What We’re Really Saying When We Call Lena Dunham A Child Molester

I only had a passing knowledge of Lena Dunham before this article. I appreciated the excerpts of her essay I read describing her rape. I’ve been meaning to check out an episode of “Girls” to see what all the fuss is about. I hear she gets naked so we’ll see women of different shapes on TV (though, I’m also aware of the criticism of the lack of people of color on her show). I like that she’s a Planned Parenthood supporter. I was really surprised when the phrase, “Lena Dunham Molestation Allegations” in my Twitter feed appeared with a link to Bustle’s piece on the situation.

It’s easy to read that statement and jump to specific conclusions. However, before you decide to label Dunham a child molester do a little more digging. Before defining which camp you belong to I would read this Jezebel article and this New York Times piece. I would read the whole book (which admittedly, I have not yet had the time to do since this news broke). Read the National Review’s book reivew of “Not That Kind of Girl” and check out the TruthRevolt piece that started this discussion.

I have no way of knowing whether or not Lena Dunham abused her sister. No one except her sister knows that. Based on what I—and the rest of the Internet—know about her, I believe it is not fair to label Dunham, a grown woman, a child molester based on a few short sentences in her new book. In fact, only a few of the really inflammatory places on the Internet are pushing for this title to stick. What other people are talking about, in light of these passages in her book and other Dunham quotes about her sister, is the following:

  • Whether Dunham’s actions as a child qualified as abuse
  • Dunham’s choice of language
  • Dunham as a feminist icon

Do Dunham’s Actions Qualify As Child Abuse?

My gut says no. I could be wrong. I’m willing to shift my opinion if Dunham’s sister decides to come forward and share with us her feelings that she was abused. Without that, I am unwilling to label a grown woman a child molester because of things she did as a small child.

It’s easy for adults to project adult emotions and contexts onto the behavior of children. However, our genitals are only so attached to sexuality because that’s one of the few ways we discuss them as adults. But even for some adults, genitals can be detached from sexuality, as is often true of people who identify as being asexual:

People may ask, ‘How can they be asexual if they masturbate?’ I admit the finding did surprise me, too,” said Brotto, the director of the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Health Laboratory. “When you talk about masturbation, you may think of it as a sexual activity, but actually masturbation is not inherently sexual. [Asexuals cite] boredom, stress reduction, helping them to get to sleep, etc., as reasons behind masturbation.

While Dunham’s actions with her sister were an obvious invasion of privacy, it was a time for her mother to have a conversation with her about boundaries—not accuse her seven-year-old of being a child molester. Dunham, in this instance, was neither deriving any sexual pleasure from this interaction nor was she achieving pleasure by maintaining a position of power over her sister. She was merely a curious seven-year-old who had not yet been taught that other people’s bodies were to be respected.

She writes, “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things that I did.” We’d have to actually read Dunham’s book in full to determine her reliability as a narrator ( according to the National Review, she describes herself as unreliable). Did her mother ever talk to her about boundaries and other people’s bodies? Is it more dramatic and in-character for this to just be oh-so-Lena? We can’t know and we won’t know. But sexualizing the actions of a child is more of a reflection of our own discomfort with the nature of the story than the one-time action of a curious seven-year-old.

Dunham’s Choice of Language

Perhaps the most disturbing parts of these excerpts is the language Dunham uses to describe the situations. She “spreads” her sister’s vagina while she sits “between her legs.” She would use any tactic a “sexual predator” might use to get her sister to be affectionate with her.

There are purposefully jarring word choices that are meant to make you stop and feel weird. Do I think it’s cool? Not really. Do I think she’s a great writer? No. Do I think she accomplished what she meant to with her prose? Yes.

Even when Dunham is describing her own sexual assualt, the language is abrupt and startling. She describes how Barry “jams a few fingers” inside of her like he’s trying to “plug” her up. These language choices, I am made to believe, are part of Dunham’s overall prose style and not just reserved for her descriptions of her interactions with her sister. This problem of language is further compounded when placed in Dunham’s context as feminist icon.

Dunham as Feminist Icon

The other cry that has arisen from this debate is whether Dunham deserves to be the voice of feminism for our generation. I generally dislike the notion that one person should be the entire voice of a cause. However, when one chooses to be a spokesperson for a cause, it inherently means that your words and actions will be more heavily scrutinized.

There is a dissonance between Dunham’s own assertions that her consent was violated in her encounter with Barry and her admittance that she almost resents her sister’s autonomy.

“And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn’t handle the fact that she’s a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things,” She says in a New York Times article.

This in itself seems to be contradictory to the feminist messages she revels in. There seems to be this collective outcry both from the right and from other feminists who agree that Dunham’s actions qualify as abuse that Dunham no longer has the right to speak so loudly for feminist cause. Or that we should no longer be listening to her as a voice for feminism.

But there comes a time when we have to ask ourselves where we draw the lines as consumers of celebrities and their messages. We all have contradictory moments in our lifetimes as well as skeletons in our closets. Should I not be a champion of small farms and wholesome eating because I used to drink Mountain Dew by the gallon and scarf down a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich every other day in high school? Do these actions of my childhood self negate everything I believe in now? Am I less worthy of my causes because I used to not believe in them?

I know these comparisons are nothing in compared to the sexual abuse of a child. But if we can take a step back from who has written these words—a celebrity notorious for creating discomfort and hyperbole in her writing—we may better be able to analyze this moment in her work. We could see Dunham for the insecure little girl she was, desperate for attention and afraid to sleep alone. We could compare her to the woman we see now: a young woman who’s had it pretty easy, but who is now in the spotlight for a particular brand of awkward that is at times extremely uncomfortable to watch. She’s created that same kind of discomfort in this situation while also asking us to remember our own childhood explorations and awakenings.

If you don’t like Dunham, it’s cool. After reading a lot about her, I don’t like her that much either. But child molester? Let’s save that kind of language for people who truly deserve to be called out for such acts.


Disagree? Check out the counterpoint argument: “Has Lena Dunham Forced Her Way Through Too Many Boundaries?” 


View Comment (1)
  • The thing is, it’s not just one incident when she was seven. She admits in her book to a pattern of coercive behavior that included bribing her sister with candy and treats for long kisses on the lips, or telling the girl that she could watch whatever she wanted on TV if she would just “relax” on top of Lena. And being a teenager who allows your sister to sleep in bed beside you while you masturbate is just plain wrong and unhealthy, like lying in bed with a peeping Tom. She admits to playing off of her sister’s fears in order to create artificial dependency and feel needed, powerful and important. This all fits into a pattern of manipulative, predatory behavior.

    But what do you expect from someone whose father paints like this? http://www.carrolldunham.net

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