On Lena Dunham and Consent

[Content Note: Sexual abuse; hostility to consent; privilege.]

A few days ago, a rightwing website published excerpts from Lena Dunham's new book, which detail inappropriate sexualized interactions with her younger sister.

Dunham immediately pushed back, and a number of high-profile feminists (mostly or all white feminists) jumped to her defense. The website was accused of mischaracterizing Dunham's words, despite the fact that the site had published exact excerpts.

The truth is, the people who write content for that website would not have given the tiniest shit about this subject, were it not for the fact that it gave them an opportunity to discredit a visible and celebrated feminist. But the fact that they're opportunistic fucks does not mean that the issue they've raised is without merit.

The passages—which I will not be republishing here, but they are easy enough to find if you are so inclined—are upsetting and disturbing. They do not strike me, in any way, as the harmless, typical sexual exploration that happens between children. (Especially siblings six years apart in age.) It's alarming to me that no one during the entire process of editing and readying this book for publication suggested that their inclusion as charming childhood anecdotes would be inadvisable.

A lot of the public discussion around this has centered around whether the acts themselves were sexual abuse, and I certainly have thoughts on that, and what was going on with her parents, and I certainly have thoughts on that, too, but I'm not inclined to engage in remote psychoanalysis of Dunham, or her family, to try to understand the context in which these acts happened. (I'm also not inclined to define Dunham's sister's, or anyone else's, experiences for them.) I'm more concerned at the moment with Dunham's decision to publish them, and what that says about her respect for consent and agency right now.

Over the past couple of days, one of the pieces of information I was hoping to find was whether Dunham's sister Grace, prominently featured as the subject of Dunham's sexually inappropriate (and admittedly predatory) behavior, had consented to have these incidents included for publication.

Grace Dunham's only public comment that I have found is three tweets, which do not condemn (and seem marginally to defend) her sister, but do not explicitly comment on the issue of her consent regarding publication of the incidents.

In an interview earlier this year, the sisters had the following exchange regarding Lena having outed Grace to their parents:
Grace then rolled her eyes saying, "Without getting into specifics, most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property."

"Basically, it's like I can't keep any of my own secrets," Lena said. "And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn't handle the fact that she's a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things."

Many of the defenders of Lena Dunham have insisted that she has the "right" to publish whatever she wants about her life, while utterly failing to take into consideration that these incidents were not just about her life, but about her sister's life, too. In other words, the defenses have exactly as much disregard for not treating Grace Dunham's personal life as Lena Dunham's personal property as Lena herself has.

Maybe Grace gave her full and uncoerced consent. But the fact that it hasn't even been part of the discussion, that people were willing to jump to Lena Dunham's defense without even pausing to find out whether she was telling stories about sexualized interactions with someone whose consent isn't clear, reveals that Lena Dunham isn't the only one without sufficient respect for agency and consent in this conversation.

Which is maybe why there are so many feminists who are overlooking that Lena Dunham has a problem with agency and consent. In her real life, in her work, on Twitter.

(Which is to say nothing of her expressed racism, transmisogyny, fat hatred, and classism.)

That doesn't look anything like the feminism I want to be practicing. If unyielding respect for agency and consent isn't central to feminism, then what the fuck are we even doing?

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