On Abuse, Consent, & Life After Childhood Sexual Abuse

I’m so sick of talking about Lena Dunham. I’m even sicker of talking about what’s wrong with white feminists. Feel free to read any missing backstory here on how those things intersect for this piece.  It’s a lot to rehash & really the Google machine exists for a reason. But, people keep asking me about why I am not on the “Lena’s being maligned unfairly” bandwagon. And no, it’s not about my personal distaste for her work. I don’t like it, I’m probably not going to like it. I’ve long since accepted it’s not for people like me. And I have a long running policy of mostly ignoring it & by extension her because I don’t find “ironic hipster racism” funny or quirky or whatever it is that people are going to tell me her schtick is. That’s life. I don’t like Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli or a dozen other “Tee hee I’m too delicate to do harm” white comedians making their bones that way. You’ll note that none of them have been accused of writing about behaving in sexually inappropriate ways with a child. Because as far as I know, none of them did. Lena Dunham did. And yeah, we could debate the validity of the story from when she was 7 on any number of fronts. And I’ve seen a few defenses of the masturbation in the bed next to her sister at 17 too. You want to defend that? Your bag. Not mine. I find it repellent & vaguely triggering & I have learned how many people exist that I would never let watch my kids. And yes, she was younger & there’s a whole child development & parenting post that I could write, but really…I don’t want to write more than one post, and this one is probably going to be too long.

This isn’t really about Lena, Grace, or the dozens of people who are sure to flood my mentions on Twitter later to disagree with me from the bottom of their hearts. I read the book (well most of it, I skipped the food diary because really I just don’t give a fuck about it), and I have my read on the words on the page. But I’m not Grace. And I don’t have to live with Lena (thank fuck for that because OMG), or try to reconcile myself to a sister who outs me & talks about my private life as though it belongs to her. Who I am, what I am, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who spent years pretending it didn’t happen, followed by even more years of trying to come to terms with it. And like everyone else my personal bias colors my interpretation of the words on the page. Lena is not my abuser. I know that, you know that, but damn…she sure sounds like him in so many awful ways.

The person who abused me was a long time family friend who told similar stories to me, and about me later at family functions. He had a special nickname for me that some members of my family might still use if I spoke to them because they don’t know any better. He plied me with candy, access to TV shows, and other treats to get me to sit on his lap, to get me to agree to things that weren’t necessarily physically painful, but are to this day emotionally painful. And while I hope and pray for Grace’s sake that I am misreading, that all of us that find this narrative disturbing are wrong as wrong can be…there is something starkly horrifying about the casual way an adult Lena Dunham describes herself as behaving like a sexual predator to win affection from her sister. This is not about punishing the 7 year old, or the 17 year old for me or many other people.

This is about all of us taking a good hard look at what the adult is saying, how the adult is saying it, and the way that people are rushing in to insist that the person they like, look up to, (or have a business relationship with) is completely innocent of all wrongdoing. This is a cultural problem writ small and large, inasmuch as we may never know what happened in the Dunham house, but we are still pretending that abusers can’t be children, can’t be women, can’t have meant no harm but caused it anyway. Because I suspect that conversation (which should be forthcoming) isn’t going to happen in any larger way I’m going to try to have a part of it here and now.

Here’s the thing about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that no one really wants to talk about, but maybe we need to anyway. A lot of it is innocuous, so much so that you may forever doubt if what happened to you is really abuse. Some of it even feels good. And if things never get truly painful or scary (mine did, which is not something I will detail, but in some ways it makes it easier for me to label) or if the abuser is someone you love, then your mind and social norms work together to make you reject the idea that it was really abuse. And maybe that’s Grace’s story. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know her or how she feels. And that’s not all that unusual because there’s another peg in all of this which seems to have been tossed aside for some folks for whatever reason. Even when survivors admit the abuse to themselves they often don’t admit it to others. It was a secret, it stays a secret.

My primary abuser is dead. Has been for years, and while I still have nightmares about some things I have never ever come right out and told my family what he did to me. They loved him, have fond memories of him, and I don’t know what value there is for me in raking all of the bad things up now. They get to keep their memories, I don’t have to suffer through the telling, or the recriminations, or the questions I can’t answer without causing more pain about why I didn’t tell anyone. And while it has damaged some things in me, it doesn’t define me, so I have made the choices I can live with in handling it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Didn’t hurt. His love for me doesn’t lessen the harm he did to me. And the years I spent feigning affection for him that I wasn’t sure I felt are long gone, never to be recovered. But at least I get to be the one who tells my story, and since he can’t consent to me giving out his name in public, I choose to give him what he didn’t give me. Privacy. Respect for the harm I might do those who love him. Because consent always matters, even in situations that are awful and complicated. I was too young to consent to what he did to me (not that I would have I think, but who knows?) and as an adult I shudder at the thought of replicating that behavior. It might be my story too, but I’m not the only one involved.

Other survivors who are struggling to reconcile themselves with a feminism that says someone can’t be an abuser because…reasons are probably going to be more articulate in examining what’s gone wrong. In hashing out why consent keeps getting ignored, disrespected, and generally erased from a place where it belongs. They are probably better equipped to address this assumption that jealousy is a factor instead of you know…normal human feelings that we all have on reading something designed to evoke a response. It might not be the desired response, but welcome to the world of writing in public. People get to read what you put on paper and dislike it. They get to interpret the words on the page, and decide how to respond.

You don’t have to like my opinion of Dunham’s work, book, or self. That’s fine. But keep in mind I don’t have to like yours, and like so many other people in this conversation I don’t have to agree with it. Or keep liking you. We all have our places where we make a stand. Mine is: If you present yourself as someone who doesn’t respect boundaries, thinks racism is a joke, and who engages in a string of things that I find repellent? I’m not going to be here for you on any level. All your faves are problematic. Yes, including me. All I can do, all you can do, is decide what you can live with and move on. I can’t live with pretending to see nothing wrong with what Dunham says about herself, and so she can be your fave, but she’ll never be mine. All any of us can do is make the choice that suits our own morals.

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17 comments

  1. Anon for Privacy · November 5, 2014

    As a victim of child-on-child sexual abuse, I really wanted to thank you for everything you have said throughout this. Regardless even of what people think exactly happened with the Dunhams, much of the rhetoric that feminists have used has been so triggering, alienating, and blaming of everything that happened to me… Reinforcing every terrible thought I have had over the years about what happened. You, and a sadly choice few other feminists, have been a lifeline for me through this. Thank you so much.

  2. Another Survivor · November 5, 2014

    Thank you for your words here. I’m also a child-on-child abuse survivor, struggling with depression, and I especially needed this post today.

  3. lubiddu · November 5, 2014

    Thank you for this post. I’ve never paid attention to Dunham’s work for exactly the reasons you articulated, but…the radio silence on this has been deafening. Where are the calls for boycotts?

  4. Avonelle Wing · November 5, 2014

    I think – and this is a tiny theory that’s only just starting to unfold for me – that there’s no call for boycott because pointing at her story and saying “That was abuse. It might not mean you’re a pedophile. and it might not have been rape, but it wasn’t right. and it involved sex as power.” would throw many many encounters into uncomfortable light for the speaker. and the listeners. it would make us culpable for the damage we didn’t acknowledge at the time, to ourselves or to somebody else. it gives weight to the whispers of intuition, the sick sense that something that happened to us wasn’t “right.”
    I don’t know that for sure, but I bet that’s at least part of the eerie quiet and the too-bright protestations and defenses.

  5. Grimalkin, RN · November 5, 2014

    Reblogged this on ofcourseitsaboutyou and commented:
    Read this. Now.

  6. beyondsafewords · November 5, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around the complex realities of sexual abuse. After all, the perpetrators are, more often than not, people we are expected to love and trust. And not all abuse feels invasive or bad at the time it happens (what you described is pretty classic grooming behavior), which can be the hardest thing for survivors to reconcile.

    I hope that the general conversation here can move away from a single person and towards a better understanding of child on child sexual abuse. Regardless of what you think about Lena’s particular situation, it does everyone an injustice to deny that children can perpetrate on other children. I can only imagine how hard it is to go through that journey.

  7. wocpdxzines · November 5, 2014

    Reblogged this on See Me and commented:
    Trigger Warning….

  8. GustyFlawless · November 5, 2014

    Thank you for this piece, Karnythia. I’m also a victim of CSA, committed by my older brother, who eventually went to fucking prison for it, and who could have written every single word Dunham has used. I mean, jesusfuck I just do. not. get. what is happening right now.

    Every single trick of misogynists and MRA’s and trolls is being used right now, except with a sheen of social justice. “It’s purely political!!” is only rape apology from Assange-ites, apparently. “Maybe you’re too close to the issue to see it clearly!!” when used by men to excuse rape is unconscionable, but is suddenly OK when it’s used by white feminists to defend child abuse.

    I’m being called a crazy bitch, except they’re doing it nicely and ‘out of concern’.

    So thank you. It is so validating to read this piece and know I am not alone, that I am not crazy and that this is not OK.

  9. anon. · November 6, 2014

    It’s quite simple, child-on-child abuse exists, the same way child-on-child murder exists. The same way we are, as children, not considered apt to consent, the difference in child-on-child abuse is that the abuser may not entirely understand his/her actions. That doesn’t take away the act, and the result on the other child.
    What i understand, is that as an adult looking back, Lena should understand her actions and feel some kind of remorse rather than boast it out like it’s some joke, because that’s how it feel reading her compare herself to a predator : like she’s joking.
    I’m still trying to come to terms with being abused at 9 by my two years older brother, who groomed me making me watch porn with him, and trying things out. I realise i was too young to know better, but he must have known more, because he wanted to hush it. I understand the curiosity of childhood, but still, where do i find the line ? I suppose in how it touched me, and that’s that knowing better now, i wouldn’t have consented. And that’s why children can’t consent. But i ask myself, what of the abuser ? How can we see the responsability if they themselves aren’t mature enough to consent to what they are subjecting to someone else ?
    Surely not by denying the existence of the problem.

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  11. mossyone · November 6, 2014

    I’m a survivor of child on child sexual abuse and for years I couldn’t understand why I was so upset about what happened when I was 5-7 (can’t remember the exact age, for ages I remembered myself being as young as 5 but I don’t think that adds up with when I first met the child who abused me). All the messages from around me from the media etc were stuff like ‘oh its normal and innocent, kids are curious, you show me yours I’ll show you mine, everyone does it!’ and I couldn’t figure out if there was a difference between normal child curiosity and what happened to me. I felt like there was something wrong with me for being hurt by what happened.

    My stomach turns when I see people defending Lena. People who can’t understand that children can abuse other children because that interferes with their narrative of who is an abuser. Lena herself said it in a tweet- she’s not an ‘old man’ so she can’t be a sexual abuser, of course! But I want to thank you and the others who have spoken out about this.

  12. Another One · November 7, 2014

    Grateful to have found this essay. I’m completely boggled by Dunham’s defenders but maybe they just haven’t spent time with predatory narcissists/sociopaths like Lena. Some of you have remarked that everything she wrote could have been uttered by your abuser. I couldn’t agree more. The part about the coerced TV-snuggling almost made me cry.

    I would like her defenders to explain why, if this is “innocent” behavior, does it follow the abuse pattern to a T?

    Another part of this that her defenders aren’t getting is that sociopaths like to “announce” their bad deeds by joking about them or, say, making you “dirty dance” with them at a family wedding because it’s “funny” — HA HA INCEST IS HILARIOUS — well, Lena actually put it in writing, then pulled the “just joking” maneuver and finally “I’m the victim here.” Which all works for her since what she really wants is…more attention. She is also continuing to abuse and humiliate her sister who must keep playing her part in Lena’s narrative. “Her sister’s OK with it” people say. They don’t know how hard it is to admit that it happened to you because that person is so frequently someone very close to you who has also set up a “we’re the only people who understand each other” type of relationship.

    Her defenders are making the mistake of assuming that Lena is exists in the same moral universe as them. It’s another way that sociopaths succeed — “normal” people excuse them.

    But I guess abusing little girls is OK if you are famous and call yourself a feminist.

    On a side note, this whole thing reminds me of Woody Allen. For some reason, it’s also OK to abuse girls if you make smug movies about boring people. Yet…Mia Farrow actually defended Dunham.

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  15. hellis99 · November 9, 2014

    Thank you for this extremely well-argued piece which says a lot of things I have been thinking but couldn’t articulate as clearly. I have always found Dunham boring at best, and with this latest thing she has gone beyond the pale for me. I could maybe perhaps condone the bit about her at seven (some kids are freaky in their sexualities at that age, when they are too young to know better) but what she says she did when she was seventeen is unjustifiable, creepy, and a blatant exercise of privilege and double-standards in the telling.

    Dunham’s admission that she ‘did everything a sexual predator might’ tells me clearly she KNOWS how incredibly inappropriate what she did is, what it looks and feels like, yet somehow she chooses to go ahead and keep saying it, because her race, privileged background and feminist cred reformulate it as acceptable. Well, it’s acceptable not for me, or for a lot of other people.

    I would never presume to dictate Grace Dunham’s reading of what happened to her, and if she didn’t and doesn’t perceive it as abuse, all the better for her. But I am chilled by the number of abusers who might read Lena Dunham’s words and think ‘see, if it’s fine for HER, it’s fine for me’. Sickening.

  16. Catherine · November 14, 2014

    Sometimes I want to hide forever when I realize that this Lena piece of crap is widely known and makes millions being a pompous, egotistical, self righteous, and sadly, famous person. That says it all about where our country is going. I am a quite white feminist. And I wouldn’t walk two feet to meet this woman. Not all us white women fall for this shit. As far as her lack of filter and her “whatever” attitude about “sex”(abuse), it made me want to puke. I’m sorry this piece of crap even triggered your horrific experience.

  17. JenniferP · November 25, 2014

    Thanks for this post. It’s been a source of strength, as have our conversations as we’ve talked about this a bit on other social media channels. I’ve been trying to think of something to say that doesn’t bring all my childhood stuff at the hands of someone who was a child (and almost certainly a victim themselves) screaming out of the closet where I shoved it into the “Internet Sorta Famous” light, and I think I figured it out with your help.

    The person who messed with me when we were both kids and I have a decent relationship now. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them, I don’t want it to be made public, I don’t need an apology, I don’t need anyone to pay. I have agreed, silently, to a pact, where we don’t talk about it in order to have an okay adult relationship. I don’t worry that they did it or still do it to other kids, I ascribe it fully to “weird kid stuff” and “acting out because of stuff they themselves experienced,” and I don’t think about it all that much. Adults should have stepped in and they didn’t but the time for all of that is long over. It would do nobody good to excavate it now. I honestly never think about it….or I didn’t, until I saw all of my favorite feminists, people who have vocally supported my work, people I’ve broken bread with, people whose books I’ve bought, etc., describing how it’s normal and not that bad and totally ok in my Twitter timeline. Until I saw all those passages from Dunham’s book, taken together. It’s a fascinating shibboleth to see who picks the one “she was SEVEN” incident alone to mention or discuss, instead of the repeated pattern of behavior through the childhood and teen years.

    In order for the whole “this is allllllllllll weird kid stuff” (a la Roxane Gay’s post, among others) thing to hold true for me, I would need the person who did those things to me way back when to, at minimum, refrain from lovingly describing those activities, how they tricked me, how they wooed me, what my body felt like, the memory of what it was all like, etc. etc. etc. in their “humorous” memoir. Like, I would need to know that they don’t chew over those memories, that they don’t offer them up to others for entertainment, and that we BOTH live in the world of “eh, that was a long time ago.” As soon as it becomes “Hey guys, listen close and I’ll tell you all about this gross thing I did one time,” all bets are off. The Pact, as it existed, is off. I don’t think Lena Dunham is likely to be a danger to other kids, I don’t necessarily think that anything legal should happen to her, I don’t care what happens to her show or her fame. But I did maybe sort of need to see not distort the definition of what child abuse is, what sexual abuse is, how sexual predators behave, etc. to defend her in the name of Feminism. I needed them to not pretend that what she described is normal and okay. I needed them to say “you know what, that was pretty fucked up actually, why describe it all so lovingly?” It turns out that I needed that badly.

    Grace Dunham can handle her stuff with her sister however she likes. I handle my own complicated stuff how I like. I get it. I feel sick for her that she had to ride in this particular time machine because of her sister. I feel sick that I had to ride it a little way, too. And that you did, and that others did. And that people who are supposed to advocate for others decided to advocate for the rich girl who has everything, the one who remembers the “hot sticky little body” of her sister. In detail. And tells us all about it. And can’t imagine why anyone would be grossed out.

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