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Lena Dunham and White Liberal Feminism

Is Sex Abuse Okay When a Rich White Woman Does It?


Lena Dunham

As sex abuse scandals go, the one swirling around Lena Dunham, raised by passages in her recent memoir, is small. She’s not facing a slew of former victims coming out to accuse her, she’s only cancelled a few events and HBO has completely ignored the controversy and seems to have no plans to cancel Dunham’s show, unlike comedian Bill Cosby.

    But does that mean her actions are irrelevant, or do they highlight a disturbing double standard?

    For her part, Dunham has taken the stance of victim, rather than perpetrator. Yet for those who have been outraged over Dunham and her casual homophobia, classism and racism for years–notably lesbians, black feminists and womanists–the current controversy has stirred a long-simmering pot of anger which refuses to go away, no matter what Dunham herself says. As The Daily Beast queried in a long article quoting feminists of color and lesbians, “Will White Feminists Finally Dump Dunham?” The subtitle of the piece asks, “Is She Done-Um?”

    Seems not. Which begs several questions: Is sex abuse okay when a rich white woman does it,  is hipster sexism here to stay and is it okay to parade your victim across the Internet if you are a woman and she’s a lesbian?

    Not That Kind of Girl is the New York Times best-selling memoir by the 28-year-old self-described voice of the millennial generation and creator of HBO’s successful Girls TV series. The book is also where Dunham details her decade-long–decade long–sex abuse of her younger sister, Grace, now 22 and an open lesbian.

    Like much of what Dunham writes about in the book, the passages referencing her obsessive preoccupation with her sister are framed in Dunham’s particular brand of so-what/screw you humor that is the foundation of much of  her writing on Girls. Dunham catalogues a series of sexual encounters with her baby sister that begins with opening her one-year-old sister’s labia to dressing her prepubescent sister up in sexually provocative ways to paying to kiss her and lay on top of her through to masturbating in the bed next to her when Dunham herself is 17 and Grace is 11.

    The passages were initially highlighted in a review in National Review, the conservative magazine. The source of the initial review somehow gave straight white feminists carte blanche to take the stance that this was a right-wing takedown of a liberal feminist and part of the war against women. A defense of Dunham appeared in Salon and Dunham herself spat out a series of tweets in which she asserted she was in a “rage spiral.” In her tweets Dunham suggested that “everyone does it.”But does “everyone” pry open their baby sister’s vagina and masturbates as a teenager over the age of consent in the bed with their pre-pubescent sister? Or rather, as one feminist survivor of sibling sex abuse told me, this is the classic excuse of a serial abuser.

    Twitter blew up over Dunham, with women of color and lesbians leading the charge against her and straight white liberal feminists defending Dunham and totally ignoring the complaints of black women and lesbians like myself.

    There’s no denying the National Review piece is a bit of a screed against unearned wealth, which given the history of the Republican Party in recent years is more than a little hypocritical. (Dunham grew up astonishingly wealthy and never actually worked prior to landing her HBO gig. She received a $3.5 million advance for her memoir.)

    What the National Review piece doesn’t do is lie about Dunham. It quotes directly from her book. And while those quotes are indeed creepy, they were written by Dunham herself, not the male reviewer who obviously dislikes her. Dunham herself states that her actions were “predatory” and that she “groomed” her sister for sex. 

    Is sex abuse of a child “ironic”? Is it okay to use your abusive actions against your sibling to stoke sales of your memoir?

    The only problem with the National Review piece is the messenger, not the message. The messenger is abhorrent, but even a stopped clock can be right twice a day. Just because National Review happens to be right about Dunham doesn’t necessarily mean they are right about other issues involving women or even the left. We know National Review is no friend to left-leaning women, straight, gay or trans–but does that make their highlighting of Dunham’s own words wrong?    

    Thousands of tweets from women said it did not. Thousands of tweets from women–mostly women of color and lesbians–shouted out that this was just one more disgusting tale about Dunham and that it was enough. Time to #DropDunham.

    As I tweeted after I first read the National Review piece, if a 28 year-old male celebrity had revealed the same details as Dunham, we’d be looking for other victims, the TV show would have been cancelled and the only people defending that celeb would have been the usual rape apologists, male and female, like those defending Bill Cosby or British soccer player Ched Evams.

    Instead a flurry of straight, white  women writers rode to Dunham’s defense, some even excoriating women of color (and totally ignoring lesbians) for speaking out against Dunham as if to do so was somehow anti-feminist. A piece by Judith Levine in Boston Review titled “Lena Dunham Wasn’t a Pedophile and Neither Were You” links conservative men and feminist women of color who objected to Dunham. The piece also promotes Dunham’s own assertion that “everyone” sexually experimented with their younger siblings. 

    Yet comments on the piece again ask why the long defense of Dunham’s indefensible behavior?  

    The woman of color who started the hashtag #DropDunham rejected these arguments entirely. Feminist activist Deva Cats-Baril was succinct about why she started the #DropDunham hashtag on Twitter: out of frustration over white feminist dismissal of Dunham’s latest–and previous–actions. 

    In an interview, Cats-Baril said, “Mainstream feminism is riddled with classism, racism, and sexual orientation discrimination. Feminists in positions of power in ‘the movement’ aren’t ready to confront their own racism and white privilege, so it’s uncomfortable for them to discuss Dunham’s.”

    Bolstering Cats-Baril’s comments were other well-known feminists of color. The twittersphere had been flooded with tweets from women of color, lesbians and others, including male victims of sex abuse, adding their call to have HBO drop Girls and Dunham.

    Lauren Chief Elk, a Native American activist, echoed the raw emotions many female critics of Dunham felt when she tweeted: “She has a history of racist, rape culture enabling garbage which should be enough to #DropDunham in the first place.” 

    Dunham has long been accused of racism and homophobia (and of course, classism) with regard to Girls, which has perpetuated the all-white, all-wealthy version of New York City that was the purview of other series like Seinfeld and Friends 20 years ago. 

    HBO responded by ignoring the controversy entirely (as did Dunham’s publisher, Random House) and announcing that the new season of Girls will start January 11. Dunham published an angry “I’m sorry you quoted my book and made people pissed off at me” apology that was published in Time–bolstering the privilege argument against Dunham as yet more women asserted no one else would be able to call up Time and ask to publish a retort. 

    For lesbians (and gay men) the issue goes beyond Dunham and her immense privilege to the very real accusations gay people face all the time about being child molesters because straight culture continues to conflate “gay” and “pedophile.” And Dunham’s assertion that her sister didn’t mind the abuse is something men always say about their victims–it’s an unconscionable statement to make or to demand one’s victim make.

    As for the white feminists arguing that “everyone” does this–that’s wholly incorrect. Sexual exploration between peers may occur in a small percentage of children but it is always peer-related. When it isn’t, it’s considered child molestation. There was a significant age difference between Dunham and her sister and it’s difficult to imagine any feminist worthy of the title would dismiss a boy doing the things Dunham admits to–especially the paying to kiss her and lay on top of her or the masturbation at 17–as okay.

    Feminism is about equality. Intersectionality within feminism is about acknowledging the oppression lesbians and women of color have experienced within feminism. Ignoring or worse, dismissing the experience of lesbians and women of color is not feminism. Arguing that women get a pass on sex abuse of siblings that would raise more than just an eyebrow if the perpetrator was male is both the antithesis of feminism and victim-blaming. 

    Dunham may not get dropped by HBO, but it’s time the rest of us held her to the same standard to which we hold everyone who doesn’t have her privilege.    


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novels, Ordinary Mayhem and Cutting will both be published in winter 2014. @VABVOX 

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