Things have gone from bad to worse over the past few months for the Duggar clan, the erstwhile stars of the popular TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting.
On August 19, just over a month after TLC announced it had canceled 19 Kids due to allegations of sexual abuse centering on the oldest Duggar child, Josh, evidence surfaced that Josh had a paid membership to Ashley Madison, the dating site for those seeking extramarital affairs that was recently hacked, exposing the private information of millions of users, Gawker reports.
It's the latest twist in a string of bizarre revelations about the 19 Kids and Counting family — parents Jim Bob and Michelle and their 19 children — who came under fire in recent months after allegations emerged that Josh Duggar had molested several young girls, including four of his sisters, when he was a teenager.
The stories span decades and involve an alleged cover-up by Duggar's parents and church, a disturbing police report, and a very badly timed marathon of 19 Kids and Counting on a network that has experienced more than one reality show scandal in recent years — plus now the reveal of Josh's purported infidelity. There's also an element of religious hypocrisy and a muted attempt to turn the situation into another front in the culture wars.
For people who don't watch much reality TV — to say nothing of those who don't watch lots of TLC reality TV, which is almost a genre unto itself because it focuses on families from outside the American mainstream — the whole thing can sound like a particularly strange satire of how far the television industry will go to garner big ratings.
But it's not.
Who are the Duggars?
The Duggars are an Arkansas family and stars of the now-canceled TLC reality series 19 Kids and Counting. The show, TLC's most popular, regularly scored in the Nielsen cable top 25 before it was pulled from the air.
The show began on September 29, 2008, as 17 Kids and Counting, and starred Jim Bob Duggar, a former Arkansas state representative turned real estate agent; his wife, Michelle Duggar; and their 17 biological children. Since that time, Jim Bob and Michelle have had two more children.
The names of all 19 children are:
- Joshua James
- Jana Marie
- Jill Michelle
- Jessa Lauren
- Jinger Nicole
- Joseph Garrett
- Josiah Matthew
- Jedediah Robert
- Jeremiah Robert
- Jason Michael
- James Andrew
- Justin Samuel
- Jackson Levi
- Johannah Faith
- Jennifer Danielle
- Josie Brooklyn
Over the course of the show’s 10 seasons, three of Jim Bob and Michelle’s children — Josh, Jill, and Jessa — got married and had or are expecting children of their own.
The Duggars are strict Baptists. They adhere to many of the principles of the "Christian patriarchy" movement, though they claim not to be members themselves in their second book, A Love That Multiplies. Christian patriarchy, also often known as the "quiverfull" movement, is a strain of fundamentalist Christianity that, as the Daily Beast puts it, emphasizes "a combination of beliefs that run counter to mainstream America: absolute female submission, a ban on dating, homeschooling, a rejection of higher education for women, and shunning of contraception in favor of trying to have as many children as humanly possible."
The Duggar parents raise their children by many of these tenets: They advocate for not using birth control — Jim Bob has stated he believes his wife's brief time on birth control caused her to miscarry — have decided to homeschool all their children, prohibit dating (and kissing and unchaperoned interactions with romantic prospects) before marriage, and require extreme modesty in dress at all times.
What are the sexual abuse accusations against Josh Duggar?
On May 19, 2015, InTouch Weekly magazine reported that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s oldest son, Josh, now 27, had been named in a prior sexual assault probe involving a minor. On May 21, InTouch revealed that Josh had been investigated for molesting at least five underage girls beginning in 2002, when he was around 14.
InTouch obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request a sealed 2006 police report that detailed the accusations against Josh Duggar. Here are a few key points:
- In March 2002, Jim Bob Duggar was told by a minor that Josh had been fondling her while she was sleeping. The report said 14-year-old Josh admitted to this in July 2002.
- In March 2003 Josh was again accused of fondling "several" minors, "often when they slept, but at times when they were awake," according to InTouch.
- Jim Bob informed the elders of his church, who decided Josh would be sent to a program that "consisted of hard physical work and counseling." But Michelle Duggar later told police the program "was not really a training center" and instead was "a guy they know in Little Rock that is remodeling a building."
- After Josh returned home, Jim Bob and several church elders took him to meet with an Arkansas state trooper named Jim Hutchens, who gave him a "very stern talk" but did not pursue any official course of action. (Hutchens is currently serving a 56-year prison sentence on child pornography charges.) The Duggars also spoke about the incidents with a family friend, who wrote down details in a letter and put it in a book, which was then lent to another member of the Duggars' church. That letter is thought to be how people outside the Duggars' congregation learned of the sexual abuse charges.
- In 2006, before a planned appearance by the Duggar family on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the studio received an email from an unnamed source explaining the accusations against Josh and saying the parents had been "hiding this secret for a long time." (It's unconfirmed whether this source was the one who found the letter.) The studio sent the letter to the Department of Human Services, and a police investigation was launched. When police asked Jim Bob to bring in Josh for an interview, he refused and attempted to hire a lawyer.
- On May 21, the same day InTouch published the police report, Josh Duggar appeared to confirm the incidents of molestation in a statement on Facebook, saying both he and "those affected by [his] actions" had received counseling.
- In an interview with Fox News's Megyn Kelly on June 3, the Duggar family confirmed that Josh's victims were four of his sisters and a family friend who was babysitting for the family. (You can watch the interview here.)
How did the Duggar family respond?
In a statement on the Duggar family’s official Facebook page on May 21, Josh Duggar apologized for his actions. "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," he wrote.
Josh’s parents also published a statement, as did his wife, Anna. Anna’s statement said that Josh told her about his "past teenage mistakes," as she phrases it, two years before they got engaged. She continued, "[W]hen Josh asked me to marry him ... I was able to say, 'Yes' knowing who Josh really is — someone who had gone down a wrong path and had humbled himself before God and those whom he had offended."
Josh resigned from his position as the executive director of the nonprofit lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group based in Washington, DC, that is known for lobbying against LBGT rights, abortion rights, divorce, and stem-cell research, among other causes. Josh and Anna's official website was also taken down.
In the Fox interview on June 3, the Duggars attempted to minimize Josh's actions, with Jim Bob saying, "This was not rape or anything like that. This was, like, touching somebody over their clothes." Michelle pointed the finger at the media coverage, saying that her daughters had "been victimized more by what happened in what has happened in these last couple weeks than they were 12 years ago."
In a separate Fox News interview, sisters Jessa and Jill spoke in their brother's defense and also decried the media coverage of the abuse. Jessa said, according to Fox:
"I do want to speak up in his defense against people who are calling him a child molester or a pedophile or a rapist, some people are saying," she told Kelly. "I’m like, ‘That is so overboard and a lie really.’ I mean people get mad at me for saying that, but I can say this because I was one of the victims."
After the show's cancellation was announced, the Duggars released a statement on their website that reads, in part:
With God’s grace and help Josh, our daughters and our entire family overcame a terrible situation, found healing and a way forward. We are so pleased with the wonderful adults they have all become.
It is our prayer that the painful situation our family went through many years ago can point people toward faith in God and help others who also have lived through similar dark situations to find help, hope and healing, as well.
How did TLC respond?
Due to an unfortunate scheduling coincidence, the network had planned to air a marathon of 19 Kids and Counting right around the time Josh Duggar’s admission came out.
As Vox’s Margarita Noriega wrote: "Only a handful of hours passed between the time the Duggar family … posted on Facebook an admission that Josh Duggar sexually molested several underage girls in a series of incidents during the early 2000s, and when the network ran a marathon of shows starring Josh Duggar himself."
The network later replaced a bloc of episodes of the show that Friday afternoon, and stated via Facebook that it had decided to pull all episodes of 19 Kids from the air. "We are deeply saddened and troubled by this heartbreaking situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and victims at this difficult time," the statement read.
But TLC took two months to officially cancel the show, something that some thought unlikely to happen at all. As Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice wrote:
But after 10 seasons, 19 Kids remains TLC’s most popular show, if not it’s most lucrative: it earned a reported $25 million in ad revenue this year, a massive profit margin considering TLC only pays the Duggars up to $40,000 per episode, according to PEOPLE. And the scandal has actually increased awareness of the family on social media, though not all of the chatter has been positive.
An earlier People story cited "a source close to the Duggars" who suggested the network's plan might be to make daughters Jill and Jessa, both recently married, the new center of the show, taking the focus off the Duggar parents and Josh.
While this now seems unlikely to happen, TLC has announced plans for a one-hour documentary to "raise awareness and educate parents and families" about child sexual abuse, which will feature the Duggar family:
Over these past weeks, TLC has consulted regularly with leading victims' rights and advocacy organizations in the U.S., including RAINN and Darkness to Light, to discuss how to use this moment to address the issue and make a positive impact. Unfortunately, child sexual abuse is not an isolated issue; it affects many children and families around the world. To that end, we are partnering with both organizations on a multi-platform campaign to raise awareness and educate parents and families about the issue. In the first phase of this initiative, TLC will work closely with both groups and with the Duggar family on a one-hour documentary that will include Jill and Jessa and other survivors and families that have been affected by abuse.
How did the public respond?
When the allegations came to light, some were vocal in their continuing support for the Duggars, including former Arkansas Gov. and 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Huckabee posted a statement on his Facebook page declaring that he and his wife "love Jim Bob and Michelle and their entire family" and saying "[t]hose who have enjoyed revealing this long ago sins [sic] in order to discredit the Duggar family have actually revealed their own insensitive bloodthirst."
Others looked at the circumstances under which a situation like this could occur. The blog Patheos pointed to the failure at various points of the Duggar parents, church elders, and law enforcement officials to take action in light of evidence of abuse. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern expressed a degree of sympathy for Josh Duggar, writing, "Josh may be a monster — but as 19 Kids and Counting demonstrates, his path to depravity was lighted by the twisted beliefs of his parents."
Still others, including bloggers for Time and the Denver Post, were unequivocal in calling for TLC to cancel the show, and an online petition by PoliticusUSA with the same goal garnered more than 28,000 signatures.
The family has earned enemies over the years due to its anti-LGBT activism. As Salon’s Joanna Rothkopf pointed out, Michelle Duggar last August lent her voice to robocalls in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to urge citizens to oppose an anti-discrimination law that would, among other things, allow trans people to use public restrooms.
In the recording, Michelle Duggar said, "I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls."
What happened with Ashley Madison?
In July, the dating website Ashley Madison, which bills itself as a resource for married people looking to cheat on their spouses, was targeted by hackers who said they "objected to Ashley Madison's morally dubious business model," writes Vox's Timothy Lee. The hackers stole millions of users' personal data and threatened to release it online if Ashley Madison didn't cease operations. On August 18, they appeared to follow through on their threats by posting the stolen data to file-sharing sites online.
On August 19, Gawker's Ashley Feinberg reported that Josh Duggar appeared to be one of the Ashley Madison users whose data was stolen and released. She writes:
Someone using a credit card belonging to a Joshua J. Duggar, with a billing address that matches the home in Fayetteville, Arkansas owned by his grandmother Mary—a home that was consistently shown on their now-cancelled TV show, and in which Anna Duggargave birth to her first child—paid a total of $986.76 for two different monthly Ashley Madison subscriptions from February of 2013 until May of 2015.
The data also suggests Duggar paid for a second account in July 2014 associated with his home in Oxon Hill, Maryland, as well as for what Ashley Madison refers to as an "affair guarantee," basically a money-back offer if the user doesn't successfully have an affair within three months.
On August 20, Duggar confirmed that he indeed paid for an Ashley Madison account and admitted to infidelity and a porn addiction. He released a statement on the Duggar family website, in which he called himself the "biggest hypocrite ever":
I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have been unfaithful to my wife.
I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.
I have brought hurt and a reproach to my family, close friends and the fans of our show with my actions.
The last few years, while publicly stating I was fighting against immorality in our country I was hiding my own personal failures.
As I am learning the hard way, we have the freedom to choose our actions, but we do not get to choose our consequences. I deeply regret all the hurt I have caused so many by being such a bad example.
I humbly ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for my precious wife Anna and our family during this time.
Note: Shortly after Duggar's statement was published, the reference to his porn addiction was removed, as Perez Hilton pointed out. Here's the original sentence, via People: "While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife."
Duggar has been married to his wife, Anna, since 2008; they have four children together, including one born last month.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar also released a brief statement, which reads in part, "When we learned of this late last night our hearts were broken. As we continue to place our trust in God we ask for your prayers for Josh, Anna, our grandchildren and our entire family."
On August 26, E reported that Josh Duggar had checked himself into a "long-term treatment center," and that the Duggar family had released a statement saying Anna was "also receiv[ing] counsel and help for her own heart and future."
Is this the only scandal involving TLC reality stars?
No. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which ran for four seasons between August 2012 and August 2014, was also plagued by a high-profile sexual abuse scandal.
The show, which followed a child beauty pageant contestant in Georgia and her family, was canceled after reports claimed family matriarch June Shannon was dating a convicted child molester. The reports were later confirmed. Before the allegations were made public, an entire season of Honey Boo Boo was filmed and edited. TLC has no plans to air that season, however.
In May, June Shannon expressed displeasure that TLC had not as yet canceled 19 Kids, calling the cancellation of her own show "blatantly unfair" by contrast and suggesting she may pursue a lawsuit for the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" she lost as a result.
The show Jon & Kate Plus 8, which was also about a couple with a lot of children (including sextuplets), also met a rather ignominious end, though that controversy now seems quaint by comparison. In May 2009, Us Weekly reported that Jon Gosselin had been having an affair with a 23-year-old, which eventually led to his divorce from Kate after 10 years of marriage and a long, highly publicized, contentious custody battle over their eight children.
The schadenfreude that drives much of the conversation in the wake of a reality show scandal is closely related to the voyeuristic thrill that makes those shows so popular in the first place. And as more reality shows hit the airwaves, producers have to find new ways of distinguishing them from what came before, which occasionally means deliberately courting controversy.
As Jennifer Pozner writes in the introduction to her book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV:
TV execs believe that the more they bait advocacy groups like NOW, the NAACP, and GLAAD, the more controversy a show will generate. Offensiveness = hype = increased eyeballs for advertisers and cash networks, making outrageous bigotry less a by-product of reality TV than its blueprint.
So will Josh Duggar face prosecution for sexual abuse? How about his parents?
It seems very unlikely. Between Jim Bob Duggar waiting to inform authorities of the incidences of molestation for more than a year after first learning about them and state trooper Jim Hutchens failing to take action on the information, by the time police began their investigation they believed the three-year statute of limitations had been reached. (Though as Benjamin N. Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton points out to MSNBC, three years is the civil statute; the criminal statute is much longer.)
According to the Washington Post, Arkansas Judge Stacey Zimmerman (who was appointed by Mike Huckabee to two different committees) on May 21 ordered the 2006 police report expunged at the request of one of the victims (though it can still be seen via InTouch).
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are likewise unlikely to face criminal charges. Arkansas criminal defense attorney Jason Files told Hollywood Life that because Jim Bob was not a "mandatory reporter" — which are social workers, teachers, medical professionals, or other individuals required by their profession to report a crime — "he was under no legal obligation to report a suspected crime."
Tre' Kitchens, an attorney with the Little Rock–based Brad Hendricks Law Firm, concurs. "I don’t think the parents would be considered mandatory reporters by any prosecutor, even if they homeschool," he told Vox via email. "They are parents first. I think the Duggar family will not face criminal prosecution, investigation from DHS, or civil liability."
The only place where the Duggars will be charged, then, is the court of public opinion, as so often happens with celebrity scandals. And there — now having been dumped by their network and facing public scrutiny and perhaps the loss of their political influence — they are experiencing some consequences.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jason Files's profession. He is a criminal defense attorney.