I’ve been asked about my thoughts on Lena Dunham and the passages in her book that detail her sexual behavior with her sister. At first I declined to post them here because I felt like there have already been so many people talking about it that I really had nothing to add to the discussion. But then I realized that as a therapist and with the understanding that you might be wondering if I’m the right therapist for you or your child, I ought to weigh in for no other reason that my clients — current or potential — have the right to know where I stand on such a contentious and difficult issue. So here are my thoughts.
First, I haven’t read the book and I have no plans to; I’ve only read the quotes and passages (that link will allow you to read them, too) that have appeared on other sites. Because of this, I can’t really discuss the context in which those quotes and passages appear, which is one reason I can only speak in generalities. Also I don’t know Lena Dunham or her sister, Grace (obviously) and I don’t know the family in which they grew up and I don’t know the way their relationship was or is now. I only have these passages, which are in Lena’s words and further words in a memoir, which means they have been shaped for a general thesis. This means that I can’t really trust their reliability. Therefore any commentary I am making about Lena Dunham and her sister aren’t really about them; my commentary is more about our general discussion of child bodily exploration, sexual play and the potential & possibility for sexual abuse between siblings.
Child sex play is a normal, developmentally appropriate part of growing up. Some children keep to a mild “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and some may do more graphic sexual play. What makes it play and not abuse is the absence of a power differential and coercion and this can be very hard to ferret out. A six year age difference — Lena is six years older than her sister — is always concerning. Always. Whether or not it is sexual abuse or a serious boundary issue depends a whole lot on exactly what happened, how and when. Is it a one time thing? A pattern of enmeshment? Is it straight forward bodily exploration or is the more powerful sibling using the younger sibling for his or her sexual satisfaction or to act out an unhealthy power dynamic? What is certain is that a relationship that Lena describes (while acknowledging that the reality of that particular relationship may be much different) deserves more attention from parents.
This leads me to a discussion of culture. Family cultures differ and so family boundaries differ. There are families where privacy and general touching (hugs and cuddling) are more or less important, which is another thing that needs to be considered as we talk about boundaries and the violation of boundaries. While there are values that we as a broader community can agree on, there are others that are murky. When I read the quoted passages I feel I’m also missing this important context. I do not know what (if anything) her parents did about their relationship. I don’t know if Lena was reprimanded for the intensity of any of her actions towards her sister (the bribes with candy and quarters). I don’t know if Grace protested or if she was silent (not that her silence equals consent but I don’t know how much her parents were aware of their dynamic). In my office I sometimes see some parents describe a closeness that I, as a therapist, find concerning but I can’t know at first glance. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and misunderstand what’s actually happening. It takes continued discussion, questions, and observation to get a better sense of what’s going on. So when I feel my antennae go up I remind myself to go slowly and listen hard.
I also want to honor Grace’s right to label and define her own experience. Grace has said she does not see herself as a victim; I believe her and want to give space for her assertion. I also want to give her space to think differently at some point if she chooses to. Many of us think about our family of origin in one way and then we grow to think about it in another way later on. This is our right and important part of growth and empowerment. Whatever I may think of how I might feel if I were Grace, I am not her and in this important conversation about violation, I do not want to participate in a violation of her right to speak her truth.
In other words, this is a discussion that we need to be having but I think it’s extremely important that we do not expect her to uphold our own take or Lena’s take on their relationship or the scenes Lena describes.
These are things I do know.
Kids make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will certainly be violating the boundaries of siblings, cousins, friends and pets. In some cases those boundary violations may be bodily (kids who hit, hug too hard, hold down a cat who wants to get up) and sometimes those bodily boundary violations may be sexual. It is normal and developmentally expected that a child’s self-centeredness would lead to boundary violations. Remember that normal does not mean OK; I am not excusing or shrugging off the seriousness of boundary violations.
I am also not saying that normal means that no one gets hurt. One child’s normal behavior can harm another child. I mean, it’s normal for toddlers to bite but that does not mean it’s ok and it does not mean that the child doing the biting does not hurt the child who is bitten. Normal does not mean we ignore things.
If the type of activity Lena describes truly was typical of her behavior then her parents should have been intervening. (They may have been; we don’t know because we only have Lena’s side of the story.)
If one child is treating another child as a toy or as an object, that’s concerning and needs interrupting whether or not that treatment includes sex play. If a parent only jumps because the play turns sexual, that’s a problem because I would argue that there is likely a pattern of coercive play that needs parental attention and intervention. To a child, dressing up a reluctant pet and coercing a sibling into allowing genital exploration may come from the same misunderstanding of the division between self and others.
It’s our job as parents to protect our children from each other and also from themselves. Many of carry a great deal of guilt for the way we treated our siblings when we were kids but we needed adult help to figure things out. We can own our responsibility but also acknowledge that our childhood selves did the best they could with what they were taught; many of us were not taught how to treat each other.
Sometimes parents have trouble intervening because they don’t know what good boundaries between siblings looks like since we were not protected from ourselves or from a violating sibling. We see a certain amount of roughhousing and conflict as perfectly normal and it’s true — some of that is normal. But we should pay special attention when:
- One child is always the victim;
- One child is much older or stronger or otherwise more powerful;
- If we detect real hostility in the interactions;
- If the hostility is pervasive (if they never really get along).
In the case of sexual boundary play, I would also check in to ask where the children got the idea. Sex play is common in kids, absolutely, but a check in can help us know if something is happening to the child who is acting out (did they learn this from another child? from sexual abuse at the hands of an adult? unsupervised time watching HBO?). I would ask parents not to react as if sex play is always concerning but I would ask them to remember that sometimes it is.
Interventions do not have to be shaming. Parents can and should interrupt inappropriate behavior in a way that promotes empathy, compassion and an understanding of where a child leaves off and the other person begins. This starts when we protect that child’s boundaries. That means no forced hugs, no forced kisses, no forced sitting on Santa’s lap. There are lots of times where we have no choice (diapers changes of wriggly toddlers!) so when we can protect our child’s right to say no, we need to do that.
Finally parents need to be aware of their own understanding of boundaries and violation. Many parents who are struggling with their children’s sibling relationships are acting out their own experiences growing up. When I talk to parents in my office I’m always interested to know where they are in their own family configurations because this can illuminate my understanding of dynamics they are repeating (or trying not to repeat) in their own homes.
It also helps me understand why some parents are reluctant or afraid to make changes. To say, “This should not be happening to my youngest” may mean saying, “This should not have happened to me” or “This is not something I should have done to my sibling.” These are painful things to confront and I see some of that happening in the discussion around Lena and her sister.
We all come to our reading loaded down with our own baggage and it’s pretty hard not to bring that to a discussion about someone else’s very biased, perhaps somewhat fictional, and certainly manipulative (in the way that all writing — even this — is meant to sway the reader) story.
I don’t know what happened between Lena and Grace, not really. I cannot speak to it. I can only speak to the general things I know to be true and hope that I can help the individuals and families who come to me for care, informed by what I know about kids, about siblings, about families and about the truly hard work we all do growing up.