Lena Dunham Faces Accusations That She “Molested” Her Younger Sister

In her new memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl, Lena Dunham tells a couple of stories that include references to her younger sister Grace which are intended to illustrate Lena’s “weirdness” as a child, as well as her youthful obsession with the baby of the family. Instead, critics both on the right and the left say these stories not only cross the line of appropriateness, but suggest that young Lena’s treatment of her sister was sexually abusive, and that including them in her book is an extension of that abuse into adulthood.

In one story, Dunham writes about masturbating next to her younger sister in bed (Grace was insistent about sleeping with Lena at the time). In another, she describes bribing her sister with candy in exchange for increased demonstrations of affection. “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.”

Comparing herself to a sexual predator is somewhat typical of Dunham’s blase attempts to shock her audience. But it’s this next story, from when she was 7 and Grace was 1, that has incited more controversy than she likely intended:

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 didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just 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.

Right-wing websites Truth Revolt and the National Review were the first to accuse Dunham of having “molested” her sister, but plenty of liberal and feminist critics are disturbed by Lena’s stories, especially the language she uses to describe them. The blogger Awesomely Luvvie (which I am a big fan of) wrote:

Some people are saying Lena sexually molested her little sister, and that she’s a predator. I’m stopping short of saying that but I can’t just brush it off as “normal childhood behavior.” Kids do creepy things but do those children turn around as adults to write about those moments like fond memories? Especially when those moments involve someone else’s private parts that you “spread apart.” Is it normal to compare what you did to something a sexual predator would as a full grown person?

Dunham responded to those accusing her of full-on molestation on Twitter, writing:

“The right wing news story that I molested my little sister isn’t just LOL – it’s really fucking upsetting and disgusting … I told a story about being a weird 7 year old. I bet you have some too, old men, that I’d rather not hear. And yes, this is a rage spiral. … Usually this is stuff I can ignore but don’t demean sufferers, don’t twist my words, back the fuck up bros. … And by the way, if you were a little kid and never looked at another little kid’s vagina, well, congrats to you.”

I’m somewhere in the middle on this one. I was definitely bodily curious as a young child. I have a pretty solid memory of walking around my daycare center and flashing my vagina at the other kids. When I was six or seven or so, a neighbor boy and I each put some sort of camera (disposable? did those exist then?) in our pants and took photos of our crotches. If they were ever developed (and I don’t believe they were), they would have been dark and blurry and unrecognizable. Around that same time, my cousins and I invented a game called “smell butts” that involved just that — smelling each other’s butts — but I’m only comfortable sharing that here because my cousins just lovvvvve telling anyone who will listen about it. Basically, I don’t think that children being curious about their own or another child’s body parts is weird, especially before those body parts have been sexualized, but I DO think that it’s up to parents to teach their children about boundaries and consent as early as possible. What bothers me and many others about Dunham’s stories of touching and manipulating her sister for affection is that neither of her parents is shown stepping in and teaching Lena how to respect her sister’s body and boundaries. It’s as if, at least according to the way Dunham writes it, young Lena was given carte blanche to be as “weird” as she was inclined to be, even when that weirdness involved another person’s body, and most disturbingly, the body of an infant. Who knows if that’s actually accurate; Dunham may have left out any conversations her parents may have had with her about respecting her sister’s body, privacy and boundaries, because it didn’t match the story she wanted to tell.

And that’s the other thing. The way Dunham’s tells these stories is what’s most bothersome to me. Having been a fan of her work for awhile, I’m fairly used to her hipster-y, ho-hum approach to writing about taboo subject matters, and that’s what I think she was going for here, but with pretty gross results. She’s also admittedly prone to exaggeration, so I wouldn’t be surprised if these stories have been expanded upon to be much more extreme than they actually were. (In all seriousness, does a one-year-old girl have the dexterity and mobility to put anything inside her vagina? It took me multiple tries to figure out putting in a tampon at age 14, for goodness sakes.) That said, I agree with Luvvie that the way she describes “parting” her infant sister’s vagina is pretty goddamn stomach-turning. I wouldn’t say that, based on these stories, Dunham molested her sister, but I do think she exhibits big-time issues with boundary crossing that has continued into adulthood in the publication of these stories as humorously intended fodder for her book. As Rebecca put it when we were emailing back and forth about this last night, “As much as children shouldn’t be shamed for their curiosity about bodies, children also should have the right to decide who touches them and when. Grace’s bodily comfort and safety should have trumped Lena’s curiosity and apparently it didn’t, and adult Lena doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Consent, consent, consent — and a one-year-old cannot consent. Regardless of whether this was merely an issue of curiosity, Lena touched her sister’s vagina without her consent. And no, she absolutely should not be milking that image for shock value. It’s tasteless and disgusting at best and blithely abusive at worst.”

What do you think? Weigh in with your opinions in the comments!

[Independent UK]

[Washington Post]

[Awesomely Luvvie]