This week, two seemingly unrelated incidents happened in the world of female sexuality and the media.
On May 23, 2014, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. According to his autobiographic manifesto, Rodger’s killing spree was motivated by the fact that women had been rejecting him sexually. It seems that he literally felt entitled to access to the bodies of these women, a belief that was reinforced by the”men’s rights activism” rhetoric he was reading.
In response to Rodger’s killing, women all over the world started tweeting their own experiences under the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Their point: Rodger’s killing wasn’t the case of an isolated nut job. Women everywhere encounter men who think that they are entitled to access to women’s bodies. Here are just a few examples of the many, many tweets:
Meanwhile, on 19 Kids and Counting, a small act of rebellion was committed by Jill Duggar, the 22-year-old daughter in this very public right-wing Christian family. You see, at the time of filming, Jill Duggar was courting a young man named Derick Dillard. (They are now engaged.) In the Duggar family, daughters are not “allowed” any physical contact with their suitors other than a brief side hug. Frontal hugs are off limits. Couples are “allowed” to hold hands after their engagement, and are “allowed” to kiss for the first time at their wedding ceremony.
And yet, on 19 Kids and Counting, there was a small, but perhaps not entirely insignificant, act of rebellion. Derick returned from a long trip abroad, and Jill was there to greet him at the airport with her entire family. Derick and Jill eagerly approached each other from opposite sides of the security barrier. Jill ran a little too far into the security zone, and the alarm went off. This turned out to be a unusual moment of spontaneous reality TV gold, because as the buzzers went off, Derick and Jill dove in for an actual frontal contact hug. Her parents were none too happy.
Now, please let me get this straight. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to abstain from sex, kissing, or anything else before marriage. The #YesAllWomen tweeters would most certainly agree. A man is not entitled to any physical contact with a woman that she does not want to share, whether those reasons have to do with her religious beliefs or something else. A woman’s body belongs to no one but her own self.
But that’s what’s so disturbing about 19 Kids and Counting (and about the Quiverfull movement they belong to and other similar movement) is that the message is not that women own their own bodies and control their own sexualities. The message is that their fathers control their daughters’ sexuality until these daughters are “given away” to their husbands, who then take control.
Think I’m exaggerating? The degree to which the Duggars, and especially Jim Bob, exercise control over their daughters’ dating experiences is comprehensive. Jim Bob must approve all “courtship” partners for his adult daughters. No, we’re not talking about a dad setting limits on who his 15-year-old daughter can date. We’re talking about 22-year-old daughters needing permission. Once a daughter is dating, or even engaged, Duggar girls are never allowed to be alone with their boyfriends. Ever. They always have to have a parent or another sibling along as a “chaperone” to make sure that no physical contact outside of a side hug ever occurs. These girls are not even allowed to have private phone conversations or texts with their boyfriends. To promote “accountability,” the entire Duggar family has access to the texts exchanged between Jill and Derick.
Now, you might ask, isn’t this a choice that Jill is making actively? She is indeed an adult, and if she wants to kiss a boy before marriage or send private texts, what’s stopping her from doing so?
This is absolutely correct, technically. However, the cost of a Duggar child going against the teachings of their parents, and against the entire community to which they’ve been exposed, is enormous. The Duggars have gone through great pains to make sure their children have limited exposure to any ideas outside their own — including to the more mainstream Christian lifestyle choices that the majority of American Christians make. They are all homeschooled. None of the adult children have left the house to go to college or to get a job, except for the oldest boy, who’s married. The family only socializes with other families with very similar values. The Internet is censored to about 70 websites for the younger children and for the adult children, which means no access to “subversive” ideas. So yes, Jill Duggar could leave the house and go to college and kiss boys and even wear pants (which the Duggar girls do not), but the Duggars have gone through great pains to make this level of free will enormously painful and unlikely.
And the children — including the adult children — rarely leave the house alone. There’s no, “Mom, I’m going to the mall with Katie.” The Duggars always bring a sibling along to make sure they act in accordance with their parents’ wishes. A few years ago, oldest daughter Jana left alone to speak at a retreat for young Christian women, and her parents made a big deal about how proud they were to send their daughter off alone into the world for the first time. Jana was 22.
I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with parents teaching their daughters about sexual morality, and that there is nothing wrong with teaching the belief that sex (or even kissing) should be reserved for marriage. Every parent teaches their children about morality, myself included, and we all hope these lessons will stick. And when our children are growing up, we can indeed impose rules about things like dating. I’ve already had a conversation with my eight-year-old involving a skimpy purple bikini. She was none to happy with me when I refused to buy her the bikini.
But when our daughters grow up, they can wear whatever purple bikinis they want, and they can make their own decisions about sexual morality because they are the owners of their own bodies. And yet this is exactly what Jim Bob Duggar, and others in the Christian patriarchy movement, are trying to prevent. Just look at the recent popularity of the Purity Ball, a ceremony in which an adolescent girl literally “entrusts her purity” to her father, who is tasked with protecting it until she is married.
Attempting to control women’s bodies and women’s sexuality is wrong — whether we’re talking about a rapist at a frat party or a father who goes through great length to control his adult daughters’ sexual choices. In this way, Jim Bob Duggar isn’t all that different from Elliot Rodger. Eliot believed that he was entitled to make decisions about how women expressed their sexuality. Jim Bob feels the same way about his daughters.