Josh Duggar brings a new media spin on sexual abuse.  Is he a child molester, is he a child who molested, or is he something different?  The media spotlight is an interesting thing.  It can bring things to light that need to be addressed.  They can also present something in a context that makes it bigger than it is.  Here we have shown a light on an unusually large family that happens to have (had) a TV show that turns out to have a family secret that puts them on par with about 1 in 5 American families.  While I’ve never liked the phrase “inappropriate touching”, child molester doesn’t fit every situation either.

Parental Minimizing

Almost every parent of an accused child will minimize the sexual abuse event.  Part of it is parental instinct to protect, and part of is trying to keep an image in your mind that they were a good parent.  Add the dimension of “incest” and you have an even stronger label that no one wants to be associated with.  Point a media spotlight on the situation and any parent trying to explain their handling of this is probably going to look like an idiot.

In a perfect world I would see a therapist or someone from the state department of children and families making a statement something along the following lines:

“The family notified officials at the time they learned of what was going on.  An investigation was done and it was determined that criminal charges were not warranted.  Also removal of the offending child, or victim children was not in either of their best interests.  Therapy for all concerned and periodic supervision by state child protective services continued for several years until it was determined that neither were still necessary.  etc, etc.”

I don’t know if anything like this happened, but it would have defused the media blitz.  Sexual abuse is not something that is easily explained in the media.  It really requires experts because there is so much gray area.  I haven’t researched the Josh Dugger case, but I’m sure it is like many others (less the TV show).

Victim’s Perspective

Would you rather be inappropriately touched or molested?  Depending on how you self define these terms, it may actually make a difference.  Legally they may be the same, but one phrase carries more weight than the other for both the victim and the offender.  While it doesn’t always come up in legal proceedings, intent and degree of planning are important differentiaters from a clinical perspective.  Should we categorize a child with a misdirected sexual curiosity the same way we categorize a 40 year old man who puts himself in a position where he can trusted to be alone with children only to abuse that trust?  Most experts will say there is a difference.  I think for many victims of inappropriate touching it’s the violation of the trust that messes people up more than the sexual contact.

A New Vocabulary

Sexual abuse is not something that happens to “other people”.  If we had full disclosure on every incidence, we would probably find that 1 in 20 men was responsible for some form of child sexual abuse.   Does that make them all child molesters?  legally probably and definitely in the media.  But is that really who they are or a reflection of what they did?  We would all probably be very surprised at who got labeled a child molester or locked up as a result of one size fits all labels for sexual abuse.

I have no tolerance for adults that abuse children.  I know where some of their issues might come from, but as adults they should be able to get help so they don’t act out on their fantasies.   Student teacher relationships and statutory rape are a whole different subject.  Usually it is an issue of consent and professional ethics more than abuse, but we tend to lump them all together.  Children offender on the other hand have a lot of things going on that makes for gray area.  You don’t see the term used much in the media, but victims of sexual and physical abuse often exhibit “reactive behavior”.  They will basically do to others what was done to them.  Does that make them a bad person or that they just did a bad thing?  Sexual contact between family members is almost universally taboo, but sexual reactions isn’t always suppressed by social norms.  While we might be repulsed by that though, it happens regularly in the animal kingdom and humans aren’t always immune to their baser instincts.

I think we need a new vocabulary for child sexual contact for both the benefit of victims and offenders.  Some labels shouldn’t have to follow someone forever.  The terms should consider intent to do harm, degree of planning, opportunity, difference in age, maturity, differences in power (either perceived or physical), remorse, and other factors.

Misdirected sexual curiosity and inappropriate sexual contact are two terms I’m throwing out as classifications for minimal sexual contact that might otherwise be classified as molestation or sexual abuse.  This is not about minimizing the events, but rather giving us a broader framework to classify and discuss the types of things that happen to our children, and in many cases are done by our children.    If Josh Dugger was your child, how would you want him labeled?  His sister said “In Josh’s case, he was a boy, young boy in puberty, and a little too curious about girls and that got him into some trouble” .  It sounds like if it weren’t for the media, the members of the Duggar family have found a way to work through it and put this behind them.  The more children that are allowed to learn from their mistakes as children, are less likely to repeat those mistakes as adults.