It has become a tired running joke that whenever “Lena Dunham” is trending, it’s because she has done something offensive. Last week I understandably grimaced before clicking to see what damage she had wrought this time around. As it turned out, this time she had found an accomplice in The Hollywood Reporter, whose editorial team inexplicably selected Dunham to guest-edit its women in entertainment issue.
THR’s editorial director, Matthew Belloni, tweeted his “big thanks” to Dunham and praised her for “writing a powerful and soul-searching editor’s letter.” The letter, titled “My Apology to Aurora,” is directed at actress Aurora Perrineau.
Last November, Dunham issued a statement branding Perrineau a liar after Perrineau reported being raped by Dunham’s good friend Murray Miller, a writer for Dunham’s “Girls.” (She later apologized after a swift backlash.)
Her predictably tone-deaf apology letter was no less surprising than her initial statement defending Miller. But to be fair, my lack of surprise wasn’t solely due to Dunham’s knack for planting her foot firmly in her mouth. Although thankfully the fallout from my own rape didn’t play out in the public eye, I had already learned in the most painful way possible that self-proclaimed feminists and allies aren’t necessarily going to support rape victims. Not if it means they’ll lose something — or someone — important to them.
After reading Dunham and “Girls” showrunner Jenni Konner’s wildly offensive statement last year, I was transported to a place my mind brings me far too often. It was a hot summer night that was already beginning to bleed into morning, and I was standing in the kitchen of a fancy condominium. My skirt was on backward and I was wearing only one sandal; I hadn’t been able to locate the other in my rush to escape the dark room where I’d just been raped.
When I’d finally gotten away from my rapist, I found my purse, locked myself in a bathroom, and sent an “SOS” text to my close friend, providing a brief but very graphic, unmistakable description of what had just happened. She was in another room hanging out with a guy she liked, and they both came to get me right away. We moved from the bathroom to the kitchen, and that’s where we stood as they shrugged off my rape.
“I just want to go home,” I said after a brief exchange in which my former friend and her now-boyfriend expressed disbelief rather than sympathy or support. I wasn’t crying or shaking; I was too numb and shocked to express much emotion at all. After being on high alert during the attack, my mind was rapidly drifting into a foggy, hazy state, where it remained for weeks.
In that foggy state, it didn’t occur to me that it might be worth it to go to the hospital right away, much less file a police report. But two intelligent, completely sober adults were standing in front of me, and I find it hard to believe that they both truly thought that sending me home alone was the best option. I’m not sure if I would have agreed to go to the hospital, but I do know that I deserved medical treatment and I deserved friends who would have at least encouraged me to get that treatment and consider pressing charges. Every victim deserves that. I know that if a friend sent me a frantic text that she’d just been raped, I wouldn’t send her home alone less than an hour later.
The next afternoon, I got a text from my friend. “Hey, how are you doing today? That was a shitty way for an otherwise really fun night to end,” she wrote, as though I’d lost my credit card and was spending Saturday dealing with a logistical hassle.
Numb and confused, I texted back that I was “OK.” I didn’t hear from her until a few weeks later, when she invited me on an outing organized by her boyfriend. According to Facebook, they made things official sometime shortly after my rape. I also noticed tagged photos of her hanging out with small groups of people that included my rapist.
“He’s best friends with Nate*. How do we know he’s not going to be there? This is really awkward for me,” I told her.
She suggested that the two of us meet for drinks instead, and I agreed, mainly because I was desperate for answers. We’d bonded over shared interests, including a passion for feminism and progressive politics. With the 2016 election looming, we had frequently spoken about our shared anger that so few people were talking about the women who had credibly accused Donald Trump of sexual assault. I wanted to know why she had chosen to remain friends with my rapist. Was it because she thought I lied, or was it because she secretly thought my rape wasn’t that big a deal?
We met for drinks, and I asked the question.
She reminded me that her boyfriend is “all about” women’s issues and looked forward to voting for Hillary Clinton. He had been friends with my rapist for a long time and felt confident, my friend explained, that he just “really didn’t get” that what he did was wrong and it was one of those “gray area” situations.
I told her that her boyfriend was reprehensible, then quickly left before she could see me cry.
That was the last time I ever saw her, but things got worse. I was still fairly new to Seattle, and after five years of living in New York City, I was completely unaccustomed to how everyone seemingly knew everyone. It felt as though every social circle overlapped, and it didn’t take long for the story of my rape to make the rounds. In what felt like an out-of-body experience, I watched helplessly as acquaintances took sides. It was as though my rape had turned into some sort of spectator sport and far more people were cheering for my rapist than for me.
Needless to say, it stung. It was also entirely disconcerting to see several self-proclaimed feminists and allies take his side.
Several months after my rape, the dam broke, and I was no longer numb or quiet. I was enraged. I screamed, I cried, and I berated myself for not even trying to file a police report that night.
The words and images from the assault flashed through my mind on a torturous loop. The flashbacks arrived like unannounced visitors as I attempted to work, socialize and get on with my life. The rage toward my rapist was all-consuming. But my own anger truly began to scare me when I finally acknowledged how hurt and betrayed I felt by my former friend. I vacillated between feeling furious with her and feeling convinced the problem was actually me.
“I must be a really terrible person if she’d side with a rapist,” I concluded. The thought played on a nasty loop.
Looking back, the complicity of my friend and other purported allies was arguably the most traumatic part of the experience. I know predators are out there — certainly not most men, but enough that 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in our lives. But I never expected to lose a close friend because I’d been raped.
As for the acquaintances who sided with my rapist, I felt angry and disillusioned. We hadn’t been close friends, but I expected these feminists to at least want to hear my side of the story before choosing whom to support.
“As a feminist, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from this,” my former friend wrote in a Facebook post after Trump won the presidency. When I saw her Instagram posts from the Women’s March, I wanted to scream. Like Dunham, she proudly touted herself as a feminist in public and on social media. And like Dunham, I saw her practice feminism only when it was beneficial to her. She’s not one to let a young woman’s rape interfere with her personal and professional plans.
What turns my stomach to this day is the knowledge that so many women are quick to turn on victims when our rapes are inconvenient for them and when sticking up for us would require some form of sacrifice. In Dunham’s case, it was a friendship with Miller. In my friend’s case, it was a romantic relationship with my rapist’s best friend.
Sometimes I wonder how our society is still in such a terrible place when it comes to the treatment of rape survivors. Then I remember that it takes a village of enablers, and they’re everywhere — in Hollywood, in powerful institutions ranging from USA Gymnastics to the Catholic Church, and in the social circles of survivors. Instead of praising Dunham for doing the bare minimum, THR could have, as political commentator Symone Sanders pointed out, given that space to Perrineau and provided her the opportunity to take back ownership of her story.
The world has heard enough from Dunham and complicit individuals everywhere. If they’re truly contrite, they’ll do less talking and more listening. And if outlets like THR actually care about empowering survivors, they’ll use their platforms to help amplify our voices. We’ve been silenced long enough, and word on the street is that perpetrators’ time is up.
*Name has been changed.