It is what is known as a paraphilia. The decision to act on the fantasy is a choice, a choice that causes deep and longstanding harm in its victims. Pedophilia is the most common paraphilia, but the vast majority of sexual predators and child molestors are not actually pedophiles in the clinical sense (again, we’ll return to those folks shortly). For this reason, people who attempt to create a parallel between pedophilia and homosexuality are being (knowingly or unknowingly) dishonest. While it may be difficult to wrap around, a case worth reading (listening to also) and working to understand is this one. For pedophiles who do not act on the impulse, having an avenue for therapy and treatment, a support group, however anonymously, is vital. For people who do not act on those urges, who actively seek help and support and consistently refrain from being in situations that put children at risk, I support their efforts. I am opposed to the notion of thought crime. As human animals, we can and do fantasize about any number of things, and often never act on those fantasies. Fantasies are neither right nor wrong…they just are. However, acting on those fantasies may not only be wrong…it is criminal if it violates consent.
Before moving to sexual predators, I want to ensure that there is explicit clarification here. There are people who go the opposite direction of the examples above. There are people and organizations (internationally) that seek to lower or abolish the age of consent, who advocate making adult-child sexual interaction completely legal. (Note, wiki links are used here so that you, gentle reader, can drop to the bottom of the pages for original source citations, if desired.) I do NOT support those. Not now, not ever. Just…NOPE. Although some European countries have a more generally neutral stance on pedophilia (in this sense, the fantasy not acted upon, the absence of harm done to children), and the Netherlands is typically the country pointed to as an example. This point ignores the laws there that remain in place to protect the rights of people who have pedophilia unacted upon AND to protect the rights of children. In 2014, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands banned the online group Vereniging Martijn.
The court’s ruling “held that the dangers of pedophilia are too great to allow the group to continue. This is because, the court reasoned, children are particularly vulnerable, and the protections they require justifies using the extraordinary relief of disbanding Martijn. In addition, the court agreed with the prosecutor’s arguments that victims of pedophilia should not be forced to be exposed to the group’s message. The ruling overturned a lower court decision that said only groups that threaten to cause social disruption are eligible to be banned.” I’ll return to the question of law shortly.
Next, let’s talk about sexual predators. Child molesters. Rapists. Let’s talk about these folks. I’ll grant that they may have made a mistake or two. I’ll grant that they might have a few snippets in common with pedophiles in the loosest of senses. I will grant that there are intersectional areas. But when it comes down to predatory sexual behavior of the sort that actively preys on people who do not and/or cannot consent, we’re talking about people with control issues, people who use sex as a weapon. I’ll even grant that they may have started out as untreated pedophiles who were possibly abused themselves, who knew what happened to them was wrong, who knew that the urge to harm others was wrong…but who chose to act upon the impulse to violate another person’s bodily autonomy without consent anyway. These people are criminals, period. This is a particularly difficult topic for me, personally, because I know many people for whom this is a lived experience. People who knowingly, willingly, and repeatedly violate another person’s bodily autonomy sexually are not “making a mistake” — they aren’t “just horny teenagers” — they are predators, criminals, who take something irreplacable from someone else for their own gratification. They are, typically, unrepentant about their actions. And while I know (anecdotally) that these behaviors manifest generationally and cyclically within families, there is not definitive causal connection in the research about abused children eventually becoming abusers themselves (the majority do not); the research remains inconclusive about whether serial sexual abusers were themselves abused as children.
A bit of personal perspective.
The movie “A Time to Kill” has this line in it that, if you haven’t ever heard it outside of the movie, it’s easy to think it was made up for a script to put a couple of redneck child rapists in the audience’s disfavor. Thing is, I knew that line…I’d heard it before I ever saw the movie…it stood out for me, and I’ve never forgotten it. In the movie, a young black girl (12 or so years old in the scene) is walking home after having gone to a local store to pick up a few groceries. Two drunk rednecks see her and decide to have some “fun” with her…the exchange in the movie was:
Redneck #1: Isn’t she a bit young?
Redneck #2: If she’s old enough to crawl, she’s in the right position.
Now, the trajectory of the movie was about whether or not a black man could receive a fair trial in the South (for murdering the child rapists who violated his daughter), but my focus is on that particular exchange in the movie. The redneck rapists in the movie weren’t pedophiles…they were sexual predators. They were the same ilk of people, the world over, that seek out children to violate. As earlier mentioned, certain matters occur within families generationally – and in my case, I made the conscious decision that for my own children, the cycle stopped at my own doorstep. I have, over the course of my experience as a parent, deliberately kept emotional and geographic distance between myself and my family, much as I love my family members. The distance remains firm, even while I do go to visit…if infrequently.
I remember an exchange between two of my family members (both female), where the subject of childhood sexual molestation surfaced. The older female relative looked at the younger female relative and said, “If I could live through it, so can you.” The refusal to hold the offenders accountable is something that I recognize from where it can stem…but I personally find it inexcusable. Put more bluntly, because of this particular dynamic within my own family tree, even when I lived with my family as an adult with a young child, I never left my child unattended with certain other family members. Ever. Just…NOPE. I witnessed too much as a kid, experienced too much, knew too much of the history to ever-ever-ever leave my child unattended. That is just the way it was. At my first opportunity, I moved away permanently (which brought with it its own sets of problems, but those problems aren’t directly relevant to this particular topic). As an adult survivor, I have met many people over the intervening years (both male and female) who have lived through similar experiences, who have similar family histories, and like me, the deliberate, conscious decision is that the cycle of abuse stopped at their doorstep.
I’ve written before, extensively, about where religious harm intersects with sexual predatory behavior with children – and how this manifests in the prevalence of church “youth pastors” (in the United States, specifically, and this is directly connected with the Duggar fiasco because of how religion can and does warp healthy sexuality); but this is not a problem limited to religion (and I would argue that the majority of religious people find sexual exploitation of children repellant, so I’m not browbeating religion here, in and of itself). This is a problem that is not limited to my family (many of whom happen to be religious) or the United States; it is a global concern. I hesitate to draw any specific conclusions or make any direct assertions, but I will admit that I find the matter of American and European businessmen being the dominant group of people who go to other countries (on multiple continents), seeking out children to have sex with. I find it telling because of the religiously-rooted societies from which these men spring (and they are typically men), and the religious distortions of sexuality. But again, this is NOT about singling out people who identify religiously, because people of various social, cultural, and religious backgrounds engage in this behavior.
On a very local level, I support Stop Exploiting Children Task Force of Forsyth County (SECTFF), because I am a firm believer that practical advocacy begins in one’s own backyard. When I initially met with some of the folks at SECTFF (at a local fair), I was asked if I would consider speaking at an upcoming meeting, given what I do. I am of course interested, and plan to attend an upcoming meeting this summer unless my calendar explodes the way it has been doing over the past few months. The group is one of many around the United States that works to fight sexual exploitation of children, with the goal of ending sex trafficking of children and women.
So…to answer the question.
Having addressed the three distinguishing lines between “mistakes,” pedophilia, and predatory sexual behavior; my friend’s story; and a bit of personal history, it’s time to return to the question asked by my friend: “what are the moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities of a (normal) family that encounters this kind of abuse among siblings?”
I can only hope that all of what has preceded my broaching answering this question has allowed for some dimensional/nuanced understanding of where I’m coming from when I attempt to actually answer my friend’s question.
Legally, the matter of sexual molestation of children, particularly within a family (by siblings or other family members), is complex. You can go to the wiki page on this topic (this is United States-specific), read through it, read through the 28 different source citations in there. I could pull out the criminal law casebooks, websites, call on legal eagle friends of mine to help me with explaining the complexities of our legal justice system with respect to incest and child molestation. Here, I will simply say that the matter is extremely complex. I’m one person, and if you’ve managed to make it this far reading this entry, I hope it is clear that my thoughts on this subject are extremely complex and not in any way lacking in personal bias…and I won’t pretend otherwise. There are laws that I understand cognitively, and there are laws that while I might understand, I don’t necessarily agree with. But trying to explain them here would take longer than this entry already is entirely, and would be easier and faster to look up for yourself, depending on your specific jurisdiction.
The matter of morals and ethics as even more hinky. I don’t define others’ moral compasses, only my own. Ethics is a realm of philosophy that flows into our (and other countries’) laws, and I do not define these things for anyone but myself. That being said, I suspect what my friend is asking me is a question that steps beyond a matter of simple definitions…and what the question is actually asking is, “What would you do if your son molested your daughter?” (or daughter-son…either way) THAT is the question I actually hear being asked. This is a very difficult question, and one that I have thought about before. More than once. Given my own history on the subject, it would seem impossible that the thought would never cross my mind.
The inclination that I have, as a parent (presumably shared by most parents) is to protect my children. ALL of my children. The notion of my son molesting my daughter (or vice versa) is one that sickens me. The very thought is repugnant. But the inclination is still to protect ALL of my children. What this means to me personally includes the matter of full accountability. Much, I suspect, of how I would respond to a horrifying situation like that would be to ask pertinent questions – what level of molestation? How many times? etc… Depending on the answers to those questions, my immediate course of action, hypothetically, would be two-fold. First, I would reach out to people in the healthcare community (medical AND mental, depending on how far the molestation went) — to ensure that my daughter received immediate treatment for any medical concerns (pregnancy comes to mind for example), along with treatment for emotional trauma. Alongside that, I would reach out to an attorney, because I would want BOTH mental health evaluation for my son, along with ensuring that he had some sort of legal backing. The notion of my son going to jail for molesting my daughter (again, or vice versa) would be simply awful (particularly understanding how the hierarchy in the jail/prison system works), and I would ideally want him (or her) in a treatment facility rather than in a jail cell. (Note: I’m placing the male child in the position of the offender primarily…because that is standard in the overwhelming majority of cases; but to be clear, my hypothetical approach would be the same, regardless of who was the offender and who was the victim.)
I can certainly understand (though not excuse) why parents hide the actions of their sons who molest a sibling or siblings; I do not understand how parents can (and frequently do) go into victim-blaming games with their daughters. If I were to discover that my son had molested several children…? Again, the matter of accountability. Serial sexual molestation, predatory sexual behavior that violates others’ rights to bodily autonomy, is criminal…and for a crime committed (whether against others’ children, or against another of my own children), is a matter that must be dealt with in terms of legal accountability. Checks and balances. And…as a parent, it is extremely difficult for me to say that, because I love and desire to protect ALL of my children.
That being said, this hypothetical scenario stated, though not impossible, is extremely unlikely in my own household. In my household, because of what I do for a living, the matter of open, honest, and respectful communication on ALL matters (including sexual matters) is one that I don’t simply talk about and educate others about…I live by it. Communication about body space, personal boundaries (and our right to enforce those boundaries), the differences between private and secret, etc etc etc…these things are openly discussed in my household. My children…my daughter and both of my sons…know that they own their own bodies. Every bit of their bodies. They have the absolute right to say “no” to any unwanted physical contact — all the way down to something as innocuous as tickling. It is that simple.
Tying this thought back to the subject of Josh Duggar, his family’s blatant hiding of his criminal history of serial molestation (including his sisters) until the statute of limitations expired…? Spewing “family values” nonsense in the name of their particular flavor of religious dogma, condemning homosexuality, parading their lives in reality TV while doing so, cozying up to conservative politicians to try to enact laws against consenting adults KNOWING this was in their own family tree?
My feeling, honestly? Fuck that guy. Fuck Josh Duggar…fuck his entire family (except for his victims)…and fuck ANYONE who attempts to wrongly defend him in the name of their god, in the name of “youthful mistakes,” in the name of pedophilia, all that. He’s not a pedophile in the clinical sense noted above. He was and remains an unpunished serial child molester. He will likely not be held accountable for his crimes…nor will his family for covering for him all these years. Seriously just fuck them.
And for anyone attempting to defend him while talking out of both sides of their mouths? Just…all the nopes. Fuck them, too. Yes, the subject of pedophilia is nuanced. Yes, my perspective as a sex educator (professionally), as a survivor and as a parent (privately) is nuanced. I hope that I’ve adequately answered my friend’s question in a way that makes sense to her. But my position on Josh Duggar and others like him is pretty black & white.
With that, Happy Sunday.