When I was around seven, we often got together with a family with a little boy my own age. His parents went to my parents’ church, and I think they were in the same Bible study. At some point he began nagging me, wanting me to pull down my underwear and let him see my bare bottom. I didn’t want to do that, and I told him as much, but he wouldn’t let up. Finally, I gave in. When no one was around, I laid down on the floor face down and pulled my underwear down so he could see my bare bottom. After a few seconds, I pulled my underwear up and got up. He had promised not to touch, and he kept that promise.
It’s this situation I’ve been thinking about today as I’ve read various defenses of Lena Dunham, who wrote in her recent memoir about sexually experimenting with her much-younger sister. I’ve read people arguing that it’s normal for children to experiment like this, and people insisting that children check out each other’s stuff all the time. But as I’ve read these things, my mind has been drawn back again and again to what happened between that boy and I. There’s one thing I can tell you for sure: Children may experiment and they may check out each other’s stuff, but what that little boy did to me was not okay. It made me feel dirty and violated at the time, and that stuck with me for years afterwards. Even today, remembering it makes me feel icky.
I’ve sometimes wondered if I felt the way I did because of my community’s emphasis on sexual purity, but I don’t think that’s it, or at least that’s not the full story. I think it felt the way it did primarily because it didn’t feel fully consensual—because it wasn’t. The boy spent months pushing me to let him see my bottom, over and over and over again. He kept pushing, and I finally said yes only to make him stop. This was no mutual sexual exploration carried out between two equals. Would I term this boy a sexual predator? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean what he did to me was okay.
If you’ve followed the controversy over Lena Dunham’s memoir, you can see how this might be applicable. Lena is six years older than her sister, which immediately creates a power difference, even between siblings. In her memoir, we see Lena’s perspective, but not Grace’s. In some of the stories, Grace was too young to consent in even the smallest way, but Lena seems unable to understand this even today—“she didn’t resist,” Lena writes of her one-year-old sister.
Yes, children experiment sexually, and yes, children are curious about each other’s stuff. But that doesn’t mean that childhood sexual exploration is always and of necessity harmless and okay. We need to be able to draw lines between childhood sexual exploration that is harmless and okay, and childhood sexual exploration that is exploitative and coercive. Part of the problem may be the way we draw lines. You either are a sexual predator, or you are not. That is too all-or-nothing to describe reality; it forces us to label people as all good or all bad, and people are rarely so simple. Most would be loath to put the little boy who pressured me into showing him my bottom in the sexual predator box, but what he did was nevertheless not okay. It was exploitative and coercive, and it left me feeling dirty and used.
Perhaps partly because the story was first broken by right-wing sites, many liberal sites, including Slate and Salon, have been defending Dunham’s actions as normal and okay. I have yet to see any serious exploration of the power difference between Lena and her sister, who was six years younger than her, and I have yet to see anyone suggest that we ask Grace about how she experienced these incidences. If anyone had seen what went down in my parents’ basement the day I showed that boy my bottom, they would probably have filed it under normal childhood sexual exploration. They would not have seen what was going on inside of me, or the way it made me feel dirty and violated.
Not all “normal childhood sexual exploration” is harmless and okay. That “it’s normal for children to do that” should not get an act off the hook. It is normal for adults to have sex, too, but that doesn’t mean sex is never exploitative or coercive. To state it directly, it is normal for children to want to see each other’s private parts, but childhood private part looking can also be exploitative and coercive, and can in some cases cause longterm feelings of violation. This is why I have found defenses of Lena Dunham based on the claim that childhood sexual exploration is normal so troubling.
I want to finish by drawing attention to About Lena Dunham’s Memoir, Overshare and Lack of Boundaries, an excellent post on Awesomely Luvvie. It not only lays out the backstory on both Lena Dunham and the controversy about her memoir, it also stakes out a position I found very helpful.
What about the rest of you? What are your thoughts?