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What Sarah Palin gets wrong when comparing Lena Dunham and Josh Duggar

Josh Duggar
Josh Duggar
(Photo by Kris Connor/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.

In recent weeks, it's become clear that Josh Duggar — a star on the TLC reality series 19 Kids and Counting, as well as, until recently, a Washington lobbyist for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family — molested underage girls when he was a teenager. But the story of Duggar's acts has also become a meta-story of how the media and political worlds are reacting to it.

The latest person to come out in favor of Josh and the Duggars is Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and onetime Republican vice presidential nominee. Palin came out swinging on Thursday, throwing around words like "pedophile" and "sexual predator," but those words weren't for Josh Duggar — they were for Girls creator and star Lena Dunham.

In a searing Facebook post, Palin connected Duggar and Dunham, asserting a double standard between the two. That post went viral. But it's also irresponsible. Here's why:

Why are people talking about Sarah Palin again?

People are talking about Palin because of a caps-lock-peppered Facebook tirade she shared on Thursday. Palin (or someone on her team) addressed Lena Dunham in the opening lines of the post, calling the Girls star a pedophile:

HEY LENA, WHY NOT LAUGH OFF EVERYONE'S SEXUAL "EXPERIMENTS" AS YOU HAUGHTILY ENJOY REWARDS FOR YOUR OWN PERVERSION? YOU PEDOPHILE, YOU Radical liberals in media who have total control over public narratives are disgusting hypocrites, so says my daughter.

Palin links to her daughter Bristol's post on Patheos, which accuses the "liberal" media of treating the Duggars differently than they did Dunham — that they allegedly gave Dunham a pass while dragging the Duggars over the coals. And the idea of media hypocrisy really is the gist of Palin's post. Palin explains that because Dunham is a liberal and the media is liberal, she was given a pass for what Palin believes is sexual assault:

I’m sickened that the media gives their chosen ones a pass for any behavior as long as they share their leftwing politics. Case in point, they suggest Lena Dunham's sexual assault on her sibling is cute, and she's rewarded for it with fame and fortune. Meanwhile, they crucify another, along with an entire family.

Can you remind me of what happened with Lena Dunham?

Totally. To fully understand what Palin is angry about requires a working knowledge of Lena Dunham's sexual abuse scandal. You can find a full explainer of the Dunham scandal on Vox, but the gist of the scandal revolves around the passage in Dunham's book and a crucial mistake that followed.

Back in October, nearly a month after Dunham's memoir had come out, the right-wing website Truth Revolt posted a passage from it 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 7 — changing and charging the passage with pedophilia. Truth Revolt and NRO columnist Kevin Williamson also keyed in on a passage where Dunham writes about masturbating in the same bed with her sleeping sister.

Those 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.

Experts who weighed in said that given Dunham's age, this wasn't — though Palin believes it is — a case of sexual assault.

"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.

Even though experts asserted that Dunham's behavior is normal and doesn't constitute sex abuse, it did not stop people from labeling her as a sexual predator.

Are Dunham and Josh Duggar's stories different?

Yes. Though both Dunham and Duggar's stories involve touching their underage siblings, there are a couple of things that differentiate their stories.

The first and foremost is age. Duggar was around 14 years old in 2002 when he was investigated for molesting girls. Dunham was 7 during that episode with her sister. There is a gulf of difference between a 14-year-old (who is presumably going through puberty) and a 7-year-old when it comes to agency, autonomy, and sexuality. The difference in age between Dunham and Duggar is the difference between a police investigation and two kids playing doctor.

The 2006 police report on Duggar found instances in 2002 and 2003 where Duggar was accused of fondling several minors while they were asleep and while they were awake. Duggar's multiple instances of molestation are another key difference between Dunham's and Duggar's stories.

On Friday, Josh's sisters, Jill and Jessa, said of Josh's actions that he was a "young boy in puberty who was a little too curious about girls." Some have suggested Jill and Jessa are telling a story that their parents want them to tell. The sisters disagree.

"This is something we chose to do," Jessa told Megyn Kelly. "Nobody asked us to do this."

In the days following the outcry against Lena, Grace Dunham tweeted that outsiders shouldn't rush to judgment:

And that she should have the last word on determining whether or not her experiences with her sister were harmful:

Did the media treat these stories differently?

Palin didn't name names of the publications that she felt pulled the punches on Dunham and then went off the top rope against the Duggars, which makes it hard to figure out which publications Palin and her daughter have in mind. It's also really difficult to figure out where to start or which specific stories they're talking about, since many stories have been written about both Dunham and Duggar in the wake of their respective allegations.

While Palin asserts sameness, the two stories, by nature of the police investigation of molestation, the ages Dunham and Duggar were when these acts occurred, and the way these stories were discovered (Duggar's by a Freedom of Information Act request; Dunham's in her memoir) are actually quite different. Still, when you look at outlets like CBS News, you get headlines that stay within the facts: "Josh Duggar inappropriately touched sisters, parents say" vs. "Lena Dunham fires back at accusations she molested her sister."

And there were some left-leaning news outlets, like Salon, which actually published stories like Carolyn Edgar's "What Dunham’s defenders are missing: Her story about her sister could have been a teaching opportunity." In that piece, Edgar voices her concern about Dunham's behavior and questions Dunham's defenders' quickness to jump to her side.

Palin might be referring to Gawker, an outlet that has been on the Duggar beat. Gawker in recent weeks has published stories like "19 Excuses and Counting: Every Excuse the Duggars Made for Their Son" and "Michelle Duggar's Crazy, Vacant Fox News Interview Stare: A Review" and "Angry Duggar Fans Send Email Hellfire: "Leave This Family Alone!!"

The site and its feminist sister site Jezebel covered Dunham's sex abuse scandal throughly, but probably not in the way Palin would have liked. One of the posts featured an interview with a child psychologist who confirmed that Dunham's experience with her sister when she was 7 didn't sound like child abuse.

But Gawker hasn't been kind to Dunham in the past. Dunham threatened to sue the site in 2012 after it published her leaked book proposal. And in December, Gawker named who they believed was Dunham's alleged rapist — something that Dunham went through great pains to keep unreported and away from the spotlight. That post called Dunham's honesty into question.

What both Palins fail to mention is that there were some pieces written from liberal feminists who admonished Dunham's privilege. Those writers point to Dunham's past actions — underrepresenting 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 Dunham's privilege.

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 shows 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.

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."

The Duggars' reality show factors into this too, right?

Right. This is what makes the Duggars' story as big as it is.

The Duggars have been part of a reality television show on TLC since 2008. And they have always depicted themselves as a wholesome family with a very fertile matriarch. The family has also been vocal in espousing these values, making clear that gay marriage is bad and implying in 2014 that transgender people are sexual predators.

Josh Duggar's admitted abuse, especially in light of what the Duggars have said in the past regarding LGBT people, makes them seem hypocritical. Duggar's admitted abuse wouldn't be as newsworthy if the Duggars didn't make their brand and themselves known as moral arbiters of right and wrong. The Duggars have made a living of telling other people how to live their private lives, and Josh's molesting of underage girls, including his sisters, makes you question what authority they really have to be doing that anymore.

The other part of the equation is an expectation for the Duggars to hold Josh accountable and the Duggar parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, not following through. Jim Bob Duggar waited to inform authorities of the incidences of molestation for more than a year after first learning about them, and state trooper Jim Hutchens failed to take action on the information — by the time police began their investigation, they believed the three-year statute of limitations had been reached. And in their interview with Fox News's Megyn Kelly, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar were evasive and offered up many excuses as to why Josh molested his sisters.

So what's Sarah Palin's point?

Palin's central point is that she believes people are treated differently by the media based on their political leanings. Josh Duggar and Lena Dunham have disparate stories, but she's smashing them together, framing them to look similar, and explaining that the reason we don't see them the same is because of liberal media outlets (that she does not name):

Such obvious double standards applied to equally relevant stories underestimate the wisdom of the public, discredit the press, and spit on the graves of every American who fought and died for the press's freedom.

I hate for anyone to go through this game liberals are allowed to play, relentlessly attacking on an uneven playing field until a conservative's career, relationships, and reputation are destroyed. To the media's targets I encourage, "Rise above by never claiming 'victim', tell the truth, and keep the faith!"

More than 9,500 people have liked her status. But if you look at the comments, some of the most popular and well-liked ones come from people — both conservative and liberal — who point out how Palin is misinformed in this argument:


If Sarah Palin were actually concerned with liberal media bias, a few examples and acknowledging the factual differences between Dunham and the Duggars would have made her argument stronger. She might truly believe that a 14-year-old and a 7-year-old are equally capable of sexual molestation or might believe there is something really strange with Dunham's behavior. But she doesn't make these points clear, opting only to say that people were not treated fairly. Her post has been called "unhinged" and "irrelevant."

In essence, it seems more like Palin found an opportunity to be the conversation instead of lending a voice to it.