Early in October, I saw Lena Dunham during the Boston stop on her Not That Kind of Girl book tour. While I have been following Dunham’s work for some time now, I had been hesitant to consider myself a true fan. I enjoy her work and admire her career but as an artist I have my criticisms. But I can tell you that by the end of the night, she walked off the stage with the hearts of every member of the audience, mine included. Her essays were weird and entertaining and her stage presence was both charming and comfortingly hilarious. She was everything you would imagine her to be. But now that her book has started causing controversy, specifically about her childhood sexual exploits involving her sister, I feel as if I have to be honest with the world, Lena Dunham, and myself about why I am so hesitant to come to her defense.
Here it is:
I do not doubt that Lena Dunham’s sexualization of her younger sister as a toddler was from a place of curiosity and innocence rather than lust and perversion. Lena Dunham is not a predator, an attacker, or even a pervert. Her actions, while strange, are not uncommon. But as a victim of similar “curious and innocent” sexual abuse, I can promise you that the level of innocence does not make it any less traumatic or formative an experience for the victim. Sexualization of younger children by curious, exploratory older children is dangerous, especially when both parties are not completely on board. Bribery and coercion do not translate to enthusiastic consent. Does that make Lena Dunham a rapist? Absolutely not. But do her youth and innocence excuse her? Not at all.
What Lena Dunham did as a child was wrong, without question and without doubt. For her or anyone else to write it off simply because she was a curious child would be dangerous and irresponsible, especially when the friendly, playful, and laughable tone in which she tells the story is missing from the stories of children all over the world. To excuse Dunham simply because she was a child would be the equivalent of saying “boys will be boys.” We are taught not to play with toys that don’t belong to us, but if we’re being honest, we all do. But another person’s body is not a toy you can play with in secrecy and put back on the shelf without anyone knowing. Her sister’s dismissal of the criticisms as heteronormative policing of young women, queer, and trans people is also dangerous. Lena Dunham is lucky that Grace is her best friend. Lena is lucky that Grace can look back at those stories, and the criticisms, and laugh. They are both very lucky. There are plenty of people who cannot look back on their childhood experiences and laugh. To call the criticisms responses of heteronormativity would be an affront to the queer community, especially those who have suffered legitimate sexual abuse.
Her sister’s coming out also raises questions as to the effects the experience had on her considering the correlation between childhood molestation and homosexuality. Without sounding like homosexuality is something to be ashamed of, or something that is imposed upon us all, I stress that I bring up this fact simply because I imagine no one wants to feel as if his or her sexual development and identity were simply side effects of a childhood trauma.
For Lena Dunham to recognize that what she did was strange yet innocent but not see that there have been (and continue to be) shockingly similar stories that are lived every day and are never read about would be ignorant. As a Feminist, as a sister, as a trailblazer, and as a human, Lena Dunham should acknowledge the weight of her actions and recognize the danger excusing them poses.