It’s the pictures that keep bothering me. I have tried to avoid the Duggars and their ever-growing family, but I have not been able to avoid the promotional pictures of the Duggars which show up in my world frequently. I suppose this is to be expected given that I am writing a dissertation on the rhetoric of virginity in the contemporary United States. Naturally, the Duggars and their seemingly impeccably pure children come up quite a bit.
Since the news of Josh Duggar’s teenage molestation of younger girls, including his sisters, was revealed early last week those smiling Duggar promo pictures have been haunting me. Now, all I see when I look at them are the victims of molestation being crammed into a family photo with their abuser and the parents that sheltered him while being forced to smile for the cameras.
Since the news broke there have been several insightful articles from many different corners of the web (see this article from Vox for a concise history of the Duggars and their rise to fame). Some pieces have been written by women who grew up in homes affiliated with Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB) or the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), or the Christian purity movement more broadly explaining how and why sexual abuse flourishes in such environments.
Despite these articles and others there is something that remains to be said about the Duggars and how their family affects you. Well, the first thing to understand is that it does affect you—even if you don’t believe it does or don’t want it to. After that, though, there is a nuanced point about gender that we all need to keep in mind when we discuss the Duggars, Josh’s molestation of his sisters, the Quiverfull movement or the politically powerful fundamentalist subculture of purity in the United States today.
Let’s start with a popular misconception about purity culture. Many activists, scholars, and writers will tell you that within purity culture girls pledge their virginities to their fathers. (See here, here, and here for some examples.) Their fathers are then supposed to safeguard the daughters’ virginity until it can be passed off to a husband to whom it will belong. Yes, this is very creepy. However, it is also not quite true and this is one instance in which the details, though subtle, make a very big difference.
Here is the oath from the Generations of Light annual purity ball in Colorado Springs. This is the original purity ball, started by Pastor Randy Wilson in 1999. The oath given at the purity ball reads as follows, “I, (daughter’s name)’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and my family as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.” A little further down on the same page is a note telling interested parties that, if the father is not available to come with a young woman then grandfathers, uncles, brothers or cousins are encouraged while “mothers are also invited.”
If it is not evident enough from the above text, Randy Wilson makes the purpose and intent of purity balls crystal clear in the Channel 4 documentary The Virgin Daughters when he states that the most beautiful moment of the purity ball is the moment when the fathers make the covenant of their daughters’ purity. Randy Wilson is not Josh Duggar. However, they do have close ideological ties. Both work (or in Josh Duggar’s case, recently worked) for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group that, among its other interests, heavily promotes abstinence-only sex education.
The articles linked to above have already pointed out that the Quiverfull movement, IFB and ATI have extremely rigid and repressive gender norms. However, that is only half the story. Indeed rigid gender norms tend to accompany fundamentalism of any type and are not restricted to the Duggars or fundamentalist Christianity. Here is the important difference: when liberal scholars talk about rigid and repressive gender norms, particularly for women, they make the basic assumption that women are people and that repressive gender norms, like other repressive social codes, circumscribe the actions of those people.
This is the mistake: According to the fundamentalist beliefs of the Quiverfull movement, the Generations of Light purity ball (and all the purity balls based on it) and the Family Research Council, Women. Are. Not. People.
Women are objects, controlled and exchanged by men to create and affirm the men’s identities. The Duggars, the Wilsons, IFB and ATI, to varying degrees, belong to the Christian Patriarchy Movement, which, as its name implies, seeks to reinstate God’s “rightful order” of patriarchy in Christian homes.
Return to that oath from the Generations of Light purity ball. It is all about the father’s power and not the daughter’s personhood, sexual or otherwise. In such a context the father’s protection of the daughter doesn’t come down to his love or respect for her as a person but to his need to prove himself as a worthy knight by his ability to protect a precious object. This is why it is not at all incongruous for Jim Bob Duggar, when running for political office, to state that men who commit incest should be killed. The context around such a seemingly ironic statement is a conversation about abortion wherein Jim Bob states that he does not believe in abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He argues that, in such cases, the person who committed the incest should be killed rather than the innocent fetus. There’s no room in this world view for the woman who was raped because she’s not a person to be considered. The two persons of note in this formulation are the man (and in this formulation it is always a man) and the unborn child that must be taken into consideration. The woman is a vessel. The best you can say for the woman in this framework is that the she is a vessel who has been used wrongly by a bad person, meaning a bad man.
At this point, you may be wondering how any of this applies to you. The Duggars and the Wilsons are, to different extents, involved in the Christian Patriarchy movement, but clearly, that’s a fringe movement that has little bearing on the rest of society, right?
I wish. As I mentioned earlier, Randy Wilson and Josh Duggar both work for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group. Among their other interests, FRC advocates and lobbies for abstinence-only education. Hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars have been spent on getting abstinence-only education into public middle and high schools in the past decade. Most troubling is the fact that these abstinence-only programs, often produced by conservative religious organizations, perpetuate the ideals of Christian Patriarchy that women are not people, which robs young adults of the very idea of consent and, in so doing, perpetuates rape culture. Abstinence-only programs have compared women to dirty chocolate and used lollipops. It doesn’t matter whether or not the schools taught this particular part of the curriculum. What matters is that federal tax dollars went into purchasing that curriculum and placing it in our schools and have been doing so for over a decade—a generation of light, indeed.
If you want proof of how subtle and invasive the ideology of Christian Patriarchy is vis-a-vis the Duggars just look at the coverage of the scandal. Expressions of concern for the girls harmed by Josh Duggar are almost perfunctory in mainstream news (Fox News provides a particularly gruesome example) and barely existent in the blogs of ATI and IFB families. Instead, in meeting the Duggars on their own terms, most news outlets have focused on Josh and Jim Bob (and occasionally Michelle) as the notable actors in the story. The girls have all but disappeared. Except, of course, in those disturbing promo pictures that keeping popping up with every new twist and turn, most recently, the Duggar family’s agreement to be interviewed about the scandal.