Curiosity My A**: Josh Duggar, Signs of Abuse, and How to Keep Your Children Safe

Wednesday, May 27, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Over the last week, my inbox has exploded with questions about the Duggar scandal. “What makes someone turn into a child abuser?” “How can I make sure my kids don’t inadvertently hurt someone when they get curious about sex?” And my personal favorite: “Isn’t everyone just being too hard on Josh Duggar? It’s unfair, he was just curious and experimenting.” 

We will get to all of these questions today, but on that last one…no, people. Just NO. I mean, I’m sure he was curious, but psychopaths are often curious about what the inside of your organs look like. It doesn’t mean we excuse their behavior when they pull out your liver. 

It’s not simple curiosity. He snuck into his sisters’ bedroom in the middle of the night so he could touch them without consent or repercussion. He’s ill. He needs help. But that doesn’t mean that he should be our focus today.

I understand the situation and your concerns about poor little Joshy Duggar. I do. 

I understand that these behaviors are often modeled, and that most abusers are exposed to inappropriate sexual things and believe them to be normal1

I understand that because of this modeling issue, very young boys who sexually abuse others are well aware of how to target the more vulnerable children and groom a victim to be abused and keep the secret1

I understand that young boys who sexually abuse others often come from homes where abuse, violence and neglect have become routine over generations1. That these children act out to seek safety in controlling another, smaller child, as a way to avoid the fear of being vulnerable. (This is common in female abusers as well.)

I understand that when children remain in unhealthy environments and never experience appropriate parenting, these patterns of fear and vulnerability persist through adulthood as do the only patterns of behavior that make them feel safe during sexual acts: dominance over someone weaker who cannot harm them1,4.

I understand that a third of all sex offenders carry out their first assault before age 181

I know that the earlier the intervention (especially before puberty), the less likely that those patterns will be fixed in the brain of the child, leading them to be abusive or violent adults1. I understand that at this juncture, Josh Duggar is a grown person who has never had appropriate assistance and that those patterns are fixed enough for me to be far more worried about his daughters and any other children around him. I don’t give a damn if that’s “fair.” It’s less unfair than being trapped in a house with someone who touches you while you sleep. 

I also understand that there are often numerous opportunities to intervene that are missed by teachers, social workers and doctors1. Or in Josh Duggar’s case, the issue was clearly identified and instead of being responsible, his parents actively decided against appropriate help. Not that they’re all that special in that regard; 95% of child sexual abuse is not disclosed to authorities2.

Ninety-five fucking percent. I understand it, but that shit makes me severely stabby. So before I take out someone’s liver, let’s check out the rest of these issues. There is more to discuss here, both in the context of keeping our children safe and in ensuring that they get the best start towards not abusing anyone else. 

Healthy Experimentation Vs. Sexual Predation

Many children experiment sexually with siblings, cousins or friends, and it can be normal and healthy for all involved. Younger children often play with their bodies and don’t care who sees it. We can hardly call this exhibitionism or even masturbation. Children can be taught kindly and gently to respect their privacy and the privacy of others without shame or negativity. Children of comparable ages may also play games such as “Doctor” where all parties are consenting and there is no unwanted verbal harassment, touching or other unwanted sexual contact.

Issues tend to arise when kids of vastly different ages and developmental levels play these games or where younger children are coerced into playing despite their discomfort. Normal experimentation does not involve coercion. Healthy exploration doesn’t involve shame and guilt. Most children approach these activities as they would any other game; with interest and curiosity, and CONSENT—not with hidden agendas or plans to trick other kids into playing against their will. This is generally where healthy experimentation crosses the line into abuse, though there clearly can be extenuating circumstances (such as statutory rape cases) that would be abusive even with consent.

But herein lie some of our issues as a nation. There are many children who are afraid to say no or who feel they don’t have a right to dissent when the perpetrator is bigger than them. And some of us teach this at home without realizing it. 

Body Autonomy, No Means No and “Just Give Grandma a Kiss” 

It is important that your children feel comfortable setting boundaries and that they see you setting boundaries as well. Allow privacy for dressing, bathing, etc at whatever level the individuals involved are comfortable with. Some brothers want to dress alone. Some would rather pee in the same toilet at the same time because sword fights are more exciting. Gross perhaps, but fine as long as the children are both comfortable and the actions are developmentally appropriate.

But letting a kid close a door or vocalize their preferences for who gets to see them naked is the easy part. The rest can get a little tricky when, say, your mother in law gets her feelings hurt. Some of you will have a problem with this, but it’s really important: children need to be in charge of their bodies and this includes what type of affection they give to who.

My five year old has recently decided that he hates kisses. Do I want to kiss his cute little nose so badly I could scream? Well, yeah. But he has a right to say, “No,” to me and to anyone else who might want to touch him in a way he’s not on board with. This means if he doesn’t want to dole out hugs after an argument with his brother, he doesn’t have to. This means if his grandparents want to hug him and he’s not down with it, I step in and say, “That’s his body and he doesn’t want to hug you right now.” There is no coercion in our home, no, “Come on, just give grandma one little kiss because she’ll be sad if you don’t.” Kids don't always focus on the “Grandma might feel bad” part; they just feel the discomfort and see their caregivers consenting on their behalf. Adults being allowed to do things that children are uncomfortable with is a dangerous precedent to set, especially because 34% of abuse is perpetrated by family members and 59% of child sexual abuse occurs with someone known and trusted by the family3. If they can’t say no to grandma, kids probably won’t feel confident saying no to Pastor Bill or Coach Henry or Babysitter Gertrude. 

“No means no,” can become a part of their vocabulary at an early age, and it works both with their body and with the bodies of other children. If other kids are uncomfortable with something, reminding your child that, “Little Suzy doesn’t want you to hold her hand right now,” or “You can’t force someone to give you the skateboard just because you’re bigger,” goes a long way in establishing that others also have this autonomy. Will they screw up and hug someone who doesn’t feel like being hugged? Well, sure. This respect thing takes time and practice. But learning to respect themselves along with other children is a critical part of avoiding both victimization and victimizing. 

Respect of Women, Fundamentalism and Repression 

This is a tricky one because devaluing women is commonplace within our society, so much so that most don’t even bat an eye. But some of this may lead to more issues with rape and molestation. Only within a culture where her security and choices are devalued can a room of football players rape a drunk girl in her sleep without stopping to think, “Hey this might not be the best idea, fellas.” 

So how did we become such assholes? 

Part of the issue is that men are taught emotions are not only threatening, but emasculating because “manliness” is derived from rigid independence and autonomy. When coupled with the societal ideas that femininity and masculinity are opposites, that femininity is inferior (“You throw like a girl!”) and that emotional connections mean less independence, men are forced to put distance between themselves and the women around them leading to devaluation, according to Dr. Michel Bader in Arousal4.

But within rigid or fundamentalist religious groups, this devaluing of women is even more pronounced, and indeed, dangerous. Josh Duggar not only faced repression of normal sexual urges, but enjoyed a familial view that women are born to be subservient. What keeps him from not touching them if he believes that groping a woman’s body is part of his right as a male? Too bad TLC cameramen missed that shit. If they hadn’t, maybe (though not certainly) you’d have fewer of his sisters ready to hightail it to the alter at the first possible opportunity to avoid living in the same house as their abuser. 

“I’ll get rings from a crackerjack box. Just get me the fuck out of this dysfunctional house.” 

These Duggar girls not only had to contend with the notion that they are “less than” for having a vagina, but they live in a world where healthy, normal, sexuality is so stunted that they have no idea what it’s supposed to look like. The repression of healthy sexual urges, attributing them to “sin” and placing the shame squarely on the head of a child who is having sexual feelings he cannot express or even discuss is the perfect storm for deviant sexual behavior in the short and long term. Repression is unhealthy, neglectful and disastrous, particularly when coupled with an environment of blatant disrespect against one sex because you have a built in population ready for abuse. 

This is not about bashing religion; this is about long-term sexual health. And many men and women have absolutely no idea what that looks like. 

Healthy Sexual Information and Trust Building

Healthy sex starts young. From the time kids can speak, they should know the real names for body parts. If you have issues with that, chew on this: those who victimize kids understand this issue well. Molesters often won’t use “penis” or “vagina” when grooming your kid for abuse. If your children start calling their vagina a “flower blossom” or their penis a “staff of sin” you’ll know it came from elsewhere and can intervene. Likewise, young children should know the difference between “normal touch” such as mom or dad helping them bathe, and “inappropriate touch” such as a stranger touching their vagina. Children should be encouraged to tell immediately if any of the inappropriate touching you outline occurs and should be informed that anyone who tells them to keep secrets from mommy or daddy needs to be called out as well. 

Sex shouldn’t be a secret. As children age, acknowledging that they will have desires and that they have choices will go a long way in establishing autonomy and heathy sexual decision making. Children need to know that you can be trusted to remain calm with even the most embarrassing or difficult of topics. Kids need to know that it’s okay to feel “sexual” or have sexual thoughts about others. That it isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t mean they will act on it; it means there is a great opportunity for additional lessons about ways to express these desires safely and consensually (or alone). 

“Here…I got you this extra pack of tube socks, son.”

This latter part of the conversation will obviously vary greatly depending on familial norms, but if your main plan is a chastity ball and a promise ring, I urge you to reconsider for the health of your children. At least provide them with another safe adult to speak to outside of yourself to ensure they have access to accurate, healthy information. “You put a penis in a vagina, but only after you’re married,” is a stunted view of human sexuality, and one that has consequences. Abstinence-only education is largely inaccurate and leaves kids ill equipped if they find themselves wanting to pursue sex. And contrary to popular belief, abstinence-only education doesn’t stop anyone from screwing in the back of a Chevy. 

Don’t leave it all up to health class, either. Your kids need to hear you talk about it if you want them to come to you about it. Plus, there are ways to make it fun. My mom always used to say, “If you love it, glove it.” She would also use current events or things we said around the dinner table to bring up difficult topics. “Oh, I’m so sorry someone at school is being bullied for being gay. I hope you’ve found a way to intervene and help them. And just so you know, if any of you were gay, I’d love you just the same.”  We would shake our heads and say, “Well, DUH, mom,” but in hindsight it was a pretty great tactic to maintain open conversation during the tumultuous teenage years.

This trust and conversation thing won’t just be in the sexual realm: kids taught that their parents will dismiss their concerns about who took their toys, about friends, about school will not come to their folks when they are concerned about sex. If you want them to come to you for the big things, you need to be there for the small ones. To a child, they’ve all been big things. 

This will matter later when there are issues that are big things to you. One of our biggest household rules is “You won’t get in trouble s long as you tell the truth.” While this may seem a dangerous precedent to set, emphasizing the importance of truth and communication early is worth any lip biting I might have to do over the years when I want to get all upset about something they did. This is much the way I was raised. I told my mom when I was in fourth grade and had my first sexual thoughts. When I was fifteen and snuck out to a party, I called my father to come get me when I got uncomfortable. I answered a few questions on the ride home: “Were there drugs and alcohol?” Yes. “Where were your friends?” In the bedrooms with boys. He said he was proud of me for calling and white knuckled it home. I trusted my parents the same when I was five as I did when I was fifteen as I did when I was twenty five. It’s a pattern of behavior. It is difficult to go from strict elementary disciplinarian to teen confidant and back again very effectively. Trust—or conversely fear—stick around. 

Start talking about sex as early as makes sense for your child. And keep the conversation going from penises and vaginas to “What’s that hair there for?” to bodily smells and emotional consequences and oral sex and orgasm. Sexual education doesn’t take place during “The Big Talk.” It’s  series of smaller learning experiences where kids can ask questions and feel comfortable with your answers. If you wait until puberty, you’re too late for either the information giving or for that trusting communication thing. 

Is My Child Being Abused?

This is the biggest concern for many parents. How would I know? Would they tell me? While some kids can be a little secretive (or frightened), there are a few warning signs you can look out for.

Non-specific Stress Signals in Children:

  • Withdrawal from you or the family
  • Becoming clingy or throwing a fit when you must be separated
  • Anger outbursts
  • Nightmares or sleeping problems 
  • Changes in eating habits (too much or too little)
  • Regression to younger behaviors (bedwetting, etc.)
  • Self harming behaviors
  • Running away (usually older children)

Warning Signs Specific to Abuse:

  • Acting out sexual scenes with toys or objects
  • Sexual behaviors that are inappropriate for age (dry humping, etc.)
  • Using unfamiliar words for body parts, from “flower petal” to “cock”
  • Discomfort or bruising around private parts or mouth
  • Talking about an older friend caregivers are not aware of
  • Talking about someone who consistently tells them that they are “special” (again, not concerning in all cases, but the grooming process often involves singling children out in this way to build trust)
  • Unexplained money or gifts
  • Sudden fear of certain places or people (though this can also be common with the onset of panic attacks or other issues)

And if your older child is preoccupied with the sexual habits of younger children, insists on playing with or near much younger children, shows private parts to younger children, refers to children with words like “sexy” or is showing signs of sexual obsessiveness—such as looking at child pornography or continuous masturbation that affects other aspects of their life—you will want to get them assistance as well, whether or not you suspect they have actually touched anyone else.   

Both victims and perpetrators benefit from early intervention. For victims, finding ways to process the abuse is critical to avoid more severe symptoms in the long term. Perpetrators need to be taught alternative behaviors and self control tactics and must undergo treatment to get at the root of the issue, which is usually control and possibly a history of victimization. 

Most of our children will be safe, but it is critical that we pay attention to our children and to the people around them since the abusers are most often someone we trust. Outside of paying attention to the people our children are with and teaching healthy sexuality, we need to offer assistance at every turn to victims and perpetrators alike before patterns of emotional upheaval and abuse become ingrained and persistent. Unlike the Duggars, we don’t need someone to cancel our television show before we actually fucking DO something. 

While perpetrators and victims all need help to get back on track, today let us consider the five girls Josh Duggar abused. Let us focus on protecting them instead of protecting him or covering up the fact that he ignored mutual consent in favor of abusing someone with less power to suit his will. Simple curiosity doesn’t mean coercion. It doesn’t mean shame or manipulation or disrespect. It doesn’t mean abuse. To the girls he hurt, it’s not your fault. To the women and men reading this now, wondering what they did to deserve abuse, it wasn’t your fault. Blame lies with the perpetrators. And it’s high time we stopped making excuses and called them out. 

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