It's en vogue to hold accountable those who exploit children for sex. (Here's looking at you, Josh Duggar.)
It's also popular to criticize those who may be viewed as accomplices to exploitation. Daily, I read harsh, judgmental comments about Anna Duggar, how she is insane to stay with Josh, how she should know better than to be endangering her children, and how could she possibly keep having his babies.
"Doesn't she know better?" people insist. "This is just common sense! Why would any woman stay with a monster?" As far as internet trolls are concerned, it’s all Anna's fault because she didn't leave.
But those passing self-righteous condemnation fail to comprehend the tentacles of psychological and spiritual conditioning, the financial control, the emotional and sexual coercion -- which are inextricably intertwined with the environment, sub-culture, and belief system of women like Anna. On top of that, those who think she should "just leave", are overlooking the role of power and influence over her, held by the patriarchs and supporting matriarchs in the abusive system she is surrounded by.
A Few Facts:
Josh Duggar was the oldest child on TLC’s 19 and Counting reality TV show. He's 33 and was arrested in April 2021 on a federal warrant through a raid from the Department of Homeland Security. In 2019, there was also a prior raid on his car dealership by Homeland Security. No one revealed whether he was the sole focus of that raid, but sources say it had to do with child sexual abuse material.
What do we know about Josh Duggar besides his role on reality TV and his roots in the fundamentalist patriarchal, conservative, supposedly-Christian, quiverfull ATI cult founded by Bill Gothard?
In 2015, Josh issued a public apology for “wrongdoing” after a buried 2006 police report surfaced indicating he had molested five minor girls, two of whom were his sisters, one as young as five years old.
Josh also admitted having an Ashley Madison account for cheating on Anna, his wife. In this confession, he admitted to double life, said he had a significant porn addiction, had been cheating on his wife, and had been a “hypocrite."
Notice he framed it merely as “wrongdoing”. Not as criminal sexual assault of multiple minors. Just an apology for hypocrisy and wrongdoing.
As a good, supportive, faithful wife, Anna stayed.
In 2019, Josh was sued and ordered to pay thousands in a real estate lawsuit. It would seem his confession of “wrongdoing” didn’t diminish the well-established patterns of deception, compartmentalization, and double life.
As a good, supportive, faithful wife, Anna stayed.
In April 2021, the Homeland Security raid revealed child sexual abuse material. Josh was arrested, and on December 9, 2021 he was found guilty of all charges and taken into custody.
As a good, supportive, faithful wife, Anna stayed.
The internet has opinions about this. Some call for Anna to be freed from the Duggar family cult as a refugee. Some express shock that any woman could possibly believe her husband’s version of events. Others are outraged and baying for blood, assuming Anna must have known, must have enabled him.
Anna Duggar, and other women in these situations, are judged harshly no matter what. She is not alone. Many have wrestled the same questions, worries, fears and traumas she is likely experiencing right now.
So why would Anna (and so many other women like her) continue to stay?
Religious Pressures — If Anna had left at the very beginning, before Josh was convicted, she would have faced intense criticism for jumping to conclusions, believing rumors, and robbing their children of a “complete home”. The religious system in which she has been raised doesn’t merely frown on divorce, it is forbidden.
She would have faced comments and criticisms such as: “You gave up on your marriage.” “You abandoned him when he was down.” “You broke your vows by leaving, regardless of what he has done.” “You are betraying your faith in God.” “Suffering in your marriage makes you holy.” “You must have been denying him sex.” “You should have lost the baby weight faster.” “Leaving will ruin his future, and it’ll be your fault.” “He wasn’t an adult when he molested those five girls, you can’t blame him for boys being boys.” “He said sorry, why are you so bitter?” “Good wives are faithful no matter what, and you want to be a good wife, don’t you?”
The systemic mindset in Anna’s environment, supported by Christian marriage resources (see below) teaches women they must give unconditional respect, no matter what the husband does. He is entitled to respect by virtue of gender, regardless of respectable actions. Even with despicable behavior, she must give unconditional respect. Otherwise, she is betraying her role under both husband and God.
Educational Conditioning — How do I know these are what Anna would likely be told? Because this is exactly what so many Christian marriage books teach (Watch here: . Books such as Love & Respect, Married Sex, Sacred Marriage, Every Man's Battle, Sheet Music, For Women Only, Created to be His Helpmeet, Fascinating Womanhood, Passion & Purity, His Needs Her Needs, and so many more — all promote the idea that sexual lust is simply part of how men were created by God, that it is the wife’s role to alleviate all sexual pressure for the husband, and that the goal of marriage is holiness even if it means suffering.
In other words, Anna’s lifetime worldview promotes the idea that staying with a cheating, abusive, addicted spouse is a direct route to holiness. In addition, despite being a legal adult, this belief system effectively infantilizes women by neutralizing their decision-making powers. She has no voice because she has been taught that silence is submission. Leading is sin. Leaving is sin.
Social Shunning — If Anna had chosen divorce earlier in this journey (even with evidence of Josh’s cheating and addiction), she would have been forced to choose a life that may provide zero support from erstwhile friends and relatives. She could easily be cut out of her lifelong network, shunned, and entirely alone.
On top of that, she’d face the wrath of wealthy, powerful, celebrity in-laws who have every reason to use their influence to keep her from leaving the inner circle and taking their grandchildren with her. Yes, it appears that her brother has offered to open his home to her and the kids, but accepting that offer would still carry a tremendous sense of shame for her. It would mean she had given up on her duty as a wife to influence her husband for good, and consequently, betrayed God.
Family Court and Co-Parenting — Family court tends to hold fathers’ rights to access as far more important than children’s rights to safety. That means, if Anna had left Josh, she would almost certainly have been court-ordered to share unsupervised custody and co-parent with him regardless of his history of allegations of child sexual abuse. The fact that he was under 18 when he molested minors makes it even more likely that the history would be dismissed as irrelevant to his ability to parent.
Also, while a protective mother might see his pornography addiction and Ashley Madison account as indications of potential danger - family courts simply do not weight character issues when deciding whether children are safe with an allegedly abusive parent. Don’t believe it? Check out reports on abusive parents getting parenting time here, here, and here.
Internalized Shame — The books, sermons, and relational expectations in Anna’s surroundings teach that every man battles a raging sexual need that women simply cannot comprehend. If a wife is not enthusiastically here for it, she is responsible for any sexual misbehavior on his part. If he cheats, has an affair, watches porn, masturbates — it's her fault because she failed to adequately satisfy him. This normalizes insatiable sex addictions and marital rape.
Instead of teaching men and boys to cultivate the fruit of the spirit (goodness, faithfulness, self-control), men receive the message that “This is how God made you as a male. Being male means needing LOTS of sex and your wife's job is to give you release.” Doesn't matter how she feels, doesn't matter what's going on for her. She just needs to be there for it.
This is what Anna will have been taught from childhood. It’s what Josh’s expectations would have reiterated when they married. She will have heard messages normalizing coercive control, uncontrollable male sexuality, and woman’s role under male headship — from home, church, friends, in-laws, books, counselors, teachers, bible study groups, homeschool curricula, and more.
It is highly unlikely that anyone has ever told Anna that loving a man well means allowing someone to experience the consequences of their choices.
It is highly unlikely that Anna would know to call these things abuse, especially if Josh hasn’t left physical bruises. Any poor behavior on his part will be minimized, downplayed, and excused in the same way that his molestation of five girls was presented as mere “wrongdoing”.
It is highly unlikely that Anna has ever been informed that God will not, in fact, be angry with her if she seeks safety and protection for herself and her children. She will have been taught that leaving equals giving up, being a quitter, letting God and her children down as well as abandoning her sacred covenant.
These messages will include statements such as:
“You made a lifetime covenant.”
“You chose this man, so you don’t get to be unhappy now.”
“If you leave him, it’s like abandoning a cancer patient. How could you?” “You must never, ever criticize or shame your husband.”
“He has apologized. You need to show him you trust him now.” “You don’t want your children to be from a broken home, do you?” “The only way to make it better is by sticking it out.”
“Marriage is permanent. If you leave, you can NEVER remarry!”
Covenant trumps abuse, free will, safety, betrayal, and anything else she may be experiencing. She is Josh’s property — her body belongs to him for the purpose of sexual release, baby-bearing, and domestic support.
If anyone ever has told her that it’s okay to seek safety, they will have been painted as a rebellious, ungodly source of information.
It is highly unlikely that Anna has ever been clearly told that Josh already broke the marriage covenant, that his actions have already betrayed every vow, that his systematic pattern of provable behaviors have already placed him outside the circle of “believers”. Josh is not living the Fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control. Josh is not living in honesty, truthfulness, decency.
According to the Apostle Paul, this means Josh has proven himself to an unbeliever, and Anna is free. He's an oppressor, an exploiter of the vulnerable, a criminal who has bound her and their seven children in captivity, whether she realizes it or not. (See this in-depth bible study.)
If she leaves, she stands to lose everything, including (she has been taught) her salvation.
If she stays, she also stands to lose everything, including (she likely doesn’t realize) her personhood.
The Practical Obstacles
Let's talk about the practical reasons Anna may be terrified to leave, reasons that have much less to do with theology or conditioning, and much more to do with pragmatic survival.
Anna married into a high profile reality TV family. Let's say she decides to leave.
Where will she find privacy? The Duggars have money. Anna may only have money if she stays with them. Where will she obtain support if she has access to none of Josh’s family funds? At the time I’m writing this, she’s about five weeks postpartum with baby number seven.
Even if Anna has considered seeking safety, she’s got to have solid answers to questions such as: How could I provide for seven kids? How can I raise seven children alone, with no career experience or college degree? How can I survive the social and spiritual crucifixion from everyone I know turning against me?
How will I house seven children? How will I parent, homeschool, and provide all alone?
Who would ever want me now that I am the betrayed, cast aside, broken down ex-wife of a fundamentalist celebrity?
If I leave, I can’t even go to the grocery store without being recognized.
It’s all so confusing, and so overwhelming. Would people even help get on my feet?
There is shame.
There is fear.
There is a sense of being frozen.
How could she break ties with such a powerful family? How could she get a house big enough for 7 kids? What kind of job can a stay at home mom of 7 get, to afford housing and food? What about childcare during work hours?
In this situation, you can't leave your children because you don't have childcare yet. In order to afford childcare you need a job. To go to job interviews, you need childcare. To get a lease you need pay stubs.
You can't show pay stubs without a job. You can’t get a job without childcare. You can’t pay for childcare or get a house without a job.
It’s like a snake eating its tail until you're a pretzel. You're tied up in knots on every front, and overwhelmed with the sheer volume of practical decisions.
“What if I can't find a job? “What if I can't find a house? “What if I'm completely alone? “What if everybody in the world knows my face and my name? “What if they come after me? “What if he's stalking me? “What if his family is helping him stalk me? “What if they're monitoring my messages, emails, social media? “How do I start over alone? “How do I handle it if I'm homeless? “Is my car big enough for me and six children and a newborn baby to live in if I can’t find a house quickly? “Do I have enough cash to survive? Probably not. “Do I have access to assets? Probably not.
These obstacles often feel impossible for the average woman. Add a reality TV show, your father-in-law running for state senator, a high profile criminal trial, and the chokehold of psychological conditioning…
The Psychological Impact
A couple years ago, I interviewed Officer Brian Bennett, a law enforcement agent and criminal justice instructor. Bennett’s focus is domestic violence and non-fatal strangulation. (Read that article here.)
Bennett explained research on prisoners of war who were asked, “Why didn't you just escape?”
These were highly trained soldiers, taught the best techniques for survival including SERE training. SERE stands for Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape. SERE teaches military techniques to escape and survive if a soldier is taken prisoner of war.
The majority of American soldiers taken prisoner never escaped on their own. Researchers asked, “Why would elite warriors who've all been trained to survive, evade, resist and escape — not escape? Why would they choose to stay prisoners of war when they have been equipped with every tool possible to get away?”
Their answers fell into two categories:
“I saw escape opportunities — but I was afraid I wouldn't make it all the way out, and I would get caught, brought back, and tortured. And so I chose to stay alive.”
“I had chances to escape — but I knew those left behind would pay in blood, and I didn't want them to be tortured for my freedom. So I stayed to keep them alive.”
Fear for themselves.
Fear for those they cared about.
IF these elite SERE-trained warriors chose to stay prisoners of war, to endure the familiarity of continued mistreatment in order to avoid torture or execution and to protect those left behind, or because they were afraid they couldn't make it all the way to safety…
THEN why do we ask domestic violence victims questions like “Why did you stay? Why haven't you just taken your kids and left? Why did you leave and then return?”
Because fear is crippling.
Because beliefs can hamstring your courage.
Because when you’re entirely alone, you wonder if you could actually make it on your own.
Because you believe nobody will help you.
Because your reality sounds so crazy you’re sure nobody will believe you.
Because you have been taught that if you leave, you will have betrayed your God, your integrity, your identity, and your entire system of functioning.
Because you know that even if you do get out, they're going to send your kids back in, and now you won't be there as a buffer to protect them.
Because you’ve been isolated from mainstream society, you don’t know all the rules “out there”, and it’s daunting to enter a different world alone.
If soldiers with SERE training would remain prisoners of war by choice, to stay alive and fight another day, why can't we understand that domestic violence victims might very well do the same?
And why can't we support those who need help without battering them with the rhetoric, the victim-blaming, the small-minded trolling?
When we see a woman and her children who need help and support, when we see Anna Duggar — maybe it’s time for those who understand what this journey feels like, to stand up and say:
“I'm here. I will stand with you in the trenches. I will help you make it out of the jungle. I will call the next people. I will help you get the resources you need. Because I've been there. I know what it feels like and I will not stand by and let you live on in fear.”