When Does Exploration Become Abuse?

Certain excerpts of Lena Dunham’s book have led some to accuse her of having abused her sister when they were both children. Dunham denies this and may even sue. Dreher insists that the same story coming from someone without Dunham’s upscale background would be received differently:

I have known at least two friends over the years who were sexually abused by older siblings. In both cases, the abuse had profound and lasting consequences on their psyches. What Lena Dunham describes doing to her little sister is sick and disgusting. But her little sister Grace, all growed up and having embraced a lesbian identity, doesn’t necessarily agree with the critics. She tweets that critics are dedicated to maintaining “heteronormativity,” and that, “As a queer person: i’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.”

Now, imagine if Grace Dunham’s older brother had confessed to having done these things. Would he have any defenders? Imagine if the woman confessing to this abuse were not from a liberal Manhattan family, and had not been dubbed by some media outlets as the “voice of her generation,” but was instead a burger-flipper living in a trailer park, having confessed this on a blog. How would you feel about it then? What if an NFL player had written the same kind of thing in his memoir? Or a Catholic priest?

Jia Tolentino shows how such criticism of Dunham’s privilege has caught on among pundits on the left as well:

Childhood bodily play is peculiar and near-universal and complicated, with a thousand valid valences on the long spectrum from normative to predatory. To me, these stories are mostly early and wonderful examples of the body as a zone of curiosity free from the burden of adulthood and sex, but of course, in a few cases, they are darker: reminders that children don’t have a lot of agency, or remembrances of unplumbed abuse.

To some people, Dunham’s story looks very much the latter way. It was the conservative media outlet TruthRevolt that incited this discussion by posting the Not That Kind of Girl passage with Dunham’s age originally (and disingenuously) quoted as 17, under the headline “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” Dunham responded to this “right wing news story” quickly and sharply. The conversation picked up as writers who are on the other side of the political spectrum—who I respect greatly, and are normally a gulf of ideology away from TruthRevolt or Return of Kings—voiced their fervent agreement. Feminist writer Mikki Kendall wrote, “The gap between the attitudes that let R. Kelly prosper & the ones who excuse Dunham is incredibly thin. Nonexistent to be honest.” Lachrista Greco, founder of Guerrilla Feminism, added, “It’s NOT NORMAL. It’s NOT OKAY.”

This is indeed where the sex police want to take us – and there are increasing numbers of those people on the new feminist left. Rich Juzwiak raises an eyebrow at such criticism:

Most of the analysis of Dunham’s account of her childhood behavior has been coming from amateurs, mostly with axes to grind. I thought, then, it might be useful to add an expert opinion into this stew of non-professional opinions about whether the incidents Dunham describes—examining her sister’s vagina, plying her sister with candy, and slipping her hand into her own “underwear to figure some stuff out” while lying next to her sister—constituted abuse.

I asked Sam Rubenstein, a psychotherapist who specializes in childhood abuse, for his take on whether what Dunham describes would be considered abuse in a clinical setting.

The short answer is: no.