The media coverage of Josh Duggar’s alleged acts of sexual abuse when he was a teenager continues to be fascinating. There are so many individual aspects on which people are focusing, from attacks on homeschooling – or at the very least, the Conservative Christian curriculum used to teach Duggar and his siblings about sexuality and relationships – to the creation of a fast list of Republican politicians who have been connected with the family over the years (and who are now running for cover), to a kind of morbid delight that a family that claims to be living a wholesome lifestyle for others to emulate is not so wholesome after all.
Although we are living in a culture right now that values the drama of “reality” tv, there is no delight to be had in what happened to Duggar, or, more important, to the young people he molested. But there are many lessons to be learned from what happened. What stands out to me is how Josh Duggar is a prime example of what can happen when parents and schools do not talk openly, honestly and directly to young people about sexuality.
Duggar’s “Sex Ed”: Full of Misinformation and Stereotypes
The Duggar family’s homeschool program – which was not developed by sexuality experts or based on theory or research – reinforced some extremely harmful attitudes and behaviors. It teaches that sometimes a sexual abuse or assault victim might be at fault because of how they (implicit: she) behaved or dressed. This is absolutely untrue. It provided a case study in which the reason given for why a boy sexually abused his younger sister was that he was asked to change her diapers (translation: don’t have boys/men do “girl” or “women” things). This is equally untrue. These are only two examples from the program, which also reinforces gender role stereotypes in a naïve and misguided attempt to ensure young people’s heterosexuality.
Now, this curriculum is not the sole reason why Josh did what he did. There are young people who abuse other children who have not gone through that particular program.
It does represent, however, the climate in which he was raised, and the messaging he received growing up. Given that, it is clear that real sexuality education could have helped him, and certainly would help others. Sexuality education experts know that the interactions between human beings are far more complex and complicated than the overly simplistic way in which they are addressed in the program he received, or in the other bafflingly well-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage resources currently available.
Teaching about Power in Relationships
Real sexuality education talks openly and honestly about power inequality in relationships and interactions, whether due to age or social role or other factors, and teaches the people with the power in those situation how not to take advantage of others, rather than blaming the victims of abuse and assault.
Effective Communication is a Skill
Real sexuality education teaches young people how to communicate openly, directly and assertively. Communicating about needs is easy for young people. Communicating about wants and desires, however, is quite different. It is a nuanced skill that many adults don’t do particularly well-yet they have the unrealistic expectation that young people should be able to do so. Now add the complexity of a power differential, such as an age difference. Or the message many young people receive that any kind of attention from another person, even if it feels weird or wrong, is still attention and therefore to be desired. Sexuality education does not teach communication skills exclusively through the lens of how to tell someone you don’t want to have sex, it teaches young people that it is not an all-or-nothing decision. It teaches them how to set boundaries – for example, “I don’t want to have sex yet, but I’m okay doing this” – and how to respect others’ boundaries.
What Can We Do Better in the Future?
Clearly, sexuality education must be comprehensive in scope. It must be about more than sexual behaviors and disease and/or pregnancy prevention; it cannot be a one-shot conversation or presentation. We need to talk, and we need to keep talking:
1. Parents need to talk with their children from the earliest ages. Specifically, they need to tell their kids they should not let others touch their genitals – AND that they should not do this to others.
2. Schools need to start talking with students about sexuality earlier, with well-trained teachers and counselors working in partnership with parents.
3. Our culture must stop talking to girls as if they are the moral gatekeepers of sexual interactions. Our culture must stop pressuring boys to always want to have sex, and to do anything they can to get it. We must combat the hyper-masculinization of our boys and young men, which is as harmful to them as it is to girls and young women. We must break the cycle of socialization wherein a sexual encounter is seen as something to get away with, rather than something for two people to be a part of for mutual satisfaction.
But more on that in another blog post…