We Are Our Own Monsters: Lena Dunham and the Continued Shaming of Girls and Women
This week has seen a lot of strange misinformation and shaming around the curiosity and sexual nature of children, and specifically that of girls. In the rush to shame and demonize Lena Dunham for allegedly inappropriate childhood actions, people have forgotten not only simple logic but the basics of female reproductive anatomy. It's a real mess out there, and moral vitriol comes with a delicious adrenaline rush, so it's not likely to sort itself out any time soon or at all reasonably. Oh, internets. What are we to do with you?
Lena Dunham, in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl, described situations that could be construed as sexual, although they were not necessarily so, and the conservative site Truth Revolt chose to frame one particular story of Dunham's as a confession of perverted and pedophilic behaviour, using the wildly inaccurate headline "Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister".
I have very little interest in pursuing a defense of Lena Dunham. I do not know her, and the cherry-picking people have done through her book and Twitter and Instagram accounts to prove an already established social belief has led to irrational convictions. While Dunham's book does go on to describe other incidents, though, this one story about Dunham finding pebbles in her sister's vagina is my focus, because it was Truth Revolt's sexualizing of this wholly non-sexual story of childhood curiosity that initially set off this recent social panic about girls exhibiting a natural and healthy curiosity about their bodies and sexuality.
Here is the passage I'm interested in and to which Truth Revolt called particular attention:
“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.
“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.” I look at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.
“Does her vagina look like mine?”
“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”
One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.
My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”
My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.
The first issue I have, before I even dig into why Truth Revolt's sexual interpretation of the described incident is ridiculous, is the glaring anatomical inaccuracy Dunham allows, and it is one I am surprised was overlooked by both her and her editors. "Vagina" doesn't mean what she's using it to describe here, and it's about as accurate as equating my hand with my elbow. Here is a handy diagram to illustrate human female reproductive anatomy if you are unclear about what part of it actually constitutes the vagina:
The vagina, as shown in the anatomical diagram above, does not refer to the exterior and visible parts of the female reproductive system, which is called the vulva and is collectively comprised of the labia and the clitoris. The vagina is only the interior canal between the vulva and the cervix. In order to see the vagina or count things inside it, one would need a flashlight and a speculum to hold the vagina open.
So, following the description in this section of Dunham's book, the pebbles could not have been inside that baby's vagina, because a) babies do not have the dexterity to shove several objects, one after the other, up inside their own vaginas, and b) several pebbles inside a vagina would not have all been visible for counting just by holding open the labia. Language is important, and Dunham fell down on the job in this area, because if we are meant to believe that Dunham named her sister's anatomy correctly, then we have to believe that her sister, even at one year of age, had both incredible manual dexterity and the world's most phenomenally gigantic vagina, like world record-holding gigantic, to have been able not only to insert several pebbles inside herself but also to have all seven of them visibly countable without a more intensive internal examination. It's simply not biologically possible. In all likelihood, the pebbles got into her sister's diaper while she was playing and eventually stuck in her vulva between her labia. If you have ever changed a female baby's diaper after a day at the beach or park, you know that stuff gets in places without anyone having consciously put them there.
Now that we've established some facts about the limited dexterity of babies, how pebbles can get wedged in vulvas, and how most parts of a female's reproductive anatomy are not the vagina, can we talk about how this incident does not at all describe predatory behaviour? Because there are a lot of people out there, both whom I have read and with whom I have chatted online, who are trying to frame this particular section of the book as pornography, a brazen confession of sexual predation, and it very clearly is not.
If you are looking for examples to prove that a child is sexually predatory, this tale is not it. Not only is this viewpoint wholly unsupported by the book's text quoted above, but also because 1) childhood bodily exploration of both oneself and other children is commonplace, 2) a very brief investigation of a sister's vulva simply to see if it looks the same as one's own is an extension of that normal curiosity, 3) there was no sexual interest or titillation driving the behaviour described, and 4) the presence of the pebbles, albeit a surprising twist that introduced the idea of something being inside a vagina — which we have already established could not have been the case at all — is only that, a surprising twist, a ridiculous what-the-heck. That something was caught between her sister's labia does not actually reference any kind of sexual touching or penetration and is wholly unrelated to Dunham's biological investigation. Basically, the story describes a child who was curious about what another vagina looked like in relation to her own, she looked briefly, there was a surprising but wholly non-sexual twist, scene over.
Although Dunham uses poor language choices that skew our reading of this childhood experience, lending it an inappropriate maturity post mortem, the incident described is anything but uncommon or abnormal, and this is what brings me to what truly bothers me about the disgust and moral outrage I've seen waged about the content of this story. I'm not here to defend all of Dunham's history. In fact, I'm not really interested that Dunham is part of this story at all, really. What this is really about is the sexualization of a seven-year-old's completely natural curiosity about her own biology and the ensuing moral outrage that attempts to cast it as sexual or sexually predatory.
Children explore their bodies with each other. Children are aware of gender and sexual differences, and they are naturally curious about them. Most of us are born with arms that are the perfect length to explore our own genitals, and it makes sense to wonder at some point after such explorations if others are like us or different than us. It's not weird. It's not perverted. It's not immoral. So much that I have read this week — articles, blog entries, and comments on those articles and blog entries — deny the naturalness of children's biological and sexual curiosity. Writers have claimed that children who want to see other children's genitals automatically have boundary issues, psychological problems, and are child predators, as though one child looking at another's vulva out of curiosity is tantamount to a sex crime. One commenter told me that "It reads like porn!! It's highly sexualized…", as though any telling of a story that requires words like "labia" and "vagina" equals perversion and pornography.
The perversion in this scenario hardly lies with the curious child learning about her biology.
Sure, maybe not all children engage in physical exploration this way, but I will hazard a guess that most do, and a lot of that exploration does not follow the structured adult rules of acceptability and consent we later choose as safe boundaries when those activities become sexual and intimate. As children, this kind of activity is, for the most part, not sexual and intimate, and our natural curiosity as children learning about ourselves and others is not necessarily the wild breach of consent tipping over into sex crimes that some have painted it to be.
Framing something as simple as non-sexual biological curiosity as sexual predation is so very sad. No, actually, it's heartbreaking.
Childhood curiosity has been framed as perversion with the conviction only those who assume broad social acceptance could have, and it has been disheartening to see how many agree with them. A seven-year-old child checking out another's genitals close up without mention of sexual interest seems now to be another definition of child molestation. There doesn't have to be any stated interest in seeking sexual stimulation of any kind, because apparently the mere mention of parts of the female reproductive anatomy makes a situation pornographic, and any sexual intent we imply from our adult perspective is real.
When I was about seven, I checked out my one-year-old brother's penis once in the bathtub, because what the heck was that weirdness about? It looked completely different than what I had. Sexual propriety wasn't a question, because I was a kid who wasn't being sexual, just curious. Also, I knew what "bad touching" was, and this wasn't it. This was a look-see, a peek at something I found pretty unfamiliar. It would seem more abnormal if I didn't notice something new and expressed no curiosity about it.
Later, when I was eleven and he was four, I dressed him up in what I envisioned as a mash-up between a prostitute and a geisha (I put him in an off-the-shoulder silky nightie and white face make-up), and then I told him we were going to see his boyfriend, George. I made him kiss a stuffed bear. I'm a total monster, right? A complete predator.
The real perversion is not that little girls wonder what other people's genitals look like but that Truth Revolt could publish an article that so overly sexualized normal childhood behaviour for girls and then that so many people actually bought that take on it. It means women are far worse off in our society than I thought. When I was a kid, women were starting careers in greater numbers, they were taking control of their fertility, they were more able to choose life partners and create families that did not damage themselves and by extension their communities. I had this idea that things were getting better than they had been in the past, that I could be and do and create in a life that I could actively develop in ways that women had been denied throughout most of history because of our bodies. We had once been deemed too animal, too stupid, too weak, too manipulative, too easy to manipulate. It was thought that women needed to be controlled and guided. These were the lies that had been defeated, I thought. We were past that.
It turns out that I was wrong to think things could change so quickly. Somehow, in 2014, mentioning female reproductive anatomy is pornography. A girl's curiosity about her own anatomy and whether there are other bodies like it out in the world is a perversion. A small child briefly fact-checking it for herself with no intent to harm or stimulate is a sex crime. She is sick. She is a predator. That she relates this story without expressing shame and remorse is criminal.
If this is the case, if this point of view is the truth and I am wrong, then females are monstrous. We have been a collective mass of perverted desire from the cradle. We are deluded, childhood sex criminals. We should have been tried in adult courts while still in elementary school. Put us on the stand and ask us if we played Doctor. We are pornographers for naming our parts out loud. For shame, for shame.
Reading about childhood bodily exploration through Dunham's poorly worded, too-adult lens might feel uncomfortable, especially if in light of one's own circumstantial discomfort, but we are looking at a broader sexist sexual panic erroneously applied to the particular here more than we are looking at a particular instance of actual pedophilic abuse. We are looking at the demonization and shaming of natural female childhood curiosity. If we are now placing female sexual shame where there is not even sexual intent in play, we are shaming the very thing that little girls first identify as being physically female about themselves as they form their identities about who they are as individuals. We are shaming who they are.
Little girls will continue to be curious, they will continue to investigate, they will look at their own genitals, they will look at other children's genitals, and they will do it whether adults panic and frame their natural self-education as perverted, predatory, and criminal or not. It is all a part of discovering who and what we are in relation to other human beings, and, if anything, it is a natural step toward the discovery of what our boundaries are and why they exist the way they do before the reasons for those boundaries become necessary for our own health and safety.
I doubt that lobbing shame and fear at girls' natural biological curiosity will create women with healthy physical boundaries forged out of a learned and complex understanding of themselves and their relationships to others. I am fairly certain, though, that this kind of shame and fear do create women with poorly understood and reactionary physical boundaries forged out of body shame and unnecessarily imposed guilt.
It's hard to cultivate a better society for ourselves and our daughters when women are still taught that, by our very natures, we are disgusting and prone to criminality. We are our own monsters.