*Please note – this analysis was written prior to the recent discovery that Josh Duggar was exposed in the so-called Ashley Madison hack scandal.
In mid-May, news broke that the oldest of the Duggar siblings (of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting fame), Josh, had been accused of sexually assaulting five girls when he was 14 years old, four of which were his younger sisters. The internet has been rife with finger-pointing and side-choosing in the wake of the news, dug up from old police reports recently made public. Some have been quick to condemn the eldest Duggar as a sexual predator, while others feel he is being wrongly persecuted for youthful indiscretions.
The allegations against Josh Duggar are difficult for most to understand in isolation because they are layered with our own beliefs about gender norms (“boys will be boys”) and religion (“hypocrites!”). We think that based on the police report, neither side is wholly right in their judgment of the situation, and science has a lot to say about what happened, and whether it was “normal” or not. In this post, as much as possible, I want to look at the facts and just the facts and remove the layers of politics and religion from the story.
Let’s lay out the facts as we know them from the police report released by the Springdale, Arkansas police department:
- Josh was 14 when the alleged incidents began, and authorities identified his known victims as ranging in age from 5-11 years at the time.
- Police say four of his victims were his younger sisters. Most were sleeping at the time Josh was alleged to have fondled their breasts and genitals. One incident allegedly happened when he was reading to one of his sisters. The other alleged incident involved a babysitter who likely would have been older than Josh at the time (also said to have occurred while she was sleeping).
- Reports say that after the second or third incident Josh’s parents made him confess his sins in front of his church and sent him away for several months to help a family friend with construction; it does not appear he received counseling at this time.
- Upon his return, reports say that his parents welcomed him back into the house, but it is unclear if any conditions were set or if he was being more closely monitored.
First, regardless of gender, it is natural and normal for teens and tweens to be sexually curious, as uncomfortable as that often makes their parents. It’s also normal for kids this age to be interested in their own bodies and the bodies of the opposite gender. There’s also nothing abnormal with masturbation or consensual kissing and sexual touching at this age.
What is abnormal is to exercise that curiosity when the other party is either unable or does not consent to sexual play. In Josh’s case, his sisters were all sleeping when he allegedly fondled their breasts and genitals (with the exception of one incident). Obviously, as they were asleep they could not consent to sexual play. This is the part that concerns me, and that the scientific literature doesn’t support as being “normal.”
What also sticks out is that Josh’s victims weren’t his peers, there were significant age gaps (he was older) in all but the babysitter. His oldest sister was 12 at the time of the assaults and she reports that Josh never touched her inappropriately. This is where we see another level of predatory behavior happening. It’s common for predators to choose victims they feel they can safely control and this often means younger children. In this sense, Josh fits into the bell curve of most teenage sexual abusers.
So now that we’ve established Josh’s reported behavior towards his sisters fits the clinical description of sexual assault, what about how his parents handled the situation? The police report makes clear that while Josh was sent away for three months, he did not receive clinical counseling at this time. This is important as a psychological evaluation and psychotherapy, specifically Multisystemic Therapy, are effective at reducing recidivism rates among juvenile sexual offenders.
Jim-Bob and Michelle’s decision to let him back into the house has also been controversial among many and we understand why. Many parents empathize with the Duggar’s situation: their son, the predator, was a minor, as were their daughters, the victims. Were Josh’s parents between a rock and hard place? Did they have to choose between their son’s future and the safety of their daughters? The research says that with the proper intervention and careful supervision, certain juvenile sex offenders can return to live in the same family home as their victims. But, again, it’s unclear if any conditions were placed on Josh when he returned home and we know that at the time of the incidents he did not receive the standard of care.
What I do want to take off the table here is the idea that because Josh was a minor at the time the incidents happened, that it somehow makes the sexual assaults less “real.” Minors (those under the age of 18) can and do commit sexual crimes, in fact they account for 35% of known sexual crimes. His age may make him less culpable in regards to legal consequences, but it doesn’t mean the experience was less real for his victims.
While it is clear from the police report that Josh was likely of low-risk to reoffend with the proper intervention, it also doesn’t appear he received any form of formal, psychological treatment. According to reports, the Duggars initially told police that Josh had been sent to a treatment center, but the parents later admitted to police that he was sent away to help a family friend on a construction site.
While what Josh did to his sisters 12 years ago fits the profile of sexual abuse and we know that his parents didn’t seek the standard of care for him, does that make him currently at risk to sexually abuse again? The research says, maybe, maybe not. Minors that commit sex offenses, have a sexual offense recidivism rate of 7-13% as adults compared to 5-24% of those that offend as adults.* Statistically speaking, if there hasn’t been an incident in the last 12 years, it’s more likely that he won’t reoffend.
Tomorrow, we discuss the impact Josh’s actions may have had on his victims (Editor’s note – those articles can be found here and here).
*Note: it is extremely difficult to accurately measure re-offense and recidivism rates for sexual offenders.
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