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.

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