By now, you’ve probably seen the news coverage about 19 Kids and Counting star Josh Duggar. The eldest son of the homeschooling, conservative Christian family featured on TLC’s reality show sexually abused several young women, including his sisters. When his parents found out, they arranged for him to speak with a police officer, and they set up counseling for him and his victims. Mr. Duggar apologized Thursday after In Touch Weekly published the story and a day later, TLC announced it had pulled all episodes of 19 Kids and Counting off the air.
Note that I called the women he sexually abused “his victims.”
That’s what I want to talk about here. I’ll be frank. I have some axes I could grind about the Family Research Council, the conservative lobbying organization Mr. Duggar worked for before his resignation Thursday and the hypocrisy exhibited by Mr. Duggar and the FRC on that front, or about my belief that Christian fundamentalist homeschooling damages children. These topics, however, have been pretty well addressed.
Instead, I want to talk about the way we talk about Josh Duggar.
The media has used the word “alleged” over and over and over again. The “alleged sexual abuse.” Do you know what “alleged” means? It means something said, without proof, to have taken place or to have a specified illegal or undesirable quality.
In 2003, an Arkansas police officer started the statute of limitations for filing charges against Mr. Duggar when he spoke with him about his actions. An anonymous tip received in December of 2006 was too late to prosecute, but led to the police report at the center of this story. The report disclosed sexual misconduct in 2002 and 2003 that involved the fondling of sleeping victims and other abusive acts with five girls. In his statement, Mr. Duggar said, “We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing.” Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, his parents, said in a joint statement, “When Josh was a young teenager, he made some bad mistakes, and we were shocked.” His wife, Anna, stated, “I can imagine the shock many of you are going through reading this. I remember feeling that same shock… Josh shared his past teenage mistakes.”
I detail all this not to rehash the comprehensive news coverage, but to make a point. Perhaps you’ve guessed what it is.
There is proof.
There is proof, including the admissions of the perpetrator, his parents, and wife, that Josh Duggar sexually abused young girls. There is nothing “alleged” about this.
“Semantics,” maybe you say.
“Rape culture,” I reply.
One analysis of several thorough studies suggests that out of reported rapes and sexual assaults, only 2 percent to 10 percent are false reports. Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson has a video that explains studies around false rape accusations; she astutely points out, “If you always believe the alleged rapist, then you will be wrong approximately 98 times out of 100.”
And yet, the idea that “crying rape” is a tool women carry in their arsenal continues. Rape culture is real, and it’s the culture we’re all operating in. Sexual violence is the norm, and victims are often blamed for their own assaults.
Rape victims who speak out can face as much persecution as the rapists in their communities. After the guilty verdict came down in the rape trial in Steubenville, the victim was targeted by two women. Allison Huguet, one of the subjects of Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula, was harassed by her community after she brought charges against her rapist, who was a University of Montana football player. Rape victims that go to trial will face defense lawyers that will try to tear down their credibility and shift the blame to them. Were they drinking? What were they wearing? Were they flirting with their rapist? Had they ever been intimate with their rapist before, or suggested they were open to the possibility? Did they initially agree to a sex act, but change their minds?
This is all rape culture, and it influences how we talk about sexual assault and how we look at victims and attackers.
We need to believe victims, and we need to stop defending attackers based on their perceived character as “good guys.” Woody Allan’s defenses focus on his relationship with his children. Phylicia Rashad defended Bill Cosby because she thinks the accusations leveled against him are an attempt to destroy his legacy. Mainstream media in the Steubenville case — where video evidence proved the rape — mourned the loss of the perpetrators’ futures.
And none of that matters in a conversation about the veracity of sexual assault allegations.
The abuse committed by Josh Duggar was brought to the forefront of our attention by an exposé rather than a victim, but we still can’t bring ourselves to name it definitively. Rape, sexual assault or abuse, molestation — these things are ugly. They’re hard and uncomfortable. It’s easier to look away than stare them in the face. It’s safer to be silent or talk around the subject than to decry these crimes.
It’s also wrong.
It’s time to rise up, consciously choose to respect victims, name sexual crimes as what they are, and speak out. To paraphrase Helen Reddy, “We are human. Here us roar.”
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