Dr. Christy Mesaros-Winckles –The Duggar family, like most patriarchy families, believes in courtship instead of dating. This means both adult male and female children do not casually date but are paired with a potential spouse who their parents believe might be a good match for them based on personality, religious beliefs, and other interests. Often times the children do express attraction towards their potential partner, as the Duggar children did, but it is then up to the father to approve the match and the families to meet and decide if courtship is suitable. At this point, the adult male who is interested in pursuing the female in the relationship must ask permission of the father to court the daughter. After a series of family activities and chaperoned events the couple often becomes engaged and then married. As in the case of all married Duggar children many couples who follow the courtship model do not kiss, cuddle, or engage in much physical intimacy prior to the wedding. The Duggars are famous for their pre-marital “side hugs.” There is no alone time without a chaperone until wedding vows are spoken.[i]
Joshua Duggar Proposing to Anna: Calling Anna’s father for permission
The highlight of season one of 17 and Counting is the engagement and marriage of Joshua Duggar to Anna Keller. Anna is introduced in the first season when Joshua proposes to her at a restaurant near her family’s home in Florida. It has since come to light that Anna learned of Joshua’s child molestation cases and subsequent rehabilitation almost as soon as the couple met. In a statement Anna released on the Duggar Family website in May 2015, she noted:
When my family and I first visited the Duggar Home, Josh shared his past teenage mistakes. I was surprised by his openness and humility and at the same time didn’t know why he was sharing it. For Josh he wanted not just me but my parents to know who he really was – even every difficult past mistakes [sic]. At this point and over the next two years, Josh shared how the counseling he received changed his life and he continued to do what he was taught. And when you, our sweet fans, first met me when Josh asked me to marry him… I was able to say, “Yes” knowing who Josh really is—someone who had gone down the wrong path and had humbled himself before God and those whom he had offended.[ii]
Anna has issued no direct response to the revelations of Joshua’s extra-marital affairs and the fact that he used his Ashley Madison account to solicit women he had seen in adult films for sex.[iii] Anna’s statement lacks any real credibility since she lacks any actual power in the home. As Foucault notes, “Power’s hold on sex is maintained through language or rather through the act of discourse that creates, from the very fact that is articulated, a rule of law. It speaks and that is the rule.”[iv] Anna is reaffirming the rules set out by her husband, backing up his transformation from sin while following the patriarchy mandate to be submissive even if the spouse is abusive or unfaithful.[v] The power rests not with her in this statement, but with Josh who needed his wife to support his early claims of conversion.
Of course, at the time of their engagement, Anna could not have predicted these behaviors. A sheltered twenty-one year old from a Florida Christian patriarchy family in the Free Will Baptist tradition, Anna had little choice except agreeing to her father’s decision to accept Josh as a suitor. The actual proposal included an awkward scene of Joshua calling her father from Arkansas and asking permission to ask Anna’s father permission to marry her. Even her parents seemed oblivious to the life they were leading their daughter into. After the engagement Anna’s father Mike Keller noted, “She loves children. She’s excited. And you know, it’s their decision…. they trust the Lord also like Michelle and Jim Bob. They want all the children that God wants to give them.”[vi] The focus on children and not marriage is central to Joshua and Anna’s story as even in the midst of the tabloid scandal that engulfed him in the summer of 2015 Joshua posted a photo of his newborn daughter on Instagram calling her “blessing number four,” a common patriarchy phrase for adding another arrow to his quiver.
This focus on the narrative of children and marriage leads to a juro- discursive conversation in the first season between Jim Bob Duggar and Joshua. Right before Joshua’s wedding ceremony the two men sit in child-sized chairs in a Sunday school room and talk about sex. Jim Bob gives Joshua a book titled Staying in Love for a Lifetime,[vii] and tells Joshua that one of the most important part of his and Anna’s life will be the physical aspects of marriage. Jim Bob is laying down the juridico-discursive rules for Joshua as a new family patriarch. Sex is no longer forbidden to him in marriage, but only in marriage.
The enforcement of patriarchy rules, or in Foucault’s terms “laws,” about sex are further illustrated in how Joshua and Anna choose their wedding vows. The pastor advises Joshua his role is as the male head of the home and reminds him that Anna is, “Placing herself under the headship of Christ,” and thus he is to be “Faithful to lead Anna in the ways of the Lord as her priest, protector and provider.” Meanwhile Anna is told that she is placing herself “Under the leadership of Josh, submitting to his authority as helpmeet, being loyal, supportive and following his direction through Christ in all your lives.”[viii] Their vows illustrate Joshua’s desire to be in complete control of all aspects of family leadership and become a patriarch like his father, who is allowed to make his own rules and be accountable to no one except God. While Anna’s vow illustrate her submission to Joshua in all matters and the commitment to God to remain faithful in her marriage and remaining supportive through anything that would occur in their future lives.
Out of the three Duggar children who are married Joshua and Anna’s vows are the most conservative and most illustrative of male headship. Not just in Christian patriarchy culture, but in numerous other conservative Christian groups sex is used as a source of power over women. It is the tool of the weak-minded individual who needs affirmation in life that they have power over something bigger than themselves. In these types of religious co-cultures, “Power over sex is exerted the same way at all levels, from top to bottom, in its all over decisions….or institutions on which it relies”[ix] or at least that is the intent. In practice this is a construct of sexual power in which Joshua is in charge and given reign over the home and is illustrated in Josh and Anna’s wedding vows in a way that Jessa Duggar and her husband Ben Seewald’s wedding vows do not exemplify.
The Believer: Jessa Duggar
Out of the oldest Duggar girls, Jessa Duggar was the first to receive approval from Jim Bob to begin courting in 2013. Jessa then courted Ben Seewald for eleven months before becoming engaged and then married in November 2014. Jim Bob first began to talk to Ben in depth at a visit to their church and said Ben “noticed Jessa” and that many of the Scriptural ideas that Ben was talking about were the same things Jessa had been talking about at home, so he gave him permission to text Jessa.[x] Even basic access to the Duggar girls is restricted unless Jim Bob grants permission. Furthermore, as Jim Bob noted to People Magazine “He’s the first one she has shown interest in and has that spiritual focus and legitimate calling about ministry work. When a guy is pursuing your daughter, you want to check him out and see if there are any red flags and with Ben, there hasn’t been. He is very sharp. It appears like a match made in heaven.”[xi] There are clear guidelines for what Jim Bob wants for each daughter and that includes a spouse with a ministry focus.
However, while Jessa followed all the courting guidelines and set the same example as her siblings by not engaging in any form of physical intimacy, except side hugs, until her wedding day, Jessa’s beliefs have not been as easy to define as her siblings. While Jim Bob tells her narrative according to traditional Christian patriarchy structure, Jessa and Ben have not told their narrative in the same manner. Especially as they are now an autonomous couple capable of shaping their own jurio-discursive narrative. Jessa and Ben are choosing to highlight a relationship built on partnership rather than male headship.
As Jessa recounts her memories of meeting Ben nowhere is her father in the narrative. Instead her brothers are the ones who invite Ben to her house for the first time. Jessa refers to “dating” not “courting” Ben after they both realize they love each other and want to marry. She does not refer to Ben as the leader of the family, instead in a blog post for Ben’s birthday on May 19, 2017, she thanks Ben for loving her “Just the way I am, and you’re not out to change my personality at all. But at the same time, you encourage me to be all that I can be and to push myself to do hard things.”[xii] She notes that Ben is often the one who apologizes first in an argument, helps co-parent their two small boys and enjoys cooking the family meals.[xiii] In Christian patriarchy marriages those tasks are left to the wives while the men are responsible for providing financially, spiritual leadership and family decisions. Ben also notes the partnership aspect of their relationship when for Mother’s Day 2017 he notes his admiration for her as a mother but ends with his thanks of sharing the job of parenting with her: “I count it an honor to work together with you, by the merciful help of God, to raise our children.”[xiv]
Ben and Jessa begin courting – this scene is Ben and Jessa’s perceptions along with showing how Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar enforce patriarchy culture norms on courtship. (TLC)
While they clearly are still close to the Duggar family and share the same conservative moral values[xv], Ben and Jessa made a clear distinction between their relationship and that of some of Jessa’s more conservative siblings when their wedding was broadcast on TLC in the final season of 19 Kids and Counting. Both Jessa and Ben chose to write their own vows, unlike Joshua and Anna, and the content of their vows is identical, illustrating a mutual respect and partnership in marriage and a diminishment of gender roles:
I promise to encourage you, to inspire you, and love you truly when we are together and when we are apart, when our lives are at peace and when they are in turmoil, when I am proud of you and when I am disappointed in you, in times of work and in times of rest. I promise to passionately pursue you, to pray for you, and to empower you to do the things that you dream. From the depth of my being, I will seek to be open and honest with you. I will forever be there to laugh with you, to lift you up, and to love you unconditionally, through all of our adventures in life together. I say these things believing that God is in the midst of them all.[xvi]
These are not patriarchy vows. There is no reference to headship of the home. There are references to partnership, honesty, and empowering the other to be the best person possible. This is terminology one would hear in many wedding ceremonies within and outside of Christian culture. The couple even conveniently arranged for their guests not to realize they did not kiss at the altar as they were pronounced man and wife, instead running from the sanctuary so they could share their first kiss in private. Unlike her siblings, Jessa did not make her first kiss a social statement, but an intimate moment as a couple.
In addition to illustrating a partnership approach to marriage, after their wedding Jessa and Ben were also vocal about their different choices regarding family planning. At a Q & A session for the Southern Women’s Show in Orlando, Florida, Jessa Seewald, noted while her parents are her inspiration for a good marriage she does not intend to have 19 children, implying that the couple perhaps does use some form of birth control or natural family planning.[xvii] Furthermore, while Jessa was quick to come to Joshua’s defense after the initial revelations came out that he had molested her, three of her sisters, and a family friend when she was a child, she and Ben were some of Joshua’s most outspoken critics, using Twitter and Instagram to voice frustration about his actions while other family members remained silent.
Discourse is the Most Powerful Tool Against Patriarchy Control
Within the narratives of Joshua and Jessa there are different stories about power and sex as constructed within the discourse of Christian patriarchy. They are stories of how patriarchy culture has tried, and ultimately failed, to control the discourse around sex in a way that solidifies the power of religious ideology in each relationship. Ultimately, however, for each Duggar child the discourse surrounding sex escapes in healthy and unhealthy ways. Indeed, each of their stories is not individualized, but told within a communal framework. As Foucault notes, it is not just the story of the authority of one individual over another but how an entire system controls the power of those individuals; and discourse is a powerful means to make individuals conform, reinforce rules, and perpetuate social norms.[i]
Jessa and Ben, while still within the family norms of belief, chose to take a much more public role in response to Joshua’s sexual indiscretion. Discourse is a powerful weapon and, while Jessa and Ben post no comments with their tweets, both tweeted a link to Ben’s parents blog on September 1, 2015, which featured an article directed at Joshua Duggar entitled “Grief Shame and Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain.” The article notes that, “Josh’s greatest sin is a byproduct of the sum total of his secretly sinful lifestyle. That is, that by his hypocrisy, he blasphemed the name of God. He claimed to be a Christian, but by his deeds he has suggested otherwise…. Josh was a pretender.[ii] Furthermore, on August 31, 2015, Jessa and Ben tweeted a link to a John Piper sermon “The Passions that Prevent Adultery” and on August 23, 2015, in the middle of the media storm surrounding the revelations of Joshua’s infidelity, Jessa tweeted a photo of I John 1:6-9 in the Bible, a passage stating you will be forgiven if you ask – a clear appeal to her brother to consider what he has done to the family.
Joshua and Jessa marital choices illustrate the dynamic and complicated layers of the laws of desire and how the juridico-discursive nature of sex can create a narrative filled with secrecy and control, as in Joshua and Anna’s marriage, or liberating narrative as in Jessa and Ben’s marriage. Foucault cautions that power is only accepted when it can be significantly masked. The entire Duggar family, through the unified discursive embodiment of male dominance on 19 Kids and Counting, put a light-hearted spin on a power structure that from one male family patriarch to the next insists on a strict order to sexual discourse and action. A stringent order such as the one Jim Bob and Joshua Duggar uphold is filled with secrecy and abuse. As Foucault explains:
Secrecy is not in the nature of abuse; it is indispensible to its operation. Not only because power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates, but because it is perhaps just as indispensible to the latter: would they accept it if they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom—however so slight— in tact.[iii]
Joshua is both dominated by the religious beliefs that govern his parents’ marriage, and also willing to accept the strict religious consequences of sexual deviance from those norms because it allows him a measure of freedom dominate Anna and fully control her sexual expression. Through secrecy he may choose, however often, to not follow the sexual discourse of Christian patriarchy culture because patriarchy culture values male power.
Yet, while Joshua has chosen to outwardly embrace his father’s sexual guidelines, Jessa has chosen a subtly resistive path to traditional patriarchy. While not outright condemning her family, Jessa and Ben have chosen through social media, their new show Counting On, and public speaking engagements to subtly resist the power network of patriarchy and define their relationship in a different dynamic than Joshua and Anna. As Foucault notes, resistance to law is not revolutionary but subtle continuous acts— some spontaneous and some strategic. While Joshua and Anna’s relationship illustrates how the discourse of sex can be used to transmit and produce power, there is a redemptive turn with Jessa and Ben whose relationship illustrates that patriarchy gender norms are fragile, thwartable and exposable.[iv]
[i] Foucault,. 92-97
[ii] Lee, Esther, “Ben Seewald’s Dad Michael Seewald Rips ‘Pretender’ Josh Duggar in New Blog Post: He Lived a “Lifestyle of Evil,” US Magazine, usmagazine.com, August 31, 2015,¶3-5
[iii] Foucault, 87
[iv] Foucault, 99-101
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Blair, Leonardo, “Roy Moore Dated Young Girls for Their ‘Purity’ Pastor Flip Benham Says,” November 22, 2017, http://www.christianpost.com, https://www.christianpost.com/news/roy-moore-dated-young-girls-for-their-purity-pastor-flip-benham-says-207546/
Brophy-Warren, Jamin, “Family Man: Meet the Producer Behind Jon and Kate, Table for 12 and 18 and Counting,” Slate.com, November 27, 2009,
Campbell, Nancy, Be Fruitful and Multiply (San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2003).
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chicagotribune.com, April 5, 2016.
Davies, Madeleine .“Josh Duggar Allegedly sued for Assaulting Woman during Sex.” Jezebel.com, November 18, 2015
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[i] Betsch, Mara,“ 8 Simple Rules for Dating a Duggar Daughter.” TLC.com, October 29, 2014, ¶3 http://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/19-kids-and-counting/games-and-more/rules-dating-duggar-daughter/
[ii] Figure 8 Films, “Josh Gets Engaged.” 17 Kids and Counting, TLC, October 6, 2008
[iii] In Touch Weekly, “Josh Cheated With Me,” September 7, 2015. & Madeleine Davies, “Josh Duggar Allegedly sued for Assaulting Woman during Sex.” Jezebel.com, November 18, 2015, http://jezebel.com/josh-duggar-sued-for-allegedly-assaulting-woman-during-1743391205
[iv] Foucault, 83
[v] Mollenkott, Virginia, “Dialogue with Bill Gothard,” Faith at Work, 1975, 26
[vi] Figure 8 Films, “Duggar Dating Rules,” 17 Kids and Counting, TLC, October 6, 2008
[vii] Wheat, Ed, Staying in Love for a Lifetime, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001)
[viii] Figure 8 Films, “A Very Duggar Wedding,” 18 Kids and Counting, TLC, January 25, 2009
[ix] Foucault, 84
[x] Figure 8 Films, “A Duggar Says Yes,” 19 Kids and Counting, TLC, April 1, 2014.
[xi] Dennis, 2013, ¶10
[xii] Seewald, Jessa, “Happy Birthday Ben! The Seewalds Ben and Jessa,
theseewaldfamily.com, May 19, 2017, ¶15 http://theseewaldfamily.com/2017/5/happy-birthday-ben
[xiii] Seewald, Jessa, “Anniversary Message from Jessa! The Seewalds Ben and Jessa,
theseewaldfamily.com, November 1, 2017, ¶11
[xiv] Seewald, Ben, “Happy Mothers Day Jessa,” The Seewalds Ben and Jessa,
theseewaldfamily.com, May 14, 2017,¶3
[xv] The Seewalds Ben and Jessa, “News Media and Biblical Worldview,” January 24, 2017, &
Seewald, Ben, “Ambassadors for Christ,” March 11, 2016, theseewaldfamily.com.
[xvi] Figure 8 Films,”Jessa’s Wedding,” 19 Kids and Counting, TLC, March 31, 2015
[xvii] Murphy, 2015