It seems that everywhere I turn lately there is another article about Josh Duggar and his family. Among them are plenty of articles like this one that seek to put the blame on the Duggar lifestyle… the fact that they have lots of kids, the fact that the older girls help with their younger siblings, the fact that they homeschool. They say that Michelle Duggar wasn’t “physically or emotionally available” to her kids because she has so many, that she didn’t teach her kids sex education because she’s a conservative Christian. The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what went on in their home to lead to such a tragic turn of events. The best we have is speculation. Unfortunately, I believe we’re speculating about all the wrong things.
This issue isn’t about how many children we have, or what our religious beliefs are. The real issues aren’t being spoken about (or if they are, they’re not being spoken about nearly often enough by a populace which seems determined to paint the Duggar family lifestyle as the source of the problem.) The heart of this issue isn’t about conservative Christian beliefs or “sex education” or homschooling or having lots of kids. The heart of the problem lies in what we’re teaching our kids… or, rather, what we aren’t teaching them.
Children need to know what sexual abuse is, and they need to learn it from us. They need a safe way to talk about it, a safe person to talk to and permission to ask questions. More than anything, they need to know that abuse can happen to anyone, be caused by anyone and that it is never, ever their fault.
When I was very young, I spent the night with a friend whose much older sister coerced me into participating in sexual activities with her. Then, around the age of 12, I was inappropriately touched by an older relative while in a room full of adults. My mom had taught me about “molestation” when I was younger – she brought it up so much, in fact, that I was often nervous when spending the night in the homes of male relatives. I knew that it happened, and I knew what to do about it. And yet, in each of these circumstances, I never told anyone. And nowhere, in any article I’ve read so far that has recently popped up about these issues – and even on most national child abuse prevention websites – have I seen a single mention of the thing that caused me to stay silent all those years. The thing I’m loathe to mention even now, over 20 years past the experience.
No one ever taught me it might feel good.
I never told my parents – never told anyone – because I felt I’d been a willing participant. The older sister made it seem “fun,” she made me feel like I was participating in something “adult” and the fact that she had sought me out to “play” with her made me feel special. The older man knew exactly what he was doing to make a girl on the brink of sexual maturity feel (physically) good, even though it scared me and felt (emotionally) bad. Looking back through the eyes of an adult, I can see the classic “grooming” behaviors that were going on and I know now that my body’s reaction was normal and that I wasn’t old enough to be a “willing participant” (and that they were way too old for me to be “participating” with.) I know now that you can never be fully willing to participate in something you are manipulated into. You can never be fully willing if your mind is screaming “no,” no matter what your body feels.
So I never told anyone because I convinced myself that I had, somehow, chosen to be molested. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and believed it was my fault. It’s not having a large family or being a Christian or even the lack of “sex education” that allows abusers to abuse… it’s that children aren’t taught that no one should touch them sexually until they are adults and, I would go so far to say (you’ll have to excuse my Christian viewpoint here,) in a marital relationship. They should be taught that abuse comes in many forms and that if it feels wrong – in any sense – it is wrong.
My children and I have been talking about this a lot in the last few days. I thought I’d been doing a lot of things “right” in this regard, but what happened in the Duggar family caused me to dig deeper, evaluate my own past and figure out what it was that happened to me, and why I never told anyone. As we’ve been talking, three more very important things came out that I thought were important enough to mention, publicly.
First – one of my daughters told me that she often feels uncomfortable hugging men – even close friends and relatives, because that is a form of physical contact she’d like to reserve for her husband (and no, we’ve never told her that hugging – in any form – is wrong.) I asked her what she did when someone wanted to hug her, and she told me that she usually just “hugs anyway.”
She didn’t know it was okay to tell someone not to hug her.
How had I missed this?! In all the conversations we’ve had on the subject over the years and especially in the last few days, how is it that my daughter didn’t know she could refuse physical contact that wasn’t comfortable for her???! And it got worse. She went on to ask me if there were any people it would be inappropriate to abstain from hugging. I wanted to see what my kids thought about this, so I asked them to answer, fully expecting them all to say “no.” They didn’t. Instead, they named three people they felt they should never say “no” to, regarding hugs. The reasons they gave were telling:
“It would hurt her feelings”
“He might try to talk me into it”
“She doesn’t get to see us very often.”
In all of those circumstances, my children felt they should do something that felt physically uncomfortable for them, to spare someone else’s feelings.
I explained to them they should never allow anyone to touch them in a way that felt uncomfortable, and that they weren’t responsible for anyone’s feelings but their own. That they should never do anything they didn’t feel comfortable doing, no matter how someone else felt about it. I explained to them that anyone who tried to talk them into doing something they didn’t want to do was practicing evil, and to tell an adult right away if that ever happened. We talked about things they could say if someone tried to hug them (they were all surprised that they could simply say “no” and didn’t need to be polite or give a reason,) and I asked them to let me know how they felt about other physical contact, so I could be sure to protect them from unwanted contact in the future, if needed. Then a second issue came up as we discussed these things that was equally important:
I was explaining to them the need to listen to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. I told them that if they ever felt someone was touching them inappropriately – even if it wasn’t on their “private” parts (and yes, my children know their names,) – they should tell someone they trust immediately. I explained to them if someone touched their hand, or their knee, or even their nose and it “felt funny,” to treat that as a warning and tell someone they trust. “Even if it’s me,” I said. They objected: “YOU?! But we know YOU would never do anything inappropriate!” And that’s when I understood a second issue that can cause children to become victimized:
They’re certain that Uncle/Grandpa/Cousin/Friend So-and-So would “never.”
And they’re right, of course. I would never intentionally do something to make them uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean I would never unintentionally do something that crossed a personal boundary. I explained to them that it didn’t matter whether or not I was intentionally being inappropriate, it’s about whether or not something I was doing felt inappropriate to them. I swear, I could almost see lightbulbs going off in their heads and I suddenly understood something else more fully:
A child who knows their perpetrator may believe that person would never do anything wrong. So they convince themselves that what is happening isn’t wrong.
I helped them to understand that “Uncle Bob” or dear friend “Joe” might not be doing something he feels is wrong (ie. hugging them) but that if it feels wrong to them, they need to tell an adult they trust, so that person knows not to do it anymore. I explained that if they told an adult they trust, that adult can help the other person learn to stay within the boundaries of their personal comfort level. I think understanding this took out any and all confusion on their part as to whether or not something is worthy of being “told.”
One other thing my husband and I did years ago that I don’t often see mentioned is that we made arrangements with a few people our children trust, and our kids know they can talk to these people about anything they need to.
These people have our permission not to tell us whatever our children say to them, and our children know that anything they say to them will remain completely private, even from their parents.
These are all things that I rarely see mentioned in regards to child abuse – some things that (despite research on the subject) I never would have thought to bring up with my children (ie. hugging.) The Duggars are being persecuted on a national level right now and I am sorry for their pain. I pray that some day they will be open enough to publicly analyze what might have gone wrong in their family, so that others can learn from those mistakes. Until then, this situation has opened up the discussion on sexual abuse that has caused our family and many others to look more deeply into what contributes to sexual abuse. For that, I am thankful.