When I was 18, I attended a large gathering of evangelical Christians, just as I had every summer through high school. I looked forward to this event each year – my friends and I spent the hot August days wandering the theme park where the festival was held, going on rides and listening to our favorite Christian bands. We also attended talks and workshops held by various pastors and speakers, each encouraging us to be good evangelical youth, and damning us for our inevitable sins.
Normally, this wasn’t too distressing for me — I could hardly be described as rebellious or a troublemaker. That is, until one particular speaker on one particular August day. He spent what felt like hours railing against the sins of premarital sex and masturbation — according to his warnings, even contemplating the existence of such things was dangerous. He told us over and over how deeply we hurt Jesus when we engaged in sexual acts outside of marriage. I had sat through a great many similar workshops in my time in the evangelical community with no discomfort – I could take emotional altar calls and visions of damnation without a sweat – but suddenly I was squirming. My heart raced, throat tightened, and I could feel myself getting tunnel vision. I felt like vomiting. The problem? Just weeks before, I had had sex with my boyfriend for the first time.
I found myself reflecting back on that day recently, in the heat of another August day, as the news of the Ashley Madison email leak revealed that Josh Duggar, the eldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting fame, had pursued extramarital relationships on the site. Duggar has had a rough summer. In May, he and his family admitted that as a teen, he had molested his sisters and other girls, and rumors have swirled since that there were other skeletons in the Duggar family closet. It turns out those rumors were true – this week, Josh Duggar and his family revealed that he had two different paid accounts on Ashley Madison, the hacked website dedicated to facilitating extramarital affairs, that he had cheated on his wife Anna, and that he had a problem with pornography. According to one version of his apology letter, he explained his actions by saying he had “allowed Satan to build a fortress” in his heart.
I think it’s fair to say that almost no one, at least outside of the fundamentalist Christian world, was all that shocked at the newest Josh Duggar revelations. We’ve become accustomed to hearing about the sex scandals of prominent Christian leaders, dating back decades (such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard, just to name a very, very few). Of course, much of this non-surprise is because of the deliciously perfect hypocrisy of it all. But for me, the lack of surprise came back to the heart of why I felt myself on the cusp of a panic attack as a teenager in that anti-sex sermon. Sure, it’s rage-inducingly two-faced of Josh Duggar, family values activist, to be a child-molesting, cheating porn addict – but it’s also, in its own nauseating way, sad.
In the years before I lost my virginity, I had tortured myself over my sexuality. Everything I read in my Bible studies or heard in sermons told me I was sinful. I prayed fervently for help from God to control my teenage lust. Instead of enjoying my first love, I made myself sick worrying that my non-religious, sexually experienced boyfriend would certainly not want to stay with a prudish Christian virgin. When I did let him touch me, I felt dirty and immoral. I learned to treat my body as an enemy, a temptress that had no relationship to my rational self. When I did decide to have sex, I was even more torn: I enjoyed it, and wanted to do it more – but the thought that I was wounding Jesus, who I loved, made me deeply distressed and disgusted with myself. Why couldn’t I be good, like other, perfect Christian girls?
In the following years, my life changed, but the unhealthy relationship with my body and sexuality did not. I moved further from evangelical religion; I dated and made friends who were not religious. I became a feminist and learned to talk about sex in an empowering, positive way. But they were only words: the years of convincing myself I was disgusting and sinful left deep scars. Though I was sexually active, I also believed, somewhere deep inside myself, that sex was wrong. That feeling led me to accept deeply unhealthy relationships, which compounded the problem. Even after I met and married my spouse, those scars continued to seep their poison. It took years of marriage and hundreds of hours talking and crying and fighting to feel happy and comfortable in the most intimate aspects of a relationship.
To me, it’s not a surprise that Josh Duggar has an unhealthy, even criminal, relationship with his sexuality, not because it’s delightfully hypocritical, but because he was raised in a society that takes a normal part of human life and twists it into something immoral and repulsive. I imagine he was taught that the normal sexual feelings he experienced growing up were a sign of moral depravity or the devil’s threatening influence, and that he needed to fight them. But that kind of repression doesn’t work. The more I tried to suppress my normal teenage sexuality, the more I failed, and the more tortured I became. Josh Duggar probably experienced something similar – though, perhaps more serious. His sexual repression bled out and led to illegal molestation, secret pornography addictions and extramarital affairs. The fact is that the sexual repression enforced by evangelical Christianity makes hypocrites of all involved.
In the end, I was a lot more fortunate than Josh Duggar: I could escape. I reevaluated my relationship with God and Christianity, found a faith that better aligned with my values, and worked hard to heal my sexual scars. I’m afraid Josh Duggar – and perhaps more tragically, his wife and sisters — won’t have the same freedom.
Vyckie Garrison, “My Conservative Christian Nightmare: I Spent 16 Years in an Abusive Religious Sect.”
Brooke Arnold, “I Could Have Been a Duggar Wife: I Grew Up in the Same Church, and The Abuse Scandal Doesn’t Shock Me.”
David Johnson & Jeffrey VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing & Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church (Bloomington: Bethany House Publishing, 1991).