By now, most people have heard of Kevin D. Williamson’s accusation of “Lena Dunham’s sexual abuse, specifically, of her younger sister, Grace, the sort of thing that gets children taken away from non-millionaire families without Andover pedigrees and Manhattanite social connections.”
But in case you haven’t heard, Williamson is basing his accusation on passages Dunham wrote in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”. Passages like:
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.
As she grew, I took to bribing 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 an exclusive statement to TIME, Dunham apologized to her fans, saying “If the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read, I am sorry, as that was never my intention. I am also aware that the comic use of the term ‘sexual predator’ was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that as well.”
Dunham is no stranger to controversy or criticism. On a recent appearance on The Daily Show, the actress and screenwriter admitted that “It can definitely be challenging. It’s not something when you’re writing in your room and dreaming of this career, you’re necessarily like, ‘I’m going to have a TV show and I’m going to write a book and everyone’s going to hate me on the Internet!'” But that, when criticism inevitably happens, she responds with a little bit of “class and sass.” (Below, one can only assume, is the sass.)
When it comes to conversations on sexual abuse, men are often labeled as the attacker while women are labeled as the victim. This isn’t a stereotype, but a reality. In a recent Slate article, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart cited the 1997 report on sex offenders, which states that 99 percent of rapists are men while 91 percent of rape victims are women. But female rapists do exist.
At the age of sixteen, I visited a male friend when I quickly spotted the trail of hickeys curving up his neck. When I joked about it, he pulled me aside and explained that he was raped the night before by a friend’s mother. My sixteen-year-old self couldn’t fathom this. Men didn’t get raped. And mothers were called “milfs” for a reason. He wanted it, I told myself. He was asking for it. Sound familiar? I was young, and therefore my mistake was more forgivable. But I was wrong, and my thinking was sexist. Men can be drugged. Men can be taken advantage of. Heck, women can be taken advantage of by other women. Female sexual offenders are out there.
Lena Dunham, however, isn’t sixteen. She’s an active feminist who speaks out about sexual abuse frequently. And one has to wonder, if she were a male, would she have thought harder on the impact of her own writing? Of her own words. If she wasn’t a woman, would peering into her sister’s vagina at the age of seven, bribing her for kisses, and masturbating in the same bed have been as “normal.”
Though in pursuit of my master’s I have taken many courses on subjects like anthropology and human sexuality, I am no expert. I can’t tell you whether or not Lena did, in fact, molest her sister. However, many experts have called her behavior completely “normal” for children and between siblings. What I do know is that we are built out of contradictions, and being in the spotlight brings them each to the surface.
Dunham’s book—her writing—is a case study in how a writer’s own words can be used against themselves.
If Dunham were any other writer—not a famous actress whose every move on the show GIRLS is already closely watched—there’s a good chance that her words would have gone unnoticed. But she’s not any writer. What I found most surprising about the accusations of her abusing her younger sister was not that she wrote something outlandish and slightly offensive (it’s Lena Dunham, people). It’s that, in the year plus that it must have taken Dunham to complete her memoir, not one editor or lawyer at Random House thought, “Hey, maybe this passage where she jokes about being a sexual predator isn’t the smartest idea.” Or that if this was said, Dunham chose to ignore it.
In the first season of GIRLS, Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter-ego, tells her parents “I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation—or at least a voice of a generation.” And as someone whose watched the show from the very beginning, it does seem that Dunham’s representation of a writer struggling in the city, to gain her voice, to get her parents to keep helping her financially, is meant to represent her “generation’s” voice. But so often, it falls flat.
Every grad student and writer I know struggles. They have bags under their eyes and they work two or more jobs. Sleep has long since become a myth, and paychecks never seem to be quite large enough to pay all the bills. Hannah, however, gets by on her own with a job at a coffee shop she’s hardly seen at. She gets book deals from writing the audience almost never sees her working on. Dunham is, very much so, a wealthy, educated girl writing about problems she’s clearly never experienced—and it shows.
Dunham seems blissfully unaware of this. Just as she was unaware that her words would offend her readers. If you feel bad for the writer, you shouldn’t.
The problem that occurs when you think your writing speaks for everyone—that it represents the “voice of your generation”—is the shock that comes with the sudden realization that you don’t, in fact, understand the lives or views of your target audience at all.