Who defends a child molester? To one group of conservatives on the internet, the answer is: me.

One of the first things that comes up if you search my name online is a blog post titled “Does Jia Tolentino Support Sexually Abusing Children?” In it, the author—whose Twitter profile indicates he writes for Return of Kings, a notorious troll website—brings up my review of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, as well as my argument against the reading that Dunham molested her younger sister Grace by peering into her vagina when the girl was a toddler.

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The guy writes, “Tolentino’s defense of child rape makes her morally unfit to be employed by any reputable publication.” He says my “peers in the media have participated in a campaign to excuse and cover up Dunham’s history of incestuous sexual abuse.” He goes on: “The only explanation for Tolentino’s tortured defense of Dunham is that she approves of incestuous child molestation, or at least is sufficiently morally warped to not recognize that it’s wrong.

This is a stretch, to put it mildly. The idea that progressivism leads a person to not take child molestation seriously is a deliberately blockheaded conclusion that I wouldn’t entertain except for the fact that, right now, it’s being widely resuscitated in the name of Josh Duggar, who we now know was once investigated by police for committing sexual offenses against five separate minors, including some of his sisters—incidents after which Duggar was sent to work on a home remodeling project as a form of “Christian counseling” by his father, who subsequently went on the record calling incest a capital crime.

In a piece at The Blaze titled “The Duggars Aren’t Hypocrites. Progressives Are,” Matt Walsh writes:

I simply don’t believe most progressives actually care that Josh Duggar touched his sisters when he was 14. I don’t believe they are upset about it, or that it offends them, or that they are morally troubled by it. I don’t believe them. I just don’t.

Bolstering this idea is, naturally, “liberal hero” Dunham, dragged once again into the mix. The comparison has proved tempting, for Walsh and many more:

But, of course, there are much bigger differences between a self-reported incident of looking curiously at your one-year-old sister’s vagina when you’re seven, and repeatedly touching your sisters’ and other children’s vagina and breasts when you’re 14 and they’re asleep. To equivocate the two situations, you have to deny the difference between a self-reported incident that troubled no one in the family and a prolonged behavior pattern severe enough to be investigated by the police. You have to pretend that a seven-year-old is not meaningfully different from a 14-year-old, in comprehension, development, and sexual awareness.

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As I’ve written, I think children deserve the right to a non-sexual understanding of the body; I also think it’s obvious to the actor when those years are over. To impute sexual desire to a 14-year-old boy touching his sister’s vagina while she’s sleeping is not unreasonable, and likely necessary; to do the same to a seven-year-old acting cluelessly in public is reckless.

And yet, the comparison between Dunham and Duggar is proving irresistible, accompanied on both sides with the insistence that the other camp is hypocritical. The cry of “hypocrite” is constant when liberals and conservatives are confronted with each other’s sexual values; both sides constantly violate each other’s sense of sexual morality while asserting that they have the proper understanding of what’s right. Meanwhile, the bad conclusion beckons underneath everything: “If [LIBERAL/CONSERVATIVE] is defending [DUNHAM/DUGGAR], he or she must on some level approve of child sexual abuse.

It’s a shallow and easy argument; it’s also obviously untrue. Proud pedophiles aside, no one approves of child sexual abuse. Even ignoring the vast differences in the Dunham and Duggar cases, the defense of either person isn’t proof of prima facie hypocrisy—which necessitates a transgression of your own avowed belief system, not someone else’s—but rather, proof of the immense, difficult gap between two moral belief systems. One is faith-based, relying on God as the arbiter; the other, consent-based, relies on us.

Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism writes eloquently about how these false equivalencies are sustained, in particular, by the Christian right:

The assumption here is that progressives wouldn’t have a problem with, say, an atheist sexually molesting children—but that could not be further from the truth.

[...] There seems to be an assumption among some social conservatives that because progressives do not see premarital sex as sinful and wrong, they aren’t in any position to criticize Josh Duggar’s actions. In other words, because (in their view) progressives take an “anything goes” approach to sex, they argue, progressives are being hypocrites when they condemn Josh Duggar. This assumption is based in a serious misunderstanding of progressive sexual ethics.

She has a “Tale of Two Boxes” explanation of the ethical calculus that determines conservative and liberal sexual ideologies, respectively—and get confused with each other, constantly, because of the transferable labels of “right” and “wrong.”

“For social conservatives,” she writes, “child sexual molestation is in the same category as gay sex or consensual premarital sex. When divided in this way, sexual molestation doesn’t look all that different from consensual premarital sex.”

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In other words, for the Duggar camp, the only sexual behavior that can be spoken about without apologizing is sex within the bounds of marriage. Everything else is wrong, and more similar for it. On the other side of the equation—the progressive camp—what’s right is what’s freely agreed to. It’s a standard determined not by religious doctrine but by a straightforward interpersonal equation—a yes and a yes, every time.

These two conceptions of sexual morality are inherently separated and, at their extremes, incompatible. I’d guess that progressives aren’t upset to de-prioritize someone else’s Judeo-Christian morality; I wonder if Christian conservatives are upset to de-prioritize consent.

The Christian sexual tradition is based—as it is on the far right, firmly—in the idea of near-unconditional female submission. Even in 2015, it’s inevitable that a sexual belief system with God as the standard and arbiter leads to a standard where consent matters less. In the worst cases—as is visible in some reactions to the Duggar situation, where his error is located in some vague over-sexualization rather than a knowing breach of consent—sex with God as the arbiter can lead to consent barely factoring in at all.

Writes Libby Anne:

There are all sorts of problems with putting any sexual contact outside of marriage in the same category. For one thing, victims of sexual assault, including children, may end of feeling that they are in some way guilty of what happened—after all, sexual contact outside of marriage is considered sin. For another thing, a teenager sexually molesting children may be treated as a similar offense to a teenager having consensual sex with his girlfriend.

Both things, within a Christian framework—sex before marriage, and molesting children—require forgiveness, redemption, the transformative grace of God. Both things necessitate a level of secrecy and concealment that, in progressive ideology, is in itself the marker of sexual wrong.

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And there’s the one place where the conservatives and I meet: secrecy and concealment, for both of our ideologies, are sure signs of sexual transgression. But for Christians, sexual transgression is so omnipresent that it is essentially inevitable; their moral tradition is based in the idea that humans were born in sin, and their moral practices rope off an enormous amount of sexuality as sinful. Secrecy and concealment become naturalized, nearly mandated—an unfortunate side effect of sexuality as it struggles to achieve the difficult moral divine.

Matt Walsh writes at the Blaze:

I’m not diminishing Josh Duggar’s infractions. As I said, he did something very bad. Horrendous. Disturbing. Evil. These were major sins. But Christians commit major sins sometimes, which is the whole reason why Jesus died on the cross.

When conservatives wonder how anyone can defend Lena Dunham, a woman they think is a child molester, the answer is not that her defenders support child abuse, or that they don’t think sexual ethics are as important as they say. The answer comes down to a belief system based on consent, not Christianity—a belief system that can sustain the idea both that sexual ethics are paramount and also that Dunham didn’t egregiously violate any as a seven-year-old girl.

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Of course, to them, we seem like we’re picking and choosing, serving our own interests. That’s what we get for thinking that God doesn’t determine sexual morality, but rather that we do, every time. That’s what we get for not believing that we were born in ethical violation—imperfect creatures, like Josh Duggar, in repentance for being so depraved.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.

Illustration by Jim Cooke; Two Boxes image from Love, Joy, Feminism