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Lena Dunham Controversy: The Lena Dunham Child Abuse Controversy, Explained

Arguments over how HBO’s Girls creator Lena Dunham, a filmmaker and writer, recounts a childhood scene in her new book, Not That Kind of Girl, have dominated the pop culture world this week. Right-leaning political websites claimed that Dunham had molested her sister in the scenario, sparking the scandal.

To be clear, child psychologists who have commented on this claim that the occurrence looks to have been an innocent mistake rather than abuse or molestation based on Dunham’s account. However, this tale spans more than just this episode.

It touches on two concurrent discussions that have surrounded Dunham and her work ever since her HBO series debuted in 2012: her battle with the leftover what some critics have referred to as “privileged white girl privilege” and her battle with the right over politics surrounding gender and sexuality.

Here is a quick primer on the topic, its history, and the underlying problems.

1. What Is Lena Dunham Accused of And Why Is It so Contentious?

lena dunham controversy

Actually, there are two distinct sets of charges brought against Dunham by opposing political groups. Initially, the majority of Dunham’s detractors were right-wing political websites that accused her of child molestation based on an incident in her book where she was a little child.

However, several feminist left-wing voices soon joined them, accusing Dunham of covering up abuse and exploiting her privilege as a young, white woman as a defense against criticism.

These discussions continue a larger, frequently tense, and highly politicized debate about Dunham’s position in pop culture. She is frequently viewed on the right as the vanguard of a divisive, partisan movement that is transforming the politics of gender and sexuality for the worse. She and her work have drawn criticism from some segments of the left for casual racism, revealing her LGBT sister, and making jokes about molestation as well as for marginalizing people of color.

Supporters of Dunham would counter that these accusations are simply responses to a person whose audacity in pushing boundaries and starting difficult debates is precisely what makes her so essential. These, however, are partly unrelated to her and her work because they concern what American society believes Dunham to be representative of.

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2. Why Is Lena Dunham Being Accused of Child Molestation?

The right-wing website Truth Revolt published an excerpt from Dunham’s autobiography on October 29 under the headline “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister”—nearly a month after her book had been published.

Along with that headline, there was a quote from Dunham’s book in which she remembers seeing into her sister’s vagina:

She didn’t Resist is a loaded word that Truth Revolt really focused on since it goes well with the headline.

Although Dunham claims she was seven at the time, Truth Revolt’s story originally said that she was 17, altering and accusing the passage of pedophilia.

Even while one of those three things was an obvious, careless error, the other two were sufficient to establish the groundwork for people, Truth Revolt readers in particular, to believe that Dunham had abused her sister.

3. Is the Scene in Lena Dunham’s Book Child Abuse?

No, it isn’t, say the experts who have already spoken.

Developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, head of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University, told Slate, “This is obviously not a case of maltreatment.” Children have been engaging in this behavior for all of the recorded time, and they will continue to do so.

Psychotherapist Sam Rubenstein, who focuses on child abuse, concurred with the following statements to Gawker:

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4. What Does Grace Dunham Say?

Days after the accusations peaked, Grace used Twitter to discuss the situation and, in the end, though obliquely, defend her sister. Grace said that society has a tendency to categorize experiences into categories that are “normal” and automatically labels experiences that don’t fulfill those criteria as harmful:

5. if It Wasn’t Child Abuse, Then Why Are People Still Arguing About It?

a few factors. First off, Dunham first responded with a series of tense tweets that unavoidably only served to increase interest in the story:

The second reason is that this issue goes beyond this particular occurrence and whether or not it qualifies as abusive, according to some of Dunham’s conservative detractors. They are concerned with what Dunham’s work represents in the politics of gender and sexuality, which is seen by them as a much wider issue (more on that below).

The third point is how Dunham described the incident in her book and the extent to which her successful writing style may have misled her in this case. The subject of child molestation is quite delicate.

According to research that found “at least 2.3 percent of children have been sexually molested by a sibling,” sibling sexual abuse is much more widespread than most people realize and is “the most closely held secret in the field of family violence,” according to Caffaro, an expert on sibling abuse. Dunham’s handling of this extremely serious subject was not exactly delicate, something she has since admitted.

That fits in some ways with Dunham’s writing’s strongest points and shortcomings. On her HBO series Girls, she has a reputation for leaning into strange, awkward situations, and she is a master at crafting scenes—whether sexual or not—that make viewers cringe.

This book chronicles Lena Dunham’s coming of age in a culture that typically avoids telling the tales of girls becoming women, and it does a good job of highlighting how awkward and challenging growing up as a female can be. Part of that is the Grace tale.

Dunham’s attempt to highlight the humor in a sequence that even playfully alluded to child abuse has been slammed as being simply cruel. Dunham describes her sister’s behavior by using the phrase “she didn’t resist.”

Additionally, she claims to have tried to bribe Grace with candy and “everything a sexual predator might do to attract a tiny suburban child” in another chapter when she writes of another encounter with Grace. One of the main criticisms Dunham has received from the left for a long time is that she is insensitive (more on this as well further below).

Dunham acknowledged that parts of her writing may have been offensive in a statement she gave to Time on November 4. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not, under any circumstances, condone the abuse of any kind, she added. I’m sorry for that as well. I’m also aware that the humorous use of the phrase “sexual predator” was offensive.

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6. Why Do Conservatives Seem to Criticize Lena Dunham so Much?

In many ways, this outburst is a continuation of the ongoing conservative criticism of Dunham. It serves as a reminder that, like many other people in popular culture today, she has become politicized and drawn into the red-versus-blue debate. Taking on Dunham is part of a wider goal for some conservatives; it is a front in the culture wars that is focused on the future of gender and sexuality in America.

Kurt Schlichter acknowledged the dislike conservatives had for the show Girls in a January 2013 article for Breitbart, noting that they “can’t simply ignore shows like Girls that capture the zeitgeist, even if the zeitgeist makes their skin crawl.”

Schlichter attributed this dislike to the show’s treatment of sex, Lena Dunham’s nudity, and Dunham’s portrayal of an “awful, awful young woman,” in his opinion.

Dunham might be “helping to propel a bigger cultural shift,” according to a writer for National Review, which is “an indicator of the decline and demise of the American experiment.”

This simply goes to show that the controversy surrounding Lena Dunham is about much more than just Lena Dunham. Some of this coverage has received criticism of its own, with the left charging that it’s an extension of the right’s “war on women.” According to Tim Herrera of the Washington Post, the National Review cover story about Dunham on November 3 titled “Pathetic Privilege” contained five paragraphs suggesting Dunham is a false rape accuser, five paragraphs discussing Dunham’s body, and two paragraphs discussing her physical appearance.

The initial accusation of child molestation against Dunham made in Truth Revolt’s “sexual abuse” piece was itself a compilation of the same National Review cover story.

7. Why Are Some Feminists Criticizing Dunham Over This?

Longtime critics of Dunham can be found in various feminist leftist circles. Most of her detractors don’t think she molested her sibling. However, they do think that this episode highlights something about Dunham that has always bothered them: what they perceive to be the privilege of a privileged, white woman that makes her oblivious to individuals who are different from herself.

These feminists have criticized Dunham for being far from the feminist role model they think she claims to be. They point to Dunham’s prior behaviors as evidence of problematic, privilege-based attitudes on race, feminism, and LGBT rights, including underrepresenting or omitting people of color from her show, making jokes about rape and molestation, and outing her sister.

For instance, the author Luvvie Ajayi noted that Dunham’s privilege allowed her to be as blasé as she was in her book and in her immediate response and that her insensitivity in writing about the subject demonstrates how she abuses that privilege to get away with things that other people could not

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8. What Makes Lena Dunham Such a Political Lightning Rod?

It’s critical to keep in mind the political environment at the time Dunham’s show, Girls, premiered in 2012 to mainly favorable reviews. This was the year when House Republicans blocked Sandra Fluke from testifying about birth control, and it was also the year that the White House waged a protracted political battle to maintain Obamacare’s coverage of contraceptives. This sparked bigger debates regarding women’s sexuality and reproductive health, which have persisted and are frequently referred to as the “war on women” in left-leaning circles.

Dunham evolved into a spokesperson for each side of these arguments. She was viewed by supporters as a fighter for the necessity of addressing and recognizing sexuality. Right-wing critics viewed her and the persona she was playing as reckless examples of a culture gone awry.

This came to a head in October 2012 when she was featured in an Obama reelection campaign advertisement. That commercial’s sarcastic concept revolved around “first-time” voters:

The jokes, which conservatives felt exemplified what made Dunham a destructive cultural force, offended them. Their concerns that this was all a part of a bigger political effort to redefine sexuality and gender for the worse were reinforced by the fact that she made them in favor of Obama’s reelection.

According to columnist Ben Shapiro, Dunham “mocked virgins” in the advertisement. Not impressed was Erick Erickson. The ad, according to Kevin Eder, made women appear like “brainless sex objects.” The National Review’s Nathaniel Botwinick referred to it as “cringeworthy.” That pushback was and still is a symptom of how frequently Dunham is viewed on the right as the embodiment of more pervasive, universally despised social and political trends.

Dunham has also grown into a talking point in a divisive discussion on the feminist left about how race and class impact the cause. The loudest, most influential voices in this argument, including Dunham’s, are white women who almost ever consider, much less fight for, equality when it comes to race, sexual orientation, or class. Several feminists claim that feminism should be intersectional.

That has also contributed to this controversy. For instance, some authors have claimed that the fact that Dunham is an upper-class, white woman is the main reason why the claims against her were dismissed so quickly.

That is somewhat a criticism of Dunham, but it’s actually a condemnation of what in American society Dunham is seen as representing, much like so much of this dispute and the broader fights that they are a continuation of. In other words, her greatest asset—her capacity to position herself as the voice of her generation—has simultaneously become her greatest liability.

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