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What the Duggars Get Wrong About Chastity

On Tuesday nights this past year, you could find me and my roommates gathered around the TV for our weekly bonding activity: watching TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting with a big bowl of popcorn on the table and a glass of wine in hand. Though intended to be a way to unwind from schoolwork and senior year anxieties, watching Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their nineteen kids (plus grandchildren) often led to some interesting discussions.

On the one hand, my roommates and I found many of the family members endearing, and we appreciated their wholesomeness. On the other hand, like many viewers, we criticized the family’s approach to sexual morality, not out of disdain for their high regard for purity, but because the rules they’ve created for romantic relationships distort the true nature of chastity.

In the Duggar family, children who are courting (as opposed to dating, which is forbidden) must be chaperoned whenever they spend time with their significant others, even when texting or talking over Skype. They don’t hold hands until they’re engaged, and all hugs with the opposite sex must be “side hugs” that avoid any frontal contact. They eschew dancing as an occasion of sin. They don’t kiss until their wedding day. The Duggars, who describe themselves as independent Baptists, admit that these rules aren’t necessarily biblical.

There’s something disturbing about the fear that spending time with a boyfriend in a public place such as a park or a restaurant, or Skyping with a girlfriend, will inevitably lead to sin. Chastity, which the Catechism describes as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (2337), is a form of temperance, the virtue that orders our appetites and desires. Given human concupiscence and how easy it is for us to misdirect our God-given desire for intimacy, it’s understandable that temperance in romantic relationships and situations entails boundaries and restrictions.

Yet couples can’t spend their whole lives being chaperoned. Yes, they should reasonably expect their friends and families to hold them accountable. But the realities of life will sometimes put them in situations in which the habits they have formed will be crucial to how they respond. What’s going to happen if unforeseen circumstances force an unmarried couple to spend a night together? Or when a spouse is deployed overseas for a year? Can they practice virtue without one of their mothers breathing down their necks?

Let’s take another example. There’s been more than one news story over the past year highlighting the phenomenon of some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men delaying flights because, for fear of being tempted, they refuse to sit next to a woman who is not their wife or an immediate relative. A generous person might sympathize with their perseverance in living out their values; most object to their inconveniencing passengers for what many would consider sexist reasons. I think there’s another reason that people don’t take kindly to these men’s actions: Even in a culture that rejects the existence of sin and embraces sexual liberty as its highest ideal, people implicitly understand that only a depraved man would be tempted by a woman on an airplane who’s minding her own business and isn’t seeking attention through her words, actions, or dress.

To esteem purity while being unable or unwilling to exercise it in day-to-day life is not the sexual integration the Catechism calls chastity. In fact, the Duggars’ and ultra-Orthodox Jews’ rigid rule-based system is a cop-out: It’s much easier to say, “Don’t touch anyone, ever, unless you’re married” than to make prudential judgments about how to be chaste in particular circumstances. The virtues demand effort precisely because they are means between extremes. Chastity allows the soul to govern the body so that a person can give of him or herself to others properly in every context. A sexual ethic based on fear, on the other hand, keeps us away from others. Love and fear are mutually exclusive.

The irony of the Duggars’ and some ultra-Orthodox Jews’ sexual mores is that they end up sexualizing nearly all human touch. Holding hands, rather than being a form of affection, or an expression of comfort, or a method of guidance, is reduced to sexual desire. Bumping elbows with your seatmate on the plane becomes an occasion of sin.

This isn’t to say that there are no set-in-stone rules; premarital sex and actions leading up to it are objectively wrong because they separate the conjugal act from its meaning. But there’s never a clear answer to the classic “How far is too far?” question because individuals and the contexts and cultures they live in vary, requiring them to put some serious thought and effort into living virtuously.

When the Duggars say that almost all human touch between men and women goes “too far,” they miss opportunities for cultivating virtuous relationships with the opposite sex. They’re right that chastity isn’t easy—it’s no wonder the Dominican apostolate dedicated to its cause is the rather militant-sounding Angelic Warfare Confraternity—but it’s worth fighting for the freedom to love that comes with governing the passions.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • josephine57

    In a world obsessed with sexual behavior, I found their rules a welcome contrast to the “hooking up” culture. We have two or three generations of fatherless children, so I am a fan of less sexual behavior outside of marriage. All touching is not sexual, but you would be surprised how warped touching has become for a lot of people.

    • Claire

      Between the hooking up culture and no holding hands before being engaged, I’m sure there is a middle ground…

      When teaching anything to a child, from maths to chastity, one can only consider the teaching as achieved when the child can do it in their own, without help from the parents.
      This is the independence and trust that is lacking to these rules.

      Some rules for dating are good, but it’s good to let them make their own decisions as they grow up.

    • But the way to correct the warping is not to eliminate touch but to model proper touch and the proper place of touch. That is the problem, the Duggars are not an alternative to the hookup culture, they are sexualizing everything just as much.

      Right behavior, right understanding of sexuality, right understanding of Christian morality is not the absence of sexuality, or a rigid behavior system that takes no account of the personhood of the other. Right behavior in traditional Christian thought places the other before yourself. Submitting your sexual desires to the Lord not by avoiding others, but by seeing others as created by God, loved by God and Imagio Dei, just as you are.

      • Melinda Selmys

        Yes. And I think it helps to keep in mind that the liberal “hook-up” culture also promotes certain forms of paranoid touch-elimination — think of the attempts to eradicate, for example, small children giving hugs to teachers or camp counsellors. Little kids hug naturally, and teaching them from the age of 4 that all physical affection is potentially problematic (especially since they will eventually learn that it’s problematic because it’s potentially sexual) just promotes the idea that you can’t have physical affection without sex. Eliminating non-sexual touch creates emotional hunger — and then suggests that sex is the only way to alleviate it.

      • Chris Dagostino

        The problem is that young Christian adults aren’t placing their sexualities into the hands of the God who knows what’s best for us; they’re placing them into the hands of modern-day Origens like Bill Gothard and Joshua Harris who, I believe, are at least partially motivated by a desire to impose their own social ineptitude and sexual repression on others. I’ve experienced it firsthand. I was saved at age 19, and it’s only now in my mid-30s that the term “God-given sexuality” doesn’t sound like an oxymoron.

        • libertybells2

          and we do know what has happened to Bill Gothard.

    • Ladasha Smithson

      Agreed. Articles like this never offer any wisdom. They tell us what not to do rather than provide alternatives. How can the hook-up culture be surprise when young Christians and Catholics are told their whole lives not to do “courting”.

      • David

        I agree that this is often a problem. But in this case the article *did* offer the pertinent wisdom possible.
        “But there’s never a clear answer to the classic “How far is too far?” question because individuals and the contexts and cultures they live in vary, requiring them to put some serious thought and effort into living virtuously.”

        “Courtship” is an attempt to give a clear answer to the problem, which is why it is so problematic. Both because it tries to give clear rules and answers when there often are none, and because it removes much of the need to put serious thought and effort into living virtuously.

        In contrast, the author points out that there are no clear answer to the problem thus it requires putting serious thought and effort into living virtuously. That is wisdom, that is alternative provided.

    • Amanda Morrow

      The ironic thing is though, the purity culture subset is arguably much more sex-obsessed than the rest of it. You’re right when you say that “all touching is not sexual”… but purity culture makes it so. Also, I think this article did a great job of pointing out that there is middle ground to be had between “hook up culture” and the culture which argues that all touching is sin and women’s bodies are the source of that sin. We don’t have to have all the legalism to avoid fatherless children and hook up culture. It’s not as though we have to choose Kardashian OR Duggar. “Neither extreme” IS an option, and this article very eloquently fleshed out, with a measured approach, how chastity should function.

  • Brandon Beke

    This is a very insightful article. Because of our oversexed culture there is a temptation to do the complete opposite. However as the author makes clear, this puritan approach to meaningful opposite sex relationships distorts the true meaning of human sexual it and only reinforces the idea that people cannot learn to grow in virtue and control their sexual appetites. I do think that courting can be a good replacement for dating as long as the rigors here proposed are more laxed and more reasonable. All in all this article touches on a very important point and I thank the author for her insight.

  • eve

    Very well put!

  • Chastity is a direction not a line. <– the key point the vast majority of "chastity" material gets wrong.

    • Hermonta Godwin

      I would say that it is both a direction and a line. If there is no line then there is nothing that can absolutely be considered unchaste. I don’t see how a Catholic could buy into such relativism.

      • Chastity is a virtue. Virtues are about choosing positive actions. Obviously, in choosing positive actions you eschew some negative ones but chastity is about respect for my body and sexuality, and those of others – it isn’t primarily about no sex before marriage.

        • Hermonta Godwin

          My original response to you was based on you pitting direction vs. a line. Saying that something is a positive/negative action implies that there is a fixed point from which one is measuring (aka a line). If you only meant to say that Chastity is also a direction and not only a line, then I would have had no problem with your statement.

          • In summarizing any point in 1 line, some subtlety will be lost. I admit this looses that the direction implies a line as a secondary part of of chastity.
            My experience, and many others was that it was taught as primarily or only a line. The line (negative, don’t) is secondary after the direction (positive, respect, do).

  • Rasha Trumbo

    I very much dislike the way fear is used in many Christian traditions as a way to keep couples within check. At the same time, however, through my experience working in a diverse environment with many different cultures, I have found that our American idea of “casual touch” is not in fact true. A woman who is being discreet, friendly, and modest by our standards, or even by the standards of more conservative cultures, will STILL be forced to that place, at least verbally, of wondering “what went wrong” and why the man on the other end of the phone, or the room, or the chat line, feels that way about her. What I discovered was that chastity is best learned through a respect of self, and that too I feel is severely missing from many Christian traditions. I, as a Muslim woman, believe that I have been created with a value and dignity so great that men can’t even look at it unless I (through marriage or blood kinship) extend that right to them. I think that’s a much healthier and truer way to look at chastity, and it focuses more on the truth about humans’ God-given dignity as well as their need and will to protect it, rather than ruling by fear and wondering how far we can go before the knuckles get slapped, so to speak!

    • enness

      “I, as a Muslim woman, believe that I have been created with a value and dignity so great that men can’t even look at it unless I (through marriage or blood kinship) extend that right to them.”

      I have described it much the same way.

  • Will

    Congratulations! You’ve been able to turn someone’s personal tragedy into a way to get attention and readers. I’m sure you feel great about yourself from profiting from their pain.

    • Audra Nakas

      Will, I don’t expect you to believe me, but the timing of this article with the Ashley Madison scandal was purely coincidental. I purposely didn’t insinuate a causal connection between the Duggars’ beliefs and Josh’s molestation scandal because that would be incredibly unfair to them.

  • Nathaniel Glenn

    Very fine article, Ms. Nakas.

  • Elizabeth Anderson

    Very well said. Could not agree more!

  • Jess

    As someone who has experienced a relationship similar to that of the “Duggar way”, I can speak from my experience. I do not “sexual” all human contact nor do most couples who enter relationships like this. Speaking for myself, I find that my connection with my husband is on a deeper level because I shared things like my first kiss with him. But that doesn’t mean that any man who touches me I immediately think “oh he must want to get into bed with me”. Also, I disagree with you about the fear that you spoke of of the opposite sex being in the same room. Nowadays, there is SO much pressure on young people to and especially young women to give in to a man’s need for sex. I know that young men, Christian men, struggle with sexuality whether it be with pornography, masturbation, etc. and I think that that fear is sometimes the only thing that stops them from doing things that they later on regret. It’s kind of like the fear my parents instilled in me in regards to doing wrong. Because of that little voice in the back of my mind, I made decisions that kept me on the right path. That fear doesn’t stop me from embracing my sexuality as a married woman. That fear kept me from making decisions that could actually hinder my sexuality as a married woman.

    Also, as a note, the Duggar family does not force their children to follow the guidelines such as hand holding only after engagement, instead, the tell the couples that they need to pray about it and figure out what God wants them to do as a couple. I do agree that the chaperoning every date, every text, every conversation is a little much and makes it difficult to really get to know your potential spouse but as someone who understands the desire that comes into play in romantic relationships, I can understand why someone would choose to have a chaperone in order to hold themselves accountable.

    Just my thoughts!

  • Hope Klein

    Orthodox Jewish laws about ritual/ family purity are what drive the standard not to shake hands or otherwise touch a woman. Touching a woman on her period would make them ritually unclean and they wouldn’t know to do anything about it before touching a sacred object like a Torah scroll. They certainly aren’t about to ask every woman if she’s on her period so they just don’t touch opposite gender. A close relative would know to avoid touch on those days so that’s why it’s OK.

    • Audra Nakas

      Hope, thanks for your comment. I’m wondering, though, why apparently only a subset of ultra-Orthodox Jews interpret purity laws as requiring them not to sit next to women on an airplane. Further, one of the NYT articles linked to this post advocating for strict separation of the sexes in order to avoid temptation:

      I have no idea how representative this is of Orthodox Judaism or even of ultra-Orthodox Judaism; my article is a critique of a particular line of thinking, not of any particular religious tradition.

  • Even allowing for the proper understanding of chastity as being more about a good and wholesome attitude than mere external observances, I have to say that the Duggars’ rules don’t strike me as having been bad. They would have been normative 100 years ago. Given how screwed up things are now, I’m not sure we have even the ability to judge properly.

  • happiernow

    I grew up in a religious environment similar to the one that the Duggars represent. I have always felt that the rules around contact with the opposite sex (including those side-hugs!) increased the sexual tension and desire between young men and women. In other words, the rules had the opposite effect than what the adults in charge wanted. When I was at public school and I hugged a guy friend, it was just a hug. But when I was at church camp and I hugged a guy friend, it was deliciously fraught with sexual danger!

    • Chris Dagostino

      And as I said in my post above, I think that’s the idea. The more prominent voices in the whole “True Love Waits” fiasco wanted other peoples’ sexualities to be as misunderstood and problematic for others as it is for them.

  • Mina Milburn

    Another thought to confirm your point: When Jesus points out that it is not what is on the exterior that defiles, but what comes from the heart… A responsible Christian should be master over his thoughts and feelings. Unchastity can occur with no other person present, it begins in the mind. It takes intentional awareness of where your appetites and thoughts are to stop sins against chastity, not chaperones, side-hugs and the elimination of dancing.