Content note: this post discusses child sexual abuse and quotes an account from the perspective of an abuser
Over the last few days, a right wing news site published something readers of Lena Dunham’s book “Not That Kind Of Girl” with better politics probably should have noticed: in her essays, Dunham describes some incidents which could potentially amount to her sexually abusing her baby sister. This includes bribing the child in order to gain some sort of gratification:
“three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds . . . anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.”
Inspecting her genitals in a way which goes beyond general child curiosity (and I question whether a one year old baby has the manual dexterity to perform this “prank”; it’s possible that maybe by “vagina” Dunham means “vulva” here):
“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. 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.”
Dunham also describes masturbating in bed beside the child, who would have been pre-pubescent if Dunham was 17 years old at the time. From Dunham’s own words, incidents like this were ongoing and took place over years.
It is important to note that these quotes were not fabricated by some shadowy right wing conspiracy, but, rather, came from Lena Dunham herself. On some level, Dunham must have known the behaviour was inappropriate, since she herself compared it to a sexual predator.
Defenders of Dunham–and Dunham herself–have rejected claims that these behaviours were in any way abusing, using a two-pronged method. First, they are focusing on the source of the first media outlet to pick up on how concerning the behaviour Dunham confessed to was. They behave as though this is merely a right-wing issue, and these are the only people criticising Dunham, when in fact the vast majority of what I have seen has come from feminists, women, survivors. All these complaints are being erased, swept under the rug to form a narrative that it’s only bad people who have a problem with what Dunham said. That is categorically untrue.
Second, and more worryingly, Dunham’s defenders are trivialising this as something which is merely normal, healthy, childish exploration of bodies, and a normal, healthy way for children to interact with one another. Again, this is not true. Child-on-child sexual abuse exists, and some of what Dunham said, particularly pertaining to the bribery on a much younger child,can be described in this way. Ultimately, there is only one person who can say with any certainty whether she perceived this behaviour as abusive or not, and it is Grace Dunham herself–who, if she sees it this way, is a survivor of child-on-child sexual abuse. I do not expect her to come out against her famous sister, in front of worldwide media and out herself as a survivor: she seems to be a private person who objects to being a character in her sister’s soap operas (Grace once said “Without getting into specifics, most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”)
However, it is very important that the abusive nature of this behaviour is not erased. While Grace Dunham may not see herself as a victim, a lot of people who have had similar experiences do. When Dunham’s defenders categorically state that it is impossible for this to be abuse, it is a slap in the face for survivors of child sexual abuse and child-on-child sexual abuse across the world. They will see it, and they will feel completely invalidated when they are already engaged in a daily struggle for recognition and acceptance of their own histories. Survivors’ stories will resemble this one, and they see it as abuse. The defences coming out for Dunham could very easily harm survivors, and lead to further pain and possibly even deaths.
It is therefore crucial that we do not deny that behaviours like this can ever be abusive. It is essential that throughout this storm we support survivors and do not act as though this is all a normal part of development. If any survivors have been negatively affected by what’s going on in the media over the last few days, here are some resources that might help you.
White feminism has a nasty history of rallying around abusers, and this needs to stop immediately. It’s so important that we listen to survivors and put their needs first.