Lena Dunham, Sexual Predator? Or Just Really Weird?

Dunham's memoir-one in which she positions herself as a sexual assault victim-also highlights some blatant sexual and political double standards.


Lena Dunham
David Shankbone

I'm happy to say I have never seen an episode of Girls, Lena Dunham's HBO show which sounds like a younger and grubbier version of Sex and the City; but it's almost impossible to follow the modern cultural scene, especially its feminist segments, and not run into Dunham all the time. Anointed as "the voice of a generation" by the elite media, whose ongoing love-affair with Dunham was documented in scary detail in The American Prospect last January, the 28-year-old writer/producer/actress has also been hailed as the voice of millennial-generation feminism. (Her political activism is best encapsulated by a 2012 Obama campaign ad directed at young women in which first-time voting is like sex and Obama is like an awesome boyfriend who cares about your problems and gives you stuff.)

Dunham is now in the spotlight over her confessional memoir, Not That Kind of Girl—an unwelcome spotlight for a change, with some of her confessions being spun into sensational claims that she sexually molested her younger sister Grace. Having perused the book, which a generous estimate would put at about two hours' worth of reading, I think the charge is a wild overreaction that reflects not only sexual-abuse hysteria but a rising, noxious intolerance toward edgy humor. But this entire episode, especially when juxtaposed with the response to another part of Dunham's memoir—one in which she positions herself as a sexual assault victim—also highlights some blatant sexual and political double standards.

The supposedly incriminating passages were first pointed out by National Review writer Kevin Williamson in a cover story on Dunham as the uber-child of the liberal elites, then picked up by the right-wing website under the headline, "Lena Dunham describes sexually abusing her toddler sister." What Dunham actually described was opening up her sister's vagina to peek inside when she was seven and Grace was one (only to freak out at the discovery of some pebbles Grace had apparently stuffed inside). She also says that as a teenager, she let her sister sleep in her bed, and mentions that she occasionally masturbated while Grace lay next to her. And she writes this about their relationship:

As she 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.

In happier times, about a year ago, Dunham shared the "motorcycle chick" photo on Instagram; it shows a surly child wearing makeup and a T-shirt with "BAD GIRL" scrawled on it, and is captioned, "that time I dressed my 5 year old sister as a Hell's Angel's sex property." Now, that's more grist for her detractors, not all of whom are on the right (more on that below).

What to make of all this? Williamson's pronouncement that there is "no non-horrific interpretation" of the vaginal inspection episode seems rash, to say the least. While the six-year age gap makes it different from the usual "playing doctor" experience, it seems clear that Dunham's motive was curiosity, not erotic gratification; most experts seem to agree that it's within the range of non-abusive childhood exploration. Taken together, these excerpts may show that Dunham was a weird kid, as she herself has said. They may, and no doubt will, be cited as evidence of the pitfalls of sexually liberated child-rearing. But to turn them into proof of child molestation seems quite an overreach. Particularly absurd is the idea that Dunham's obvious jokes about wooing her baby sister like a sexual predator or dressing her up as "Hell's Angels sex property" are clues that betray her as a sex offender. Dunham has already apologized for her "insensitive" comedic use of the term "sexual predator" and for any "painful or triggering" material in her book. (Personally, I'll take the tackiest sex joke over the word "triggering.") At this rate, it isn't long before every subject except the weather and the flaws of straight white males is off-limits to humor.

And yet it is also hard to deny that Dunham's defenders in the mainstream liberal media, especially her feminist champions, have done a fair amount of spin. They have, for instance, treated Grace Dunham's oddly ambiguous Twitter commentary as a defense of her sister, even though it actually reads more like a deflection. (One tweet affirmed support for "people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and hasn't been harmful"; two others decried the policing of non-normative sexuality.) They have uncritically cited Lena Dunham's claim that anything she has written about her sister has been "published with her approval," even though it doesn't mesh with Grace Dunham's recent statement in The New York Times Magazine that she and her sister had fought over "my feeling like Lena…made my personal life her property." Nor have they acknowledged that the allegations against Dunham have arisen in a paranoid climate in which children as young as six—nearly always boys—can be treated as sex offenders for playing doctor with a child of similar age, kicking another child in the groin during a fight, or kissing a classmate's hand.

There is also an anti-Dunham feminist faction, which believes Dunham is a sexual abuser and has urged Planned Parenthood to drop her as its spokeswoman. But if anything, it confirms to what extent the charges against her tend to be viewed through the lens of politics. With few if any exceptions, the "guilty" corner is made up of feminists who weren't exactly Dunham fans in the first place—who have long scorned her as too privileged and not radical enough, as the face of white, upper-class, elitist, mainstream media–approved feminism.

The far-left Dunham-bashers who lambaste her for such offenses as "rape culture enabling" are not a particularly sympathetic bunch. But that doesn't make the pro-Dunham portion of the sisterhood any less guilty of double standards. How would the same feminists react to similar reminiscences from a man, or a woman of the wrong political affiliation—say, Bristol Palin? What if Dunham had described being on the receiving end of such behavior from an older, especially male, sibling—and if she had retroactively, in therapy or in a women's studies class, come to regard these experiences as sexual abuse?

That brings us to the Dunham-as-victim narrative, which was undoubtedly the most talked-about part of her memoir until the Dunham-as-victimizer narrative emerged. At one point, Dunham describes an encounter at Oberlin with a "mustachioed campus Republican" named Barry. Actually, she describes it at two points: first, as a comical drunken tumble during which she suddenly spots the condom she thought Barry was wearing hanging off of her roommate's potted tree; then, as a likely rape about the nonconsensual nature of which she was at first in denial.

In the second, supposedly authentic recounting, Dunham runs into Barry at a party while lonely, drunk, and high on Xanax and cocaine. She goes home with him, rebuffing a male friend's attempt to stop her. When they are on the floor "doing all the things grown-ups do" and trying to have intercourse, with Barry not quite up to the occasion, she hazily notices that the condom is on the floor and asks him to put it back on. They do more grown-up things, some of which Dunham asks Barry to do to her. (Retroactively, she believes she was trying to persuade herself she was doing this by choice.) They have another go at intercourse, which is when Dunham notices the condom in the tree. She picks herself up and tells Barry to get out, which he does.

When Dunham relates this to a friend the next day, the friend turns pale and blurts out, "You were raped." Dunham's first reaction is to laugh. Eventually, though, she comes to believe it, partly because she's in pain for a while after that night and she knows she didn't consent to such rough handling or to being penetrated without a condom.

Assuming that Dunham's alcohol-addled memories are reliable (a big if), how is this rape? Because she was drunk and high—as was Barry, who apparently couldn't remember the next day who he'd been with—and wouldn't have done this when sober? She certainly wasn't past being able to say yes or no. Because Barry was too rough during an otherwise consensual encounter? Because he took off the condom—or perhaps lost it when, as Dunham repeatedly mentions, he wasn't fully erect? If he did it intentionally, that certainly makes him a massive jerk. But a rapist? Would anyone apply that label to a woman who lies, for whatever reason, about using birth control?

I would say that, on the basis of Dunham's narrative, Barry is as much of a rapist as Dunham is a child molester. In both cases, there is some questionable behavior that can be described as troubling, inappropriate, possibly exploitative—but far short of criminal. Yet the people who have pooh-poohed the accusations against Dunham have embraced her accusation against Barry (who is, apparently, easy to identify and track down). An essay in Time applauds her decision to share the story as "her bravest work of activism yet," a bold challenge to rape denial and victim-blaming. The Oberlin administrators have even launched an investigation, though no charges can be filed unless Dunham cooperates.

While they're at it, perhaps they should investigate Dunham, too. Immediately after her first description of the Barry fiasco, she writes that her next partner, a senior named Geoff, "once cried in my parents' hammock because, he told me, 'You are forcing sex when I just want to be heard.'"

Forcing sex, to the point of reducing her partner to tears? There's a whole new chapter in Dunham's history as a sex offender! I think needs to get on the case. Maybe their next headline can read, "Lena Dunham describes raping college boyfriend."