Josh Duggar And Lena Dunham Should Not Be Compared, and Here Are 5 Reasons Why
When Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind Of Girl came out last year, all media more or less came to a screeching stop to discuss whether or not something in the book — Dunham’s account of an experience she had as a seven-year-old with her then one-year-old sister, Grace — essentially amounted to a confession of molestation. She was painted as an arrogant young woman with enough distance from the act and such a strong inherent sense of privilege that she felt safe writing candidly about what happened, assuming immunity to having her actions seen in the “predatory” way many people viewed them. Here’s the exact excerpt from the book that prompted the intense backlash:
“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 looked 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 that 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.
Because this is the Internet and we don’t know how to not fight with each other over everything, the ensuing debate was a heated one over whether Dunham had “molested” her younger sibling or if her actions were the product of nothing more than harmless, normal curiosity between very young children. Dunham herself, historically quite chill in the face of criticism, understandably lost her shit while defending what she stalwartly regarded as a benign occurrence between two kids, taking to Twitter to make it clear that she wasn’t even slightly willing to entertain such implications being attached to this story. Eventually, the indignantly outcrying masses lost steam when everyone finally took a breath and realized that, yeah, this was probably not that big of a deal, and life moved on.
Fast forward six months, to May, when InTouch obtained a copy of a police report from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office using the Freedom of Information Act, which contained records of a member of the TLC reality show 19 Kids And Counting, Josh Duggar, had molested several young females over the course of several years back in 2002 and 2003. Four of the five young women said to be involved were later revealed to be his sisters; the fifth was a babysitter. (Out of respect for the alleged victims’ privacy, Bustle is refraining from publishing details of their identities.) Josh, along with his parents Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, promptly issued statements and apologies about the events, which they called “one of the most difficult times of [their] lives.”
In the subsequent days and weeks following these decade-old events coming to public attention, the Duggars did their best to enact damage control over the situation, including participating in an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, wherein Michelle and Jim Bob spoke about what happened, Josh’s confession to them, and the steps they took as a family to deal with his actions — which included hiding the incidents from public view as their family ascended to reality TV fame.
On June 4, in the wake of the overwhelming criticism against the Duggar family for both Josh’s actions and their handling of them, Bristol Palin — daughter of Conservative politician and former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin — penned a blog post comparing what happened with Josh Duggar and what happened with Lena Dunham, decrying the “liberal media” for what she perceives as blatant hypocrisy in their interpretation of both stories.
I can’t believe how crazy the media is going over the Duggar family compared to the big fat yawn they gave Lena Dunham when she wrote in her book that she sexually experimented with her sister… That makes me want to puke. Remember the liberal media outrage? Oh that’s right. It didn’t happen. The liberal media darling Dunham was praised for her “honest and witty” book.
While having to explain what should be obvious distinctions between entirely disparate situations is exhausting, and while I’m not personally inclined to waste time on people whose opinions seem to be based on nothing more than blindly defending anyone who falls on their side of the political spectrum while ceaselessly, baselessly attempting to vilify anyone who falls on the opposite side with very little regard for objective evaluating the actions and merits of either party, I think this is too important of an issue to not speak about.
To be clear, there were other passages in Not That Kind Of Girl which raised concerned eyebrows: At one point, Dunham writes about masturbating while her sister was in bed with her:
I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old. She was afraid to sleep alone and would begin asking me around 5:00 P.M. every day whether she could sleep with me. I put on a big show of saying no, taking pleasure in watching her beg and sulk, but eventually I always relented. Her sticky, muscly body thrashed beside me every night as I read Anne Sexton, watched reruns of SNL, sometimes even as I slipped my hand into my underwear to figure some stuff out.
Another part of the book recalls Dunham coaxing her sister's affections in various ways later in their childhood:
As [Grace] grew, I took to bribing her for her time and affection: one dollar in quarters if I could do her makeup like a “motorcycle chick.” Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just “relax on me.” Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying … What I really wanted, beyond affection, was to feel that she needed me, that she was helpless without her big sister leading her through the world. I took a perverse pleasure in delivering bad news to her – the death of our grandfather, a fire across the street – hoping that her fear would drive her into my arms, would make her trust me.
I'm not going to address the two preceding passages too much except to briefly dispel any possible grounds for arguing their relevance in this argument by explaining what makes them fundamentally too distant from anything resembling molestation to even merit inclusion in this discussion:
- Masturbating in bed next to a sleeping sibling is the kind of awk move that someone does when they're both lacking in space and privacy, and too unfamiliar with sexuality and boundaries to know that you can't just go beating off with other people around. Also, she says nothing about touching her sleeping sister's body at all. Forcing your little sister to watch you masturbate? A huge problem! Being a kid and diddling your bits while your sister is asleep next to you? Harmlessly awkward.
- The second passage would likely not have even caught anyone's attention if Dunham had not jokingly referred to herself as a sexual predator. (No, seriously, guys, she was joking, which is obvious to anyone with either the slightest concept of dark humor or Lena Dunham's voice, both of which squarely apply to the employment of a label like "sexual predator" in this context, from this writer.) Other than that, she's merely describing the kind of pathetic shit a needy kid did to get her sister's attention.
Are we all on the same page about why these incidents don't really need addressing in this conversation? Cool, let's move on.
Let’s take a moment to go over the key differences between what happened with Josh Duggar and what happened in that one early experience with Lena Dunham and her sister — and what makes one a crime and one not:
1. Josh Duggar wasn’t just “curious” about his sister’s bodies
With the Duggar case, we’re not talking about one child looking to another child when seeking an instrument of education in an earnest, innocent attempt to figure out how bodies work. If the claims are true, it seems that Josh Duggar wasn’t trying to gain a better understanding of the female body for his own intellectual enrichment. He likely not only knew what kind of body parts his female sisters possessed, he probably knew how he responded to those body parts and consciously chose to avail himself of those bodies, without their consent, sometimes in their sleep, because he wanted to. There was nothing innocent or inquisitive about it. Curiosity and exploration of herself, sometimes through interactions with her sister, were undeniably at the core of Dunham's actions, and as such, are fundamentally different from what happened between Josh Duggar and his victims.
2. Josh was 15 years old when some of the incidents with his sisters took place
Let’s be clear about what a “kid” is: Just because our particular society has arbitrarily decided that 18 is when someone becomes an adult, that absolutely doesn’t mean that everything that happens up until that point is eligible for expungement as a childhood mistake made by a little kid who couldn’t possibly have known better. Lena Dunham was seven-years-old when the incident with her sister took place. She was years from puberty, and probably years from any real concept of sexuality even existing in her brain. It’s quite a stretch to make a case for there having been a sexual agenda (let alone a predatory one) behind the actions of child that young.
What Josh Duggar is said to have done, on the other hand, happened when he was around 15 years old. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that not only do most 15-year-old guys have an understanding of human sexuality, they likely have some understanding (or at least, should reasonably be expected to) of the morals and acceptable conduct associated with sexual engagement with other people. It's certainly possible that his cloistered upbringing prevented him from gaining an age-appropriate knowledge of sexual boundaries and consent (and if his sheltered family environment contributed to him not knowing that what he did was wrong, that’s a whole other conversation about who’s accountable for these girls being violated. But again, I think he knew. There’s nothing in what he nor his parents have said that implies that he didn’t know he was doing something wrong.) But even still, he wasn’t a little kid accidentally crossing a line with siblings whom he felt comfortable with because he didn’t have an adult awareness of respectful boundaries. He was someone who, for these purposes, was possibly acting with a well developed concept of sexuality and, if nothing else, the fact that he "confessed" to his parents indicates that he knew what he was doing was wrong.
3. Josh Duggar is a boy; Lena Dunham is a girl, and yes, this matters right now
If you take into account the context in which seven-year-old Dunham decided that touching her sister’s vagina was an OK thing to do, you can easily understand her goal: She wanted to compare her sister’s body to her own. She was experiencing a moment of achieving a bigger awareness of herself and, as kids do literally all the time, was looking to the people around her and comparing herself to them in an attempt to define and understand herself better. This, quite simply, is how siblings work. Our families are the first social structures we are ever a part of, and the people in them are the tools by which we come to understand who and what we are. In no unclear terms, this is what was happening in Dunham’s anecdote. And as such, the fact that she was a girl, and that her sister was a girl, is extremely relevant: Lena, by her own explanation, was interested in her sister's body insomuch as it compared to her own body, and that of all people with uteruses, eggs, and vaginas. What happened between Lena and Grace was more about Dunham trying to understand herself, which is not only innocent, it’s quite normal.
None of this is true for Josh Duggar when it comes to what he did. Even considering that his family's rules about dating unavoidably informed how all of the kids developed socially and sexually, I hesitate to say “he couldn’t date/hook-up with other girls, so he molested his sisters,” because, even if it is true, it comes dangerously close to making an excuse/blaming his parents for “leaving him no choice” with their imposed limitations on their kids’ dating, and that’s not fair to anyone. It’s not fair to blame his parents for his choices (for covering up his actions and seeming far more concerned with the fate of their son than his victims? Eh, that's another conversation.) and it’s not fair to contextualize his choices in a way that make them seem any more abysmal than they were. Which brings up a good point…
4. We know Lena Dunham’s motives in what happened with her sister
Seven-year-old Lena Dunham’s reason for touching her little sister’s vagina is simple, and clearly, unapologetically stated: She was curious to see what it looked like. She was a little kid who had a question, and she sought the most direct route to getting it answered, in the simple, straightforward way that kids do when they’re unencumbered by the complexity of adult rules for interaction. Her blatant, shameless actions with her sister belie their innocence; she told her mom immediately, and not in a "I need to confess something bad I did" kind of way — there was no “sneaking around” or hiding, something which admittedly would’ve given a lot more weight to Dunham’s detractors in this case. But that’s not at all what happened. When it comes to little kids engaging in behavior like this together, their intentions define the nature of the event. And the fact that Dunham showed no shame, no sneakiness, and no sign at all of thinking she was doing anything wrong very clearly defines her intentions. Case closed.
Josh Duggar, on the other hand...I mean, who can say what his intentions were back then. Really only he can, and he hasn’t. Maybe Josh Duggar was just dying for physical contact with girls. Maybe he’s someone who gets off on being predatory. Who knows. Either way, it’s clear from both the clandestine way he went about his actions — sneaking into his sisters’ rooms at night while they slept, for example — and his subsequent admission of wrongdoing and apology define the malignancy of his actions just as plainly as Dunham’s actions reinforce the innocence of hers.
5. Josh Duggar hid what he did and readily admitted guilt when it was discovered, whereas Lena Dunham openly discussed her story and unwaveringly defended her actions
And ALL OF THE ABOVE aside, in the end, there’s very little room to even compare what happened in these two stories because the actual people involved have made it very clear with their actions, and with their words, what happened: Lena Dunham openly, actively chose to share what happened with her and her sister because, again, it was an entirely harmless exploration between two little kids, neither of whom even remotely possessed the awareness nor maturity that would have been necessary to introduce the vile implications that Dunham’s critics disgustingly projected onto the situation. And when questions about the appropriateness of what happened were raised, Dunham not only vehemently denied doing anything wrong, she became unabashedly outraged at her accusers for projecting their sexualized interpretation of what happened onto her and her sister’s childhood selves. In her eyes, she and her sister were infinitely more violated by people trying to sexualize their interactions as kids than either of them were by what actually happened.
Josh Duggar’s handling of his story was almost entirely the opposite: Even though he confessed what he did to his parents, he and his family hid what happened for years, and upon it being uncovered and brought to public attention, he promptly apologized. And that’s that. He did a bad thing, he knew it was bad, he and his family hid it because they knew it was bad, and when people found out, he apologized because he knew it was bad.
Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends. I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.
(I'm so glad he stopped molesting people because it might ruin his life. Anyway, moving on.)
It's annoying that there should be any questions at all about the very concrete differences between what happened with Lena Dunham and her sister, and what took place with Josh Duggar and his multiple victims. And I think, thankfully, most people don't need their hands held along that road of understanding. We get it. We all mostly know the difference between something that makes us uncomfortable because it involves little kids behaving in ways that don't line up with our adult sensibilities (even if we objectively understand that there's nothing wrong with that) and something that makes us uncomfortable because it's genuinely, upsettingly wrong.
I think most people are easily able to perceive the distinction, especially when their view isn't clouded by dogmatically viewing everything through the same, tired filter. I'm pretty sure the Palin credo is “Did something happen? Find a way to blame the liberal media!” and, hey, if that’s their journey, then I at least give them credit for finding a way to make even the most blatantly shitty situation “work” in favor of their agenda. Like, way to find your angle, ladies. That said, anything that blurs the definitions of assault and molestation, especially when it comes to children, is damaging and dangerous and cannot go unresponded to.