What the Church Must Learn from Josh Duggar

Facade of a church, East Meredith, New York State, USA
Facade of a church, East Meredith, New York State, USA

While the world was busy laughing at John Oliver's expose on sex-ed, I sat on my couch and cringed. I, and others who spent their teen years steeped in purity culture, were all too familiar with the metaphors that leave a person feeling used up and worthless.

I was lucky enough to have parents that instilled a healthy version of sexuality. While many youth group parents were lobbying to have us read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, my mom pulled me aside to let me know that she thought kissing in high school was totally fine, and kind of fun. But whether my mom wanted me to or not, I still learned a lot of damaging lessons about sex from the church.

I am not the only one. Among the hordes of evangelical-raised teenagers is Josh Duggar. While I had a pretty standard American upbringing and his was more extreme, we both hit the youth group scene at the height of purity culture. I had the benefit of comprehensive sex-ed via public school, but we both learned a lot of the same lessons about sex.

Some will say that the Duggars are an extreme brand of Christianity, and Josh Duggar is an extreme brand of sex addict, and maybe all of that is true, but when looking at the facts, it seems pretty clear to me that the lessons we learned in youth group only made matters worse.

Once You are Bad, You are Ruined: Yup, you read that correctly. I learned through metaphors about having sex making you like a chewed piece of gum, or a piece of tape that had been repeatedly re-used or a rose that had all the petals picked off -- that if I lost my virginity, or went too far and was no longer pure, I couldn't ever get that back. I am in NO WAY excusing Duggar's behavior, but if he had sex with a woman outside of marriage (and we know he did) then why stop at one? Once you are dirty you are dirty, you can't ever be pure again so why try?

I think the "you can't ever take this back" narrative is aimed at teens who are presumed to be sexually inexperienced, but it continues to damage. Once you get married, purity culture figures they don't ever have to talk to you about sex again, you are too busy making babies. So, if all you have ever heard is that once you are "bad" you are "ruined" then there is no distinction between one bad decision and two Ashley Madison accounts. Both make you equally impure.

Men are Built That Way: You have no idea how many times I was told that the reason I needed to keep my shorts long and my necklines high was that men were hardwired to objectify me. Men can't help it. God designed them to be visual creatures who crave sex. Boys are taught in youth group that they are not in control of their own bodies. They are helpless to their hormones and they are unable to not act on them. No one actually says this explicitly, but we get a lot of talk about how it is the girls' job to help their brother not to sin. This line of thought continues after youth group and into marriage. Wives are often told in "pre-marital counseling" that if they don't keep their man happy then he will run around on them and it is their fault. Remember, men can't help it. The terrible female temptresses lead men astray.

All Sex Outside of Marriage is Equally Bad: In evangelical churches, teens are told that sex is a very black and white issue. Either you are married and it is okay, or you are not, and it isn't. So consent isn't even a thing worth mentioning. The answer to sex outside of marriage is no. You get no information about what consent is because you aren't supposed to be giving it anyway. Having sex with someone who wants to have sex with you is as bad as having sex with someone who does not want to have sex with you. You know, rape. Even lust is seen in much the same lens. Having sexual thoughts because you hid a Victoria Secret catalog under your bed, and having sexual thoughts because you are touching someone who is asleep, and therefore not consenting, are both having lustful thoughts about someone who is not your spouse. Nothing about honoring another person's body or decisions is ever mentioned because it doesn't matter. The only categories are married or not married sex.

The church needs to do better educating their teens and replacing these harmful messages with helpful ones.

Your worth is irrevocable: The church needs to teach that each person is made in the image of God, that your body right now is beautifully and wonderfully made. Nothing can change that. Nothing can change how worthy and wonderful God thinks you are, and nothing can change how much God loves you. By explaining to teens how amazing God's creation is, and how amazing their sexuality is, we can empower teens to make good decisions about their bodies, and encourage them to respect the bodies and sexuality of their peers. Currently many churches are scaring (and scarring) teens into keeping their pants on with limited success. The church has no better rate of abstinence as the general population, and often leaves married couples with weird purity baggage even after sex is allowed and encouraged.

You are always in charge of yourself: Normal bodily attraction is just that, totally normal. You aren't lusting just because you noticed. But you ARE in charge of your inner fantasy thought life, and you are in charge of your behavior. Always. You also, are never in charge of someone else's behavior. You did not make them lust after you based on your outfit and you certainly did not make them touch you in a way you did not want. That is always on them and is not your fault. Everyone is in charge of his or her own body, and anyone who suggests otherwise is wrong.

Consent is mandatory: Healthy and godly sexual expressions always involve two consenting people. If one person doesn't want to do it, it is a no go. If you aren't sure, check. Yes, even within marriage. Just because you put a ring on it, does not mean you can put your thing in it whenever you want. If someone is uncomfortable with something you need to stop. Talk it out. This should not include talking someone into something they don't want to do. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex with a person, maybe you shouldn't be having sex with that person. If the church instills a healthy respect for the way God created bodies and sexuality, teaching about consent is the next logical step.