Students Offer Personal Responses to Lena Dunham Abuse Allegations

Trigger warning: The following article contains detailed personal accounts of childhood sexualized violence. Due to the sensitive nature of these narratives, the authors have chosen pseudonyms.




Lena Dunham, OC ’08, the creator and lead actress of the HBO series Girls, attracted headlines and scrutiny this week over allegations that she sexually abused her younger sister during childhood and as a teenager. The allegations first arose when conservative commentators Kevin Williamson (“Pathetic Privilege,” National Review, Nov. 3, 2014) and Bradford Thomas (“Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister,” Truth Revolt, Oct. 29, 2014) pointed to passages in Dunham’s recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, in which the actress candidly describes childhood experiences of bodily exploration, developing sexual awareness and vying for her sister Grace’s affection. Dunham has accused critics of misconstruing events, stating in TIME that she does “not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances.” Her words and the ensuing controversy have elicited a wide variety of responses on all sides, both positive and negative. The following are two students’ personal responses to the controversy.


Teresa Carter

While Lena Dunham mentions her sister Grace’s response in her tweets and her statement in TIME, this has certainly not been the focus of the debate. The arguments flying back and forth are primarily about whether Lena Dunham’s explorations were sexual abuse, not about whether Grace felt abused. The new rallying cry of those coming to Lena Dunham’s defense is the support of female sexuality and childhood exploration, proposing an end to shaming these two much-stigmatized concepts.

Though valid, this argument fails to address the familiar theme of “intent vs. impact.” Looking only at the intent of the child explorer, along the lines of “she wasn’t trying to hurt anyone,” does not address the potential impact upon the child explored: “Was anyone hurt?” I’m glad that Grace was not hurt in this case; as she tweeted Monday, “I’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.” As a survivor, I would like to offer a narrative of my own experiences: Explorations of childhood sexuality can be harmful, intentionally or not.

When I was 6 years old, I was sexually assaulted by an 11-year-old boy. I don’t remember every detail, but I remember feeling terrified, alone and helpless. He explained how sex worked and said that he could do that to me. When more details about the event started to come back to me during my sophomore year, I sought counseling and tried to make peace with my childhood trauma.

That boy is 26 years old now and is serving in the Marines; he has a lovely girlfriend, and his family is very proud of him. They don’t know what he did to me — very few people do. I chose not to pursue reconciliation because, honestly, I don’t believe he’s the same person now as he was at 11 years old.

At the time, neither of us understood what assault meant or what consent meant. He had learned about this new thing, and he was trying to teach me about it, but I wasn’t ready for this kind of lesson. Only one of us was curious, and it wasn’t me. But nobody had taught us that this was wrong.

This points to the deeper issue of teaching consent at an earlier age. In my opinion, this is the most important part of sex education for young children; as it stands, children are taught that they have very little control over their own bodies. When it’s time to go to the doctor, they have to go. When it’s time to kiss Grandma, they have to do it. But when their brother wants to play doctor or a neighbor wants a kiss, they should have the right to say no.

I am not trying to demonize childhood sexuality; children’s exploration of their bodies is a natural and common occurrence that is in no way indicative of psychological or pathological problems. And I would heartily agree with claims that society shames female sexuality more than male sexuality. Here, I only seek to add to the conversation with the affirmation that children can sexually assault and abuse other children. While the intent might be positive, I can attest that the impact can be extremely harmful. Only education about consent for children at a young age can help mitigate the underlying problem.


Isabel Penn

Lena Dunham has earned a reputation for problematic and racist actions — a reputation I think is well-deserved — but I do not believe that she is a child molester. From Dunham’s account, it is clear that she was just an inquisitive 7-year-old girl discovering her own body parts and naturally wanting to compare them to others.

Defining sexual abuse and consent legally can be tricky. At what age does a child leave the “sexually unaware” or latent phase of development and enter the sexually developed and aware phase? Is it still sexual abuse if the children are unaware of the broader implications of their actions? There are vast differences between a sexually aware teenager’s concept of genitals and that of a curious 7-year-old’s.

The Children’s Assessment Center of Houston defines sexual abuse toward children as “any sexual activity between adults and minors or between two minors when one forces it on the other. This includes sexual touching and non-touching acts like exhibitionism [and] exposure to pornography.” I take issue with defining childhood sexual abuse in terms of one minor “forc[ing] it on the other.” While right-wing media outlets have taken Grace’s inability to give consent as evidence that Dunham inappropriately touched her sister, Dunham was merely curious; she had no knowledge or awareness of sexual actions. Her action was not inherently sexual; we, as adults, view it as such because we have become aware of the implications of such actions. In a society that so heavily polices female sexuality and body acceptance, this is just another attempt to demonize female sexual curiosity and discovery.

Further, the voice of Dunham’s sister, Grace, had been absent in this discussion until Monday, Nov. 3, when she tweeted, “As a queer person: i’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.” This is a stance I fully support. Too often in cases like this, the survivor or victim of sexual abuse is never given attention. It is their subjective experience being classified here, and their feelings and opinions should be given the most weight, not an arbitrarily objective definition of what constitutes abuse.

When I was 11 or 12, my best friend of many years slept over. She was always bolder than me, the first to enter the dark closet in the basement, the first to jump in the deep end — and the first to discover sex. That evening, she pulled out a manga book from her suitcase, flipping to a page and revealing her discovery. It was a graphic illustration of a penetrative sexual act between a man and a woman. We giggled over the image before turning out the lights. The next time I awoke was sometime in the middle of the night. In the dark of my bedroom, I couldn’t see my best friend, but I could feel her hovering over me. She then laid herself on top of me and simulated heterosexual intercourse. I remember feeling like this was a completely foreign experience, but not once did I feel threatened or scared of her. It was just curiosity. Two girls — best friends ever since we were 3 — exploring this unfamiliar territory together.

It has taken me a while to come to terms with what happened that night. I firmly believe that this was not abuse; it was consensual, and I do not feel like a victim at all in this situation. Puberty and sexual discovery are already complex and mystifying aspects of growing up, and each sexual experience is unique to the person involved.

If Grace Dunham and I both believe that our experiences were not abuse, then we are not victims and the other persons involved are not abusers. We must amplify the voices of the recipients of these experiences and focus on the cases where these people themselves define their experiences as abuse or molestation.