The Duggars' Description Of Josh's "Mistakes" Minimizes Sibling Sexual Abuse, Survivors And Experts Say
After TLC star Josh Duggar was accused of sexually abusing his young sisters, his parents said their son had repented for his "very bad mistakes." But those who have been through similar experiences say what happened to them was much more than that.
When Rebecca Trovitch was about 8 years old, her 12-year-old brother began coming into her room at night and sexually assaulting her. The abuse continued for about a year, but she never told a soul.
For the next few decades, the secret of what happened ate away at her. It wasn't until Trovitch told a therapist about the abuse three years ago that she finally felt some relief.
"This has been the first time in my entire adult life that I didn't think about it every single day," Trovitch, now 39, told BuzzFeed News.
Stories like Trovitch's are sadly much more common than many people realize. Evidence suggests that one is more likely to be sexually abused by a sibling than a parent.
"It is estimated that between 40% and 60% of intrafamilial sexual abuse occurs between people from the same generation," John Caffaro, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and the author of Sibling Abuse Trauma, told BuzzFeed News. "Estimates are that approximately half of all adolescent-perpetrated offenses involve a sibling."
The issue of sibling sexual abuse was thrown into the national spotlight last week after allegations emerged against Josh Duggar, who stars with his parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, and the rest of his family on the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting.
According to a police report obtained by InTouch Magazine, Josh was accused of sexually assaulting five female minors, including some of his younger sisters, when he was 14. He allegedly did so while the girls were both asleep and awake.
Duggar, now 27, released a statement on Thursday along with his parents and wife Anna in which he admitted to behaving "inexcusably" and said he has apologized and received counseling.
"I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life," the father of three wrote. "I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions."
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar said that their son "made some very bad mistakes."
"We had tried to teach him right from wrong… We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family," they wrote.
Abuse survivors and experts told BuzzFeed News the Duggars' description of the abuse as a "mistake" diminishes both the effect on victims and the seriousness of the crime.
"I wouldn't say it's a mistake, I would say it's sexual abuse, something that is such a serious crime," one survivor of sibling sexual assault, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. "You say, oops I dropped my coffee, that's a mistake."
Professor Caffaro agreed, telling BuzzFeed News that the incidents described in the allegations against Josh Duggar are "clearly more than a 'mistake.'"
"[The abuse] potentially signals the presence of individual psychopathology, developmental trauma, and significant family dysfunction," he said.
It's completely normal for children to have sexual curiosity, Caffaro said, but it is often hard for parents to tell when that curiosity crosses a line into abuse.
A few factors can indicate something darker is going on, according to Caffaro. For example, abusers are often much older than their victims and may engage in "coercion or manipulation" to get their way. This includes abuse that happens while the victim is unconscious, he said.
The family environment can also play a factor in sibling sexual abuse. Research suggests this type of abuse is more common in large families where there are blurred lines between who is a parent and who is a child, Caffaro said.
"Emotionally and/or physically absent parents may empower older siblings to assume parental roles," he said.
Parents in these types of families are also more prone to dismissing the abuse, he said.
"If sexual behaviors are noticed, they are likely to be minimized and misinterpreted as a normal aspect of childhood development," Caffaro said.
Young sexual offenders are a diverse group and have widely differing motivations behind their acts of abuse. These can include sexual curiosity, an attempt to violate their siblings' rights, and mental health issues.
However, in at least one study, youth sex offenders who violated their siblings were found to be at a higher risk for re-offending than those who violated a non-sibling.
"Overall, research on adolescent sexual offense shows that treatment outcomes for youths who offend sexually are improved greatly if family is involved in the treatment process," Caffaro said.
Caffaro could not discuss the Duggar case specifically, saying he would need more information about Josh Duggar, what counseling he received, and his family to know his chances for rehabilitation.
In the police report, the Duggars told authorities they had sent their son to a Christian program involving hard work and counseling, but later revealed they sent him to help a friend who acted as a mentor to him. It has also emerged that the family were advocates of a home schooling program that contained deeply troubling advice on how to handle abuse.
The Springdale, Arkansas police department did not learn of the incidents until 2006, over three years after they allegedly occurred and after the statute of limitations had expired.
Caffaro said that parents facing a situation similar to the Duggars should know it is imperative they immediately report the incident to their local child welfare or child protection agency if the offender is under 12. If the offender is over 12, they should contact the police.
"Admitting to yourself that sibling sexual abuse might be happening in your family can be hard," he said. "Admitting it to someone else can be even harder. The important thing is to get help."
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar never mentioned their daughters in their statement, and Josh Duggar made a vague mention to seeking "forgiveness from those I had wronged."
But survivors of sibling sexual abuse say that recovering from the trauma they experienced took much more than a simple apology.
Multiple survivors of sexual abuse by a sibling spoke with BuzzFeed News about their experiences and the aftermath. They recounted years of pain and shame that have had a negative impact on their adult lives and relationships.
Trovitch said that the abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother turned her into a completely different child. She said she went from a friendly, happy girl into someone who just wanted to be alone all the time.
As an adult, she said the abuse affected her relationships. She tried to commit suicide more than once.
"You're always looking for an escape," she said.
Another survivor told BuzzFeed News that the abuse she suffered has left her fighting "demons" for the rest of her life. As a result of what happened to her, she said she has engaged in "unhealthy patterns" during her adult life and developed an eating disorder.
She said that she is working through what happened to her with therapy and a support system, but there is no "one way to get over this."
"It's a kind of a life-long journey I think," she said.
A different survivor told BuzzFeed News that she was victimized in very similar circumstances to the Duggar family. She said that the abuse she suffered "affects how you see yourself."
"[It] creates a whole host of self-esteem problems, how you see yourself, you know it just goes on from there," she said.
Trovitch says she wants those going through the same horrors she experienced to realize "this is going to make me powerful."
"You have to process the pain and the anger and the frustration and the confusion and get to a point of forgiveness," she said.
Another survivor said that she would urge any victims of sexual abuse to "come around to loving themselves and reclaiming themselves."
"I don't see myself as a victim any longer," she said. "I see myself as victorious."