The Truth Behind the Lena Dunham Debacle That No One is Talking About

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Two months ago, terminally offbeat actress, producer, and all around center of attention Lena Dunham emerged as the principal critic of the rape culture glorification of and response to Celebgate. Relying on the entire Internet for her stage, Dunham executed one pretty fantastic feminist takedown after another of the issues concerning the theft and distribution of private photographs of dozens of celebrities. That unflappable defense makes her literary foray into the very culture she has so robustly criticized nothing short of devastating.

Lena Dunham: Under Fire
Lena Dunham Under Fire

According to right-wing blog TruthRevolt, the passages of the month-old memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl,” are represent Dunham’s “confession” of being a child molester of her own sister.

TruthRevolt’s post unleashed a media firestorm, not only because they are hardly an unbiased source, but also because none of the earlier readers had issued an alert about certain problematic passages. Some of that can be attributed to Dunham herself. Being different is part and parcel of Dunham’s shtick, whether it’s extending a proverbial middle finger to the critics who think her legs have no business being in shorts or writing a show where artistically inclined, twenty-something Brooklyn dwellers engage in frequent and unapologetic sex, she does not shy away from tackling sensitive material with a quirky point of view. But to dismiss Dunham’s words as a problem of tone might be missing the mark.

In shocking detail, Dunham methodically walks the reader through how, starting at the age of seven, she demonstrated certain behaviors towards her younger sister, including masturbating in the bed beside her, and bribing her with candy to kiss her on the lips. She also became interested in the idea of what her sister’s vagina looked like. This culminates in Dunham touching her sister’s labia at age seven to look inside her vulva, noticing some pebbles, and alerting her mother with the sign off that, “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

While the media hotly debates whether Dunham is an abuser or a participant in innocent exploration typical of child development, there can be little doubt that the story has ripped open the traditional narrative of victimhood. What is very clear is that Dunham’s detractors have some merit in pointing out the rush of many white feminists to defend her, or at least offer Dunham the benefit of the doubt. Such consideration would almost certainly not be offered to Dunham if she identified as a male doing this to his little sister. The act of displaying genitalia between brothers and even friends is a widely accepted act—consider that men’s restrooms rarely provide separators between urinals, for privacy. The sexuality of males just isn’t policed to the extent that it is for females, and this double standard manifests in another, arguably more destructive manner: the clear denial that such violence exists among females. So far, only Slate has remotely attempted to address the female-to-female assault frequency, but their pro-Dunham analysis exists in the vacuum of examining lesbian partner violence only.

Since Dunham isn’t, as they pointed out, a lesbian, and she was not in a relationship with her sister, the analysis misses the mark and potential left and right, and leaves the real issue of female-on-female abuse even more mystifying and obscure. This, despite the fact 2014 represents a significant year for disclosures from important women of being victimized by other women. Former Baywatch bombshell Pamela Anderson is known for a lot of things. Whether it’s bearing herself in the buff for the animal activist whack jobs at PETA, her headline-grabbing hook-up with any number of Hollywood hot heads, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever fade from the spotlight. Recently, however, Anderson has grabbed our attention as something else entirely—a survivor of sexual violence. Just two months later, the world learned that Vanessa Williams, the first woman of color to win the Miss America title and subsequently lose it due to the leak of stolen nude photos, gave an interview with Oprah’s Master Class discussing how she had been sexually by a woman abused as a child.

It’s a big deal when any survivor comes forward, talking about the abuse that Anderson and Williams experienced and still suffer from represent the most important revelations of the last decade. Now that you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, let me cover why the stories of two famous women who are regarded for their beauty and the performance of their sexuality are so critical for survivor healing.

What makes the disclosures of Anderson and Williams important is that both reveal they were abused not by men, but at the hands of women. For Anderson, the woman was a babysitter; Williams, the daughter of a long-time family friend. It’s rare enough that survivors come forward, but when they do, the more common perpetrator is a man. Even when we delve into incest narratives, they tend to be committed by male family members. The assumption is that female perpetrators simply don’t exist, but the reality is that those, especially children, who are abused by women, just don’t tell anyone. As Julia Hislop reports for The New York Times,

“Girls face the task of convincing others that females can be abusive and that touch between females can be sexualized. Males are not socialized to report victimization. Their physiological responses can also confuse the issue of consent, leaving them puzzling to explain how, if an erection was present, there was still abuse, or how, if there was not, that sexual acts still occurred.”

In the shadow ofthe Catholic Church sex scandal-plagued ‘90s, you would think that survivors would get a break and not have to make their case in adulthood for abuse that happened years earlier. However the same week Anderson came out as a survivor, I was asked to participate in a live interview with a Canadian news outlet about Anderson’s disclosure. While I had hoped to talk about the elements that make Anderson’s story so incredible and necessary for the framing of sexual violence within the global community—including the fact her first perpetrator was female—I was pigeonholed into a discussion that only covered why she waited so long to come forward. On the tail-end of the Dylan Farrow “open letter” scandal (whom, for the record, I believe due to undeniable facts of the case) most people still don’t understand why it takes people years—in some cases, decades—to come forward. Same old questions, even though the answers haven’t changed.

Recently, even the Huffington Post delved into the subject of female-perpetrated sexual abuse. Yours truly was one such panelist consulted for the in-depth look at the phenomenon, speaking both as a survivor and as a moderator for the anti-sexual violence message board, After Silence. A fellow panelist was author Barbara Graham, whose memoir Camp Paradox, explored her process of being sexually assaulted by her female camp counselor. Each of us was asked by host Ricky Camilleri what factors kept us from coming forward sooner. As I discussed my concerns about how the disclosure could impact my credibility as a Feminist blogger, Graham explained that it was only recently she had gained the language to adequately name what had happened to her.

While I have nothing but praise for how the Huffington Post treated the subject matter and believe that Calmierri’s line of questioning was executed with the utmost sensitivity and compassion to help unpack the codes of silence, it’s nevertheless frustrating we’re still having the same conversations. Explaining where the shame comes from does little to confront the place from which it originates. Talking about the why of waiting rather than the why of abusingactually increases shame for victims, who are forced to essentially justify their silence while no such inquiry is targeted at the people who abused them in the first place.

For most survivors of abuse perpetrated in childhood, this seems to be a common theme. Abuse is difficult enough to own when there aren’t additional stigmas attached. But in Anderson’s case, there are several.

In addition to being molested first by a woman, she has also bravely disclosed that she is, in fact, a survivor of multiple offenses. For anti-rape activists, this phenomenon often remains unacknowledged in the greater discourse surrounding sexual violence in the status quo. Two decades ago, a study by the Child Protection Center in Sacramento found that among 1,400 student volunteers, two-thirds of the females who indicated they had been sexually molested as children were subsequently raped as adults. The Justice Department reports that women who are offended before the age of 18 are twice as likely to be raped as adults than women who have no history of sexual violence. Women as perpetrators, particularly of other women, remains even more significantly underreported than instances of date rape or sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative.

This staggering, troubling, distressing reality makes the emergence of Dunham’s narrative that much more problematic. While Dunham’s supporters have some ground in acknowledging the reality that she was seven when she touched and exposed her sister’s anatomy, she wasn’t seven when she decided to write the book. She wasn’t seven when she decided to include this story and bragged that her own behavior towards her sister was comparable to those of “a sex offender trying to woo a small suburban girl.” And to give her credit, she wasn’t seven when she stalwartly reprimanded the rape apologists of Celebgate, “Remember, when you look at these pictures you are violating these women again and again”—an argument that sounded so tone deaf when she tweeted in her own defense, “And by the way, if you were a little kid and never looked at another little kid’s vagina, well, congrats to you.” Dunham, by her own admission, did a whole lot more than look.

Sexual exploration may be something common among children and there’s no shortage of experts who have come to Dunham’s defense that the tales of “Not That Kind of Girl” are describing normal, childhood behavior. While we can’t say we know anything but what Dunham has revealed, we can know that some of the lens around her behaviors are particularly devastating to the work being done to change the framing of consent in this country. Just last month, California pushed through the Yes Means Yes legislation, forcing through changes in how colleges respond to rape while simultaneously requiring the consent be obtained prior to sexual activity. The law isn’t without problems, but it is groundbreaking, and forcing the dialog of consent to become national.

Regardless of where one draws the line on the Dunham debacle, the event itself exposes some structural weaknesses with mainstream feminism and how feminists respond to diverse cases of sexual violence. The important dialog here is ultimately being missed by the major news sources, bloggers and their commenters, and twitter. There are real women who have had to experience sexual abuse by otherwomen—and it is imperative those experiences are validated. Until the broader conversation of sexual abuse includes the invisible epidemic of women perpetrating sex crimes against girls and women, the silence that breeds will continue to plague victims.