Essays

Lena Dunham and Sexual Violence: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” About Rape

Amanda Spallacci explores the power of life writing in relation to gender and sexuality through a discussion of Dunham’s narrative of a sexual encounter that she classifies as rape and her subsequent refusal to identify as a rape victim. Spallacci considers Dunham’s narrative vis-a-vis theories of rape culture that explain what is at stake when a person identifies as a rape victim.

Once violence and gender are put into discourse as female identity in the context of self representation, threat is no longer static and no longer a shroud of silence.

—Leigh Gilmore

Lena Dunham—writer, executive producer, and Dunham Coverstar of hit television series Girls — has recently come under public scrutiny for a troubling representation of rape in her best-selling memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” Conservative commentators pushed against Dunham’s representation of sexual assault, characterizing the narrative as a questionable and “dishonest” testimony of a woman who “cried rape,” and called Dunham “gutless” and a “liar” (see Williamson and Nolte).

In the memoir Dunham presents a nuanced account of rape that anticipates and attempts to negotiate the suspicion and disbelief that rape testimony is often met with. Her story is narrated through a series of flashbacks spanning her childhood and college years, and which culminates in a “present day” phone conversation with her partner. These epochs come together to form a narrative that makes visible cultural influences which have, in the past, prevented Dunham from defining for herself and fully understanding what constitutes rape.

In her personal narrative, Dunham identifies the skepticism that surrounds rape testimony; the complications caused by substance abuse; the question of active and continual consent; the way in which cultural education shapes meanings and definitions of rape; and she represents the complexities of shame around sexual assault. Through testimony, Dunham reports on these repressive conditions that she has internalized, which effect the way she understands and identifies with her sexual assault; then she divorces them, by replacing these dominant discourses of rape with a nuanced and survivor based perspective, placing her on a path towards healing.


Unreliable Narration as Subversive Strategy

In the chapter “Barry,” which addresses her experience of rape, Dunham shows herself at different times in her life when she has thought about and constructed meanings around rape. In presenting these flashbacks together, she illustrates how knowledge about and definitions of rape are culturally constructed and held together by pervasive narratives of shame and silence. Such narratives subjugate survivors and, importantly for Dunham, shape how the experience of sexual violence prompts complex and difficult identity work in order to make sense of what has happened. She highlights how problematic narratives that position survivors as the ones responsible for sexual assault, rather than as victims of gender based violence, not only construct harmful and distorted identities for survivors but also work to manipulate survivors’ emotions by replacing feelings of fear and trauma, with shame and blame.

The chapter begins, “I AM AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR” (Dunham’s emphasis 51). An unmissable signpost to readers, this assertion shows Dunham abdicating the responsibility of the witness to bear the burden of objective truth by characterizing herself as an unreliable narrator. Here, Dunham draws attention to the fact that many reports of rape are met with skepticism, so when identifying as a rape survivor, one is also vulnerable to scrutiny. Rape testimonies are so often met with suspicion, despite research that indicates the number of false rape allegations is small.(*) Perhaps Dunham anticipates the inevitable scrutiny that her narrative could receive not only because it is a product of her own memory and recollection of a traumatic event, but also because it is a testimonial about rape. Assuming the identity of the “unreliable narrator” draws attention to discourses of (dis)belief and suspicion that surround rape testimony, but rather than undermining her testimony, her adoption of the unreliable narrator undermines the conventional position of the witness to bear the burden of proof. Rather than shoulder this burden, Dunham releases herself from it and instead places the ball in the reader’s court: she resists the imperative “prove” the truth of her experience.


Troubling Consent

 Dunham’s rape testimony emphasizes three key issues around consent: the need to widen the definition of sexual assault; the need to transfer blame away from survivor who used alcohol and drugs and onto the party that failed to recognize that this form of cognitive impairment delegitimizes consent; and the imperative for both parties to obtain active and continual consent.

In the narrative, Dunham attends a party on campus and, like her peers, she takes the opportunity to get a little loose: she gets drunk, takes Xanax, and a small amount of cocaine. During the party, she encounters an acquaintance named Barry. The pair leave the party together and Dunham, unsure how they navigated their way to her apartment, finds herself on the living room floor with Barry, “doing what grown ups do” (59). As Dunham realizes that Barry is penetrating her with a “sort of hard” penis, she discovers a condom laying on the floor beside her. She recalls, “I knew where [the condom] was, he didn’t, so I must have crawled for it. A Choice. Why does he think it’s okay to take it off?” (59). Dunham consents to sex with a condom, and Barry’s refusal to do so undermines Dunham’s agency.

Dunham then explicitly demands that Barry wear the condom, and he responds by pulling out, and “pushing” his penis in her face (59). Not only displaying a complete disregard for Dunham’s request that he wear the condom, the use of the word “pushing” stresses that Barry removes Dunham’s opportunity to choose whether or not to engage in oral sex. As the pair move onto the couch and return to having sexual intercourse, Dunham tilts her head back, and notices that the condom she asked Barry to wear twice is hanging on a decorative tree in her living room (59). Dunham’s account pushes on the boundaries of accepted definitions of consent by widening the scope of what one can say “no” to during sex. Saying “yes” to sex does not mean saying yes to sex without a condom or to oral sex, for example.

As Dunham depicts herself slipping in and out of consciousness during sex with Barry, it’s clear that her level of intoxication impairs her ability to give consent. She states, “I come to a little, realize this is not a dream” (59). The alcohol and drugs affect Dunham’s coherence and consciousness, harming her autonomy and her capacity to actively consent to any sexual act with Barry.

Dunham depicts herself attempting to assert agency in this precarious situation as things begin to slip rapidly out of her control. She begins to moan and ask Barry erotic questions, trying to convince herself that this experience is consensual, because the alternative and the reality is too traumatic to bare. She states, “I know that if I make these sounds and ask these questions, then it is, again, a choice” (59). The use of the word “again” indicates a break between Dunham’s initial willingness to have sex with Barry and the moment when she attempts to convince herself that she has a choice in the matter: here, she signals a lack of continual consent. Barry’s refusal to acknowledge Dunham’s demand that he wear a condom, Dunham’s level of intoxication, and her lack of continual consent should add up — for the reader — to an account of rape.


Constructing Rape

 In this chapter, Dunham works through a series of flashbacks in which she traces her own perception of rape. These flashbacks serve to problematize the cultural construction of rape.

At age seven, Dunham learns the word “rape.” She recalls, “[w]hen I was seven I learned the word ‘rape,’ but I thought it was ‘rabe.’ I pronounced it like the playwright, not the broccoli, and I used it with reckless abandon” (55). Ironically, the word “learned” displays a complete misunderstanding of the language and the definition of rape. Similarly, years later, Dunham depicts herself as a college student who, following her experience with Barry, lacks the language and ability to define this experience as rape. Dunham presents a diary entry that describes the event: “Barry. Number Four. We fucked. 69’d. It was terribly aggressive. Only Once. No one came” (Dunham’s emphasis 60). Here, Dunham classifies the sex as “terribly aggressive,” instead of as rape. By mislabeling the event as “aggressive,” Dunham conveys that, like her seven-year-old self, she continues to lack the appropriate language to articulate the complexities of sexual assault.

Journalist Jon Krakauer’s book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015) explores sexual assault among college students. In it Dr. David Lisak, who also researches sexual assault, speaks about misconceptions of rape: “When people hear the term ‘rapist’ many of them think of a guy in a ski mask, wielding a knife, hiding in the bushes, breaking into a home. And it’s a scary image and it does happen, but the vast majority of rapes, well over 80% are actually non-stranger rape” (252). Thus, dominant discourses surrounding sexual assault that characterize rapists as dangerous strangers fail to accurately depict rape, affecting the collective understanding of what, in reality, can constitute rape.

The next day, following her “aggressive” sexual experience with Barry, Dunham visits the campus computer lab with her friend Audrey. As they take a break from studying, Dunham casually offers the details of the previous night, and she concludes with an apology for the destruction of Audrey’s wrap dress, which Dunham borrowed to wear to the party. Audrey, startled by the news, grasps Dunham’s hand and sympathetically classifies the event as rape (61). At her friend’s suggestion that she is a victim of sexual assault Dunham’s only reaction is to “…burst out laughing” (61).

While this reaction could be read as a form of denial for psychological protection, it also indicates Dunham’s inability to comprehend this encounter as rape because it deviates from dominant narratives of rape that imagine violent strangers in dark alleys. Such “rape myths” are culturally pervasive and they regulate social (as well as legal) discourses of what “counts” as sexual violence (Erlich, 29). As a result, Dunham finds the comparison between the two extremely contrasting experiences/ideas laughable. Here, Dunham uses her experience with an acquaintance that begins as consensual to problematize dominant discourses about rape and point out that this rigid cultural narrative about rape prevented her from identifying as a rape survivor.

At the end of the chapter, Dunham uses her personal struggle with accepting that she was raped to convey that the cultural construction and understanding of rape causes immense feelings of self-blame and shame for the victim.

During a telephone conversation with her partner, Dunham confides, “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault. I fantasized. I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a little bit easier. To lessen the space between me and every else. I was hungry to be seen” (65). Dunham portrays herself as having internalized the cultural discourse surrounding “risky” behaviors that women ought to avoid, such as substance use and a need for attention.

The idea that women have the power to prevent men from attacking them is a powerful and pervasive element of what has come to be known as “rape culture,” and suggestions for women’s preventative behavior—such as dressing modestly, and not accepting drinks from strangers—work to displace the blame from the rapist onto the survivor, although such suggestions are masked as strategies to protect women from sexual assault. These suggestions culminate to create feelings of shame and blame for survivors of sexual assault who feel responsible for what has happened to them.(**)  Similarly, in Dunham’s case this false narrative of responsibility and prevention also shapes her reluctance to identify as a rape survivor, and her internalization of the idea that she might be responsible for what happened to her makes visible this culturally-manufactured shame and self-blame.

Even though Dunham experiences the inevitable shame that culminates from a society which perpetuates female gender subordination and violence against women, by the end of the chapter, she acknowledges that her experience was not consensual and firmly testifies to the harm and injustice of it. She authoritatively states, “…at no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us. I never gave him permission” (65). Once Dunham allows herself to identify as the rape survivor, she is able to truly classify and articulate the lack of consent that surrounds her experience.


Testimony/ Identity/ Healing 

Leigh Gilmore in Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation (1994), suggests that a subject who has been oppressed through gender-based violence can find healing through language and testimony. Dunham’s narrative reports the cultural myths surrounding rape that seek to subjugate survivors, such as the disbelief that surrounds rape testimony, substance use, consent, the way that culture frames rape, and the self-blame imposed on the rape survivor. Her testimony exposes these myths as central to her struggle to not only classify her experience as sexual violence, but also begins to effect the way she sees and understands herself.

By the end of the chapter, Dunham accepts that she has been sexually assaulted, and after an emotional conversation with her partner, she looks in the mirror, and concludes the chapter by saying, “I look alright. I look like myself” (66). Constructing her own narrative allows Dunham to identify the rape myths she has internalized and leads her on the path towards healing. Her account deconstructs and challenges the cultural construction of rape by showing how despite what she had “learned” about rape she was unable or unwilling to recognize it when it happened to her. Dunham’s narrative shows her negotiating the fraught terrain of rape testimony, and ultimately finding a way to own and recover from her experience.

(*) “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” indicate that although there are cases of false accusations they amount to only 2-10% of sexual assault allegations in total (Lonsway et al. 1318).

 

(**) For an excellent discussion of sexual assault victim blaming, see Australian feminist writer Clementine Ford’s article “The Four Words All Sexual Assault Survivors Dread Hearing.”


Works Cited

Dunham, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” Doubleday, 2014. 

Erlich, Susan. Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent. Routledge, 2001. 

Ford, Clementine. “The Four Words All Sexual Assault Survivors Dread Hearing.” Daily Life, 31 Aug 2015. Accessed 10 Nov 2015.

Gilmore, Leigh. “Violence and Self-Representation.” Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation. Cornell U P, 1994. 

Krakauer, Jon. “Part Five: Trial By Jury.” Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Doubleday, 2015. 

Lisak, David, Lori Gardinier, Sarah Nicksa and Ashley Cote. “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women, vol. 16, no. 12, 2010, pp. 1318-1334. Accessed 5 Aug 2015.

Nolte, John. “Investigation: Lena Dunham ‘Raped by a Republican’ Story in Bestseller Collapses Under Scrutiny.” Breitbart, 3 Dec 2014. Accessed 14 Nov 2015.

Williamson, Kevin D. “Pathetic Privilege: The Coming of Age of Lena Dunham.” National Review, 3 Nov 2014. Accessed 14 Nov 2015.

(#) Photo Credit: Book cover image, Penguin Random House Website


Amanda SpallacciAmanda Spallacci is a Masters Student in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. In the future, she hopes to conduct doctoral research, which will be titled Resistance and Healing: The Representation of Sexual Violence and Personal Testimony. Her research interests include gender studies and feminist theory, queer theory, life writing, deconstruction, popular culture, and trauma studies. Amanda is an avid feminist activist and currently sits on the Gendered Violence Task Force at Wilfrid Laurier University.


Post editor: Emma Maguire.

 

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