Weeks after the publication of her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, actress, screenwriter, director, and now author Lena Dunham has sparked outrage for including stories about childhood interactions with her sister. She describes peering into her sister’s vagina as a kid, and masturbating beside her when they shared a bed as teenagers. Even if Dunham didn’t intend to incite controversy by including these incidents in her book, part of creating responsible art involves thinking through how people might react to one’s artistic choices. Her apparent failure to consider the potential repercussions of including these incidents in her book, as well as the levity with which she responded to the recent controversy, is a sign of Dunham’s privilege.
People generally conceive of sexual abuse as a crime committed by an adult, typically a man, against another adult, or against a child. Whatever criticisms her work and her public persona otherwise evoke, as a wealthy, well-educated white woman from a family of artists, Lena Dunham does not fit most people’s image of a sexual predator. This is the reason that she feels able to say that she has done “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl.”
What is considered mainstream feminism is commonly—and rightfully—criticized for neglecting the concerns of those who are not wealthy, white, cisgender women. To many, Dunham is exactly the type of woman who stands to benefit from this version of feminism. Nonetheless, much of what Dunham says in interviews and her own writing indicates that she is doing her best to be inclusive and to not to misrepresent the stories and cultural identities of those she writes about. Her sister's story is yet another that she, in her role as memoir author, has taken on the responsibility of portraying accurately.
In a statement to Time magazine, Dunham said, “I am … aware that the comic use of the term ‘sexual predator’ was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that.” Benign intent on the part of the perpetrator should never be a reason to dismiss sexual violence or accusations of such acts.
Whether or not one believes the episodes in Dunham’s memoir qualify as sexual abuse, she did, at the very least, violate her sister’s boundaries. But even if Dunham did violate her sister’s boundaries, ultimately, the question of how to react to this controversy comes down to how our desire to protect an alleged victim should be balanced against that individual’s choice to identify as a victim.
In the end, no one but Grace Dunham can speak with any true authority to whether or not she is a victim of sexual abuse. This does not mean, however, that Grace Dunham is obligated to further discuss the recent controversy. In response to the recent controversy, Grace tweeted: “As a queer person: i'm committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.” Her experience is her own, and thus the decision not to provide the curious and the outraged with answers is hers, too.