What Lena Dunham's comments means to sexual assault survivors

Ways in which we need to open up the conversations

Silencing sexual assault survivors in the face of public outcry.

The #MeToo campaign and recent exposure of Hollywood’s elite as sexual predators has saturated everyone’s news feed with the saddening and frustrating realities of sexual violence. 

While this has certainly led to more awareness and increased conversation of the subject matter, not all of the conversation generated has actually been productive. 

It’s important that we, as citizens and members of an institution with a sexual assault problem, actively engage with this issue even after these stories disappear from our feeds. We need to facilitate conversation in a way that challenges the institutions which have let the problem pervade for so long. While doing this, we need to also support survivors and victims by creating a more inclusive and responsive community.

We’re seemingly becoming more aware, as a society, that sexual violence is more common than we would like to acknowledge. Even though that seems to be the case, rape enablers continue to support the structures that make it difficult for survivors to come forward. 

One of the most poignant examples of this undue support can be seen in the statement released by Lena Dunham and her Girls co-runner Jenni Konner on Nov. 17. The statement was in reference to accusations that Girls producer Murray Miller had committed sexual assault. Within their joint testimony, the co-stars denied the accuser who had come forward and instead chose to support Miller. They released and later retracted a statement as follows:

“While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 per cent of assault cases that are misreported every year. It’s a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed. We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.”

Now, this isn’t the first time Dunham’s problematic interpretation of feminism has come under fire, but I found this particular report to be striking for many reasons. When I’ve spoken to survivors and victims in my life, I’ve found one of the greatest obstacles they experience is struggling to be believed. This lack of faith by even close friends and family can add weight to an already heavy burden to carry. Those who deny sexual assault claims from survivors and victims are actively preventing rapists from being brought to justice by making survivors and victims  feel insecure and uncomfortable about coming forward.

As an award-winning actress and producer, Dunham could’ve used her space, privilege and resources to reflect on the unique issues Aurora Perrineau faced as a biracial woman reporting a sexual assault to the police in 2012. 

She could’ve even used it to learn how these institutions of power make it more difficult for people of colour to come forward or about how the number of other existing forms of oppression survivors and victims face magnify the challenges of reporting. 

False reporting in rape is no higher than any other type of crime but it’s uniquely amplified in almost every accusation of sexual violence. Rather than using this energy and emotional space to contribute to a culture that excuses violence, it would be much more productive as a society to use this as a space to learn about the unique challenges different types of survivors and victims have faced in accessing resources and understand how to support them. Specifically, Dunham should have intimate knowledge of these challenges as she herself has accused someone of sexual assault in the past.

This also could’ve been an opportunity for Dunham to reflect on how to improve on past experiences of making jokes about sexual harassment and assault. In 2014, Dunham included a joke about sexual predators in a chapter of her memoir Not that Kind of Girl, describing kissing her sister and other non-consensual acts. 

Within the chapter, Dunham likened her actions to “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” Although this context doesn’t make her defense of Murray less surprising, it definitely makes it more disgusting. 

Separate of if the incident occurred the way it was outlined in the book — as Dunham denies assaulting her sister — it nonetheless contributes to a culture in which sexual violence becomes a punchline.

One of the most frustrating things about Dunham and Kenner’s joint statement was it wasn’t an anomaly. Survivors and victims have been denied and dismissed ever since they began coming forward. The statement echoed others I’ve heard many times in the past four years: one of my least favorite but most commonly reiterated being “Blackout drunk means that God told you to forget about it” as an excuse for those accused of sexual violence. 

Considering the significant potential for these offhand statements to negatively impact survivors and victims alike, there needs to be more emphasis on the power of our words. Even within Queen’s politics department, I find some discussions around sexual violence lack proper mediation and warning, leaving some people walking away feeling more powerless than ever. Content warnings have also become stigmatized and some classes dive right into the matter with no warning. 

This has been adapted by those who see giving people proper warning as a sacrifice on the altar of free speech. But the truth remains that discussions around this kind of subject matter can have emotive and long-lasting consequences. Someone’s right to fully access their education shouldn’t be challenged by improperly mediated discussions that challenge their experiences.

My advice on making the conversation more limited is inherently restricted as a cisgender, heterosexual, white, abled woman. I haven’t shared experiences with systems of oppression in the way many other women have, but I know one of the greatest things I’ve learned within the conversation on sexual assault is the importance of listening thoughtfully and reserving judgement. 

This also means being open to learning things which may make you uncomfortable about privileges that you hold. I think we all know we need to do better. 

Survivors and victims deserve better and we need to listen to them to create a better campus and a better world in the presence of so many voices unwilling to listen.

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