Lena Dunham, Faux Survivor
Yes, she’s that kind of girl
Note: Parts of this article previously appeared on Heat Street, which is no longer online.
Today, Lena Dunham created quite a stir on Twitter with this:
Moments later, when pressed, she conceded that sometimes they do, just very very rarely. As I’ve written before, no one actually knows exactly how often rape is falsely reported. Commonly cited statistics showing that 6 to 8 percent of rape reports are false leave out not only unresolved cases but, at least on college campuses, another category: sexual assault reports that are factually truthful, but in which the facts do not meet the definition of sexual assault.
You know who made such a faux rape claim?
About three years ago, Dunham made a lot of headlines and got a lot of praise by “coming out as a survivor” (as she put it) in her memoir “Not That Kind of Girl,” with a story of being raped by a fellow student in her college years at Oberlin. An essay in Time applauded her decision to share this story as “her bravest work of activism yet.” In her own piece in BuzzFeed, Dunham declared that “survivors have the right to tell their stories” and concluded with, “You can help by saying I believe you.”
But what exactly are we supposed to believe?
Dunham’s chronicling of her sex life in “Not That Kind of Girl” includes two different versions of the incident involving a “mustachioed campus Republican” named Barry (not his real name, she specified later, after a threat of legal action from an actual Barry who had been a Republican at Oberlin). First, she describes it as a comical drunken encounter that she ended after noticing the condom hanging off her roommate’s potted tree. Then, in the next chapter, comes the shocking twist: Dunham says that the first narrative was a lie and the incident was really a rape about which she was in denial for a long time.
The second, “true” account goes like this. Dunham runs into Barry at a party and ends up taking him home. She thinks he’s “creepy” — and a Republican! — but she’s lonely, drunk, and high, and she even rebuffs a male friend who tries to stop her. At her place, she and Barry end up on the floor, “doing all the things grown-ups do” and attempting intercourse — though Barry is, shall we say, not quite up to the occasion. At some point, in her “haze of warm beer, Xanax bits, and poorly administered cocaine,” Lena notices that the condom is on the floor and tells Barry to put it back on, which he does. After some more sexual activity and another go at intercourse, she sees the condom on the potted tree and throws Barry out.
The next day, Dunham records this in her “intimacy database” as a “terribly aggressive” sexual encounter (she is sore for days afterward). Then, a friend in whom she confides tells her she was raped. Dunham laughs it off. But later, with help from some of the writers on her show, “Girls,” she comes to believe that it was indeed rape.
Of course an unconscious or barely conscious person cannot consent to sex. But Dunham admits that she was a fully active participant in her encounter with Barry and even verbalized her desire for sexual activity. (She explains this away as trying to pretend to herself that she was doing this by choice.) She admits that when she chose to end the encounter by telling Barry to leave, he complied. Yes, she was drunk and high — but by her own account, Barry was so drunk that the next day he couldn’t remember with whom he had been. So why is he more responsible than she is? What makes it rape?
“At no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough,” writes Dunham. Yet, even after the rough handling, she actively continued the physical intimacy and gave Barry verbal encouragement. She also says she didn’t consent to sex without a condom. But even if Barry deliberately took it off rather than lose it in the midst of a drunken fumble, does that make him a rapist or just a jerk? Can a man cry rape if a woman lies about birth control?
Interestingly, in the same chapter in which she first mentions Barry, Dunham describes an encounter with another man, “Joaquin,” that could just as easily be re-framed as rape. After hanging out in a bar, Joaquin brings her back to his place and takes her to bed, where he aggressively dominates her: “Alcohol, fear and fascination cloud my memory, but I know my tights were balled up and placed in my mouth.” But, in contrast to the Barry episode, this is torrid sex rather than sordid sex: She walks out the next morning “not sure whether I’d been ruined or awoken.” (Maybe Dunham should try her hand at romance novels.) Ultimately, Dunham still decides that Joaquin is a jerk — but he doesn’t get labeled a rapist, apparently because she finds him much more attractive and exciting than Barry.
What’s the takeaway from Dunham’s “survivor” story? Basically this: Any drunk sex, even with “enthusiastic consent,” can be rewritten as rape if one party (usually the woman) feels disgusted by it and decides that “it didn’t feel like a choice.” That’s not a good message to women or to men, and it’s not a good way to inspire confidence in anti-rape initiatives.
Just recently, Department of Education official Candice Jackson had to apologize for suggesting that most college rape complaints involve regrets over drunk sex. And yet Dunham’s story is exactly that. It equates regretted bad sex with rape and promotes a narrative harmful to both men and women, including real victims.
So, did Dunham lie about rape?
Technically, maybe not. Maybe her second version of the Barry story is factual. Or maybe the first one was more accurate, and the second one is a reinterpretation influenced by a fashionable, self-aggrandizing narrative. (People edit their own memories all the time.)
But if we amend “lie about rape” to “make false claims of rape”? Then yes, Lena Dunham is living proof that it happens.