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The Lena Dunham child abuse controversy, explained

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31:  Lena Dunham launches her book 'Not That Kind Of Girl' at the Royal Festival Hall on October 31, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: Lena Dunham launches her book 'Not That Kind Of Girl' at the Royal Festival Hall on October 31, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the course of this week, the pop culture world has been consumed with arguments over the way that director and writer Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's Girls, describes a childhood scene in her new book, Not That Kind of Girl. The controversy began with a series of right-leaning politics sites accusing Dunham, in the scene, of sexually molesting her sister.

To be clear, child psychologists who have spoken out on this say that, based on Dunham's portrayal, the incident appears innocent, not abuse or molestation. But this story is bigger than just this episode. It touches on two simultaneous debates that have swirled around Dunham and her work since her HBO show premiered in 2012: her fight with the left over what those critics will sometimes call rich white girl privilege and her fight with the right over the politics of gender and sexuality.

Here's a brief primer and history of the controversy and the deeper issues behind it.

1) What is Lena Dunham accused of and why is it so contentious?

There are actually two sets of accusations against Dunham here, from two very different political factions. At first, those critics were principally right-wing political sites that accused Dunham of child molestation based on an episode in her book, in which she herself was a child.

But then they were joined by some voices on the feminist left who are accusing Dunham of glossing over abuse and using her privilege as a young, white woman as a shield against criticism.

In many ways, these arguments are a continuation of a larger, often-heated, and highly politicized discussion of Dunham's place in pop culture. On the right, she is often seen as the leading edge of a destructive, partisan force in changing the politics of gender and sexuality for the worst. Among some quarters of the left, she and her work have been criticized as marginalizing people of color, for outing her queer sister, casual racism, and joking about molestation.

Dunham's supporters might argue that these criticisms are just reactions to someone whose boldness in pushing the limits and in raising uncomfortable conversations is exactly what makes her so important. But these are somewhat separate from just her and her work: it's about what Dunham is perceived to represent in American society.

2) Why is Lena Dunham being accused of child molestation?

On October 29, nearly a month after Dunham's book had come out, the right-wing website Truth Revolt posted a passage from her memoir under the headline "Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister."

That headline was coupled with a passage from Dunham's book where she describes looking at her sister's vagina:

"Do we all have uteruses?" I asked my mother when I was seven.

"Yes," she told me. "We're born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren't ready to make babies until we're older." I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte's Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.

"Does her vagina look like mine?"

"I guess so," my mother said. "Just smaller."

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn't resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.

My mother came running. "Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!"

My mother didn't bother asking why I had opened Grace's vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.

Truth Revolt really keyed on the phrase "she didn't resist," which becomes more loaded when paired with that headline.

But there was another factor too: Truth Revolt's article originally stated that Dunham was 17 at the time — Dunham says she was seven — changing and charging the passage with pedophilia.

Those three factors — even though one was a glaring, irresponsible mistake — were enough to lay a foundation and give people, Truth Revolt readers in particular, the idea than Dunham had abused her sister.

3) Is the scene in Lena Dunham's book child abuse?

According to the experts who have so far weighed in, no, it is not.

"This is clearly not a case of abuse," developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University, told Slate. "Children have been doing this stuff forever and ever and ever and ever, and they will do it forever and ever and ever."

Sam Rubenstein, a psychotherapist who specializes in childhood abuse, echoed these thoughts to Gawker:

I think you have to take into consideration her age, her history, and the idea that at that age, unless you've gone through severe sexual trauma, there's really almost nothing sexual about it. The same explanation could be used for grabbing the dog's tail. It's the same type of coercion. Just because it's in the sexual venue, people want to attach something to it, but it's almost totally different. It's an innocent type of thing.

John V. Caffaro, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and an expert on sibling abuse, explained in a Washington Post column that such non-abusive interactions are normal among siblings:

To be clear, sexual curiosity in children is normal. All children explore their bodies and may engage in visual or even manual exploration of a sibling at times. This is one way that children discover sexual differences between boys' and girls' anatomies. Even siblings of the same gender become curious about variations in shapes and sizes of their sex organs. Two small children exploring each other's bodies does not predestine them to a life of emotional suffering.

4) What does Grace Dunham say?

In the days after the allegations hit their peak, Grace took to Twitter to write about the controversy and to ultimately — if somewhat obliquely — defend her sister. Grace explained that society has the impulse to define what is "normal" and automatically deems experiences that don't fit that rubric — such as the incident Dunham described in her book — as harmful:

She's suggesting here that her sister's actions as a child are being unfairly judged by society. Harm, she argues, is something that people who experienced the act for determine — it's not for someone who didn't experience those things to decide:

She also addressed Lena's critics, accusing them of jumping to conclusions in a rush to chastise a young woman's experience:

5) If it wasn't child abuse, then why are people still arguing about it?

A few reasons. Firstly, Dunham initially reacted with a series of somewhat heated tweets that, inevitably, just drew more attention to the story:

The second reason is that, for a number of Dunham's conservative critics, this is not just about this one incident and whether or not it counts as abusive. It's about what they see as a much larger issue of Dunham's work and what it represents in the politics of gender and sexuality — more on that below.

Third is the way Dunham wrote the incident up in her book, and the degree to which the writing style that has made her such a success may also have led her astray here. Child molestation is an extremely sensitive topic. Caffaro, the sibling abuse expert, wrote that sibling sexual abuse is far more common that most people think: "the most closely kept secret in the field of family violence," with one study finding that "at least 2.3 percent of children have been sexually victimized by a sibling." Dunham's treatment of this very serious topic was not exactly sensitive — something she herself has since acknowledged.

To some degree, that is of a piece with Dunham's greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer. She has a reputation for leaning into weird, awkward situations on her HBO show Girls, and she's a master at creating scenes, sexual or not, that make viewers cringe. This is a book about Lena Dunham coming of age in a society that doesn't normally tell the stories of girls becoming women, and it highlights — quite well — how uncomfortable and difficult growing up as a girl can be. The story about Grace is part of that.

At the same time, Dunham's attempt to play up the comedy of a scene that gestures, even just jokingly, at child abuse has been criticized as simply insensitive. Dunham writes "she didn't resist" in describing her sister's reaction. And in another passage, she writes about another experience with Grace in which she says she tried to bribe her with candy and "anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl." That insensitivity is a major point of the criticism Dunham has long drawn from the left (more on this as well further below).

In a November 4 statement to Time, Dunham granted that some of what she wrote may have been in poor taste. "First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances," she wrote. "I am also aware that the comic use of the term 'sexual predator' was insensitive, and I'm sorry for that as well."

6) Why do conservatives seem to criticize Lena Dunham so much?

This flare-up is in many ways a continuation of long-running conservative criticism of Dunham. It's a reminder that, like a lot of popular culture figures nowadays, she has been politicized, dragged into red vs. blue. For some conservatives, taking on Dunham is part of a larger imperative; it's a front in the culture wars, one that's about the future of gender and sexuality in America.

"If conservatives are going to be in the popular culture — and act to change it — they can't simply ignore shows like Girls that capture the zeitgeist, even if the zeitgeist makes their skin crawl," Kurt Schilichter wrote for Breitbart in January 2013, acknowledging the distaste conservatives had for Girls, a lot of which stemmed from the show's approach to sex, Dunham's nudity, and Dunham's portrayal of, in Schilichter's opinion, an "awful, awful young woman."

A National Review writer suggested Dunham could be "helping to forward a larger cultural shift" that is itself "an indicator of the decline and fall of the American experiment."

Some of this coverage has itself drawn criticism — accusations from the left that it's an extension of the right's "war on women," which just goes to show that the fight over Lena Dunham is about much more than just Lena Dunham. The Washington Post's Tim Herrera calculated that a November 3 National Review cover story about Dunham, called "Pathetic Privilege," spent two paragraphs on Dunham's body, seven talking on her sex life, five paragraphs insinuating Dunham is a false-rape-accuser, and five instances of talking about Dunham being fat.

Truth Revolt's "sexual abuse" post, the post that initially accused Dunham of child molestation, was itself an aggregation of that same National Review cover story.

7) Why are some feminists criticizing Dunham over this?

Dunham has long had critics in some quarters of the feminist left. Those critics by and large do not believe that she molested her sister. But they do believe that this incident underscores what, for them, has long troubled them about Dunham: what they see as a rich, white woman privilege that makes her insensitive to people different from herself.

Those feminists have criticized Dunham for falling well short of the feminist poster-woman status they believe she claims. They point to Dunham's past actions — under-representing or ignoring people of color on her show, making jokes about rape and molestation, outing her sister — as revealing problematic views on race, feminism, and LGBT rights that stem from privilege.

The writer Luvvie Ajayi, for example, pointed out that Dunham could only be as blasé as she was in her book and in her immediate reaction because of her privilege, and that Dunham's insensitivity in writing about the subject show that she uses that privilege to get away with things other people could not:

A Black woman could not have written what Lena did. She would not have the space to argue context. She would not have anyone championing her. She would certainly not be given some benefit of the doubt about childhood exploration because Black people's innocence is often denied, even when we're 7. Our kids are tried as adults in the court of public opinion and in the court of law. In fact, NO person of color could have written this. Meanwhile, Lena seems to be above critique for many, and that might even be why she thought these problematic occasions should have been included in her book.

Another critic, Jen Pink, writing at the Flounce, suggested that Dunham did cross a line in the childhood interaction with her sister. While that's not a typical view among Dunham's liberal feminist critics, Pink described her in a way that captures the broader view of Dunham among those critics: as a "blindly privileged white self-identifying feminist who wants to represent you to the rest of the world."

8) What makes Lena Dunham such a political lightning rod?

It's important to remember the political climate in place when Dunham's show, Girls, debuted in 2012, to largely positive reviews. This was the year House Republicans refused to let Sandra Fluke testify about birth control and when the White House fought a prolonged political war to keep contraceptives covered under Obamacare. This opened larger fights about women's reproductive health and sexuality — often dubbed in left-leaning circles the "war on women" — that has continued.

Dunham became an avatar for both sides of these debates. Supporters saw her as a champion for the need to address and acknowledge sexuality. Critics on the right saw her and the character she was portraying as irresponsible, a symptom of a culture run amok.

This really crystallized in October 2012, when she appeared in an ad for President Obama's reelection campaign. The jokey conceit of that ad was about "first-time" voters:

Conservatives did not like the jokes, which to them represent what makes Dunham a corrosive cultural force. The fact that she made them in support of Obama's reelection seemed to drive home their suspicions that this was all part of a larger political agenda to redefine sexuality and gender for the worse.

Columnist Ben Shapiro wrote that Dunham "mocked virgins" in the ad. Erick Erickson was not impressed. Kevin Eder said the ad made women looks like "brainless sex objects." And Nathaniel Botwinick at National Review called it "cringeworthy." That backlash was, and remains, symptomatic of the way that Dunham is often seen on the right as the representation of larger, widely reviled social and political trends.

At the same time, Dunham has become a lightning rod in a highly contentious debate on the feminist left about the way the movement is affected by race and class. A number of feminists in this debate say that feminism should be intersectional, but that the loudest, most prominent voices (Dunham's included) are white women who rarely pay attention to, much less fight for, equality when it comes to race, sexual orientation, or class.

That has played into this controversy as well. Some writers, for example, have suggested that the accusations against Dunham were shrugged off as easily as they were only because she is an upper-class white woman.

That's partly a criticism of Dunham, but like so much of this controversy and the larger fights that they are a continuation of, it's really a criticism of what in American society Dunham is thought to represent. Her success in branding herself as a voice of her generation, in other words, has also become her greatest liability.