Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:


[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.


*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

7 thoughts on “Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

  1. 1

    I have to confess, until this happened I actually was only barely aware of Dunham, but I don’t watch TV and rarely even see movies in English, so I’m out of the loop.

    Since I have worked with kids, I got trained on types of experimentation or such kids are likely to do, and how to handle it without freaking out so that kids can learn about appropriate boundaries. I’ve read the pamphlet you cites since it’s a great resource. Kids don’t know what they are doing isn’t wrong, appropriate, they might be imitating adults,peers, and need better direction.

    It seems in Dunham’s case nobody was doing that. So on a level, I’m kind of regarding her behavior as a failure of adults, but that doesn’t make it okay, or not abuse. It’s also her way of writing about it now.

    Though I think an issue with the right-wing type criticism is their answer to these issues, which are almost always punitive. A kid touches another kid in an inappropriate way, lock them up, give them a record.

  2. 2

    Lena Dunham’s actions as a 7 year old girl DO amount to sexual abuse, but I believe that 7 year olds should by and large be excused and forgiven for this sort of thing.

    What disturbed me about it was how she wrote about these experiences, as an adult, in a very creepy way. The language she used made it seem as if she remembered it fondly. It made it seem as if she thought it wasn’t wrong at all.

    I don’t think its a good idea to glowingly reminisce about one’s perverted actions as a child in a published memoir. Some stories are truly better left unshared.

  3. 3

    Her actions were not sexual abuse. Sexual abuse requires two elements, sex and abuse. To examine a one year old’s genitals could arguably be looked on as abuse, as obviously there was no consent on her sister’s part. Of course, one year olds don’t tend to consent to anything. Regardless, the other necessary element is sex, or that the action is done for sexual satisfaction. This element is wholly missing, because the action was done explicitly out of curiosity, and seven year olds don’t tend to interested in sexual satisfaction, anyway.

    The masturbation recount is also not sexual abuse. While obviously there was an element of sexual satisfaction there, there is no reason to believe it had anything to do with her sister. There was also no abuse, since she didn’t do anything to her sister.

    The other stuff is clearly a sign, as Miri says, of someone trying to foster some sense of dependence in her sister. This isn’t appropriate. It is also not sexual abuse. Dunham seems to know now her actions were wrong, as she compares her actions to a sexual predator. The big difference between her and an actual sexual predator is that the predator does all these things with the end goal of sexual satisfaction. Dunham did these things to get her sister to like her more. That’s a pretty big difference. For what it’s worth, parents also often do these types of things to their kids to in a misguided attempt to strengthen their bond. It isn’t healthy, but unhealthy and sexual abuse are two different things.

  4. 4

    I don’t want to touch this subject with a ten-foot pole, but I have been dismayed by the never-ending kid-gloves treatment of Dunham by liberal/progressive/perceived-as-liberal media for so long that now that something truly horrifying has happened, I can’t repress myself anymore.

    Let’s look at the strength of the arguments defending her in the Tweets in this blog post, which are representative of the ones showing up all over the internet :

    My little sister and I took baths together until we were 5 & 6. Pretty sure we examined each other’s junk closely. Sheesh.

    Other comments I could make about this notwithstanding, this isn’t equivalent to what Dunham describes, because it involves tiny children of the same age mutually curious about one another’s anatomy and excludes the dynamic of a much older sibling’s callous, manipulative and coercive behavior. Also, this behavior didn’t continue into teenhood.

    No mainstream person with a platform has acknowledge the things she wrote are not normal sexual exploration.

    Ad hominem. Someone gets to decide what constitutes normal or healthy sexual behavior because he or she is “mainstream”?

    that’s where we disagree. I think her memoir is intentionally uncomfortable. “Normal” or not, I don’t think it’s abuse

    Is this statement meant to imply, among other things, that abuse is okay if it’s described in a celebrity memoir meant (to get attention) by being “intentionally uncomfortable”? If so– no. Just no. You’d never make that argument if the abuse had been committed by a celebrity you loathed, because it’s so obviously wrong.

    if yr denunciation of Lena Dunham for being an “abuser” includes transparent envy of her career and privilege, you MAYBE invalidate yr point

    Fuck this. I am a science fiction, fantasy and 19th-century literature nerd who would have no idea who Lena Dunham was if NPR hadn’t decided that it wanted to become Entertainment Tonight for stereotypical Ivy League liberal arts majors fixated by themes on dating, grappling with society’s beauty ideals, and finding oneself so it could constantly rave about Girls on All Things Considered. I went to a college with girls like Dunham in plenty and consequently learned that I want nothing to do with them. I’ve got my own biomedical science and writing careers before me, and I’ve never envied anything about Dunham. It wouldn’t surprise me a lot of her denunciators feel the same way.

    Also, pointing out that Dunham has many privileges does not necessarily indicate envy or resentment of them, nor does it comprise a denial of her right to have them. Because people are individuals, I’m sure there are those who are envious. But if you think that noting privilege is automatic proof of player-hating, then you are probably the type of person who thinks that snappish Precious analogy from a million years ago made logical sense.

    I won’t give examples of how Dunham has long been protected by a double-standard in media, because they have to do with other topics and would therefore derail the thread. Suffice it to say that I think Dunham doesn’t get a free pass on sexual and emotional abuse because she’s a feminist heroine from an affluent and educated family who has been very vocal about her personal suffering over society’s beauty ideals and how this affects her search for romantic relationships within a very specific demographic. We can’t have double-standards. It dismays me that right now it’s mostly conservative commentators pointing this out.

  5. 5

    P.S. I have never commented on your blog before, so if I violated your comment policy by including too much snark, I sincerely apologize. Moreover, I do not want to dismiss the importance of the issues of body image and beauty ideals; I have always thought that they’re crucial issues in feminism, that Dunham has had every right to tackle those issues and has been cruelly and unfairly treated by people whenever she has. On that front, I have no complaints about her.

  6. 6

    I think that one of the problems of the discussion is the conflation of the factual abuse with the label abuser.
    A friend of mine who’s a lawyer once explained to me that (at least in Germany) the process is like this:
    -What has happened?
    -What crime is this?
    -Who did it?
    -Is the person who did it responsible for it?
    That last question makes sense when you think of people who cannot be held responsible, like children, or people with certain mental illnesses, or people who are under the influence of certain drugs. So legally it is totally possible that a murder has been committed, that person A did it, but still person A is not convicted nor treated as a murderer because person was not sound of mind. So even if we agree that what happened was sexual assault and that Lena Dunham did it, she would still not be an abuser because she was 7 years old.
    But as others have mentioned, the story is problematic on several levels:
    -A lot of it is not credible. A 1 yo who is able to shove pepples up her vagina and that without anybody noticing? I remember that my oldest managed to get pebbles into her diaper, but that’s very far from putting them up her vagina. A 1yo playing this as a prank? Come on. At that age they do not understand prank.
    -If things for some reason happened as described: huge parenting fail. Your 7 yo should not habitually fondle the genitals of your 1 yo. That’s teaching consent 101
    -The most problematic is how she wrote about it as an adult. She shared this with the world apparently without consulting her sister. Would you want the world to know that you had pebbles up your vagina as a wee baby? The way she wrote about it does not indicate that she understands why those things might be an issue, which reflects poorly on her as an adult, not as a child.

    I understand that LD got defensive. After all the charge of sexual assault is a heavy one, especially when conflated intentionally or unintentionally with being an abuser. From my perspective it looks like the USA public are very eager to hold children responsible as if they were adults. This seemed obvious to me in tweets that linked her to the behaviour of Hugo Schwytzer, a man who tried to murder his gf and who crossed serious boundaries with his students as an adult.

    I also understand why people reacted like they did. Because children can sexually abuse other children and just because they aren’t responsible in the conventional sense it doesn’t mean that their actions are any less damaging.

  7. 7

    Transgressive memoirs like this are probably older than Hollywood Babylon. Celebrity jackass wants to be seen as too cool to give a fuck, writes about the time they (supposedly) did something obscene, awful, or both. In the nineties, I’m betting this would have received a pass from anyone outside of a few random conservatives.

    Things are different now, for better and worse. The fact she’d get called on this is one of the best things about this moment in time. Progressive people who used to be completely ignored or regarded as a boring sideshow have grabbed a microphone. Call-outs get heard. She just thought she’d get cool points for being a creepy fucker. Now she doesn’t want to face the consequences of being taken seriously.

    That her defenders include jerkass Dan Savage surprises me not at all. He’s the exact same way – wants to be able to score cool points for saying offensive shit, but never face the consequences of having people voice their disapproval. They can’t stand that someone doesn’t like them, feel entitled to be forgiven for anything. It doesn’t work like that anymore.

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