How White Male Privilege Allowed Josh Duggar's Crimes to Be "Forgiven"

by Altheria Gaston

When I first heard about the trending story about Josh Duggar’s alleged sexual abuse, I did a quick search to find out more about the controversial situation. I immediately came across Duggar’s Facebook acknowledgement of sexual abuse using the vague label "wrongdoing":
Twelve years ago, as a young teenager I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends. We spoke with the authorities, where I confessed my wrongdoing and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling.
This post on his family’s Facebook page came on the heels of an InTouch article revealing that Josh Duggar had confessed to his father, Jim Bob, that younger Duggar had molested several girls, reportedly including his sisters, when he was 15 years-old.

In my own Facebook post, I asked the question, “Isn’t molestation a form of sexual assault, and isn’t sexual assault a crime?” I wondered how and why Josh Duggar’s actions could be downgraded from “crimes” to “wrongdoing” and “very bad mistakes.” It seemed to me that Duggar’s perverse actions were being minimized. Several of my friends commented that Josh’s parents had protected him from criminal punishment.

In the state of Arkansas, where the Duggars lived in 2006, first, second, and third degree sexual assault are felonies. Instead of facing the legal system for his deplorable offenses, Duggar received “God’s kindness, goodness, and forgiveness,” in his parents’ words, or “God’s grace, mercy, and redemption,” in his own words. 

 Even Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to Duggar’s defense as the public began to express its disapproval of Duggar’s conduct:
Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, 'inexcusable,' but that doesn’t mean 'unforgivable.' He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story. Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things.
Before I am attacked by Christians for “judging” Duggar and bringing up his “forgiven” past, I want to strongly emphasize that this piece is not primarily about religion or faith. Instead, my focus is on (a) how our judicial system has allowed an admitted molester AND his parents, who failed to adequately report their son’s crime, to escape prosecution; and (b) how conservatism can result in a sexist culture that strip women of their power.

Like many, I think Josh Duggar escaped punishment because of his white male privilege. All U.S. institutions and systems, such as schools and healthcare, are structurally racist and sexist, among other things. As a result, white men receive benefits because of their race and gender. Black women, being neither male nor white, are particularly prone to institutional disenfranchisement.

Almost thirty years ago (1986), in a landmark paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” Peggy McIntosh describes the effects of white privilege and male privilege: “In much the same way that men are not taught to acknowledge all the ways they are privileged in society, whites are not taught to recognize how their status as white people confers on them many privileges.”

According to McIntosh, both white privilege and male privilege are interrelated. They are unearned and unjustified. They confer undue advantages and dominance. I have found that white male privilege manifests itself in everyday discriminatory actions (such as white men not being stopped by police as often as people of color) and in major institutional practices (such as when people of color apply for and are denied jobs, housing, and so forth).

Surely, Josh Duggar and his father are experiencing the unjustified effects of white male privilege. Though they are not supported by all whites or all males, their status as white males causes them to be supported and upheld in ways that are denied to those of us who cannot identify as such. Unlike many of us, including several recent victims of police violence, the white male’s past is beyond punishment, and his present is applauded. While some of us are vilified, white males are valorized, even when their past actions victimize and dehumanize others. Their privilege yields quick and unquestioned forgiveness and forgetfulness. They are enfranchised by a legal system intent on portraying an image of black criminality that leads to the mass incarceration of Blacks and other people of color.

This belief of black criminality and the resulting mass incarceration is an issue that Michelle Alexander addresses in The New Jim Crow. In her book, Alexander says, “Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege.” The bottom line is this: Duggar was able to continue to build a seemingly successful life with his wife and children, instead of suffering his due punishment because of his privilege. And furthermore, this reminds us that whites have not demonstrated a consistent commitment to acknowledging and resigning their privilege and to eradicating racism in the criminal justice system.

We must also remember that not only is this system racist, but it is also sexist. In this whole Duggar maelstrom, I hear the silence of Duggar’s female victims. The “forgiveness” rhetoric surrounding sexual assault contributes to the silence and submissiveness of the women and makes violence in a patriarchal system permissible. Rape culture thrives on forgiveness that liberates the perpetrator while keeping victims in their own personal prisons.

The conservative Christian emphasis on forgiveness seems to ignore the deep pain caused by sexual abuse of women. I cannot imagine being sexually violated and being forced to live in the home with my abuser, as several of the Dugger daughters had to do. The pressure to adhere to extreme conservative values might cause women, who have been taught to conform to subservient gender roles, to create the similitude of “happy family” while ignoring male dominance and violence. Too often, the male perpetrators escape criminal prosecution because of the religiosity in these homes.

Too often, when Black men and women experience brutality and violence, their criminal history and past run-ins with the law, instead of the crimes committed against them, become the headlines of their story. This expectation has not been so for Josh Duggar, and many others like him, due to his white male privilege.

But I still think Duggar should have to “face the music” for his actions.

Photo: Kris Connor / Getty Images

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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