Everyone with an internet connection is now aware that Lena Dunham’s memoir includes some creepy passages centering around her childhood sexual expression. An article in National Review (a publication I’d prefer not to direct traffic to) called attention to these passages, which had previously passed unnoticed in mainstream media reviews. Many feminists, most prominently black feminists, are now decrying Dunham as a child molester, despite the fact that the scene most graphically described took place when she was seven years old. When pressed on this issue, many critics clarify that whatever allowance we might make for her young age, there is still something alarming about the fact that she’s writing about the incidents now. In particular, it’s believed that she should not be morbidly amused to recall her strange activities, but deeply remorseful. After all, we must hold children to some moral standard!
What’s striking to me is that everyone is apparently in possession of a clear set of moral standards for the expression of childhood sexuality. There is an acceptable level of such expression — broadly described as “playing doctor” — and what Dunham describes is supposedly far beyond that. I find this interesting, because I am not at all aware that American culture has any coherent standards for childhood sexual expression. Indeed, it seems to me that American culture avoids discussion of such topics at almost any cost. If someone could send me a link to the universally acknowledged rules of childhood sexual expression, that would be helpful to me for future incidents where I’m expected to rush to judgment on this matter.
Another strange thing about this whole discussion is that Dunham’s parents simply do not factor in. If she was doing something abusive and destructive, surely it was her parents are the more relevant party to be passing moral judgment on. But no, it’s seven-year-old Lena we’re all focusing on — almost as though this whole incident is an excuse to scapegoat someone the participants already didn’t like, regardless of how much sense it makes!
Further, we might also expect Dunham’s sister to show signs of damage or trauma if her seven-year-old sister were a relentless child abuser. Instead, today she tweeted that the kinds of simplistic judgments expressed against Lena are an example of the heterosexism that is always enforced by the state and media.
There are a lot of good reasons not to like Lena Dunham. There are good reasons to resist her elevation to the level of a feminist icon. Certainly her “over-sharing” tendencies are off-putting, particularly when she’s talking about something as creepy (to most people) as childhood sexual expression. Overall, though, it’s difficult for me not to see the revulsion against her and the recklessly hyperbolic claims that she’s some kind of child molester as yet another example of the ways that non-normative sexual practices are rejected and tarred with “guilt by association.” In other words, it’s no mistake that this toxic framing of the passages in question originated in a right-wing publication — and it’s a huge mistake for anyone on the left to be making common cause with such a heterosexist smear campaign.