Duggar Daughters Talk Sex, Courtship, and Fear of Ungodly Men

Growing up Duggar: Its All About Relationships is the third book in the reality TV family’s publishing arsenal, but it’s the first book written by the Duggar daughters, Jana, Jill, Jessa, and Jinger.

In the runup to the eighth season of 19 Kids and Counting!, which debuted on April 1st, the young Duggar women launched an ambitious publicity campaign. Interviewers seem to have been particularly fascinated by Jessa Duggar’s announcement last year that she had entered into a “courtship” with fellow conservative evangelical Ben Seewald. Second eldest daughter Jill (22), announced on March 31, that she too was being courted by a young man, Derick Dillard—the couple announced their engagement on April  9th and proposal was, of course, caught by TLC’s cameras.

The Duggar daughters are doing their darndest to make “courtship” culture cool. Whether or not they are succeeding is open to debate, but they are certainly doing a good job of publicizing this conservative evangelical alternative to dating—along with its gendered underpinnings.

Indeed, most coverage has focused on the Duggar’s stance on courtship, dating, sex, and gender. Although Jessa and Jill are not the first Duggar children to court and marry, they are the first daughters—and as their father Jim Bob remarked during the season premiere, “that’s a whole new ball game.”

The fact that 19 Kids and Counting! has continued to gain in popularity, and that the book is selling well, suggests  that courtship culture is generating interest and perhaps gaining influence among a growing readership. The Duggar daughters’ book also points to the possibility that it is young evangelical women themselves who are increasingly defining, perpetuating, constructing, and disseminated the culture of courtship.

But this newest book also reveals an irony imbedded in courtship and purity culture: the movement encourages women to take an active role in constructing their own passivity. In order to be empowered, women must be start by actively embracing systems that are designed to undermine female autonomy.

While “purity rings” have gained mainstream appeal, even making appearances on the hands of pop stars like Britney Spears (oh so long ago) and the Jonas Brothers, and “purity balls” have attracted some media coverage, “courtship” has remained relatively ensconced in conservative evangelical culture.

Disseminated by books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris and When God Writes Your Love Story, by Eric and Leslie Ludy, “courtship” or “dating with a purpose” (i.e. marriage) has been gaining traction within American evangelical circles, particularly in homeschooling communities who stress familial unity and paternal headship in everything from education to matchmaking.

But for many Americans, their first encounter with courtship culture is via the Duggar family, whose TV show has given them prime access to the larger public.

Eldest Duggar son Josh courted and married his now wife Anna (Keller) Duggar under the strict supervision of his parents and future in-laws. 19 Kids and Counting! devoted several episodes to their well-chaperoned relationship. Audiences watched as Josh asked Mr. Keller for his permission to court Anna, and later as Josh proposed to Anna with her parents near by. When the elated young Anna said yes, she and Josh then shared a “side hug” and took their physical relationship to a new level—they began holding hands. Two months later viewers tuned in for an extended wedding special wherein Anna passed from her father’s authority to Josh’s, and the couple shared their first kiss…ever.

If “courtship” sounds old-fashioned and patriarchal, that is because it is—intentionally so. Courtship is rooted in constructions of male headship and female submission. However, this picture is becoming more complicated as evangelical women like the Duggar daughters take ownership of the courtship process, placing more and more responsibility on women while underscoring the dangers of female autonomy.

Jana, Jill, Jessa, and Jinger offer a troubling blueprint for courtship that places a great deal of responsibility on young women, while highlighting all the reasons they have to be afraid, very afraid, of their sexuality and of men. Although on the surface, the Duggar ladies are quick to stress that the moral burdens of courtship and “purity” should be shared equality between men and women, even a cursory reading of their book reveals gendered assumptions that would make such burden sharing difficult, if not impossible.

The Duggars write about courtship as a period of “observation” and “accountability” wherein two people assess one another’s character and suitability for marriage in  “real-life” but carefully supervised settings. It is not an arranged marriage, but parental involvement is prized. The young man is first required to obtain permission to court the young woman from her father. The young couple can then embark on a period of well-supervised mutual assessment.

Ah, romance.

The Duggar daughters list what they will look for in a partner, but they also spend a considerable amount time arguing that that “Godly men” do not marry “ungodly women.” They caution that a young woman must begin the courtship process with a thoroughgoing self-assessment, identifying her own weaknesses and ways she can “become the kind of young lady a Godly guy would desire to marry.” The message is clear: in order to be worthy of a “Godly man” a young woman must conform to some exacting standards. These standards are rooted in constructions of innate male brutishness and feminine virtue.

It seems that in the Duggar construction, Godly men are required to be protectors and providers; in order to do this they must conquer themselves. In a truly Victorian model, men, unchecked by the gospel, are simmering volcanoes of testosterone. In order to be considered a potential suitor, a young man must honor the women in his life by containing himself. The Duggar daughters offer a detailed list of qualities they are looking for, and the vast majority of them—not being addicted to alcohol, drugs or pornography for example—reveal a fairly low bar and an emphasis on self-control.

Godly women on the other hand have a considerably more extensive list of requirements.

Women are presumed to be inherently more controlled, so their baseline for virtue is higher. The Godly woman is sweet, capable of corralling her emotions, but also compassionate, industrious and driven while single, but willing to devote her life after marriage to a husband and children.

She must be modest, outgoing, and genial, but not flirtatious, loyal to her family, educated but not worldy, accomplished but not self-aggrandizing, content to “wait on God,” but willing to go out and “affect the world for Christ.”  According to the Duggars, Godly men tend to look for long hair and pretty, natural makeup. And although it is not required that a Godly woman be physically attractive—indeed low self-esteem is characterized as a failure to accept and be thankful for what God has given you—she should put effort into her appearance, but not so much that she becomes vainly preoccupied with her looks. Godly women must also strive to embody the characteristics enumerated in Proverbs 31’s description of a virtuous wife. So yes, it is a little more complicated for the ladies.

In case the pressure isn’t great enough, the need to find and be worthy of a Godly man is not simply a matter of preference. As the Duggar girls write, it may be matter of safety.

Aside from their sexual appetites—appetites that Michelle Duggar notes in A Love That Multiplies, women do not share to the same degree and cannot fully understand—men who are not committed to Christ can be angry and violent.

The Duggar daughters are clearly very worried about male anger. They write repeatedly how lucky they are to have a father who does not “erupt in anger”— they know many girls who are not so lucky. They write that they often hear from women and girls whose father’s struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse, who “explode in rage, throwing things, slamming doors, even hitting or pushing their wives.”  They vaguely encourage these girls to keep themselves safe, but to “pray for their fathers”, and “to continue to honor their dads in any way they can.” And they speak glowingly of the many “strong women of faith” who persevere in their marriage to these violent men, hoping one day to “win them for Christ” by their steadfast devotion.

The message is clear and stark. Ladies: Men can be frightening and dangerous. Your best defense is preventative. Turn inward and make yourself a Godly woman worthy of a Godly man… or risk abuse.

This fearful streak continues as the Duggar daughters discuss sex more bluntly. The girls stress that within marriage, sex is “pure, wholesome and beautiful” but that “outside of marriage it spreads disease, death, and destruction.” Yikes.

One of the great benefits of a parentally supervised courtship like Jessa’s or Jill’s, is that the young couple is never alone. This means that the young woman is never in “physical and moral danger.” Courtship therefore, can be a safeguard against rape. The Duggar daughters plead with their presumably female readership to consider this danger, “please don’t put yourself in this situation!”

Even when the sex is consensual, the Duggars note that there is a lot for a young woman to fear. In a well-worn tradition, the Duggar girls innumerate the host of unwanted consequences that could come from premarital sexual activity including unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Underscoring the mystery and power of sexuality, they write “The very thing that was created to bring joy in marriage can bring sexually transmitted disease such as HIV, herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV) which can cause infertility, cervical cancer, and a life sentence of pain and suffering.” They go on to offer a detailed, if somewhat dubious discussion of HPV and cervical cancer.

It is striking that the disease they choose elaborate on is the only one on their list that solely afflicts women. Although HPV and cervical cancer are serious matters, they are hardly as life threatening as HIV/AIDS, and they are rarely “life sentence[s] of pain and suffering.”  With proper preventive care, most women with cancer causing strains of HPV can live long, healthy lives. The Duggar women quickly conflate premarital sexual activity (or even unchaperoned dating) with promiscuous and unsafe sexual behavior. There is no room in their construction for women who choose to be sexual monogamously, and safely, outside the bonds of marriage.

In the Duggar construction, courtship is needed because without it, women are subject to the uncontrolled male sexual appetite, and to violence. They can be overcome either by force or moral weakness and if they are, they will likely (with 80% likelihood, as Jessa Duggar informed Cosmopolitan readers) contract a life-threatening disease.

But perhaps the greatest danger a woman or girl has to fear from a non-courtship relationship is the emotional pain. The Duggar women are unrelenting in their warnings that unsupervised dating will lead to situations that cause irreparable emotional and spiritual harm. Although they are careful to affirm evangelical theology that God will forgive even the gravest sin, the Duggars think of virginity as a “gift” one presents to a future spouse.

They recount a story their father, Jim Bob tells about parents who bought their child a brand new bike. Before the parents could present the bike, a neighbor child stole it and rode it around, scratched it up, and dented the frame. Although the parents gave the bike to their child anyway, he was understandably disappointed with its condition.

In this construction (a not too subtle one!) the bike is the female body, and the little boy is a future husband. Women’s bodies can be “stolen” by dangerous other men, and if they are, their future husbands will be understandably disappointed. Dating and premarital sex are not expressive in the Duggar construction (and evangelical purity rhetoric more broadly), they render women used and broken.

Perhaps courtship can be a fulfilling way to begin a marriage. For women like the Duggars, who have strong emotional bonds with their parents and a deep religious commitment to abstinence, the family involvement might be a meaningful bonding experience. However, what about a woman for whom that is not the case? Is there a way to construe courtship that does not engage in female-directed fear-mongering?  Or a way that does not paint masculinity as inherently dangerous, and does not impose a sense of worthlessness or brokenness on a woman who has already “given away her most precious gift”? Perhaps not. But if the Duggar book, and its reception, are any indication, the discourse around courtship is growing and becoming more female-directed, cultivating a culture of fear.

The media seems to have “discovered” evangelical purity and courtship culture, and the coverage has been sensationalistic and sex obsessed. Yet there is far more to courtship than “side hugs” and chaperones. It is imperative that scholars of American religion enter into these discussions to offer more nuanced analysis and unpack how courtship and purity culture are interwoven with American evangelical self-understanding and what courtship means for the women who are embracing and directing these alternatives.