This week it came to light that when Lena Dunham was 7 years old, she looked at her little sister's vagina, and an alarming number of people have dubbed her a "child molester." She also did other things critics find offensive, like masturbate next to her sleeping sister and bribe her sister for affection (although the latter doesn't seem to be as much of a point of contention). I'm shaking my head in disbelief as I write because I can't believe that such innocuous things have become the subject of so much vitriol. If I had a penny for all of the sexual organs I looked at as a child, I'd be rich. OK, maybe I'd only have an extra ten or so dollars, but you know what I mean. Children are naturally inquisitive. They are fascinated by the weird things they begin discovering on their bodies. Children often do not identify these things sexually, or have a sexual intent when exploring themselves and others. The intense and hateful puritanism that Lena Dunham has become victim of simply because she was curious about vaginas, and as an innocent child, no less, is disgusting. In truth, Lena wasn't inappropriately sexualizing her sister – the public is doing so, with their pearl-clutching outcry about her accounts of what happened.
It's all part of a wider Vagina Panic™ endemic in our society. How dare a woman seek bodily awareness? How dare a little girl have any sort of biological curiosity whatsoever? Sexuality is an impropriety! Meanwhile, I would be willing to wager that if a male writer had told a comically nostalgic story about how he and his brother compared penis size when they were little kids, everyone would chuckle heartily and pat him on the back for being so adorable. What a silly little boy child just trying to figure things out in this crazy old world! Even when it comes to being a teen masturbating in the same room as someone else, boys are given a free pass. I've heard many a tale of straight, high school boys all masturbating at once to see who would last the longest or cum the most. I've heard many stories from teenage boys of having sex while their friend was asleep nearby in the room. No one thinks that's weird. But girls are, of course, not afforded the same liberty, because girls who want to know how their bodies work are obviously filthy little molesting sluts who ought to be publicly shamed and sent back to the kitchen to bake cake.
Lena Dunham was not a child molester. She simply wanted to to find out what a vagina looked like. Meanwhile, her sister was busy shoving pebbles in there, which should show you the relative maturity and comprehension level of these two children. Like all kids, they were pretty clueless. As far as I'm concerned, it's a cute and funny anecdote about two little girls awkwardly growing up. Her masturbation story might be a little uncomfortable for some (given that so many women, even as adults, aren't comfortable with masturbation, let alone in a shared space), but it doesn't constitute a sexual crime, nor does it make Dunham some kind of sex freak. Lena Dunham is certainly not someone whose work I seek out regularly — I am a fan insofar as she's a hardworking woman in a male dominated industry, but that's about it. But she's not a child molester.
I did a lot of weird things when I was trying to figure out what my vagina was, and what the strange tickle feeling that began happening between my legs meant. I went through puberty at 10 years old, and it's important to remember that for a lot of girls, puberty happens before you're ready for it, and before anyone has even bothered to tell them anything about the way their body works. And when it's happening to you, you want to know about it, and you're well within your rights to seek ANSWERS, damn it. There's nothing malicious, creepy, or predatory about sexual discovery. So here are 6 things little girls do when they're discovering their sexuality that no one talks about (but probably should).
1. LOOK AT EACH OTHERS BITS
Vaginas, as we know, are very neatly tucked inside a woman, for the most part. They're not as obvious and dangly as penises, at least. So little girls have these bits between their legs that they can't really see all that well, and one day they realize they would like to know what those bits look like. Our frame of reference becomes our friends and our sisters. We start sharing and looking and sometimes poking and possibly giggling and maybe being grossed out maybe awestruck with fascination and definitely filled with a million more questions about what those bits are and how they work, and how the hell does the baby get in there and then get back out again? Most little girls aren't taught that's it's OK to touch yourself (where as masturbation, touching and looking are all part of a male's sexual lexicon from a very young age, whether through socializing or the media), so we take our shame and we hide it in other vaginas. And then we continue to explore them.
2. HUMP THINGS
When I was about 10 years old, my friend and I would play a game called "boyfriends" where we would each have a pillow for a boyfriend. "Boyfriends" would begin with a "movie date" where we would pretend to go on a double date to the movies with our pillow boyfriends. The movie date would escalate, and we'd begin kissing our respective pillow boyfriends, and then finally dry-humping them. It was a crude simulation of what we were piecing together about sexuality, and we were most certainly not molesting each other by virtue of having a sexual exploration in the same room. Little girls get sexually aroused too, but unlike men, who are able to tell stories of boners and masturbation publicly and with impunity, being a horny little girl is a dark and nasty secret that women have to carry around.
3. MAKE BARBIE DO IT IN EVERY POSITION
If my Barbie could talk, she'd have some stories to tell. For girls that didn't have barbies, substitute literally anything else used in a playtime/story telling context. Kids have huge imaginations, and once they start being exposed to a media full of sexuality, children begin to internalize and interpret what they see in the world around them. That's incredibly normal, and insanely healthy. If we weren't able to absorb, process, and regurgitate information, ideas and emotions, how would society ever be educated, reflective, or even interesting? Acting out sex with other props is art of a normal process not only for sexual discovery but for children interacting with the complex notions swirling around them on a daily basis.
4. READ THE "NAUGHTY" PARTS OF BOOKS
I used to huddle with my girlfriends in the library and we'd read passages from the "naughty" parts of YA novels or look at pictures of genitals in medical books. Again, this is all part of children figuring out the sex and body things that no one will talk to them about (or hasn't thought yet to talk to them about). It's not a perversion or anything strange or untoward.
5. EXPERIMENT WITH KISSING AND NUDITY
Little girls not only look at each others bits, some will, from time to time, be naked with their friends, and even try out kissing. It doesn't mean they're lesbians or not lesbians or molesters or freaks. It means that they've found a comfortable place from which to try out some of the things they've heard about adults doing. A lot of the time, it might not even be sexual. Growing up, I had many purely science based encounters with girl friends: what do your boobs look like? Can I see? What do you think kissing feels like? Should we do it? For me, none of it was arousing (not like my sweet, sweet pillow boyfriend), but it was interesting and certainly informative, which is another facet of little girls interacting with their sexualities.
6. KEEP IT ALL A SECRET
Sexual discovery is part a natural and insatiable curiosity, but too often it's stifled by society's backwards ideas about what a girl should be and how she should be it. Boys, or should I say, straight boys, are allowed to flourish sexually from whenever they begin noticing their penis gets hard from time-to-time, which basically means their whole lives. Girls, on the other hand, are taught, whether overtly or by passive societal conventions, that there's something inherently wrong with being sexually aware. So little girls keep their bodies and the things they do with them a secret. If they don't, they're Lena Dunham. They're molesters and perverts. They're sluts and whores. We teach little girls that their sex is shameful, we teach them to hide it, so that when one of them does come out and say "I experimented, I was curious, I masturbated" we can burn her at the stake.