The way Lena Dunham is responding to her rape is hard to understand.
“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” – Haile Selassie
What’s the point of speaking up, if not to accomplish something? When we voice concern over a matter of importance, we are looking to aid in a process of resolution. Concerning matters of injustice, speaking out about one’s own experience is usually a call to action of some kind, with an anticipated outcome of increased awareness. Increased awareness of an injustice is generally the first step toward reducing, or eliminating that injustice altogether.
Actress Lena Dunham recently revealed in her new book Not That Kind of Girl, that she was sexually assaulted during her time at Oberlin College in Ohio. Controversy erupted, however, when Dunham’s description provided in the book pointed to a real and easily identifiable person. Well, isn’t that the point? Not in this case. “Barry,” as he is called in the book, is not the real name of the man Dunham alleges assaulted her, it’s a pseudonym. The fact that Barry is a pseudonym is not made obvious by Dunham, despite a prior chapter in which another name is altered, but clearly labeled as such.
The real “Barry” came forward, alleging that his reputation had been severely damaged by Dunham’s book, but neither Dunham, nor her reps responded for months. Only after an exhaustive investigative piece by John Nolte of Breitbart did Dunham emerge from wherever she was hiding to address the controversy. As part of a much larger op-ed for Buzzfeed, Dunham clears Barry’s name, and apologizes for the “unfortunate” and “surreal” coincidence. But why did it take Dunham months to clear an innocent man’s name? How difficult is it to release a statement? It’s abhorrent.
Dunham then goes on to say that there is no right way to be a victim, and that the only reason she spoke up was to increase awareness:
“Speaking out about the realities and complexities of sexual assault is how we begin to protect each other…Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather, it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun. I did not wish to be contacted by him or to open a criminal investigation. I am in a loving and peaceful place in my life and I am not willing to sacrifice any more of it for this person I do not know, aside from one night I will never forget. That is my choice.”
Later in the piece, Dunham adds: “What survivors need more than anything is to be supported, whether they choose to pursue a criminal investigation or to rebuild their world on their own terms…”
This is where things get tricky. There certainly is no definitive way to be a victim, as Dunham rightly says. However, given the situation, it seems odd that an investigation is not being pursued. The statute of limitations for rape is 20 years in the state of Ohio, and in her book, Dunham writes of other acts of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by the man who assaulted her.
Dunham mentions in her Buzzfeed piece that she has sympathy for those who are not in her position, financially, and legally, and that she wants to change for the better society’s reaction to rape accusations:
“I do not want our daughters born into a world that reacts to sexual violence against women in this way. This reaction, which ranges from skepticism to condemnation to threats of violence, is something I have been subject to as a woman in a position of extraordinary privilege. So let us then imagine the trauma experienced by low-income families, women of color, the trans community, survivors with disabilities, students on financial aid, sex workers, inmates, foster children, those who do not have my visibility, my access to medical and mental health care, or my financial and legal resources.”
If you read her op-ed, you get a clear sense that Dunham is passionate about her crusade against sexual violence. You also get knocked over the head with the incongruity of it all. On one hand, you have the woman Time magazine called a “fierce advocate of campus reform when it comes to matters of sexual assault,” and on the other, you have someone who seems to have no desire to see justice done, even though she allegedly knows her rapist.
In her op-ed, Dunham writes:
“I did not wish to be contacted by him or to open a criminal investigation. I am in a loving and peaceful place in my life and I am not willing to sacrifice any more of it for this person I do not know, aside from one night I will never forget. That is my choice.”
It certainly is her choice, but I have to wonder, given her position of power, the fact that she knows who “Barry” is, her fierce advocacy against sexual assault, and Ohio’s long statute, why would Dunham not seek to put this man behind bars? She must know–as we all do–that this man will not simply stop abusing women for his own gratification. That is not the psychology of rapists. He will continue to assault woman after woman until one comes forward to take a stand against his vile actions. But why is that woman not Dunham? She is clearly not afraid, which, for many women, is one of the main reasons they don’t come forward. She wrote a book in which she graphically describes her encounter with “Barry.” She has the power, and position to take the stand that others may be too fearful to take, yet she is content to speak up, but not pursue legal action to stop this monster.
By publicizing her account, Dunham may have advanced the nation’s awareness of campus sexual assault, but she has also left future victims of “Barry” without any help. Dunham could use her position to potentially stop a monster in his tracks, but she won’t.
As Dunham said, there is no right way to be a victim, and that is certainly true. I cannot know what it’s like to be in her shoes. However, I would admonish her to use her status, and power to put an end to this man’s pattern of violence. If we imagine the trauma of the victims who don’t have Dunham’s standing, or financial resources, it makes her lack of action all the more glaring. Her lack of action in clearing the real Barry’s name also compounds the disturbing nature of the situation.
Though her book may give her comfort, it will do nothing to help “Barry’s” future victims. And that is a tragedy.