You can almost hear the right-wing writers’ salivary glands gurgling when you read their takes on Lena Dunham’s recollections of awkward childhood sexual curiosity and the tangential involvement of her younger sister. As a 7-year-old, she once examined her sister’s vagina. Later, she occasionally masturbated while her sister slept in the same bed. She bribed her sister for kisses. The passages that touched off the recent feeding frenzy, taken from Dunham’s new memoir Not That Kind of Girl, are unsettling, but only someone wholly unfamiliar with the occasional creepiness of children could seriously describe such incidents as child molestation, and elsewhere on Slate, it’s been characterized as “totally normal.” Still, it’s worth asking whether Dunham might have been a bit more careful about her phrasing, which seems intended to shock. After all, it’s hard to imagine a male actor writing about touching a sibling’s genitals or masturbating next to them without anticipating the sort of response that has shaken Dunham to the point of canceling appearances. It only makes sense because ours is a culture where sexual abuse of women by other women has never been taken seriously.
Most rapists are men, while most rape victims are women. Some commonly cited statistics to that effect state that 99 percent of rapists are men and 91 percent of rape victims are women. These numbers originated in a 1997 report on sex offenders, which was conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, and they have been repeated so widely that most people could be forgiven for thinking that female rapists were all but nonexistent. But this is far from true. Many lesbians experience sexual violence at the hands of a female partner, and they are less likely than other victims to report the incidents. In this, they are similar to victims of male-on-male assaults, and male victims of female assailants, all of whom may have been underrepresented in the 1997 numbers. While there have been a respectable number of articles written about lesbian sexual violence, the reality of this problem doesn’t seem to have fully penetrated into most people’s awareness.
This could be because mainstream LGBTQ organizations have been so focused on marriage equality. For the last decade or more, this pursuit has given advocates little incentive to address the sort of ugly problems that could play into the hands of conservative anti-gay activists and threaten the aura of middle-class respectability that they’ve worked so hard to present to the public. And so, although sexual assault may be a widespread and ongoing problem in the lesbian community, few people seem to be working to stop it—or even attempting to learn more about it. The best estimate is based on a study conducted in San Francisco in 2005, which found that one-third of lesbians reported having been sexually assaulted by another woman, and roughly confirmed the work of other researchers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since then, research seems to have dwindled. There hasn’t been a national study of lesbian sexual abuse. No one has attempted to find out what sort of women become rapists, whether female rapists tend to be serial offenders, or whether their motivations match those of male offenders. In the meantime, lesbians have continued to be abused sexually, with very few resources available for their support or healing.
Victims could use the extra support, because in addition to experiencing the same emotional trauma that heterosexual victims of sexual assault experience, they face additional challenges due to ignorance and stigma around their orientation. Women who report having been raped by another woman are even less likely than other victims to be taken seriously by law enforcement. Although the laws in most states have gradually been catching up to a more modern understanding of sexual assault that encompasses any forced sexual activity, there are still jurisdictions in which rape is defined too narrowly to allow for female perpetrators, or where nonpenetrative acts are left out of rape definitions. Even when the laws are broad enough, there is sometimes a reluctance to prosecute women for sex offenses. In addition, closeted lesbians may fear exposure if they tell anyone about their experiences, and lesbians in areas where homophobia is rampant may not be able to rely on traditional rape crisis support organizations for help or understanding.
Lena Dunham is neither a lesbian nor a rapist, and attempts to smear her as a child molester are despicable. Still, some of the things she wrote display a tone-deafness that would have been unimaginable for a male actor/writer who’d had comparable childhood experiences. That this tone-deafness is understandable in a culture that has long ignored female-on-female sexual abuse ought not to make it acceptable. It’s time we come to terms with an unpleasant reality: The sexual behavior of women can be every bit as predatory, creepy, and violent as men’s can, and sexual assault is a serious and ongoing problem within the lesbian community.