On Lena Dunham

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.


17 responses to “On Lena Dunham

  • Sarah

    Lena Dunham is Jewish, why are you trying to erase her ethnic identity?

    • stavvers

      Dunham herself may be Jewish but all of her defenders I have seen have been white.

      Also, I feel that a piece framed “Jewish person confesses to acts which people of all races think constitutes child abuse” somewhat smacks of anti-Semitism because let’s be honest.

      • Sarah

        Fair enough, but doesn’t it smack a little disingenuous and opportunistic to label Dunham a “white” feminist when it’s a label rejected by many in the Jewish community.

  • Anne

    So explain this to me. How is you seizing upon this as a golden opportunity to tear Lena Dunham apart any better or less exploitative of Grace than Lena writing about it? Would you really have given a shit about this if it hadn’t presented you with a prime opportunity to launder your own privilege as a white feminist by trashing a White Feminist?

    Your exploitation and appropriation of the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse, for the clear as day purpose of hauling another woman over the coals to win your World’s Best Ally badge, is genuinely nauseating to me. How dare you presume to speak for survivors of abuse in the way. How dare you colonise their experiences for your own vindictive crusade. All you care about is performance and posturing. You make me sick.

    • stavvers

      Of course I give a shit about something I have seen causing genuine pain and anguish to survivors of child sexual abuse. Perhaps you should listen to them.

      This is not about trashing. This is not about posturing. It’s about a genuinely terrifying trend towards defending someone by pretending what they did could never be abusive. We see the same pattern with Julian Assange, Hugo Schwyzer and so many others. It’s a cycle that has to break.

      If you can’t see this bigger picture and want to focus entirely on shooting the messenger, that’s your business, but I’d suggest you look long and hard at your motivations for doing so.

  • Lou

    Unfortunately, you’ve copied the error made by the right-wing blog you took this story from: Dunham was 7, not 17. (they’ve since corrected their “mistake”). That rather changes the nature of the anecdote, doesn’t it? As “readers of the book” actually read the book, they didn’t make this mistake.

    • stavvers

      The typo was pertinent to the incident quoted where she looked at her one year old sister’s vulva. The masturbation, however, as I understand it (from reputable sources that aren’t a right wing news source!), took place at around the age of seventeen.

      • rstetradio

        “Reputable sources”? Not Dunham’s book or Dunham herself? Then I suppose I should say that from “reputable sources,” I’ve heard Grace Dunham is claiming she did not consider Lena’s behavior to be sexual abuse. Also I haven’t seen ANY feminists defending Assange. His “wikiheroics” do not exonerate him from sexual assault charges.

        • stavvers

          I haven’t read the book. However, people who I trust who have assure me of this.

          And let’s not forget, of course, that all of these are direct quotes from Dunham’s book. So, you know. That’s a thing.

          And finally, lucky you for missing out on, e.g. the fallout from the Slutwalk a few years back, where some of the speakers and organisers spoke out in favour of Assange. It was a pretty ugly situation tbh.

      • April

        There are actual photos of the pages of the book where Dunham herself says that she was 17 when she was masturbating in bed next to her sister. So you are correct and if anyone doubts the accuracy of your statement, their time would be better spent on Google instead of in here arguing with you over “reputable sources” (and using Assange as a distraction). Dunham herself is the source.

    • Peg

      No, she was both 7 and 17. She was 7 when the vagina exploration took place. She was 17 when she admitted masturbating while her sister slept beside her. The bribed physical contact was elicited between those two ages, the “relax on me” and you can watch what you want on tv, the 5 second kisses on the lips etc. This was ongoing for years as Dunham herself admits and it IS sexual abuse.

  • PlainT

    Thanks so so much for covering an incredibly tricky topic. It’s hard because children don’t always fully understand morals, and if they were exposed to something age-inappropriate early on, they may experience shame and consequently not speak with an adult about it. Without a healthy outlet for the resulting thoughts and feelings, these kids take it out on other children.

    This is not to say that Lena Dunham is blameless; especially at 17, she should have known better. But I think there needs to be some dialogue about how to prevent these seemingly innocuous incidents from happening, and to acknowledge the potentially lasting effects of these incidents on young kids. We need to start taking this seriously.

  • [redacted]

    [comment deleted at commenter’s request]

    • stavvers

      I’m sorry I hurt you.

      However, I’m also aware of the many many messages I got, often in private, from women and survivors who did feel absolutely devastated by what Dunham’s supporters have been saying. I’m glad you’re not feeling invalidated it–as I said, it is the business of each survivor to feel how she feels about what happened to her, and a hell of a lot of survivors have been hurt by the blanket decisions that something like this can never be abuse. It is them I am worrying about in this tough time as people are picking defences of Dunham which can and do. We can’t ever flat out say “this behaviour is never abusive” because for a lot of survivors it is.

      Worth noting your other comments were moderated for two main reasons. The minor one–I genuinely thought you were a redditor. You have exactly the tone of a redditor and that only became more pronounced (I’m glad you’ve modified your tone). And secondly, you were saying some downright creepy things about the genitals of a woman I have never met. This post was focused on defences of abusive behaviours, and there you are banging on about someone’s genitals. Try not to do that in future.

      Please note, I’m replying to you as if you’re in good faith, because I’m an optimist, but your opening paragraph really does smack of you just being here to troll me and other abuse survivors who will see this message, so tread softly with that in mind.

  • britnoir

    It is not fair to say that Grace is the only person who can determine the severity of her abuse. Often, and especially in children, victims of sexual abuse become so accustomed to this sort of treatment that they cannot psychologically understand the situation and leaving this decision (yes I was molested, no I was not molested) in the hands of a victim is irresponsible. Especially when the perpetrator of the abuse is a loved one or family member, as Lena, in this case, is. The situations she describes would, in any other household, be deemed unsuitable and Lena would be considered an unhealthy sexual predator. I’m not saying that she understood what she was doing, (but at 7, I believe she did understand that she was taking advantage of her young sister, a privilege she takes frequently and describes at length in her book.) But her actions, without any “I’m just a weirdo” explanations, are inappropriate and are textbook examples of child-on-child sexual abuse.

    I also think that to politicize this issue is missing the point. If a person is only supporting women’s rights based on a pink t-shirt that Lena Dunham made, then we have a lot more work to do.

  • Becki

    Thank you for writing this. I appreciate your words greatly, and for eloquently saying what I could not. I spent the last half hour on twitter looking at tweets about this whole situation and it’s been disheartening to see how many people do not see the wrong that was done. I spent over 10 years keeping the secret of my abuse as a seven to eight year old, by a young teenager, a child. And when people say “it’s just kids being kids! Its natural!” It is gutting to me. They don’t know the hurt we feel, how it follows us, how it changes the landscape of our childhood. It took a part of me away. I am grown now and I still hurt, and if people don’t think children can cause other children pain then they are sadly mistaken. Thank you for speaking up on this topic, you have given me peace today. And I am going to check out the resource link, thank you for that as well. Take care.

  • Alethea

    Lena Dunham wrote about her sister’s vagina and her obsession with it, as if she is still fantasizing about the child’s anatomy.

    She wrote about spreading open the child’s vagina, who was seven years younger than she was (there is a strong probability that Lena put those pebbles in the one year-old’s vagina, not the toddler). Lena writes about the moment: “I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina, she didn’t resist…”

    “She didn’t resist…” Words of a pedophile.

    She also wrote about masturbating -until age 17- with the child in bed next to her…and she used words that are titillating and that describe what might be found in the mind of any sexual predator of children:

    ”Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night.” (while Lena masturbated)

    Lena Dunham is a child sexual abuser, who openly admitted in her book, that she did to her little sister, “basically anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl.”

    Lena wrote about bribing her little sister, seven years her junior, for kisses on the lips and bribed the child to get her to “relax” on top of Lena. She wrote how she used psychological manipulation of the younger child:

    “ I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old. She was afraid to sleep alone and would begin asking me around 5:00 P.M. every day whether she could sleep with me. I put on a big show of saying no, taking pleasure in watching her beg and sulk, but eventually I always relented. Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night.”

    Lena Dunhma took pleasure in watching the younger child be rejected, knowing full well that she would “always relent” and ‘allow’ the child to sleep with her, while Lena masturbated.

    Sexual predators do these kind of things to children, and Lena Dunham relished in the desire to have the younger child sleep with her.

    How do we know she took pleasure in it, and wanted her sister sleeping with her?

    “As [Grace] 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.Maybe, I thought, she would be more willing to accept kisses if I wore the face mask my grandmother had for when she did her dialysis. (The answer was no.) What I really wanted, beyond affection, was to feel that she needed me, that she was helpless without her big sister leading her through the world. I took a perverse pleasure in delivering bad news to her— the death of our grandfather, a fire across the street —hoping that her fear would drive her into my arms, would make her trust me.”

    Lena Dunham posted a photo on Instagram, about a year ago, of her then five year-old sister wearing make-up, fake breasts, and “bad girl motorcycle chick” written on her tee-shirt. Lena posted the photo with the caption
    “that time I dressed my 5 year old sister as a Hell’s Angel’s sex property,”

    Five year-old children are NOT “sex property,” and the photo shows an innocent five year-old girl, being forced to do what her older sister wants her to do, in order to gratify her older sister’s sexual attraction to children,and to make a child out to be a sexual object. It is a snapshot of a five year-old child being psychologically abused.

    That photo should be considered child pornography, especially in light of Dunham’s recent personal revelations in her new book.

    Lena Dunham is getting away with her sexual deviancy, and she is being glorified and excused by most of the mainstream press, by many women, and by many feminists, because she is a white female entertainer, who is popular among feminists and women who like the fact that Dunham is not embarrassed about herself and what she represents on her HBO show, “Girls.”

    That show should be cancelled. You can sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/hbo-e

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