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Monday, November 3, 2014

Lena Dunham, sibling sexual abuse and tribalism

Over the weekend, Lena Dunham went on a Rage Spiral via twitter over "the right-wing story about my alleged sexual abuse of my sister Grace."  Awesomely Luvvie has probably the take I agree with most on it.  And as others have pointed out, Lena's account of what happened doesn't even really make sense.  Notably, it seems improbable that her 1 year old sister was sitting in the driveway, without a diaper, unsupervised by an adult and able to stick 6-7 pebbles in her vagina, and then have the awareness to laugh about her family's reaction to it, as if it was what she had planned all along.  However, while this part was the most titillating aspect of the story, it wasn't, in my opinion, the most problematic.  In other parts of her book, Lena admits to bribing her sister for on-the-mouth kisses and, presumably as a teen, masturbating in bed with her sister, with a clear implication that her sister being there was part of the turn on.

Whether or not this constitutes sexual abuse is an incredibly difficult question, made even more difficult because Dunham is notoriously, in her own words, "an unreliable narrator."  The boundaries between normal "weird kid confusion about sexuality" and sibling sexual abuse can be really blurry in some, if not most, cases.  I certainly don't think Dunham should be punished for her acts between the ages of seven and maybe seventeen-ish (she doesn't make her age clear in any of the stories, except the most sensationalized one of looking at her one year old sister's vagina).  I certainly don't think a seven year old is capable of intentional sexual abuse.

But there are several issues I take with both sides' handling of the story:

1) The left has almost blindly supported Dunham, because she's "one of them."  She supports Planned Parenthood, she's a feminist, etc.  This has gone well past "we don't think she should be punished" to "aw don't fret over this Lena, it's not a problem, we all understand and love your delightfully quirky ways!"

Dunham, her own self, gleefully described her actions towards her sister as "the same things a child predator would do."  While her actions may have been done as a pre-teen to teenager, this language was used by a woman in her late twenties.  For a group of feminists who often take great issues over possible triggering language, to defend this completely gross characterization, it's just inexplicable.  Either Lena is saying she was predatory, or being completely flippant about child predation.  Both are extremely questionable attitudes at best.  If Lena really doesn't believe she was being predatory towards her sister, this is directly on par with making rape jokes, something I don't think any feminist would defend.

2) The right has gleefully jumped in because this is Lena Dunham, a poster child for everything the traditional right hates about modern left women.  People that often defend the raping of drunk college girls because they "shouldn't have gotten so drunk" are equivocating looking at a one year old's vagina with sexual abuse.  They're then somehow making a segue-way from that to "feminism is awful and wrong and women should run from it because it protects kid rape if it's by a woman!"

3) The gleeful tone of Dunham's recollections, the complete ignorance of, regardless of any ill-intent, that she should at least in retrospect have respected her sister's body, is disgusting.  Regardless of whether or not what Dunham did was sexual abuse, it's clear that, at least when it comes to herself, she doesn't get it.  Lena doesn't get that her sibling that is six years older than her sister has no right to do those things, even if they don't quite breach the ill-defined term of sexual abuse.

4) Lena (and many of her defenders) doesn't get that even if her sister says it is okay now, a child cannot consent to sexual abuse.  Perpetrators of sexual abuse are almost always close, often dearly beloved, family members.  The vast majority of cases see the victim refusing to blame their attacker, because they love them.  Lena mentions that her sister is laughing about the whole debacle, in a clear indication that that means Lena didn't do anything wrong.  Often times victims of sexual abuse don't directly feel they were hurt, and refuse to blame their attacker.  Because of this, we cannot use the fact that the child victim says it was okay to prove it is okay.

In many of the victims of sexual abuse support groups I've been a part of, a recurring theme is the original denial of sibling sexual abuse at all, then the denial of harm, then an inability to put any fault on the sibling.  I'd say most victims, even if they were genuinely harmed, react similarly to how Lena's sister has, that is to deny any harm.

Again, this isn't to say that what Lena did was sexual abuse, simply that "my sister is laughing" doesn't mean it isn't.  And feminists know this, they've been the main forces pushing for this (correct) view of inability of children to consent to sexual abuse.  Yet Lena and her supporters keep bringing up her sister's couple of tweets that only indirectly implied she was not harmed (notably her sister has not endorsed what Lena said).

5) Sibling sexual abuse is incredibly harmful, extremely common and almost completely ignored.  For the reasons outlined above it's virtually never reported.  Parents, even when they do find out about it, which is uncommon, often hide it out of fear of hurting their children.  Or often times the parents are also sexual abusers themselves.  Best case scenario, Dunham is taking a disgustingly, recklessly flippant attitude towards the topic.  And then she's getting indignant that people are calling her on it.  And then her supporters are taking one of two tacts, depending on the audience, either "lighten up guys, it's Lena, she's one of us" or "shut the fuck up you conservative scumbag, you want to mansplain this to me?!"  Worst case scenario is that Dunham was  really a childhood sibling sexual abuser, who due to a variety of factors, never came to terms with that fact (most childhood sexual abusers never realize what they were doing was sexual abuse, so this wouldn't be unusual).

Ultimately the point I take away from this "debate" is a sad one indeed, and unfortunately it has almost nothing to do with the undiscussed tragedy of sibling sexual abuse and how to deal with it (spoiler alert, people hate talking about it because it's an absurdly difficult issue to deal with).  What I take away from it is the tribalization of our society.  Our pathological need to blindly support those "in our tribe" regardless of the merits and blindly attack any slip ups of any member of "the other side" as a condemnation of the entire tribe's ethos.  The left has been quick to say that nothing about this is troubling at all, despite the fact that such an attitude would undo much of the good work they've accomplished in helping the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse.  The right is quick to say that this is somehow a condemnation of feminism writ large.

We see this same issue in another controversy du jour, #gamergate.  Essentially gamer gate is a thing where some dudes who want gaming to be respected by the world at large as an art also want gaming to only be defined by what they want, which is mostly misogyny and violence.  Somehow harassment and rape threats to women are actually about ethics in gaming journalism.  Because there was an (verifiably untrue) allegation that some girl cheated on her boyfriend to get a good review of a (not so good) game that had feminist themes.  Or something.  Really it's an excuse that dudes are using to attack people that they don't view as being a part of their tribe.

And this would be not comment worthy if it not only wasn't for the fact that real women are now being harmed, but also because the reaction to it has been opponents characterization of #gamergaters as "them."  Somehow a fight ostensibly about video games has turned into an argument about womens' most basic rights to things like "not having to deal with rape threats."  But what the opponents of gamergaters don't understand is that by treating gamergate people as some sort of insane tribe, they're giving gamergaters exactly what they want: A sense of a tribal identity.  They very thing these people want is their sense of identity as gamers restored.  They don't really give a shit if that comes at the cost of the rest of humanity viewing them as disgusting.

Ultimately a lot of this simply boils down to personal identity is really fucking hard.  It's hard to have your own views, your own personhood.  We can be feminists and still think Lena Dunham's actions are questionable, and the way she wrote about it was completely disgusting, if not amoral.  We can be video game players and not think that anybody who questions misogyny in video games is our enemy.

In the case of Lena Dunham, my biggest worry is that because we identify her as a member of our tribe, we're each compromising a set of personal beliefs to protect some member of the group.  While groups of people are stronger than individuals, group strength should never come at the expense of our own ideals.  Child sexual abuse is a travesty and the fact that we seem to be willing to turn that issue into a left v. right pissing contest is all the more maddening.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Tractor

The song “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” always made me physically ill.  It was easy enough to dismiss it as just hating sell-out schlock country.  But I didn’t hate it in the way that I hated, for example, the Toby Keith song “Who’s Your Daddy?” which was by any objective measure much worse.  I got really anxious and felt something at the pit of my stomach.  I never knew why.  

When I was six I loved tractors.  I loved the woods, I loved trails.  The idea of riding a tractor through wooden trails was as close to heaven as could be reasonably obtained for the white trash six year old me.  When I was seven that all changed.  I didn’t grow out of liking tractors in the way that I grew out of liking GI Joes.  It was taken from me by a very sick man.

My step grandfather was a mean spirited alcoholic.  As far as I know he had no friends, and most of his family had disowned him.  As far as I could ever tell my grandmother just tolerated him, for some unknown reason.  I can’t picture what his face looks like any more, thankfully.  All I can remember is that he wore glasses, a metal stretch band watch, what would now be called a trucker hat, that he had a beer gut and a back brace from an accident at work before I was born.  

He was also a child molester.  

Because my mom was a drug addict and my dad had to constantly move around, as his profession was in the large plant construction field, I ended up living with lots of different family throughout my early life. I’d spend a couple of years with one set of grand parents, then a couple of years with my dad, then a couple years with another set of grandparents, then a few years with my aunt and uncle.  I guess looking back all this made me “at risk” or something.  

I remember the first time it happened, he asked me if I wanted to go on a tractor ride to pick up some hay for the goats.  It was a blue Ford tractor with enormous white back wheels.  It sorta reminded me of Big Foot, a monster truck I was obsessed with as a kid.  My grandparents lived on a small farm, though I have no idea if it ever actually made any money of any sort.  I was too young to really understand any of this, but I believe they mostly lived off a settlement he had gotten from injuring his back at work years before.  

The ride there was uneventful.  He drank an entire six pack of Milwaukee’s Best over the course of the twenty minute tractor ride.  He offered me some sips and I took them.  I wouldn’t say that I had liked him before, though I didn’t necessarily hate him, but at this moment this was the closest I had ever come to liking him.

We stopped at a barn to hook up the trailer that would carry the hay, or something.  He asked me if I knew that women made milk.  I said that I was aware of that, for feeding their kids.  He told me that men made milk too.  

Luckily I remember very few of the actual acts.  But I remember coming home after that.  I felt scared, and I felt dirty.  I jumped in the shower.  He had drank another six pack of beer on the way back and was drunk at this point.  He got angry that I was “using all the damn hot water” and went under the house and turned off all the water.  I stood in the shower freezing, with shampoo burning in my eyes that I couldn’t wash out.  I have no idea how long I stood there like that, but regardless of whether the actual measured passage of time was a few seconds or several hours, it was an eternity.  

At some point it got easier.  I started to think it was normal.  I knew he was sick, but I was a people pleaser by nature and I really didn’t think I had any other options anyway.  It still made me feel sick.  But for the time being eight year old me coped.

This lasted for about two years.  Then my grandmother died.  My grandmother, along with my aunt, were the two most significant figures in my life and losing one of them was absolutely devastating.  I’d cry for hours on end.  I’d never hug her worn soft gowns, never eat her perfect biscuits again.  But at some point I realized that this meant that my dad would be moving back and that I’d never see my step grandfather again.  A wave of relief flooded over me the minute I realized that.  It was in Wal-Mart.  I was holding a Ninja Turtle action figure.  My dad told me I could have it.  I felt enormous guilt for being relieved that my grandmother had died, but I did.  

Things didn’t end there though.  That’s the problem with sexual abuse, the actual act is only the beginning.  As a nine year old I began to wonder if I was gay.  There was a girl in the trailer park I lived in that was pretty and, looking back I’m pretty sure was also sexually abused.  She’d find magazines that her mom and dad left out.  We’d go out into the woods and copy them.  Thankfully they were relatively soft core, as evidenced by the fact that for a while I thought sex was rubbing stomachs together.  We had a lot of oral sex.  I guess I liked it.  I liked her, she was pretty and made me feel good about myself.  But mostly it made me feel not gay.  My dad caught me with her once and it was probably the worst trouble I ever got in.  But I didn’t care, she wanted me physically, which to me having her desire me was more important than any actual physical enjoyment I might have taken out of it.  I was nine.

As seventh grade approached, physical, temporal and emotional distance had grown to the point where when I thought about it at all, I wondered if it had ever really happened.  I remembered hearing about how memories could be implanted, especially false memories of sexual abuse.  For some reason this comforted me.  My dad had to go to work in Indiana, and I moved in with a different set of grandparents in a different city, as my dad didn’t want me moving around all over the country as he changed job sites every 4-5 months.  

Seventh grade was a period of adjustment, all of the kids there had known each other for years; social structures were in place and I was the new kid.  I made friends in my new neighborhood pretty easily, but there weren’t really any girls in my neighborhood my age.  As a seventh grader, not having a sexual relationship with a girl made me doubt my sexuality at times.  The girls in my class, like all seventh graders, were worried about popularity and new guys weren’t popular.  The bizarre part is that I never felt remotely attracted to any guy, but simply not having a sexual relationship with a girl was enough to make me wonder about myself.  

In ninth grade, just as I was starting to become moderately popular, and girls were showing interest in me, we moved again.  My grandparents moved into a much nicer house, in a much nicer neighborhood, in a much nicer school system.  It sucked for me, for the most part I hated all the kids there.  Luckily I lived directly next to the school, and could walk, so nobody knew that my grandparents drove a used minivan.  Everybody else was being dropped off in BMWs.  

Again, doubts about my sexuality crept up, again for no reason other than not having sex.  Towards the end of the year, one of the prettier girls started to, inexplicably, like me out of nowhere.  We both walked a similar route for the first part of the walk home and we ended up walking through the woods together a lot.  There was a large pipe that spanned a creek that could cut your walk time down a lot.  She was scared to cross it, and I’d hold her hand as she crossed it.  On the last day of school in ninth grade she kissed me after we crossed it.  I felt okay again.  I moved out of my grandparents house and in with my aunt and uncle the next week.  

I made friends more easily at my new school, but again tenth grade was mostly a lost year of reestablishing myself in the social structure of the school.  There were girls who thought I was cute, but for a while I was off limits for any of the popular girls, simply because nobody knew who I was.  

As eleventh grade approached, I was more popular and parties and alcohol also entered the picture.  No longer were my sexual longings weird, but now more par for the course.  Almost every person at my high school went to one of two large churches that were literally across the street from each other, competing with each other for dominance over the town.  It was considered a major slap in the face when one church bought land on the other church’s side of the road, the ultimate showboating of victory.  I went to neither of these churches.

In a lot of ways this made me something of an outsider, especially combined with only having went to the school for a year, whereas most of these kids had been together since elementary school and went to church together on sundays.  The preaching of no alcohol and abstinence only made a lot of young kids rebel, and we’d all have parties in the woods, under the power lines.  

And that’s when things started to get really weird.  Because sex for me had always been much more about the girl’s desire for me, a bunch of drunk girls just wanting to secretly rebel against their parents was literally disgusting.  Not in that I was disgusted by them, I cared very deeply for most of them, as they were my friends, but the whole idea made me feel literally sick to my stomach.  And it all came to a head one night under the power lines when an old man in a blue Ford tractor drove up and ran us off his land.  

It wasn’t him, he was dead, but for all the world I felt every ounce of fear, anxiety and a million other as yet unnamed feelings when he drove up to shoo us away.  I had an urge to throw a beer can at him.  The girl I was with saw it and stopped me, thank God, as jail would have been ugly.  I didn’t even know why I felt that way.  I didn’t make the connection until years later.  

I broke down for about a week, and nobody else knew it, I didn’t even know it.  I thought I was just scared because I almost got caught drinking.  I had been caught drinking before and nothing happened at all.  A dead man’s actions nine years prior were controlling large swaths of my life, and at the time I still didn’t know it.  

Sexual abuse is an STD, and it’s incurable.  You never get past it, you only maybe get better at coping with it.  And outbreaks happen.  Just this week I had an outbreak.  I was completely non-functional for two entire days, couldn’t eat or sleep, and betrayed the trust of my best friend.  I was angry when I shouldn’t be, I was ashamed of things I shouldn’t be.  And this will never completely go away.  

Sexual abuse takes things away from you as well.  Who the fuck gives a shit about tractors, but I’m mad as hell that they’ve been taken from me.  I’m mad as hell that barns make me feel anxious.  And I’m enraged that every sexual drought I have makes me doubt my sexuality, no matter how absurd I logically know that is. 

And that’s okay.  It’s not okay that it happens, but it’s okay that I’m broken and will never be completely fixed, because, well, there isn’t any other option, and I’m damn sure not letting him beat me.  I’m going to survive and do my best to help others facing this, and to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to kids in the future.  


But mostly I’m going to try to survive and do right.  I’ll probably never be able to listen to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” or see a blue Ford tractor, but I guess that’s okay; John Deere tractors are more ubiquitous and John Deere Green is a better song anyway.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Throw In

As Marty's leather Sperrys carefully plodded their way down the hill, they were in perfect rhythm with his internal monologue, which was simply "no. fucking. way."  Left.  Right.  Left.  No.  Fucking.  Way.

Kelly's hair was lighter than he remembered.  It had always been blonde, but Marty's memory told him it had been more of a dirty blonde than the bright blonde on display now.  Her tight curls, however, were the same; they'd caught his eye from nearly a half block away.  She was running roughly in his direction.  Her hair was up in a ponytail just like all the girls in this game, as the warm, late summer Virginia air virtually demanded.  But somehow Kelly's ponytail managed to be different.  It had a life of its own, always gently brushing her face and neck in playful summersaults of tight, blonde ringlet curls.  It might as well have been a neon sign advertising her presence.

As she ran she stopped just short of the in-bounds line and let the ball fly; she seemed to be throwing the ball at him, which was preposterous, as he was a good seventy yards away.  Instead the ball found a streaking striker, who made one move before giving a crossing pass to a teammate who promptly beat the goalie easily.  It was a really good throw in.

Kelly was the same living Coca-Cola ad she had always been.  As she now jumped around with her teammates in celebration, you couldn't help but celebrate with her.  From a half football field away her smile still hit him.

He had photographed her smile a thousand times.  At least that many.  He had put one of those pictures on a stock photography website, and he still made roughly twenty-eight dollars a month from sales of it, mostly from small-time dentists.  It wasn't even a perfect smile, there were straighter teeth, brighter teeth, by negligible margins, but something about the way her lips framed them gave her smile a life that led many local dentists to pay upwards of fifty-eight cents to use it on flyers.

She was lightly sweating, and the big sulfur lights gave her a bit of an ethereal glow as the light bounced off her glistening, slightly flushed face.  He had a large Slurpee cup, it smelled more of Redbull and vodka than the cherry flavoring that was nominally on display on the cup's side.  He didn't have the slightest idea she'd be here.  As far as he knew, she still lived in DC.

Things might have worked, he was a decent guy by his own reckoning, but Hill workers and law students are a pretty unfaithful lot.  Everybody comes into both experiences with significant others, nobody leaves with the same ones.  He'd visited her a half dozen times, and she visited him maybe three times.  And by "maybe," deep down, he really meant "exactly."

In his moderately intoxicated state, it was just dawning on him that if she was playing on these fields, she must be a student at UVA again.  The game was now over and Marty didn't have anything so easily identifiable as a bouncy blonde ringlet ponytail to mark him; functional alcoholism, by its very nature, isn't easily noticeable from seventy yards away.

"Well," he figured, "I guess she'll tell me if she wants to."  It was the first big party of his last year in law school.  "There will be shit ton of first years there tonight, fuck it."