The Right to a Sexual Narrative: On the Lena Dunham Abuse Claims


The latest phase in the relentless Lena Dunham outrage cycle is an explosive one: people are accusing her of sexual abuse because of a passage in her memoir where she, at age seven, investigates her one-year-old sister’s vagina.

I first found out about this because, over the weekend, a small fedora filled with communicable diseases tweeted at me that, as per my review of Not That Kind of Girl, advertisers should be warned that Jezebel “promote[s] child molestation as ‘welcome.'”

I blocked him, as is tradition. I also immediately recalled the particular passage he was referring to, which was to me non-predatory but certainly odd behavior very oddly described:

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.
My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”
My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did.

Oh yeah, that’s some weird shit. You ever do some weird shit when you were a kid? Me too.There’s a lot of stuff that happens between the ages of five and 10 that I think we forget, or forget to talk about—the super-strange games, the odd fixations, the incredibly specific fears—and early bodily exploration, inappropriate in any context outside the honest innocence of childhood, is kept secret most of all.

That, anyway, is why I had described the frank, confessional physicality of Dunham’s writing as “welcome.” I think life would be better if we brought these anecdotes to light more often. Childhood bodily play is peculiar and near-universal and complicated, with a thousand valid valences on the long spectrum from normative to predatory. To me, these stories are mostly early and wonderful examples of the body as a zone of curiosity free from the burden of adulthood and sex, but of course, in a few cases, they are darker: reminders that children don’t have a lot of agency, or remembrances of unplumbed abuse.

To some people, Dunham’s story looks very much the latter way. It was the conservative media outlet TruthRevolt that incited this discussion by posting the Not That Kind of Girl passage with Dunham’s age originally (and disingenuously) quoted as 17, under the headline “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” Dunham responded to this “right wing news story” quickly and sharply. The conversation picked up as writers who are on the other side of the political spectrum—who I respect greatly, and are normally a gulf of ideology away from TruthRevolt or Return of Kings—voiced their fervent agreement. Feminist writer Mikki Kendall wrote, “The gap between the attitudes that let R. Kelly prosper & the ones who excuse Dunham is incredibly thin. Nonexistent to be honest.” Lachrista Greco, founder of Guerrilla Feminism, added, “It’s NOT NORMAL. It’s NOT OKAY.”

As usual, the problem is attributed to failures in feminism; unusually, these two far-off wings agree. “This is a problem, white feminists. I can’t abide your fear of calling out people from your own ranks. I can’t abide you checking out of difficult conversations,” wrote Jen Pink at the Flounce. “When did sexually abusing the most vulnerable and innocent human beings become a ‘cute book’? Welcome to feminism,” wrote a Twitter user with “troll” in his username and “feminism deserves no intellectual respect” in his bio. Many, many tweets under #DropDunham say that it is lazy, white, toxic feminism that allowed this abuse to go on.

There is a certain amount of space missing here, between the point where a person might read the passage in Not That Kind of Girl and not find it abusive, and the point where that person is identified—no matter what—as a white person abandoning intersectionality to promote sexual abuse in the interest of not wanting to call out one of her own.

It is fundamentally difficult for people—parents, researchers, peers—to identify the fuzzy and necessarily, inherently self-defined line between normative childhood behavior and potential sexual abuse. Women, and people who have worked with victims of sexual abuse or been victims themselves, are (quite understandably) more likely to describe a behavior as abusive that other people would describe as normal, unremarkable, fine.

To put it bluntly, bias is a big player in this game. In the interest of wanting to escape my own as much as possible, I contacted Debby Herbenick, PhD, an associate professor at Indiana University, writer for the Kinsey Institute, and author of Sex Made Easy. “As for me, I didn’t think that the incident flagged as anything more than casual childhood weirdness,” I wrote, “but I am very interested to see around the issue in any new ways.”

Herbenick wrote back: “The first study that I worked on as a research assistant 15 years ago was about adults’ memories of how they behaved as children in these ways. I had become interested in the topic because in college I had worked on several different preschool and kindergarten classrooms.” She continued:

Anyone who has worked in K or pre-K will tell you that you’re often having to remind little children not to touch their genitals and to keep their hands to themselves, because genital exploration is very, very common among young children. Ask any parent of young children and they will also have stories to tell (I’ve worked with parents of young children for years about how to talk with their own children about bodies, puberty, and so on and these instances always come up: not just about kids exploring their own bodies but about how kids explore with each other).
Dunham’s story is not one of sexual exploration and she doesn’t describe any sexual acts. The story she tells is one of bodily exploration; sex is not a part of it. Her story also includes her sister’s own exploration in that it turns out her sister had been putting pebbles inside her own vagina (some small girls put things in their vaginas—toys, pebbles, Legos, etc—there is a case study of a 4 year old girl who put a Bratz doll in her vagina).
People who are attaching sex to these stories seem to equate the genitals with sex, but that’s not how young children see their genitals. Dunham’s story is not an uncommon one. The research (and any preschool or home with young children) is full of stories of childhood ‘play’ not so different than this one.

“Older siblings often change the younger sibling’s diaper, apply diaper cream,” added Herbenick. “The point being: genital touching is not in and of itself sexual. As adults, we should know that. We bathe ourselves, we go to the bathroom, we itch ourselves, we touch our genitals for various reasons throughout the day. They really are just another body part. And unless someone is doing something sexual with them, they don’t have to be considered sexual.”

This brings up something that I think about frequently. To be an adult woman is to have your body be near-universally read as a sexual object when, on the inside, you often feel very different, like a Pokemon or a hungover bag of meat. If there is anything I remember fondly about childhood, the freedom from that one-to-one tie between sex and the body is tied right up there with MarioKart marathons and pretending I was asleep on car rides so that my parents would have to carry me inside. It is incredibly valuable to have an experience of the bodyuntethered from transactional calculation; it is one of the coolest things about being a kid. And acknowledging childhood incidents that show the body, even the genitalia, as a space of exploration aside from the exploration of sex is one of the only ways that we can allow the body in adulthood to be non-sexually curious and marvelous and strange.

On the newly-founded Those Kinds of Girls tumblr, all sorts of anonymous accounts are coming in about childhood memories that are—like Dunham’s—uncomfortable, awkward, funny, and to all parties actually involved, non-abusive. I trust these readings. I always think we should trust what people, and particularly women, say about their life experience. If they say they were harmed, we should believe them; if they, like Grace Dunham, say they were not, what do we gain by pushing victimhood on them when they don’t want it?

There is enough real abuse out there. There are enough people who never got that freedom to let their own kid bodies be unburdened. Part of granting people the ability to tell their own sexual narrative is granting them the ability to tell their own sexual narrative, whether it matches your reading or not.

Still there’s the question of language to consider. You could say that Dunham could have used some different words. At one point in this chapter, she describes her unrequited affection for her younger sister as manifesting in actions “a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl.” But this figurative language, in poor taste given the context—and unremarkable in the context of the many other tone-deaf moments in the memoir—is not in itself telling, not at all. What’s she really talking about here? I offer my friends candy; I invite them into my car. I handle nice takeout sandwiches gently, because I want them to be firm when I shove them in my mouth. Am I predatory? Towards sandwiches, absolutely. Am I using dumb language? Oh, for sure. Hinting at a consent problem? Hell motherfucking no.

People are also getting caught up on the fact that Dunham says that her sister “didn’t resist.” That is bad wording, but it’s also important: her sister, a baby at the time, was not made uncomfortable, was not put in a state of panic or pain. For a seven-year-old touching a sibling whose diaper she has likely assisted in changing, that’s a reasonable metric to think that your actions are okay.

Which isn’t to say it was actually okay. It wasn’t! Get out of there, Lena! But the area between “Well, let’s never do that again” and “This is sexual abuse” is significant and real and crucial to delineate if we want to preserve our ability to identify, indict and prosecute the latter. The problem is that no one ever told Dunham her freedom had a limit. The fact that Dunham off-handedly writes that her mother didn’t correct her because peering into vaginas was just “within the spectrum of things [she] did” is indicative of something that is at the root of every tiresome Dunham backlash: the fact that, of all the things this young artist has included in the vast multimedia portrayal of her own experience, there are very, very few moments of true consideration for any difficulties contained in experiences that are not her own.

More often, as Carolyn Edgar writes at Slate, Dunham seems “troublingly averse to adult reflection on her life.” That’s the root of the careless language, the sloppily assembled memory: that’s a matter of the upbringing that made her as successfully self-absorbed as she is. And self-absorption, in most cases, has to be trained out of you eventually, in the same way that sexuality eventually gets trained in. From Herbenick:

Our bodies are our own. But you know how many kids learn that? From touching each other and getting caught by parents or babysitters and reminded not to do it. ‘Not okay’ is not the same as rape culture. And a seven-year-old is very different developmentally than a 12-year-old who, by that time, should know better. Most children touch their own genitals and most touch other kids’ genitals too. Some get caught. Some don’t. Those who get caught usually get scolded and taught how to behave in socially appropriate ways. That’s how we become decent adults.

Dunham wasn’t scolded; Dunham, whose parents were maybe compensating for the gendered form of policing they knew awaited her, was not taught very strictly how to “behave.” And what’s happening to her now is what happens to a talented person who seems to have gone slightly deaf to legitimate reprimands due to the fact that she’s been scolded so much for the wrong reasons: being female, or being naked, or looking unconventional, or now, “committing sexual abuse.” It’s a weighty and wrongful accusation, tainted by the perversion that it pretends to guard against. To attribute sexual abuse to a seven-year-old is to attribute sexuality to a seven-year-old, which is cruel and invasive in any circumstances, no matter who that seven-year-old grew up to be.

Image via AP.

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