I don’t care if you like Lena Dunham or not, she’s not a child molester

I am loathe to enter into this conversation further than I have already in various spaces online as it has become so heated and divisive, but am too frustrated to shut up (despite the fact that I’m aware many will respond by telling me to do just that — shut up — and isn’t that what women should always be doing, after all? Shutting up? Surely women have said enough…).

In case you somehow managed to miss it, conservative and anti-feminist, Kevin D. Williamson, wrote a diatribe against Lena Dunham, disguised as a “book review,” accusing her of sexually abusing her younger sister, Grace. Another extreme-right site, TruthRevolt, followed suit, publishing a blog post with the headline: “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” The accusation is based particularly on this passage, from Dunham’s book, Not That Kind of Girl:

“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.

“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.” I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.

“Does her vagina look like mine?”

“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.

My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”

My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.

Now, I don’t have any children. I do not know for certain what is “normal” behaviour for seven year old girls. I am not a child psychologist. But the mothers I’ve spoken to tell me this is pretty run-of-the-mill weird-kid behaviour. From where I’m standing, despite the fact that I never personally looked inside anyone’s vagina when I was a kid, this strikes me as pretty average. Kids are weirdos. They do weird, awkward, inappropriate things. As evidenced by a collection of stories from anonymous women, detailing their own weird, inappropriate, awkward kid behaviour compiled on a Tumblr account called Those Kinds of Girls

In a piece for Jezebel, Jia Tolentino asked Debby Herbenick, PhD, an associate professor at Indiana University, writer for the Kinsey Institute, and author of Sex Made Easy what she thought about the incident. I though her response was useful:

Anyone who has worked in K or pre-K will tell you that you’re often having to remind little children not to touch their genitals and to keep their hands to themselves, because genital exploration is very, very common among young children. Ask any parent of young children and they will also have stories to tell (I’ve worked with parents of young children for years about how to talk with their own children about bodies, puberty, and so on and these instances always come up: not just about kids exploring their own bodies but about how kids explore with each other).

Dunham’s story is not one of sexual exploration and she doesn’t describe any sexual acts. The story she tells is one of bodily exploration; sex is not a part of it. Her story also includes her sister’s own exploration in that it turns out her sister had been putting pebbles inside her own vagina (some small girls put things in their vaginas—toys, pebbles, Legos, etc—there is a case study of a 4 year old girl who put a Bratz doll in her vagina).

People who are attaching sex to these stories seem to equate the genitals with sex, but that’s not how young children see their genitals. Dunham’s story is not an uncommon one. The research (and any preschool or home with young children) is full of stories of childhood ‘play’ not so different than this one.

Experts on child sexual abuse, parenting, sexual health, and psychology also say that the stories Dunham describes fit well within the realm of “normal” childhood behaviour and does not “come close to the criminal-justice definition of sibling sexual abuse.”

I hear that many people perceive this behaviour as inappropriate and/or disturbing, and that some found it triggering to read. Those are perfectly reasonable responses. It isn’t ok for people — even if they are kids — to touch other people’s genitals without consent. Kids need guidance with regard to healthy boundaries and touching and bodies. That’s why, when things like this happen, it is the responsibility of parents to have a conversation with their kids about boundaries and consent and touching and other people’s bodies. I hope that when Dunham went to tell her mother of her discovery, she had a conversation like that with her.

So these are all relevant and worthwhile things to discuss, as feminists and people who care about kids and people and women. What isn’t relevant is whether or not you like Lena Dunham or Girls. There are plenty of valid criticisms of Dunham’s privilege, of her work, and of what she represents. And none of those things make her a child molester. I like her work. You don’t. That’s ok. My liking Girls and Tiny Furniture has nothing to do with my, or any other of the feminist responses that say Dunham’s behaviour doesn’t make her a child abuser. But what’s clear is that many of those leading the Tweet-war on Dunham hate her and hated her long before they didn’t read her book, but came across some intentionally misconstrued excerpts generously provided by some folks who have a vested interest in taking away women’s reproductive rights (and who hate Dunham specifically because she advocates for abortion rights), proving that women routinely falsely accuse men of rape, who painted Dylan and Mia Farrow as malicious liars with respect to their allegations against Woody Allen (and believe, more generally, that “feminists are dreadful and lie all the time”), who believe women who have abortions should be hanged, and, I’m sure, would very much like to show us that “Women are abusers, too! Sexual abuse isn’t gendered — SEE!” despite that fact that almost 100 per cent of perpetrators of sexual violence in childhood are men. Ask these folks how much they give a shit about Allen or Kelly or Ghomeshi’s victims? And why suddenly they care oh-so-much about supposed child abuse?

If you don’t think this was all initiated with the specific intention of attacking women’s reproductive rights, the feminist movement, and women in general, you’re not paying attention and I certainly won’t be joining in in your faux-, anti-woman, self-indulgent, cookie-seeking, transparently-desperate-for-Twitter-followers, hate-activism.

The Twitter rage machine has little interest in nuance or in honest conversation — it feeds on the extreme. No one is holding social justice Twitter accountable. Which is why you’ll see gratuitous comparisons between Dunham and actual sexual predators and abusers like Woody Allen, R Kelly, and Jian Ghomeshi in abundance.

To compare a seven year old girl who was curious to know whether or not her younger sister had “eggs” inside of her and decided to check it out, to an adult male who intentionally molested, exploited, beat, raped, traumatized, and abused girls and/or women is a completely ridiculous, destructive, and irrational thing to do. Demanding that Planned Parenthood — an organization that is absolutely pivotal for American women — #DropDunham under threat of pulled support and donations is similarly unhelpful. To, you know, women. That is who we are purporting to care about, yes? Women? Remember them? (Luckily a number of feminists responded by donating extra to the organization in order to show support and counter the ridiculously destructive hashtag.)

None of this “Lena Dunham abused her sister” narrative seems to be rooted in concern for her sister, who is decidedly fine. And for those who are concerned about whether or Dunham has consent from her sister to publish these stories, here is her statement published on TIME today:

I am dismayed over the recent interpretation of events described in my book Not That Kind of Girl.

First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances.

Childhood sexual abuse is a life-shattering event for so many, and I have been vocal about the rights of survivors. If the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read, I am sorry, as that was never my intention. I am also aware that the comic use of the term “sexual predator” was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that as well.

As for my sibling, Grace, she is my best friend, and anything I have written about her has been published with her approval.

It seems, rather, to be focused on taking Dunham down. And as far as I’m concerned, we (should) have bigger fish to fry.

Dunham’s stories aside, I worry about how this kind of behaviour and response impacts women’s ability and willingness to write the truth. I want women to be able to tell the truth — no matter how weird, messy, or inappropriate that truth is. I want them to be able to tell the truth even if it makes some people uncomfortable. Certainly I want them to be able to tell the truth about being a weird, inappropriate, curious seven year old girl without being accused of sexual abuse (which, by the way is a very serious crime).

Lena Dunham isn’t the epitome of feminism. She’s also not a child molester. Step away from your keyboards, look around, find the real enemy. He’s thrilled right about now.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.

  1. Thank you for your courage, Meghan, in facing down a misogynist hatefest that latches on this anecdote to dump on Dunham for all kinds of unrelated reasons. Patriarchy thrives on internecine shaming and your aim is, always, true.

  2. Great article. Of course it’s kids just exploring, and a kinda cute story.

    On fact it’s so normal one wonders what the point was in relating it in the first place in this age of the ‘selfie’ in which one’s very soul is up for grabs, for attack, or for sale. So why are we women offering up so much of ourselves?

    ‘Confessional’ literature can so easily backfire especially if it is somewhat thin on literary qualities. Not everything has to be included in the magnum opus. Dunham is driving a vehicle with more power than most in its class: if she is culpable of anything, it is not knowing when and how to use the brakes.

  3. I agree with you. As the father of a two year old, I can say that he will touch his genitals every chance he gets. Thankfully he is still in diapers.

    However, after the endless meat-grinder of insults on here, to see you write:

    “It isn’t ok for people — even if they are kids — to touch other people’s genitals without CONSENT.”

    Was more than shocking. Since when does consent matter to you? I thought it wasn’t good enough.

    A parent can consent for someone to touch thier children’s genitals but an adult can’t consent to another person to slap them?

    1. Andrew. Why are you so intent on completely misunderstanding my argument re: consent and Ghomeshi? Anyway, let’s keep the BDSM/Ghomeshi comments to the other post/thread please and thanks.

  4. “To compare a seven year old girl who was curious to know whether or not her younger sister had “eggs” inside of her and decided to check it out, to an adult male who intentionally molested, exploited, beat, raped, traumatized, and abused girls and/or women is a completely ridiculous, destructive, and irrational thing to do.”

    Quite!!! The hysterical reaction of people who, quite clearly, have zero actual concern for Lena’s sister and have (very obviously) been motivated by an intense dislike of Lena and her work, has been INSANE!!! Dear God, this is what kids DO for goodness sake! Sexual abuse?!!! It’s just innocent curiosity that kids soon learn is “inappropriate” as they get a little older. We all did the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” thing as little girls and boys. Or played “Doctors and Nurses!” She was seven years old for God’s sake.

    There have been arguments that if a man had published the same thing it would have meant the end of his career. What are you thoughts on that Meghan?

    1. That’s what I’m saying. A man would be labelled as a molester, that’s why I’m skeptical of her exoneration.

  5. Of course little kids explore, of course they are curious about genitals. I’m a grandmother who has been looking after kids since I was twelve years old and I don’t freak out when kids get curious. Good heavens, we expose faces, necks, chests, shoulders, backs, legs, feet, hands, even backsides but we don’t expose “down there”. It would be ridiculous to think this hiding, and covering wouldn’t cause a kid to wonder “why”? If it’s okay to hold your hand why isn’t it okay to….?

    Kids let us know when they’re ready to learn something more. Instead of freaking out and making the attempted exploration become something traumatic, just sit down with the kid and explain, as simply as possible, what the mystery is and why we are working overtime to hide it.

    And of course the ones who fear feminism and feminists, the ones who have vestiges of power to protect, are going to leap on the first possible chance to dump on a woman who is so openly committed to protecting what little gains have been made in abortion access.

    I’ll share with you something that gets said on Vancouver Island…” we are up to our assholes in assholes”. And those who see something sinister in this episode of childhood curiosity really are, just that; assholes.

  6. Why are we acting like this is only about her touching her 1 year old sister’s vagina when she was 7 and not also about emotionally coercing her sister into sleeping in her bed and then masturbating while she sleeps? And about paying her sister in candy to give her long kisses on the lips? And about paying her sister in quarters to let her put ‘biker chick’ makeup on her and calling her ‘sexual property’? And about watching whatever her little sister wants as long as her sister would ‘relax on her’ while they watched tv? Why are we pretending this is about once incident and not a decade of behavior documented by Dunham in her own book? You’re leaving a lot out, and I’m not sure why.

    1. Because most of the commentary around this has been focused on that particular incident. But masturbating in the same bed as one’s siblings while they sleep, I believe, is also pretty normal… Otherwise there would be a hell of a lot of kids out there who we are labeling as child molesters…

      Kids like to touch themselves and masturbate. It’s a fact of life. There’s a difference between kids doing things that feel good and predators who force kids to participate or watch them masturbate for their own sexual gratification and a young girl who is masturbating while her sister sleeps, hoping she doesn’t wake up…

      Honestly it seems pretty harmless to me… And it seems as though the experts agree… http://www.salon.com/2014/11/04/child_therapists_stop_freaking_out_about_lena_dunham/

      1. Again, you’re willfully misconstruing what Lena actually wrote. She was a teenager when she masturbated in bed next to her seven years younger sister. ON TOP OF a pattern of really creepy behavior manipulating her sister into being physical with her, including manipulating her into sleeping in her bed in the first place. I have two sisters who I’m actually very affectionate with and this whole thing just sounds nightmarish to me. I mean I could find therapists who’d say anything about any topic, so I’m not sure why you think “well an EXPERT said _____” is some sort of gotcha.

        1. I say “experts” because I don’t think it’s ethical for randos on the internet to accuse children of crimes like sexual abuse because when they were young they masturbated (gasp!) while their sister was asleep. I’m sorry, I don’t find her behaviour predatory. Maybe weird, maybe inappropriate, maybe even disturbing, but she isn’t guilty of a crime. She is guilty of being a weird kid who maybe didn’t learn about healthy boundaries from her parents. I think it’s hugely presumptious and inappropriate, actually, to tell Grace she is a victim of sexual molestation, also, when it’s pretty clear she was not.

      2. I read she was 17 when she masturbated next to her sister though…she even describes manipulating her sister and trying to make her dependent…are we going to ignore that a one year old isn’t even old enough to talk? Child exploration is one thing, but generally the kids are the same age…and old enough to say they want to.

      3. ”masturbating in the same bed as one’s siblings while they sleep, I believe, is also pretty normal…”

        No it seriously isn’t. Especially when there’s a 6 year age difference and emotional coercion. Jesus christ.

          1. So on the record you believe it is acceptable for a 17 year old to explore sexuality with an 11 year old?

      4. Lena was not a kid when she was masturbating in bed with her sister. She was 17 and her sister was 11. Which would make her almost an adult and her sister a child still. I’m very confused why none of the sites defending her (that I have seen) are addressing this behavior and her comparing herself to a sexual predator but instead simply just saying “She was only a child!” to excuse what she wrote when her wording made it apparent these things went on for years. Personally, most of the people I have seen upset about this are not just talking about the pebble thing (even though it’s strange to me an infant who likely couldn’t even eat without making a mess could manage to put several pebbles into their vagina to where you couldn’t see them without spreading it, her words, doesn’t make any sense to me).

          1. If Lena Dunham is six years older than her sister and she masturbated next to her when she was seventeen, that would make their ages seventeen and eleven correct? Hopefully we can agree on that. Furthermore she describes her behavior as predator-like and admits to perpetrating acts not conscidered healthy or normal at all, like bribing her sister for long kisses. Why do you feel this need to protest her? And why are you, and other commenters involving right wingers into this? I do not see how that is important or even relevant to this discussion. (By the way i apologize if there are some bad spelling etc, my first language is not english).

          2. But she wasn’t 17 when that happened. She wasn’t 17 when any of the things people are calling her a child molester for happened. That was a mistake made by the original right-wingers who leveled the attack on her.

            If you can’t understand how all of this was started by right wingers who hate feminists and abortions, as an attack on women, feminism, and reproductive rights, then maybe re-read my post.

          3. I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old…. Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night as I read Anne Sexton, watched reruns of SNL, sometimes even as I slipped my hand into my underwear to figure some stuff out. Grace had the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.

            She was masturbating in bed next to her sister up to age 17.

            Yes, one of the articles misprinted her age for the pebble incident as 17 instead of 7, but the other things she described happened at later ages, not all at 7.

            Have you read the book? (I haven’t.) Are people misquoting her?

          4. No. She shared a bed with her sister until she was 17. You, nor I, actually know how old she was when she masturbated in bed with her sister while she slept. Younger than 17 is what we know. Also. This does not constitute sexual abuse.

            People are saying “17” about everything because of the original mistake.

          5. I don’t think that blogger understands how the law works. Masturbating in the same room as a child is not a crime. And no, a, say, 14 year old girl touching herself while her 8 year old sister was asleep wouldn’t constitute a crime or sexual abuse. That’s crazy.

          6. To add to this, re: what is a crime/what does and does not constitute sexual abuse, I felt this was a very useful explanation:


            “… Then there is Dunham’s admission that she bribed her sister to kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Yes, it’s coercive—but is it harmful? ‘It sounds, from what Dunham is writing, that it’s just playful activity. One would seriously have to question that harm was done,’ Savin-Williams says. And again, this kind of play is extremely common. In one study, researchers at Bryn Mawr College found that nearly one-third of women claimed to having been coerced into playing sexual games as children, and that most of the time, these games seemed perfectly normal. Ultimately, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that more than half of children will engage in some type of sexual behavior before their 13th birthday…

            “This is not to say that abuse between siblings doesn’t happen; it certainly does. But in no way does what Dunham describe come close to the criminal-justice definition of sibling sexual abuse, which is ‘forcible rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling.’ When child abuse specialists, teachers, lawyers, and child care and school administrators convened at a symposium in 1995 to collectively decide what distinguishes “developmentally expected” sexual behaviors from those that ‘suggest dysfunctional development’ and could be harmful, they decided that masturbation, inspecting the bodies of other children, and kissing—the three things Dunham writes about doing—all belonged in the first category. Behaviors in the second category included oral/genital contact with other kids, penetrating girls’ vaginas with objects or fingers, and forced penetration of other orifices. What Dunham did doesn’t even come close to this. …”

          7. You’re saying a child abuse investigator, who took the time to look up the law, doesn’t know how to do his job? I didn’t say it was a CRIME, I said it was something that CPS would take seriously. (I read some of his other posts and he seems pretty legit.)

            This is frustrating because on the one hand you have the right wingers, who may or may not be out to get Dunham, and then you have the feminists saying leave her alone because she isn’t a criminal, then there are a whole bunch of us in the middle saying she may not be a criminal, but she did do something wrong, and given that she wrote about it publicly, it would be a good idea to actually discuss it instead of trying to brush it off as a right-wing hit job.

            She is not a criminal, but she did do something wrong, and her attitude is hugely problematic, and it is not something many of us can dismiss. Do you honestly think she is completely blameless here, and that there is nothing to discuss?

          8. I’m saying that it isn’t a crime. So I’m saying Dunham isn’t a child molester or guilty of sexual abuse. Isn’t that the point? I haven’t said her behaviour isn’t problematic, I’m saying she isn’t a child molester.

            The law is, re: child sexual abuse is that a person commits sexual exploitation of a child if they engage in a sexual act or
            exposes his or her ‘sex organs’ for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.

            People can think her behaviour is ‘problematic’ till the cows come home, but accusing her of sexual abuse and calling her a child abuser is a whole other story.

            I feel like you’re accusing me of saying and believing a lot of things I haven’t said and don’t believe. Sure there is a discussion to be had. There is always a discussion to be had about anything. Having a ‘discussion’ should not equate to a witch hunt and accusing someone of a very serious crime that they did not commit.

          9. Oh dear. I expect this will upset, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s honestly what I think.

            When this investigator writes “What a cruel and callous thing to write. This shocking passage not only acknowledges a predatory bent in Dunham’s affection for her sister, it essentially makes fun of people sexually abusing children. What a lark! I’m just like a sexual predator wooing a small suburban girl. ”

            I think yes – but I also think that this investigator does not understand comedy and certainly not the comedy landscape as it exists right now. It’s dark, visceral and very male dominated – hence the sort of highly uncomfortable material Sarah Silverman writes. In fact, her autobiography “Bedwetter” has some shitty things she did as a kid too. I also do wonder what this investigator would make of some of Louis C.K.’s stuff.

            I get the impression that the intention behind these confessions is “look how fucked up and weird I am – I’m a bit of a sicko”. It’s clear that her sister approved all of these stories and I can’t see any other reason for writing them. It’s not like it’s relevant autobiographical information.

            Again, not saying the things she did are perfectly benign, but they are not criminal or wildly anomalous, especially for a contemporary comedian in the era of the Anti-hero

          10. I agree… I know how easy it is to be like HAHA JUST A JOKE! And we should be critical of these excuses, for sure… But it was a joke… She was making fun of herself.

          11. (This might be a duplicate comment, my internet is acting weird).

            “In one study, researchers at Bryn Mawr College found that nearly one-third of women claimed to having been coerced into playing sexual games as children, and that most of the time, these games seemed perfectly normal.”

            I find this intensely disturbing. First, it is GIRLS who are being coerced into sexual behaviors, and second, these “games” seemed “normal.” In other words, coercing girls into sexual behaviors is “normal”…? That is rape culture.

            This confirms my concerns that researchers consider as part of normal sexual development/sexual play oppressive social norms (such as coercing girls/violating their boundaries, or teaching them that they have none at all).

          12. I’m certainly not a right-winger and neither are my friends (we’re democrats) but we do not condone this behavior and think that she should be held to the same standards as everyone else. Lena Dunham will never see jail time but that doesn’t mean she isn’t losing in court of public opinion. It’s pretty much every group of people including most rad fems who have been greatly disturbed by her own admissions. This only one of a few articles actually supporting her actions. All you have to do is go to her page on imdb.com and read the comments to see this has nothing to do with politics. People are pissed off because abuse is not ok. I think for some this really hits close to home because of experiences they’ve had.

          13. What internet planet are you living on?? The VAST majority of feminist writers, activists and journalists — never mind experts on child psychology and child sexual abuse — have supported her and argued that her behaviour doesn’t constitute abuse. ‘The court of public opinion,’ if you’re basing this on internet comments, also thinks that feminist are evil, ugly, sexist bigots from hell and that women are for porn, so they have little-to-zero credibility as far as I’m concerned.
            Here are just a few of the articles written that do not agree with you. Read up!

          14. “she should be held to the same standards as everyone else.”

            Agreed. And if you took a random sample of 10,000 middle class americans – hell: lets say 10,000 middle class american females aged 25-35, and had them describe everything they can remember about exploring their and other kids genitalia and all of the earliest sexual memories they can recall, my money is on Dunham coming out as normal as individually wrapped cheese slices.

            “People are pissed off because abuse is not ok”.

            Of course abuse is not OK. Who said abuse is OK? Saying that Dunham is not a pedophile is not saying “abuse is OK”.

    2. Yeah, what the hell was the sexual property thing about? I’ve heard so much crap about her book…if I hear one more woman admit to liking douchebags who degrade them I might scream, they make me embarrassed to be a woman.

  7. So I was wondering who was this ‘we’ you were referring to(‘we’ are purporting to care about women, ‘we’ have bigger fish to fry). I didn’t hear about this story until now. I thought ‘well, these people didn’t support PlannedParenthood to start with’. And by ‘these people’, I meant right-wing misogynists MRAs who pick on this story and try to make it appear like what it’s not simply in order to be able to say ‘see, women abuse too, sexual abuse is not gendered’, as you said. So I followed some of the links you provided and it appears that there are feminists on board with this? The real grudge appearing to be about race. Do they seriously think that if this happened to a black woman, radical (or not) feminists would not defend her? Maybe mainstream feminism would not put that much energy in it and that would be an issue. But no, it would not pass for sexual abuse still. If Lena Dunham (not familiar with her at all) said or did anything racist/inconsiderate, she should be condemned/called on for that. Not for sexual abuse. With this thinking, I might have been a child molester too when I was a kid… You’d think we could discern child sexual abuse (the deliberate use of a child for one’s own sexual gratification) from children’s curiosity and exploration.

  8. Would you feel the same way if it was a boy masturbating next to his sleeping sister, looking up her skirt, and bribing her for favors? Because I have to assume that’s all normal behavior according to specialists, too. I don’t think she’s a child molester, but I must admit that parts of her story creep me out. Kind of disturbing how it’s natural for older siblings to manipulate their younger siblings. That lust for power must be innate.

    1. Why aren’t you making your counter-examples same sex as was the case in question: a boy masturbating next to his sleeping brother, looking at this genitals, and bribing him for favours?

      I think making this about an older brother and younger sister muddies the already-clouded waters.

  9. I agree, she is not a child molester, though I think her behaviour as a child and teenager is pretty manipulative and therefore disturbing and should have been called out by her parents as crossing bounderies.

    What makes me really uncomfortable is the way Dunham writes about such incidents. I also think that women need to be able to tell the truth but I think that nothing can come from the truth if you can’t reflect on your own behaviour and see when you have made mistakes. I don’t really see such kind of reflection when she writes that she has been a “sexual predator”.

    I just read yesterday that in her book Dunham writes about being a survivor of rape and how she wouldn’t want to call it rape. I think Dunham tries to cope with a lot of things and one of her strategies is using sarcastic humour, often against herself. While everyone has their own ways of coping I find this strategy kind of self-destructive and also to be a problem for other victims who get made fun of as well.

    1. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, but I do think that what you are describing is at the heart of her work and her fame. I watched Tiny Furniture and thought it strong work: unique in its honesty to an uncomfortable degree of self-revelation. I don’t think I’d watch it again. I checked out a couple of episodes of Girls and found the same quality of “here’re all of my stinks and flaws; all of my narcissism; the worst of me” and I found the truth of it too uncomfortable to watch on a number of levels.

      I heard snippets of her interview on That Show with That Guy recently and I heard her say that from the time she could speak she would say out loud exactly what she was experiencing and that she would do this to the extent that her parents were not sure whether to try to censor and try to get her to be quiet or just not take her out in public very much (or something to that effect).

      So it seems to me that the non-filtered world view of a privileged white New Yorker is the core of the art, and I think she is cognizant of that. I don’t think the confessional aspect of the work is without self-critique, and that that layer of self-awareness is what usually gets filtered out by her critics.

      For example, Samantha Allen’s histrionic piece in the Dailybeast which attempted to turn the entire fiasco into a race issue noted that Dunham had said in a Rolling Stone interview that she felt more for the dogs in India than people. In the context of the interview she was saying this as an illustration of her sheltered and privileged life. She was describing going to India recently, naively, in her own recount of it, thinking she’d receive some sort of safe packaged enlightenment as per meditation classes she’d taken with her mom when she was young. The volume of of viscerally undeniable poverty and suffering she witnessed was more than her western, white, middle class self could handle and she made the dog comment as a case in point.

      FTR – I know many people who care more about animals than people and I found that Allen’s misrepresentation of Dunham’s statement to be dishonest and the entire piece to be comparable to the ridiculous and incoherent self-aggrandizing of right-wing pundits. And the source of it was Dunham’s Warts-and-All self-revelation.

      Like I say, I find her work too close to the bone for me. But I respect it and I wish her the best with the pile on of misogynists who will try to tear her down for breaking the mould of female self-presentation.

    2. As an aside – I think I heard that there was a huge amount of criticism of “Girls” for its whiteness and classism. Were any such criticisms ever levelled at “Seinfeld” or “Friends”?

      If there were such critiques were they levelled with the same volume and vitriol?

      1. I know, right? Like the whitest, most ridiculously classist shows everrrrr. EVERYONE IS WHITE AND MIDDLE CLASS! I guess so much of TV is like that though, hey? I think maybe people were disappointed because she is doing feminist work but then didn’t see the erasure of race/class from that work? Friends and Seinfeld weren’t exactly political… I don’t know, I just making some guesses. I’m sure others have more well-formed thoughts on that question?

        All that said, Dunham’s work is very personal and she is white and middle class/privileged. So it’s understandable that this is what she would produce. Part of the problem is that space doesn’t exist/isn’t made for the work of more diverse, non-privileged artists in the same way as it is made for white people/privileged people.

        1. You are right about there not being space for non-privileged stories, especially on TV.

          I have never been comfortable with saying that Dunham is “doing feminist work”. I think she’s making TV and that her work has feminist applications or has feminist value because it’s not conforming entirely to the proscribed roles for women on TV. I think that one of the difference between Girls and the other white middle class shows mentioned is that Girls does have some class self-awareness and it does portray privilege in a less-than-flattering light and with an aesthetic that is so unadorned that it doesn’t disappear (i.e. – make it easy for the audience) behind broad humour or more a common TV look/feel. Maybe there is a feminist intention behind her work, but to me it looks more like someone who happened to find a way to make work that they weren’t secretly ashamed of and that was also highly successful. For a woman in FILM and TV that’s a Unicorn scenario for sure.

          1. Well, she has used her book tour to aggressively advocate for Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights… And I do see her work as feminist, though I know not everyone agrees with me on that.

            I mean, she presents sex and nudity and female bodies in a non-porny, non-sexualized way which is pretty revolutionary for American TV… I definitely think she is intentional about doing feminist work/challenging the male gaze, and obviously making a female-centered show…

            She also mocks privilege and self-absorbed, white, middle/upper class Brooklyn 20-somethings. So I guess I don’t think she’s that unaware of class and privilege after all (like you say)….

          2. I didn’t know about her PP work and yes, perhaps the gaze challenge is intentional. So yes, I’d agree that it’s intentionally feminist work.

            I’m just just about cautious about politicizing an entertainer’s work (especially female entertainers because they function in an extra-toxic environment) as sometimes the work then becomes criticized as if it were meant to functional like a political essay or something, if you see what I mean. That’s not to argue about this particular case, but is meant as a general comment.

          3. Ok, yes I see what you mean. I mean, I think her work is probably more personal than it is political. That said, the challenge to the male gaze is what excites me most about the show; as well as the focus on female friendship and on women’s lives. Which is political in part because it’s so rare. But yes, I see what you mean about politicizing an entertainer or artists’ work. Especially when it’s such personal work.

          4. I feel the same way about the show.

            And also, I’m the first person to read the inherent politic that I think exists in everything. I’m just differentiating between the political content of work and an artist’s intention.

            Many artists only figure out the meaning of what they make long after the work is complete (and some have very little interest in ever interpreting their own stuff). It usually goes something like impulse- generation – execution – refining – finishing and then “what the hell is this, anyway?”

            So I agree, I think the work has lots of feminist meaning, I’m just not sure that Dunham had any thought like “I want to make a really progressive feminist show: what should that look like?” But at the same time, I’m sure she knew that what she was making was well outside of the standard fare, especially in terms of women’s stories and what the female actors are “allowed” to look like.

            The main thing that strikes me about this controversy and about the response to her and her work is the viciousness with which so many people want to rip her down and the general level of discomfort with that degree of true female nakedness (metaphorically speaking).

            Also (and I know I’m going on too long) the intersection of sexuality and childhood is an area that it seems increasingly difficult to navigate and discuss because the general environment is so steeped in an aesthetic of pedophilia. Think of the response to Sally Mann’s photos of her kids…

            Sorry for rambling all over the place, but I find this whole thing somewhat addling but also important.

          5. Well I think she does see her work as feminist (I feel like I read that somewhere but of course I can’t find it anywhere so I might be dreaming), but I doubt she necessarily sees it as a primarily political show (or necessarily a political show at all)…

            “The main thing that strikes me about this controversy and about the response to her and her work is the viciousness with which so many people want to rip her down and the general level of discomfort with that degree of true female nakedness (metaphorically speaking).”

            Yes, I feel the same way. And I can’t help but feel there is some deep-seated misogyny in that. Tearing down a successful woman who is unattractive in a number of ways (not just talking physically — but in her behaviour, her flaws, etc.).

            “Also (and I know I’m going on too long) the intersection of sexuality and childhood is an area that it seems increasingly difficult to navigate and discuss because the general environment is so steeped in an aesthetic of pedophilia.”

            Certainly. It isn’t necessarily about the kids being sexual, it’s about a culture that sexualizes girls and young women… Isn’t it?

          6. “It isn’t necessarily about the kids being sexual, it’s about a culture that sexualizes girls and young women… ”

            Yes, that’s what I think too.

            I could list off all of the sexual games I got up to with the kids in my neighbourhood when we were VERY young, and how as we approached ages 10 and 11 how there were older boys around and things became more menacing and full of rumours. But I don’t have the energy to go there and I can’t clearly see the transition between what was, I think, truly innocent to what was more contaminated by the gross dictates of gendered sexuality.

            I think that we’re so immersed in and infused with porn, which is in essence very pedophilic, that it is very difficult for people to deal with even child nudity (Louis C.K. goes there in one riff and it’s excruciatingly dark. I’m not at all comfortable with it), so when kids are actually playing at genital exploration, sexual or not, the adults who can speak to it without the residue of toxic culture are few and far between.

            I also recall my Mother telling me that at summer camp her older cousin would masturbate in the bunk above her and the whole bunk would shake. For Mom it was just a funny story. So I guess the masturbating while the sister slept charge seems a bit overwrought to me.

          7. Be upset about her actions and attitude all you want. Labeling her a child molester and demanding PP drop her is another story entirely.

        2. Um actually, the cast of Seinfeld was predominantly Jewish, as is the cast of Girls. I’m sick of people dismissing Jews as white in America considering that when someone sees my pale skin and then hears my last name, I sure as hell would love some of that white privilege the tumblr kids talk about. If there’s one thing uniting black and white people on the internet, it’s a hatred of Lena Dunham daring show her Jewish body on tv.

          Please don’t use Jews as rhetorical tools-whether its to try to accuse us of being the most privileged of the privileged or foreign parasites.

      2. Doesn’t it have something to do with when the shows started? Seinfeld and Friends started ages ago by internet standards (1989 and 1994 respectively), and people didn’t comment online back then like they do now.

        1. I was looking at shows that had similar or greater mass success, but OK, fair enough.

          I just searched “Top sitcoms 2013”. There’s an awful lot of white actors (mostly men – surprise!) on the list.

    3. She compares herself to a predator then gets mad when people call her that. Makes no sense.

      1. It was a joke. Obviously. If you can’t tell the difference between a joke and a literal comparison there’s not much I can do to help you.

  10. I think children should be learning about their genitals from responsible adults, not from each other. I know girls often compare bust sizes and waist sizes. This leads to nothing but body image problems. I am concerned that if children spend too much time scrutinising each other’s genitalia it may lead to similar problems. I know when I was a child, the other kids could be pretty blunt and mean. They were more than happy to bully other children for any trait that they thought was different or odd. I understand that children are curious, but I think it is better to have adults teaching children about genitals and reproduction (in a strictly theoretical manner that is, paedophilia is disgusting), while stressing that there is no such thing as “wrong” or “ugly” genitalia.

    I do not think it is a good idea to declare that all “normal” children are obsessed with other children’s genitals. Some children are not and I do not think they should be labelled as “abnormal”. I am also worried that normalising sex-related behaviour in children could lead to a normalisation of paedophilia. The kids who touch each others genitals may not perceive their behaviour as sexual, but some adult paedophiles certainly will and they will perceive the supposed ubiquity of this behaviour as prove that children are eager for sex from a young age.

    Let us not forget that some of the key figures in liberal academic feminism and queer theory, such as Michael Foucault and Gayle Rubin, were open defenders of paedophilia. I know that nowadays most liberal feminists do not openly defend paedophilia, but until they openly denounce the paedophile defenders in their movement and make it clear that it is never okay for adults to have sex with pre-pubescent children, I do not trust the claims they make about children and their genitals.

    Even if children do have an interest in sex and genitalia from a young age, that does not mean they are ready to start engaging in sexual behaviour. They do not understand the physical and emotional consequences of such behaviours, nor do they understand the complexities of love and romance. They should have a basic understanding of genitals sexual intercourse, but they should not be encouraged to believe that those are the most important things in world. Children may be very resilient to trauma, but they are very easily influenced. I would rather they reach an age at which they were capable of thinking critically about sex and love, before they started participating in such activities. God knows there is already too much of a shortage of critical thinking with regard to such topics.

    1. “I do not think it is a good idea to declare that all “normal” children are obsessed with other children’s genitals. Some children are not and I do not think they should be labelled as “abnormal”. I am also worried that normalising sex-related behaviour in children could lead to a normalisation of paedophilia. The kids who touch each others genitals may not perceive their behaviour as sexual, but some adult paedophiles certainly will and they will perceive the supposed ubiquity of this behaviour as prove that children are eager for sex from a young age”

      But no one has said that “all ‘normal’ children are obsessed with other children’s genitals.”

      Saying that it’s pretty ‘normal’ behaviour for kids doesn’t mean all kids do it. I didn’t do anything like that when I was a kid, but I’m sure I did other stuff that, if I wrote about, could be classified as weird by the twitter armchair psychologists. All kids do/did.

      Also, I don’t think kids masturbate or touch their genitals or are curious about other kids bodies because SEX, I think it’s just because masturbation feels good and because they are curious about their bodies and other people’s bodies. That pedophiles might construe that as ‘sex’ or ‘sexuality’ is their problem, not kids’ problem. We can’t force kids not to be kids because pedophiles exist and are disgusting and awful and project their own disgusting awful shit on to kids…

      1. “But no one has said that “all ‘normal’ children are obsessed with other children’s genitals.” ”

        Actually one commenter did say “we all did the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” thing as little girls and boys.” Perhaps I should have responded to them directly, but I wanted to make a general comment about the topic at hand.

        I don’t like the term “normal” in general. It implies that the commonness of a behaviour has some bearing on whether or not the behaviour is healthy and morally acceptable. If psychologists want to say that a behaviour is frequent among children and not indicative of a mental disorder, they should use a less loaded word “common”. The word “normal” is too frequently used to bully people who are different.

        “Also, I don’t think kids masturbate or touch their genitals or are curious about other kids bodies because SEX, I think it’s just because masturbation feels good and because they are curious about their bodies and other people’s bodies.”

        I agree that children play with their own and other children’s genitals out of curiousity. I would prefer it if they learned about such things from responsible adults, rather than other children, who are often eager to pick out differences and attack other children for them. But I am a little confused, isn’t “masturbation” sexual, by definition?

        “That pedophiles might construe that as ‘sex’ or ‘sexuality’ is their problem, not kids’ problem. We can’t force kids not to be kids because pedophiles exist…”

        Paedophiles are scum, but they do not exist independent of the culture. The message that children are acceptable targets of sexual desire is becoming increasing common in our culture. It was promoted first through virtual child pornography (pornogrpahy that portrays adults, usually women, as children) and now it is becoming part of mainstream culture too (the “Oh my god” song is the first example that comes to mind.) I even heard a liberal academic at my university tell his students that “kids have a sexuality too”.

        I am not blaming children for anything and I am certainly not suggesting that force be used against them, but I do think that clinical psychologists have to very careful about the ways in which they represent the behaviours of children and I am concerned about the influence of liberalism (with its history of defending paedophilia) on the practice of clinical psychology.

        1. “‘But no one has said that ‘all ‘normal’ children are obsessed with other children’s genitals.'”

          Actually one commenter did say ‘we all did the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ thing as little girls and boys.” Perhaps I should have responded to them directly, but I wanted to make a general comment about the topic at hand.”

          Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that. (Though I do tend to think it’s pretty common — perhaps ‘all normal children’ is a bit of an exaggeration? “Most” or “a lot” would likely be accurate…)

          I agree that the term ‘normal’ is not very helpful or descriptive of much, I’m just having a hard time coming up with something better…

          “I agree that children play with their own and other children’s genitals out of curiousity. I would prefer it if they learned about such things from responsible adults, rather than other children, who are often eager to pick out differences and attack other children for them. But I am a little confused, isn’t “masturbation” sexual, by definition?”

          I can’t really speak with any real expertise on this, but I think that the kind of touching/masturbation young children do is different than the kind adults do. I guess it could be seen as sexual — it’s stimulation of the genitals (i.e. sex organs), but it’s not like little kids are connecting it to “sex” or “sexuality” per se… I think they are just touching themselves where it feels good, right?

          1. “It’s just innocent curiosity that kids soon learn is “inappropriate” as they get a little older. We all did the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” thing as little girls and boys. Or played “Doctors and Nurses!”

            At no point did I state that all “NORMAL” children do this. The word normal did not feature anywhere. If I thought my “We all did the “I’ll show you…” comment was going to be taken absolutely literally I would have phrased it differently. I was just conveying how very common it is, something that has been pointed out by many other commenters on here! I can’t say what “normal” is because that is a subjective, mutable judgment even when it is collective in nature. Personally, I had absolutely no comprehension of anything “sexual” when I was that age but maybe that’s changed these days? None of the friends or family members I have discussed this with had never engaged in any experimentation of this kind as a young child but there is certainly nothing “abnormal” about kids who didn’t. That is absolutely NOT what I was saying. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.

          2. “But no one has said that “all ‘normal’ children are obsessed with other children’s genitals.” ”

            “Actually one commenter did say “we all did the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” thing as little girls and boys.” Perhaps I should have responded to them directly, but I wanted to make a general comment about the topic at hand.”

            I also cannot fathom how my comment equates to saying “all normal children are obsessed with other children’s genitals”. OBSESSED??!! What? Please do not put words into my mouth.

  11. I’m really disappointed about how polarized some of the debate is. Dunham shouldn’t go to jail, obviously, but she was out of line, regardless of how her sister feels about it. Quite frankly, from what people have written about her before, I’m not surprised that she has a hazy understanding of personal boundaries – something arts culture (including her parents) sometimes encourages, and something I’m really not ok with. It’s the opposite of what I learned about psychological health in my 20s.

    When I was growing up, we had some kids playing doctor with each other, and nude parties, but also a fair amount of older kids preying on younger kids (all the way up to rape in one friend’s social circle – 10 year olds raping 4 year olds – something I never heard anyone get *angry* about). I’m really not ok with judging the pebble incident one way or the other, because I just don’t know, but I do know how common it used to be for kids to cross lines they shouldn’t. I acted out on younger kids a few times when I was 10-12, but I knew it was wrong, and stopped when it became obvious the adults around me didn’t care enough to stop me.

    I think it’s extremely important to talk about what healthy boundaries look like. Dunham doesn’t seem to know, and neither did her parents. Unlike her weight, it’s actually important.

    1. You are quite right about kids crossing lines and hurting each other. And to respond by criminalizing the children is way off. Kids test out the cultural messages they have received. When I was growing up the sight of a woman being slapped and injected with tranquillizers was common as dirt on TV. They were beautiful TV and Movies stars and so I learned that this was cool, sophisticated and what it meant to be a woman. So it’s unsurprising that kids are crossing lines and playing out sexual scenarios at the expense of others – this sort of value/behaviour is modelled all around them.

  12. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been bombarded with feminist writers denouncing Lena Dunham for this and denouncing any feminists who weren’t on board. I really don’t feel one way or another about Lena and I still do not see what she did as sexual abuse. I don’t think that makes me a “bad feminist” either. I’ve worked with child sexual abuse for several years…and I know it is common for kids to behave in sexual ways. We need to be careful we are not demonizing kids as sexual offenders. The truth is this behaviour is common and natural and as adults we need to find healthy ways to address it. That’s the conversation we need to be having.

  13. We should not treat prepubescent children as sexual molesters if they partake in genital exploration, even if there is coercion or an age difference. At this age, genital touching is not equivalent to adult sexual abuse of children. Treating the child as deviant ( or worse, criminal ) will make it very difficult for the child to develop an healthy sense of self and sexuality. In fact, the internalized shame may create deviance where there was previously none. Children should be guided and educated, not humiliated.
    Good that people are supporting Lena. Too bad that we do not see the same groundswell of support for children who have been diverted into sexual offender programs and the juvenile justice system for doing less than Lena did.

    1. I have to disagree with you. Coercion is never acceptable and should not be tolerated. To “normalize” that behavior merely normalizes what enables abuse of women and children: that coercing (a girl/woman) into sex is good and acceptable, that hurting (a girl/woman) is good and acceptable.

      I really disagree with the assumption here that it is impossible for children to commit acts of sexual abuse. Boys have been known to rape girls, and I would hope that we both recognize that as the crime that it is and that abuse can occur long before it gets to that point. Letting people off the hook because they happen to be under 18 is not only arbitrary but dangerous.

      I’m not sure why we get the idea that no one should ever feel bad about what they have done. Shame and remorse are morally appropriate reactions when one has done something wrong. Honestly, if you never felt any shame or remorse you would be a psychopath.

      1. P.S. Not remarking on Lena per se, but as a general statement. I think a lot of people have already noted that even if what Lena did wasn’t abuse per se, it showed that she didn’t have a good understanding of boundaries and that’s something that we, as a society, have an obligation to teach children.

      2. I honestly find it really weird that we’re taking seriously the notion that a female child could be a sexual abuser. I’m not saying that her behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘healthy,’ but I am, honestly, completely surprised that feminists would entertain putting the label of sexual abuser on a young girl. I mean, especially because we are aware of the gendered nature of sexual abuse… What am I missing?

        1. What???

          Abusers are more likely to be male, but girls/women can abuse, too. For me the issue of whether or not she is an abuser or just acting out is her age and intentions, not her sex. Why would you assume girls can’t be abusers?

          All abusers start off as abused kids. Are you assuming girls remain abused kids rather than cross over into abusers, no matter what they do?

          1. 97% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male.

            “All abusers start off as abused kids. Are you assuming girls remain abused kids rather than cross over into abusers, no matter what they do?”

            But Dunham didn’t abuse anyone as an adult. She displayed inappropriate behaviour as a child. That doesn’t make her an abuser.

            Whether or not it’s possible, theoretically, for girls to display abusive behaviour, I suppose is up for discussion. But I don’t feel comfortable applying the label of ‘child molester’ to a girl.

          2. Where are you getting that 97% stat? That is just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I am a therapist that works with the youngest survivors of a abuse and I can tell that is nonsense. Meghan why are you discounting what Lena had said in her book? She clearly had some done some very inappropriate behaviour that I would consider sexual abuse. If she’s getting her rocks off by having her sister sitting on her lap than she is a child molester. No different than if a mall santa claus got a hard on because kids were sitting on his lap. I’m very disappointed in this article.

          3. I know it is possible for girls to be sexually abusive, because *I* was sexually abusive. I wouldn’t have gone to jail, and now that I think about it, it wasn’t severe enough to get the kind of attention I was looking for. (I am not capable of hurting someone that badly). But it was *not* exploration, play, curiosity. It was definitely over the line into serious creepiness. Just because the kid I spoke to about it as an adult didn’t even remember my being there, does not mean it was ok.

            Why am I the only one to take my behaviour seriously, when to me it was clearly wrong, and a clear cry for help?

          4. Richard Rhodes (1999). Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist.

            Not an easy read, very triggery in spots but it really helped me understand the difference between self defense and criminal violence.

            Note that I did *not* say that all sexual abusers were sexually abused. They may have been nothing more than bullied or hit, but that’s enough if the kid can’t take it.

          5. To clarify: all the rapists and murderers this guy studied started off as frightened kids. Anyone messed up enough to go to jail for sexual abuse will have been abused. A young child who violates boundaries with a younger child may simply not know better, but they’re probably also picking up on parental attitudes.

            In the Salon article, Finkelhor did say that multiple incidents of pebble-type incidents would lead investigators to check to see if the child was being abused or exposed to inappropriate material. I gather from some of the articles online that the Dunham kids were exposed to inappropriate material, at least.

          6. “Anyone messed up enough to go to jail for sexual abuse will have been abused.”

            this is just plainly not true and directly feeds into rape and abuse apology where there has to be SOME underlying “explanation” that someone hurts another person other than them making the choice to hurt.

        2. I’m not entertaining putting the label of sexual abuser on a young girl, but I would entertain the label on a boy because of the gendered nature of violence and our social-sexual norms (and the fact that this does in fact happen). My apologies; I realize that the way I wrote it wasn’t very clear, so let me explain:

          The implication of the comment, as it seemed to me, was that it was impossible for any child (regardless of gender) to sexually abuse other children when we know that is false: male children can and do sexually abuse female children.

          I also think that it is important that we do not normalize coercion as part of “sexual play” (including for the children) because that is reinforcing problematic gender norms–especially given that people (including therapists) are going to interpret behavior in a very gendered way. It may seem “normal” to see a boy coercing or acting aggressively toward girls, when that is precisely what we should strongly condemn. It is equally important to teach girls that coercion is not acceptable and that they are entitled to bodily integrity/having boundaries respected.

          Lastly, I don’t believe that it’s always wrong for someone to feel shame. Certainly children shouldn’t feel ashamed of their bodies and they shouldn’t feel ashamed about masturbating, but there’s nothing wrong (and in fact it is healthy) to feel bad about something that could potentially harm someone else. I’d also have no problem treating as “deviant” or criminal a boy who had committed rape (or other forms of obvious sexual abuse), and I think it would be wrong for him to be off the hook (and not held morally or legally culpable for his actions) just because he happened to be under 18.

          1. Yes those are all good points and I am not opposed to the notion that it’s possible for male youth to sexually abuse children because clearly that has happened many times.

      3. My post was regarding prepubescent children, let’s say up to age 12. Teenagers are at a different stage, and while it is also very important to their development that they not be shamed as sexual deviants, talking teens would be a whole different post.

        Child development experts recognize that sexual exploration among kids has different meaning and motivations than adult sexual abuse of children; and that age and context appropriate sexual curiosity and exploration among children (including genital exploration by some) is a normal and expected part of childhood development.

        Coercive play is also part of normal social and emotional childhood development. Most people will recognize these examples from their childhood : bribing one another, threatening to tell on each other or insulting or excluding those who won’t play the way they want to play. If kids are curious about the genitals of their friends, the interaction could be somewhat coercive e.g. “I’ll give you my candy if you show me yours”.

        Obviously, a parent, teacher or guardian should not condone any inappropriate childhood behavior, and should seek to correct and educate the child as soon as it is noticed.

        However, shaming or humiliating a child is not an effective parenting tool. Shaming children, who are still developing a sense of self, could mean they take away the lesson that ‘I am a bad person’ rather than the hoped for ‘this behavior is not acceptable’. Using shame ( or worse, labeling the child a sexual offender or criminal ) in order to correct a child’s sexual exploration likely will teach the child that their sexuality is a shameful and bad thing. The messages they pick up from society (internet, anyone?) will do little to counteract that feeling. And when that child, boy or girl, hits the sexual awakening of puberty, good luck.

        So, yes, guide and parent your child. But don’t weigh them down by conflating their behavioral mistakes with the deliberate harms perpetuated by adult sexual offenders.


        1. Children (that is, boys) have been known to rape as young as 9 (at least as far as I’ve heard). I would want to consider that a a very serious crime.

          I can’t tell whether you would endorse this, but I’m very much against the idea that we should never make anyone feel bad about their sexual behaviors and attitudes. It is the sexual attitudes and behaviors of men and boys that are the problem: they feel entitled, coercion is part of normal sex, they don’t care if they hurt women, etc.

          Maybe we have a different definition of “shame.” Humiliation, obviously, is a very bad parenting tactic. But we don’t want children to grow up thinking they should never feel bad about what they have done to others. Being empathetic, feeling bad at the suffering of others, feeling remorse at having harmed others…these are important parts of our moral development.

          Also, I’ve read the link you provided and it seemed that they admit there isn’t a lot of clarity or information on the topic of what constitutes healthy development and I didn’t see a lot of arguments or evidence for how they delineated healthy vs. problematic behaviors (other than “people think this…” which isn’t helpful).

          1. I agree with you that “the idea that we should never make anyone feel bad about their sexual behaviors and attitudes” is pretty dumb… That said, I definitely am concerned about the level of shame kids (especially women/girls) learn to feel about their bodies and about sexuality. I guess I think (or I would hope — I’m not a parent so I feel weird dictating how a parent should engage with their kids…) there must be ways of having conversations with your kids that conveys that behaviour is wrong or inappropriate but also encouraging them to explore their bodies/sexualities in a healthy way? Like I said, I’m no expert, so just thinking out loud.

          2. It seems, though, that the shame that women feel is a different problem than feeling shame about sexual behaviors/attitudes. The shame women feel is directly related to the social norm, for example, that women are not supposed to feel sexual pleasure, that women’s bodies are “disgusting,” etc., whereas that is very different from feeling shame about what one has done to another person (which is where “shame” might be appropriate).

            I have to say that we almost never give girls any good education about sexuality (that it should feel good and not hurt, that there is something other than intercourse, that it should always be enthusiastically wanted and mutual, etc.). I was never even told that sex should be “consensual” by my parents or in sex education: all they basically said was that “sex=vaginal intercourse” (no pleasure for women at all, of course) and that it was immature/stupid/selfish for me to not let a man do whatever he wanted to me, regardless of whether it hurt me or I wanted it.

            Fortunately I got all the sex education I needed by reading MacKinnon and feminist literature.

          3. I like that article because it recognizes that the issue is complex, due to a number of factors including legal issues, adult observer bias and the relative scarcity of studies of childhood sexual behavior. So, yes, there’s a lot of disagreement about what constitutes appropriate childhood sexual behavior at various stages of development.

            Given the lack of a coherent and considered approach to the issue, we have a situation where sexual behavior in children is viewed and treated as equivalent to adult sexual behavior.

            Result: in the US in particular, kids engaging in sexual exploration are being treated as sexual offenders:

            I don’t condone children engaging in coercive sexual behaviour. However, viewing and treating children who engage in this type of behavior in the same stigmatizing and punitive manner that adult sexual offenders are treated is not effective. If the child’s behavior is serious enough to require outside intervention, here’s a better approach:

          4. This approach might work for less problematic forms of inappropriate sexual behavior, but I have a problem with this being used to treat behaviors that are clearly sexual abuse.

            First, I’m very dubious of the “low” recidivism rate. I’m sure that if you were to actually investigate the boy’s behaviors the rate of sexual abuse is very high; they are only basing the recidivism rate on who gets caught, tried, and convicted, and of course that isn’t going to be much higher than the general rate of convictions because our justice system is designed to ensure that sexual predators are not punished.

            Second, I don’t see how we are going to teach boys that violating women is wrong if we effectively tell them they shouldn’t feel bad about harming girls–no matter how severe the harm was.

            Third, it is telling that there is all this concern about the (male) perpetrators, there is absolutely NONE for their (usually female) victims. Sexual offenders have restrictions on their liberty and people know that they have committed a sexual offense. I’m not moved to sympathy by this given that I cannot walk the streets at night or go on a date without fear of violence (and I’ve done nothing wrong). Any concern about the lifelong effects of being a sexual abuse survivor or being under the constant terror of sexual violence? What guarantees that their victims/other victims will be protected?

            Lastly, having parents show great love and affection for the sexual abuser, everyone expecting the victim to forgive her abuser, and no one being angry or even concerned about the harm that has been done (even if this was rape) shows the victim that she has absolutely no value as a human being. Parents already are apt to victim-blame, treat their daughters as less valuable, and have the strongest allegiances to male children. If she dares to have any anger about what has happened, no doubt the parents will probably ostracize her, treat her as deviant and “crazy,” and the counselors will just tell her she needs to forgive and be nice to her abuser.

            The quote “you think they had a date with Madonna” really is telling of the mindset of people who run this program. Apparently it’s still acceptable to reduce women to sexual objects.

  14. Hadn’t even heard this was a thing until I read this. How completely ridiculous! I guess I should probably not bring up incidents between my sister and I from childhood, lest one or both of us get labeled child molesters. Or me and my cousin doing “movie kisses” for the entertainment of our siblings.

  15. Lena commented on the ‘masturbation’ part of her book in an interview with Howard Stern. She made it sound like she kind of touched herself a couple of times while her sister was sleeping next to her, and it wasn’t exactly ‘appropriate’ behavior, but wasn’t full-on masturbation, either.

    1. And that’s what the passage implied, as well, I thought. I feel like it’s been totally blown out of proportion.

      1. I mean, I certainly had no idea at 13 how to actually masturbate. I don’t think Lena grew up with perfect boundaries, and I’m not a huge fan of her, but I just listened to a comedian talk about how, when he looks at girl babies, he thinks, “I could have sex with that some day.” It’s ummm… interesting, the things we get outraged about.

  16. I don’t know about you’all but it doesn’t sound like Lena’s a child abuser to me, although I can’t help wondering whether sleeping together until Lena was 17 didn’t have an impact on the younger sister’s sexuality. Even if that’s not the case I think Lena included it because at some level she wonders too

    1. How would it affect the sister’s sexuality?

      What I wondered was if the sister was attached (in the technical sense – attachment theory) to Lena rather than the parents. It sounds like it, and that’s not a good sign. (But better a sibling than no one.)

    2. I actually think it’s a matter of how our society sexualizes relationships that sleeping together is a “sexual” thing. I think it is perfectly acceptable–and in fact I wish it were more socially acceptable–to sleep with/seek physical affection from others in a non-sexual way. It’s only because of our cultural norms that we presuppose it is wrong/weird to seek that type of physical affection or comfort from anyone besides a romantic partner. At least for me that’s one of the benefits of having pets: having them sleep with me, cuddle with me on the bed, etc.

      Also, I wonder if this isn’t also a cultural thing…I know that in some cultures the whole family will share a single bed/room, and so it’s not as though it would be particularly unusual in some circumstances for multiple people to sleep together.

      I haven’t read the book, but from people’s responses it looks like Lena might have (albeit perhaps in not the best way) have sought physical affection from her sister, rather than anything “sexual” per se, and part of the confusion about her behavior (and her own interpretation of her behavior) comes from the way physical affection and sexuality are intertwined in our culture.

    1. Where do you see that happening? Grace wasn’t manipulated into ‘sexual behaviour’ as far as I see… Looking inside her sister’s vagina doesn’t constitute ‘sexual behaviour’… And masturbating in the same room as a child doesn’t = manipulating or forcing that child into ‘sexual behaviour’ at all.

      1. Dunham described in detail paying her sister in candy and the like in exchange for exploring her body.

  17. I wonder if Lena thought she was being funny or if she was seeking attention by writing about this. I find it very disturbing. My profession is child therapy and nobody in my field would think that the things she did were acceptable or normal. It is normal for young children to be curious about private parts but Lena describes being sexually turned on as a teenager which in no way is okay. I’m really upset after reading this article and the replies. I had to take a moment to cry a little bit before I could write this because it reminds me so much about what happened to me and my older sister. My sister also acts like it’s no big deal so we haven’t talked in years. I used to really love “Girls”, it was my favorite show. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around all of this.

    Meghan Murphy if you are such an advocate against sexual abuse and rape why are you defending Lena Dunham? I understand the incident when she was 7 was probably not abuse but what about all the incidents of abuse when she was a teen?

    1. “Lena describes being sexually turned on as a teenager” by what? Where, exactly, is her “description of being sexually turned on”?

  18. Kids get curious, Im gonna say i was experiencing the typical boy thing of talking and comparing penises up until about 8 or so (thanks, public school) but in that vein, would people/SJW/feminists be sticking up for a male celebrity who wrote in his memoir that he had done the same with his younger brother? I highly doubt it, i think he’d be labelled as a molester and a pedo, because men are usually espoused as sex criminals in some fashion. Just because she has gender equality notions and feminist sympathies doesn’t make her unable to be an abuser and/or victimizer.

    1. It’s not her politics that make her not an abuser — it’s the fact that she’s not an abuser. Like her actions don’t constitute sexual abuse.