I watched in horror along with most of America as "19 Kids and Counting" parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar talked about their son, Josh's, molestation of their young daughters. Josh has admitted to sexually abusing five young girls, including his sisters, Jessa and Jill. And a recently-released police report shows that Josh told his father on three occasions that he sexually abused four of his sisters as well as a family friend.
Yet, horrifically, Jim Bob claims that, "This wasn't rape or anything like that. This was touching over the clothes." This perception that touching is somehow less traumatic that penetration is not only false, it is incredibly damaging to victims, and helps perpetuate a culture of victim-blaming and lack of accountability for perpetrators. The fact is that children who are sexually abused often face lifelong consequences, whether or not that abuse involved penetration.
Each victim's experience and response is unique, but common impacts of child sexual abuse include guilt, shame, depression, sleep disorders, difficulty trusting, low self-esteem, flashbacks, disassociation, eating disorders, substance abuse and difficulty forming intimate relationships.
And, as the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network states, "The reaction of a survivor's friends and family to the disclosure of the abuse also has the potential to trigger immense feelings of guilt, shame and distrust, particularly if those individuals denied that the abuse was taking place, or chose to ignore it."
Disbelief and minimization by family members is often very re-traumatizing to victims, and can make the impact of the abuse far worse and longer lasting. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And for me, my family's reaction was as painful and destructive as the abuse itself.
I was 15 years old when I disclosed sexual abuse by a family member -- my step-grandfather. Like many victims, my disclosure was first met with disbelief. My grandmother told me I was lying and kicked me out of the house. Years later, as I tried to rebuild connections with my family, my mother eventually admitted that she believed me, and knew I was telling the truth. But, she said that I should "just get over it," since "it's not like he raped you or anything."
This "it wasn't really rape" claim is one of the most damaging forms of victim-blaming and minimization. It causes victims to doubt their own feelings and memories, and to feel ashamed for being so hurt by the abuse.
In my experience, while it is true that there had not been penetration (that I remember), I was violated by someone whom I loved and trusted -- as were Josh Duggar's sisters. This type of betrayal is just as painful as rape by a stranger, sometimes more so.
In fact, two years after I left home, I was raped by an acquaintance in college. And while this act did involve penetration and was very traumatic, it did not have the same lasting impact on me as the abuse by my grandfather. The specific act that was committed is not as important as the impact it created.
This is not at all intended to downplay the impact of rape by a stranger, acquaintance or anyone else. All sexual assault is traumatic. Each victim's experience is unique, and each reaction will be different. It's impossible to say what type of sexual violence is worse or will be more damaging. And that's truly not up to us to decide.
The fact is that any sexual touching or behavior without someone's consent, or before someone is old enough to consent, is sexual assault. Period. All perpetrators need to be held accountable. And all victims need to be believed and supported.
I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse for 15 years. And many of the survivors I speak with are afraid to come forward because they have been told that what happened to them was "not really rape." They doubt their own definition of their own experience, because they have been told they are overreacting.
We have to stop diluting rape and telling victims that only some acts are bad enough to justify outrage. We have to stop trying to define someone's experience for them, because we simply don't want to -- or can't handle -- the painful truth. All sexual assault is wrong, painful, damaging and illegal.
Jessa, Josh's younger sister and one of his victims, is defending her brother. She has stated that referring to Josh as a child molester is "so overboard and a lie." It doesn't matter whether Jessa sees -- or is ready to see -- her brother as a perpetrator. The fact is that what he did is not just a "mistake," as his parents claim, it was a crime -- multiple crimes. Sending him away to work for a summer is not an adequate punishment. It will not change his behavior. And it certainly will not help his sisters, and other victims, heal.
I cannot imagine how agonizing it must be to know that several of your daughters were sexually abused, and the perpetrator is your own son. I am sure this is very difficult for the entire Duggar family. And I imagine the desire to defend their son is strong, as it would be for any parent. But, to defend one child at the expense of your other children is tragic and unacceptable.
Children (and adults) who are sexually abused or assaulted need to know that they are believed, that the abuse was not their fault, and that they have support from friends and family. Having your experience validated is one of the most important steps toward healing and surviving. I can only hope that Jill, Jessa, and the other victims receive this support from someone, if not from their own parents, very soon.
To Jessa, Jill, and all survivors of all forms of sexual violence: I believe you. It was not your fault. And you are not alone.
If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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