When writer and actress Lena Dunham released her memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” at the end of September, she did not expect to spark such controversy. The book, however, contains detailed descriptions about sexual experiences with her younger sister Grace, which have led some to accuse Dunham of sexual abuse. She did not expect the subsequent backlash because she is privileged, but this cannot excuse her actions.
Dunham describes touching her sister’s genitals with curiosity and using candy to bribe her sister into kissing her. Dunham inappropriately mused that, “Anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying [on my sister].” Dunham was 7 years old at the time and her sister was only 1 year old.
Dunham’s nonchalant language shows her privilege and ignorance. She grew up in a wealthy family and received a prestigious private-school education. The success of her television show “Girls” has made her a popular and well-liked public figure. The infamous quote spoken by Dunham’s character on the show, Hannah, about being “the voice of a generation” is often applied to Dunham herself. She has an image of being a powerful young white woman who embraces uniqueness, but lacks a grassroots struggle story.
Dunham is so familiar with her privilege that she believes it can excuse her actions. She believes the excerpts from her book were funny, as if her lovable childhood quirkiness makes up for its creepiness.
To view sexual abuse in a lighthearted way is offensive and problematic. Child-on-child sexual abuse is a real issue that is rarely discussed. Stop It Now! is a charitable organization dedicated to raising awareness of child sexual abuse, reports that one-third of child sexual abuse is committed by persons under 18 years of age.
A common argument in support of Dunham assumes “child’s curiosity,” the idea that children are innocent and incapable of intentional sexual abuse. Dunham agrees with this idea as she explains these acts were “within the spectrum” of her childhood behavior.
Dunham believes her acts were acceptable under the idea of innocent childhood play. But even in the face of reasonable criticism, Dunham does not admit guilt. In a string of tweets, she attributed her actions to being a “weird 7-year-old” and condemned any reference to sexual abuse.
Even if Dunham genuinely believed her actions were innocent, she must admit her casual use of the term “sexual predator” in relation to children was in extremely poor taste. She did not accept her mistake and offer an apology; rather, she cursed at “right-wing” news outlets on Twitter for misconstruing her words.
Dunham has not acted maturely towards controversy. Critics of her book have good reasons to be critical, whether they are abuse survivors who may be triggered by her mention of child sexual abuse or anyone generally uncomfortable with the explicitness of the act. To completely dismiss all criticism silences the voices of abuse survivors. To not offer any apology is disrespectful and—not to mention—bad public relations. Dunham feels so privileged that she does not feel obligated to apologize.
In light of abuse allegations, it is important to recognize the victim’s point of view. Dunham’s sister did not publicly state feeling abused or generally uncomfortable about her sister’s actions. Instead, she used the controversy and Twitter as a platform to raise awareness of the harms of heteronormativity, which deems certain behaviors harmful and others “normal.”
Dunham’s popularity and privilege do not excuse her behavior. Regardless of how innocent she claims to be in the situation, she must acknowledge that her audience might deem her poor choices as inappropriate.