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What the Lena Dunham child abuse allegations are really about

Dunham's critics have been quick to brand her a child molester, and we need to ask ourselves why.


Marie Southard Ospina

Internet Culture

Posted on Nov 5, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 6:42 am CDT

There are already over 400,000 Google search results for the phrase, “Lena Dunham molestation accusations.” Twitter has been exploding solidly for over 72 hours with millions of people joining in the “discussion,” and Dunham has already canceled two appearances of her European book tour. In case you missed it, the latest controversy surrounding the author is the result of Kevin D. Williamson’s National Review article, “Pathetic Privilege.” Williamson argues that Dunham may have sexually abused her younger sister, Grace, as described in her collection of essays Not That Kind of Girl.

Following his article (within which, by the way, he also defends “Barry,” the man who Lena accuses of date raping her in college), online publication Truth Revolt (staffed by writers and correspondents who “[focus] on high-profile [leftist] media members, and holding them accountable”) fueled Williamson’s attack, headlining (or scaremongering) with, ”Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.”

Together, these two publications have started one of those cycles of blame, hate, and bashing that only the sheer force of the Internet and Twitter can create. And yet, the content within them is just so plainly misguided.

There are three primary passages that both Williamson and Truth Revolt’s Bradford Thomas take issue with. I will quote them in full:

Passage One:

I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old. She was afraid to sleep alone and would begin asking me around 5:00 P.M. every day whether she could sleep with me. I put on a big show of saying no, taking pleasure in watching her beg and sulk, but eventually I always relented. Her sticky, muscly body thrashed beside me every night as I read Anne Sexton, watched reruns of SNL, sometimes even as I slipped my hand into my underwear to figure some stuff out.

Passage Two

‘Do we all have uteruses?’ I asked my mother when I was seven.

‘Yes,’ she told me. ‘We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.’ I looked at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.

‘Does her vagina look like mine?’

‘I guess so,’ my mother said. ‘Just smaller.’

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 that I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.

Passage Three

As [Grace] grew, I took to bribing her for her time and affection: one dollar in quarters if I could do her makeup like a ‘motorcycle chick.’ Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me.’ Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying… What I really wanted, beyond affection, was to feel that she needed me, that she was helpless without her big sister leading her through the world. I took a perverse pleasure in delivering bad news to her—the death of our grandfather, a fire across the street—hoping that her fear would drive her into my arms, would make her trust me.

I will not pretend to be a child psychologist, nor will I assume I can know anything about the nature of Dunham’s early interactions with her sister. I can only speak from experience—my own childhood experiences, my experiences as a sister, my experiences as a nanny, and my experiences as a woman brought up to be ashamed of any kind of bodily exploration or sexuality. (I once asked a teacher what a dildo was. She told me it was something prostitutes use because they can’t live without sex. When I asked my mom about it later, she seconded that opinion.) All of which have led me to believe that National Review and Truth Revolt’s accusation of Dunham’s “unsettling” and “disturbing” behavior is completely and unequivocally wrong.

That children will, at some point in time, discover their genitals is unavoidable, and that is just as it should be. Curiosity and childhood go hand in hand, and sadly, our desires to explore can dissipate as we grow older. Yet, since this Lena Dunham molestation debate commenced, the word “pedophile” has been dangerously thrown around. But here’s the thing: A child can’t be a pedophile.

And here’s another thing we need to remember about the current Dunham debate: Female sexuality is suppressed. Before puberty, girls’ interest in discussions of female sexuality or exploration can often be shamed or ignored, because many adults still find it far too awkward or scary to talk about things like sex or genitalia. But after puberty, many young women are taught to revert to the innocence of pre-pubescent girls: to the shaved vagina, to the image of some kind of girl-woman. There are so many mixed messages floating around that girls grow up completely unsure as to what is OK and what is not when it comes to the body.

Personally, I don’t think I knew I had an actual vagina until I was way past puberty. I was well acquainted with my labia majora, of course, but the thought of exploring my inner realms never occurred to me—perhaps because I grew up in an extremely Catholic household, and perhaps because my mother avoided (and still avoids) the word vagina.

I didn’t know much about anatomy or sex until I was well into my teens, and I know this was the case for many of my female peers. In a lot of ways, I envy Dunham. She experienced (what I would consider) a far healthier exploration of the body, at a far more natural age. In Not That Kind of Girlshe writes that she learned to masturbate in the third grade (approximately age nine), and confesses that she “always had an interest in nudity, one [she] would describe as more sociological than sexual.”

When I was 15, I developed a fear of my vagina. Puberty had commenced, and I noticed that along with my hips and boobs, my vagina was growing, too. I was terrified that it was fat. I would never be able to have sex, because who would want to look at a fat vagina?

So I asked my sister, then 22, to show me hers for comparison. She did. And I showed her mine. There was nothing creepy or perverted or predatory about it. Sure, I was old enough to consent to the show-and-tell, and maybe some think that makes all the difference, because Grace (as a one-year-old) could not do so—but the impulse to compare one’s vagina to other people’s (especially those close to you) isn’t at all odd.

How many boys develop penis envy? How many boys, far before puberty, become fascinated with seeing the genitalia of other boys, out of sheer curiosity? I get the feeling that if Dunham had been a seven-year-old boy, who one day decided to take a peek at his little brother’s penis, and subsequently pulled down his little brother’s pants to take a look, the story would have become a comical anecdote, rather than a sex crime.

Critics of Dunham have also taken issue with the fact that she masturbated while her sister was asleep beside her. I will not pretend that it’s not weird (if we define “weird” as something slightly unusual or awkward). But it is not abnormal (if we define “abnormal” as falling outside healthy thought and behavior). At 17, one does not have all the privacy in the world, especially when sharing the room with a younger sibling. Maybe Dunham could have gone to masturbate in the bathroom. Sure. She could have. But that’s not the point of that particular essay.

Passage one appears in an essay that is literally titled ”Platonic Bed Sharing,” the moral of which seems to be a description of who it is OK to share a bed with. Dunham uses the anecdote of sharing a bed with her little sister to express that there isn’t actually anything sexual between the two people sharing the bed. She wasn’t masturbating to thoughts of Grace. Nor was she secretly wishing she could be touching her sister inappropriately while touching herself. The pair just happened to be in the same place when it happened, not unlike the college roommate who has sex with her boyfriend in the bed beside you. Not unlike the friend who has a wank in the sleeping bag next to your own.

Dunham touching herself when she happened to be sharing a bed wasn’t predatory—it was a teenager being horny, while inconveniently having to share her room with a younger sibling. If we weren’t so horrified about female masturbation, this passage might not have ever been an issue.

Turning to passage three, we see an example of Dunham’s dry, often awkward humor when she describes her bribing techniques within the spectrum of “anything a sexual predator might do.” Anti-Dunham-ers have long complained that her humor and writing is far too explicit, far too crude. She pushes boundaries, and it makes people uncomfortable. What those accusing Dunham of abuse are finding fault with in this case is that she had a desire to kiss her sister on the lips, failing to account for the millions of parents out there who kiss their toddlers on the lips and failing to account for the millions of siblings who kiss each other on the lips before social norms start kicking in.

This passage appears in the essay dedicated to Grace—an essay in which Dunham describes her enduring desire to be loved and needed by her little sister. She writes, “From the beginning, there was something unknowable about Grace. Self-possessed, opaque,” and later, “a beautiful unibrowed mystery just beyond our family’s grasp.” As an older sister, Dunham craved affection and attention from Grace. But Grace’s intrinsic independence and apparent aloofness made that almost impossible.

So again (while still a child herself) Dunham would utilize bribing mechanisms to try to buy her sister’s affection. Perhaps their parents should have addressed the situation more thoroughly. Perhaps they should have described to Dunham that not all little sisters want to be with their big sisters all the time. The fact that they didn’t doesn’t make them ”child abusers”—the label Williamson brands them with, along with their older daughter.

After Dunham’s self-reported rage spiral following the accusations, she finally released a statement Tuesday to Time magazine.

I am dismayed over the recent interpretation of events described in my book Not That Kind of Girl.

First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances.

Childhood sexual abuse is a life-shattering event for so many, and I have been vocal about the rights of survivors. If the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read, I am sorry, as that was never my intention. I am also aware that the comic use of the term ‘sexual predator’ was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that as well.

As for my sibling, Grace, she is my best friend, and anything I have written about her has been published with her approval.

Grace had also posted some tweets of her own earlier this week:

heteronormativity deems certain behaviours harmful, and others “normal”; the state and media are always invested in maintaining that

— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014

As a queer person: i’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful

— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014

2day, like every other day, is a good day to think about how we police the sexualities of young women, queer, and trans people

— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014

Bringing up heteronormativity is extremely valid and necessary when it comes to this scandal. The past few days have not served to prove that Dunham is a child molester. The faux-concern for Grace (who, according to one of Dunham’s tweets, finds the accusations laughable) hasn’t either. They have been a remarkable display of disgust toward and fear of female sexuality—especially female exploration of the body. Something as innocent as childhood curiosity has been twisted into something grotesque. All that the backlash has demonstrated is that as far as women have come, there’s still so much work to be done.

We need to teach girls that it’s OK to look and feel their own bodies. It’s OK to have a healthy curiosity about the world around them. It’s OK not to engage in non-heteronormative behavior. It’s OK to have sexual urges as a child and an adolescent, because we all do. It’s OK to look at your vagina and wonder whether the vaginas of those around you are just like yours.

What’s not OK? Calling someone who was a child herself a child molester. While I believe that it is possible for a child to abuse another child, I personally experienced no discomfort or unease when reading these passages of Not That Kind of Girl. That’s not to say that everything Dunham did is OK, but branding her a child molester for her actions as a child or adolescent intrigued by genitalia is wrong.

We can’t know what truly happened between Dunham and her sister, but we do know the shame girls are taught to feel about their bodies and sexuality. And we do know how quick critics have been to shame Dunham for daring to be honest, and proud of her own.

This piece originally appeared at Bustle and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Maryland Film Festival/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 5, 2014, 12:00 pm CST