It’s been 13 years since Josh Duggar, the eldest son of the Christian family immortalized in TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, admitted to molesting five girls; four were his younger sisters. It’s been 12 years since his parents filed an official report. Twelve since he confessed to doing it again. Nine since an anonymous tip—sent to Oprah Winfrey’s staff, no less—convinced authorities to launch an investigation. Eight since Internet vigilantes tried to do the same.
Five victims, two television shows, and as many as 4.4 million viewers per episode later, we’re just now talking about it. What took so long?
The beginning of the end came in May of this year, when In Touch released a report from the Springdale, Arkansas, police department that detailed then-14-year-old Josh Duggar’s sexual advances on his sisters. Stories in the weeks that followed filled in the gaps. Five underage girls were molested, four were his sisters. Josh was sent to counseling, though reports are conflicting on exactly what that counseling entailed. Locks were reportedly put on the girls’ doors to keep them safe.
Subsequent TV interviews made explicitly clear where the Duggars stand. Josh admitted to the claims, then apologized, calling his behavior “inexcusable.” Victims Jessa and Jill came to his defense, saying that those calling their brother a child molester were “lying.” Their parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, echoed the same.
On Thursday, after facing two months of criticism, TLC finally made its own statement—canceling 19 Kids and Counting for good. In the eyes of many, the news was a triumph—and in certain ways, it is. A TV network caught in the middle of a major child sexual-abuse scandal has decided to use the opportunity as a way to start a conversation. In a world where one in five girls and one in 20 boys is sexually assaulted, it is one that’s desperately needed.
TLC also announced a partnership with two victims’ rights and advocacy organizations with which it intends to make a documentary. The allies were well-chosen. The first is RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), America’s largest anti-sexual-violence group. The second is one of the world’s leading organizations for child sexual-abuse education, Darkness to Light.
Darkness to Light is an organization that, by the end of this month, will have educated 1 million teachers, parents, and guardians in more than 16 countries on how to prevent child sexual assault. Since 1994, RAINN has helped 2 million sexual-assault victims through their trauma. Together, they are two of the most influential sexual-violence organizations in the world. Yet, in a real-life scenario where parents put their children in danger and victims are wrestling with self-blame, all they’re talking about is statistics.
In statements emailed to The Daily Beast, neither organization would comment on the red flags the Duggars’ situation raises, instead redirecting the conversation back to the future.
“We are pleased to be partnering with TLC to fight child sexual abuse, and appreciate its efforts to spur a national dialogue about this issue,” reads the statement from RAINN. “Child sexual abuse affects millions of families across the nation, and we all have a responsibility to work together to end it.”
“We are looking forward to our partnership with TLC to bring child sexual abuse out of secrecy and into the forefront as the public health crisis that it is—affecting one in 10 children nationwide,” reads the official announcement from Darkness to Light. “We applaud them for the courage to begin a national dialogue about what all adults can do to protect their kids.”
Missing in the announcements was the key to enacting real change: admitting that something went wrong—and hasn’t been made right. That the system, at least in the Duggars’ case, failed. That kids were put in real danger and that not enough authorities were told. That parents who think molestation is simply “improper touching” don’t understand what it is, and that sisters who attribute their brother’s fondling to “puberty” and being “a little too curious” are still in a great deal of pain.
When asked about the reactions of the Duggars, who the network has featured on a show for more than seven years, TLC responded “no comment.” Pairing up with two organizations to start a conversation about child sexual violence is noble, but comes with great responsibility. Until we can speak honestly about the Duggars’ case, we can’t expect others to be honest about their own.