After Kevin Williamson’s review of Lena Dunham’s memoir made news, I wondered how long it would take before feminists defended Dunham’s alleged actions. As I mentioned in my prior post, Dunham recounts in her memoir several instances of sexual activity between her and her younger sister. The incident that sparked controversy involved a then seven-year-old Dunham attempting to look inside her one-year-old sister’s vagina.
It only took a few days for feminist supporters of Dunham to rally to her side. Slate’s Melinda Wenner Moyer gives the most fervent defense. In her article, Moyer states:
Williamson hardly has the authority to call [Dunham’s sexual activity with her sister] sexual abuse—a claim that should not be thrown around lightly. Not only does he not have a background in human sexuality or child psychology, but it also seems he didn’t consult with anyone who does, or he would have quickly learned that Dunham’s behavior as a youngster was normal. “This is clearly not a case of abuse,” says developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University. “Children have been doing this stuff forever and ever and ever and ever, and they will do it forever and ever and ever.”
Given that Williamson considers the activity abuse, would it not have been wiser to consult a person familiar with childhood sexual abuse? Dr. Savin-Williams focuses on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. This is not to say that his insights are unhelpful, only that they may be skewed in favor of his political concerns.
Savin-Williams is correct that children have engaged in sexual activity with each other for the length of humanity’s existence. However, we are not talking about all children. We are talking about a specific situation: for over a decade an older child repeatedly engaged in sexual activity with a child six years her younger. That is not normal.
Moyer disagrees and presents evidence to support her conclusion:
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, touching and looking at new sibling’s genitals is a “normal, common” behavior in kids ages 2 to 6.
This is why reading is so fundamental. Yes, the AAP states “viewing/touching peer or new sibling genitals” is normal, common behavior for children ages two to six. However, it also states that “any sexual behaviors involving children who are 4 or more years apart” and “sexual behaviors that involve coercion” are rarely normal.
Dunham is six years older than her sister, making any sexual activity between them “rarely normal.” It also does not help that Dunham began the sexual behavior with a one-year-old toddler, a child barely able to string together sentences with more than five monosyllabic words.
Dunham’s actions appear, according to the AAP, at least inappropriate. However, Moyer argues:
This was happening between sisters, too, which is important.
Well, since it is happening between sisters it must be okay.
Sexual play often arises naturally out of pretend play, in part because, psychologists have theorized, friends and siblings become curious about each other’s body parts.
The link does not go to the full study. Perhaps this is why. From the actual study under the section Sexual Behavior Problems:
In contrast to normative sexual behaviors, sexual behavior problems typically involve other persons (but still may include solitary behaviors) and sexual contact. Developmentally inappropriate behavior can be defined as behavior that occurs at a greater frequency or at a much earlier age than would be developmentally or culturally expected, becomes a preoccupation for the child, or recurs after adult intervention or corrective efforts. For example, a child touching an adult’s genitals or breasts would be age-inappropriate for an 11-year-old, but may be age-appropriate for a four-year-old. Similarly, an 11-year-old child with an intellectual disability who touches an adult’s genitals may be exhibiting normal behavior if his or her developmental age is four years. When there is a disparity in age or development between children engaged in sexual behaviors, it is common for the older child to “take charge” of the activity, directing the younger child in what to do and threatening him or her to comply and “keep the secret.” Such behaviors warrant additional evaluation and referral to child protective services if abuse or neglect is suspected.
Those are my bolds. Read them again: When there is a disparity in age or development between children engaged in sexual behaviors, it is common for the older child to “take charge” of the activity, directing the younger child in what to do and threatening him or her to comply and “keep the secret.”
We do not know if Dunham threatened her sister. We do know that, according to Dunham, her sexual interaction with her sister continued well into Dunham’s teens. This was not a one-off interaction. This was sustained sexual activity over years. It is difficult, given the age difference and the period in which the sexual activity began, to think there was no coercion or threat involved.
Moyer goes on:
Williamson says that Dunham also admits to, in his words, “casually masturbating while in bed next to her younger sister.” According to Dunham, her sister was the one crawling into her bed, and Grace was asleep when the masturbation happened—so Dunham, who was at least 13 at the time, was essentially masturbating in private.
Let us flip Dunham’s sex: would anyone think it harmless that a 13-year-old boy allowed his little sister to share his bed, waited until the girl fell asleep, and then masturbated while she slept next to him? Would anyone think he masturbated “in private”?
We lack any context of what Dunham thought as she masturbated. Was she only playing with herself or was she thinking about her sister? If it is the former, then one could argue that the activity was harmless. If it is the latter, then it is a form of sexual abuse. Either way, the behavior is completely inappropriate. Dunham was too old not to know to not do that around her sister.
This is not to say that siblings do not engage in this behavior. However, context matter. According to Dunham, by this point she had already engaged in sustained sexual activity with her sister. Therefore, this is not an instance in which Dunham innocently discovered masturbation while her sister slept next to her. She already engaged in sexual activity with her sister. This was simply a continuation of activity “within the spectrum of things” Dunham did.
Yet Moyer decides to ignore context in order to justify masturbation:
Masturbation is, of course, very normal: A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Indiana School of Medicine reported that nearly half of 14-year-old girls masturbate. In fact, the paper called masturbation “integral to normal sexual development.” Hell, one survey found that two-thirds of professionals think it’s normal for 3-year-olds to masturbate.
That is an excellent red herring. No one cares whether girls masturbate. The issue is whether Dunham’s actions constitute abuse. She could play with herself as much as she wanted, yet by involving her sister, she created a potentially abusive dynamic.
Moyer’s defense of Dunham continues:
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.
To say that something is coercive but not harmful is problematic. Again, it comes down to context. Does Moyer honestly want people to believe that a one-year-old can consent to sexual activity? Does she want people to believe that a 13-year-old girl lacks the ability to harm her 7-year-old sister? Does she want people to believe that years of sustained sex play would not affect whether the younger sister would consider abnormal behavior normal?
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.
That is another excellent red herring. No one argues that sex play between siblings is abnormal. It is completely normal. The issue is whether this particular situation was abusive. Is it normal for a seven-year-old to engage in sexual activity with a one-year-old? No. Even if it is just kissing, it is still inappropriate. If they were closer in age, it would be less of an issue. However, the age difference, Dunham’s admission of coercion, and the extended nature of the sexual activity raises many questions.
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.”
There is no one definition of sexual abuse. Each state has its own definition, and the federal government has its variant as well. The accepted view of sexual violence, however, includes coercion and exploitation, and what Dunham describes meets that definition.
Moyer, however, is not deterred:
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.
Again Moyer misleads the reader. yes, the symposium stated that mastubation, inspecting the bodies of other children, and kissing were “developmentally expected” sexual behaviors. They also stated:
While it is clear that sexual exploratory behavior in young children is generally developmentally expected, there can be harmful sexual behavior between children. What factors determine this? Does it make a difference if the activity is between friends? What if there is a large age difference? What if one child is clearly the instigator? The same sexual behavior can be viewed differently, depending on these and other contextual factors (Johnson, 1993).
Likewise, context matters:
Context of Behavior
The context in which a behavior occurs may place the behavior in another (usually more severe) category. Here are some contextual factors that will affect the judgment of the behavior.
- A child’s particular sexual behavior becomes repetitive, despite attempts by adults to restrain it.
- The child is preoccupied with a particular type of sexual behavior.
- If one sexual behavior stops, it is taken over by another sexual behavior.
- The child is so preoccupied with sexual behavior that it interferes with the child’s other activities.
- The child tries to involve other children in the sexual activity repeatedly.
In this light, one could view Dunham’s behavior as abusive. That does not mean it was, only that one can view it that way. Yet her behavior was clearly inappropriate, and all the feminist defending of female-perpetrated abuse will not change that.
Moyer wraps up her article with:
Perhaps Dunham was courting a reaction when she wrote, “Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” But that’s just Dunham being Dunham—provocative, perhaps; an admission of sexual abuse, no way. As ridiculous as Williamson’s claims are, they are important to address for two reasons: Williamson is not just being unfair to Dunham by characterizing her actions as “abusive”—he’s also accusing and humiliating millions of other individuals who did similar things as kids. “Our prisons would be filled with ‘child abusers,’ I’m sure, if we started imprisoning all the children who sexually played around with each other,” Savin-Williams says.
No, they would not. For one, the act that prompted the most outrage happened when Dunham was seven. Very few states would charge a child that young with a crime, and if they did it would likely be dismissed. Two, most cases would result in treatment, not incarceration.
Williamson humiliated no one. He quoted Dunham’s own words and drew a conclusion based on them. The issue is not humiliation. The issue is whether what Dunham did over a decade counts as abuse. Technically, it can.
That does not mean it was abuse. Again, context matters and we do not have it in this case. Without it, people can only use their best judgment. It appears most people reading the exert find these acts abusive.
Moyer, not done with logical fallacies, switches to a strawman:
Perhaps more importantly, Williamson’s accusations trivialize the trauma of real sexual abuse, which, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, afflicts an estimated 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States today.
The CCRC states no such thing. The fact sheet on the site states:
[…] a meta-analysis of 22 American-based studies, those done with national samples as well as local or regional representative samples, suggested that 30-40% of girls and 13% of boys experience sexual abuse during childhood. An international meta-analysis of 169 studies found that lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse for females is 25% and for males is 8%. This same study found that rates for North America range from 15-22%.
The currently accepted rate of sexual abuse against boys in 1 in 6, although many researchers assume the rate is higher. How ironic that Moyer accuses Williamson of trivializing real sexual abuse only to do it herself.
Secondly, many abuse victims would describe Dunham’s acts as abuse. Dunham’s sister took to Twitter in her defense, yet even that worsens matters. It is common for victims to support and defend abusers, particularly those in co-dependent relationships.
It is laughable to think that because Lena Dunham is a famous feminist comedienne that she gets a pass. If any man described engaging in the same behavior he would be crucified. He would not have feminists tripping over themselves to excuse his actions.
None of that comes as a surprise. Feminists have a sordid history of condoning women’s bad behavior, particularly when famous white feminist women are involved. It is, however, ironic how many of the same feminists supporting Dunham had little problem attacking Richard Dawkins for defining what he thinks counts as sexual abuse, despite having been abused as a child himself.
Instead of rushing to Dunham’s side, her supporters should ask whether they should back a person who appears to lack the most basic understanding of personal boundaries and responsibility. Dunham comes from a privileged background in the truest sense: she grew up in a million dollar apartment, had a homework therapist, and a summer home on the lake in Connecticut. She never had to want for anything, and appears to have gotten her way. The words spoiled and entitled come to mind.
This is not a person who appears to understand consequence, which would explain her “rage spiral” on Twitter. Is this a person feminists truly want to support? Is this the person who would be “the voice” of their generation?
Perhaps feminists should choose their icons more carefully.