Thoughts on the Lena Dunham affair

Everyone with an internet connection is now aware that Lena Dunham’s memoir includes some creepy passages centering around her childhood sexual expression. An article in National Review (a publication I’d prefer not to direct traffic to) called attention to these passages, which had previously passed unnoticed in mainstream media reviews. Many feminists, most prominently black feminists, are now decrying Dunham as a child molester, despite the fact that the scene most graphically described took place when she was seven years old. When pressed on this issue, many critics clarify that whatever allowance we might make for her young age, there is still something alarming about the fact that she’s writing about the incidents now. In particular, it’s believed that she should not be morbidly amused to recall her strange activities, but deeply remorseful. After all, we must hold children to some moral standard!

What’s striking to me is that everyone is apparently in possession of a clear set of moral standards for the expression of childhood sexuality. There is an acceptable level of such expression — broadly described as “playing doctor” — and what Dunham describes is supposedly far beyond that. I find this interesting, because I am not at all aware that American culture has any coherent standards for childhood sexual expression. Indeed, it seems to me that American culture avoids discussion of such topics at almost any cost. If someone could send me a link to the universally acknowledged rules of childhood sexual expression, that would be helpful to me for future incidents where I’m expected to rush to judgment on this matter.

Another strange thing about this whole discussion is that Dunham’s parents simply do not factor in. If she was doing something abusive and destructive, surely it was her parents are the more relevant party to be passing moral judgment on. But no, it’s seven-year-old Lena we’re all focusing on — almost as though this whole incident is an excuse to scapegoat someone the participants already didn’t like, regardless of how much sense it makes!

Further, we might also expect Dunham’s sister to show signs of damage or trauma if her seven-year-old sister were a relentless child abuser. Instead, today she tweeted that the kinds of simplistic judgments expressed against Lena are an example of the heterosexism that is always enforced by the state and media.

There are a lot of good reasons not to like Lena Dunham. There are good reasons to resist her elevation to the level of a feminist icon. Certainly her “over-sharing” tendencies are off-putting, particularly when she’s talking about something as creepy (to most people) as childhood sexual expression. Overall, though, it’s difficult for me not to see the revulsion against her and the recklessly hyperbolic claims that she’s some kind of child molester as yet another example of the ways that non-normative sexual practices are rejected and tarred with “guilt by association.” In other words, it’s no mistake that this toxic framing of the passages in question originated in a right-wing publication — and it’s a huge mistake for anyone on the left to be making common cause with such a heterosexist smear campaign.

11 Responses to “Thoughts on the Lena Dunham affair”

  1. Katie Grimes Says:

    Asking that people show some sort of obvious and visible trauma as proof that they suffered some sort of sexual violation or mistreatment is a disturbing and dangerous principle that I really don’t think you believe.

    Also, just because children’s parents don’t recognize a certain behavior as “abusive” or unjust does not mean that it was not in fact abusive or unjust. Just because parents aren’t aware that a certain behavior is even taking place does not mean it is not taking place. This part of your argument seems to be premised on the belief that if parents don’t consider behavior abusive, then it is not abusive, which… If only that were true. Many people who have been abused by cousins or siblings or neighbors had parents who looked the other way, made excuses, or did nothing.

    And as for rules of “playing doctor” I would say it’s pretty widely agreed upon that children involved in sexual acts be approximately the same age… A six year age gap is huge. While many other aspects of what constitutes “playing doctor” may be murky and undiscussed, I think it’s pretty obvious that a six year age gap between children makes it pretty much impossible or at least widely unlikely that the younger child can actually consent.

  2. Katie Grimes Says:

    But you’re right, white man, those black feminists really are just over emotional prudes. Thank you for calming them down with your reasonableness. They made no good points about the way that white women are innocent even when proven guilty while black people are guilty even when proven innocent. If only they would just chill out. It’s just sex, amirite?

  3. Katie Grimes Says:

    And, not that what ray rice did is the same as what dunham did but janay rice has also been defending her husband very publicly. The fact that dunhams sister is defending her just as Mrs rice is defending her husband does not of course mean that Dunham did anything wrong. My only point is that you take dunhams sister’s defending her as obvious evidence that we are all silly conservative dupes when I think that is dangerous.

    You are also misrepresenting what many of these black feminists are saying. They actually find her actions at seventeen more disturbing.

  4. Alastair Roberts Says:

    The childhood sexual experimentation is one thing. The way that Dunham speaks about it is something different. One of the more problematic aspects of this is that, from the very earliest age, Lena seems to have acted with a sense of entitlement towards her sister’s body, sexuality, and experience, and that this doesn’t seem to have stopped. The way that she used her sister’s body for sexual experimentation as a seven year old is one expression of this. The way that she ‘groomed’ her sister for kisses and the like as a child is another. The way that she later outed her sister to her parents is another. And, more immediately, the way that she overshares about her actions towards her sister is yet another. There is a basic line between what belongs to herself and what belongs to her sister that she still seems to be missing.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I discuss my basic sympathy with the black feminists’ position in the next post. In this case, I think it’s fair to say that they’re “wrong for the right reasons.”

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Indeed, the point you single out is literally something I also single out as true in my next post!

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Is there some kind of style guide for how you should write about childhood sexual experimentation? Is it in the Chicago Manual of Style? Again, people act like they have magically discovered these clear standards and boundaries for her writing when in reality, they’re almost certainly coming up with rules on an ad hoc basis to express their disapproval of Dunham’s writing.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (I’m also sure that no one reading this ever chose an inappropriate time or a creepy occasion for masturbating as a teenager.)

  9. bzfgt Says:

    Is there anything necessarily “sexual” about any of this stuff?

  10. Random Person Says:

    “But you’re right, white man, those black feminists really are just over emotional prudes. Thank you for calming them down with your reasonableness. They made no good points about the way that white women are innocent even when proven guilty while black people are guilty even when proven innocent. If only they would just chill out. It’s just sex, amirite?”

    I’ll say it: the white (I’m actually mostly seeing white feminists playing up the race angle) and black feminists who think Lena Dunham is a child molester/sexual abuser are being overly emotional prudes. It’s not okay to impose victim status on someone who doesn’t want it, and to reframe other people’s experiences as abusive and traumatizing when they’re saying something different. It’s also not okay to go around saying “that’s not normal!!!” when it comes to human sexuality or to try to silence people who want to talk about their sexual experiences.

    Do white women have an easier time violating politics of respectability? Absolutely. Does that mean we should punish them?! Uh, no. All that’s doing is ramping up the politics of respectability designed to keep all women, and anyone who qualifies as sexually deviant, in their place. I’m so annoyed by the tone of that comment above, like it’s somehow disrespectful bordering on racist to disagree with black feminists about this. Let’s fight!

  11. bzfgt Says:

    Why is one little kid examining another little kid’s vagina a “sexual experience”? Simply because it’s a vagina? Otherwise I think I mostly agree with RP.


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