Culture

Lena Dunham Responds To Victim-Blaming: “I Have Had My Character And Credibility Questioned At Every Turn”

In her memoir, the 'Girls' writer spoke openly for the first time about being sexually assaulted in college. Now she's dealing with the backlash.

Trigger warning: this article deals with instances of sexual violence. 

It came as no surprise to anybody with internet access that Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl, was met with controversy.

There was criticism of the book as a collection of mostly unremarkable stories that most of us had already heard. There was expected condemnation of the white privilege and entitlement inherent throughout the collection of essays — the same cultural myopia that surrounds her TV show, Girls. And there was a whole bunch of people who loved it, too.

But all of the sensible literary critique was drowned-out instantly by allegations levelled at the writer, that spiralled out of control.

The anecdotes that started it — in which she talks about finding pebbles in her baby sister’s vagina, when she was seven; and masturbating next to her sleeping sister when she was a little older — had been used by Dunham in a typically unguarded way to show she had a bizarre upbringing, and was an oddball child. While the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed out it was in fact perfectly normal behaviour for anyone of that age, the stories were seized upon by the extreme right-wing press as proof that Dunham — misquoted as being 17, not 7 — sexually abused her little sister.

That was, in a morbid kind of way, to be expected. What was more surprising was the far broader section of the internet that began to attack her along similar lines. “A Black woman could not have written what Lena did. She would not have the space to argue context. She would not have anyone championing her,” wrote Luvvie Ajayi, in a blog post that was hard to dismiss. “She would certainly not be given some benefit of the doubt about childhood exploration because Black people’s innocence is often denied, even when we’re 7.”

As the dust settles on that particular issue (helped, no doubt, by a clarification and apology from Dunham), the internet has mobilised around another: an essay in Not That Kind Of Girl in which Dunham, for the first time, openly talks about being sexually assaulted by a Republican college student while she was at Oberlin a decade ago. She calls the student “Barry”.

Unfortunately, it turns out there actually IS a Republican man named Barry who went to Oberlin and matches the description — and whose lawyer posted on GoFundMe about the impact it’s had on his reputation, and the case they are making against Dunham’s book. Yesterday, Random House released a statement clearing Barry’s name, offering to pay the legal fees, and promising to tweak the digital edition and any future printings to make the fact it’s a fake name clearer.

And today, Lena Dunham published a piece on Buzzfeed about the incident and its aftermath: ‘Why I Chose To Speak Out‘.

While she opens with one more assurance that “Barry” is a pseudonym, the remainder of the powerful essay deals with her experience of the assault, and the way her story was received in an “inflammatory and divisive” cultural environment, “with tension building around definitions of consent, and fear ruling the dialogue”.

She explains why she never reported the incident to her college, or the police. “I had been drunk and high, which only compounded my confusion and shame. And I was afraid. I was afraid that no one would believe me. I was afraid other potential partners would consider me damaged goods. I was afraid I was overreacting. I was afraid it was my fault. I was afraid he would be angry.”

She explains why she chose to share her story now, inspired by other women who had braved the judgement that follows a public airing of sexual violence — especially violence that often comes with hazy details and unspeakable amounts of shame. “Survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence,” she writes. “They are isolated and betrayed by people close to them who doubt their reality or are frustrated by their inability to move on.”

And she describes how she has been treated, in the aftermath of publishing her book. “I have had my character and credibility questioned at every turn,” Dunham writes. “I have been attacked online with violent and misogynistic language. Reporters have attempted to uncover the identity of my attacker despite my sincerest attempts to protect this information. My work has been torn apart in an attempt to prove I am a liar, or worse, a deviant myself. My friends and family have been contacted. Articles have heralded ‘Lena Dunham’s shocking confession.’ I have been made to feel, on multiple occasions, as though I am to blame for what happened.”

Specifically, Dunham points to journalists who asked her whether she regretted having so much to drink that night, and what she thinks the accused man would say about her story. “I accept the realities of being in the public eye. But I simply cannot allow my story to be used to cast doubt on other women who have been sexually assaulted.”

The victim-blaming she has suffered, she says, is a product of a culture that tells us “preventing assault is a woman’s job, that rape is only rape when a stranger drags you into a dark alley with a knife at your throat, that our stories are never true, and that lying about rape is a way for women to enact revenge on innocent men.” In a week that added needless complication to an already fraught arena, Dunham says the best thing we can do to help is tell victims we believe them, and let them own their experience in whatever way they need to. “There is no right way to survive rape and there is no right way to be a victim.”

She adds a crucial privilege check, too: she’s dealing with victim-blaming as a privileged, visible, wealthy white woman. “So let us then imagine the trauma experienced by low-income families, women of color, the trans community, survivors with disabilities, students on financial aid, sex workers, inmates, foster children, those who do not have my visibility, my access to medical and mental health care, or my financial and legal resources.”

Read the full essay here.