30 years ago, I attended a birthday party. It was for my best friend at the time who was a classmate in primary school. We were inseparable, often going to each other’s houses to enjoy each other’s company. We laughed & fought often as young kids our age are bound to do.
She was turning either 8 or 9 at the time. Of the dozen or so classmates who were invited to come celebrate with her and her lovely parents, I was the only boy.
After we scarfed down some delicious pizza at a local restaurant, we went back to her family home. Before she opened her gifts in the living room, we all ran up the stairs to her tiny bedroom to kill time. In the middle of incessant giggling & chattering, one of the girls (not my best friend) suddenly asked a provocative question:
“Anybody wanna see my vagina?”
The specific details about what happened next are difficult to perfectly recall. All I remember is that someone turned out the lights & when they came back on, this girl wasn’t wearing any bottoms. All the other girls screamed as we all stared. It was very uncomfortable for me. And it was about to be even more so.
After she proudly put her underwear and bottoms back on, every girl in that room then demanded I give them a peek, as well. I could feel the collective intensity of their gazes. I started to sweat. I said no. They insisted. I still said no. For the first time in my young life, I felt immense pressure to do something I did not want to do.
Knowing full well they would not stop pushing me, I made a compromise. I would show them my penis briefly but only with the lights out. They accepted. In the dark, I reluctantly pulled down my pants, my long johns and my briefs. (It was winter time.) I will never forget the screams. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my entire life, let alone my childhood.
I was only exposed for a few seconds but it felt like years. The humiliation was palpable. Anyone could’ve read it on my face, even in the darkness of that confining space. I felt so dirty and ashamed.
As I immediately pulled up my underwear (which somehow got twisted backwards), my long johns and corduroy jeans, I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the evening. In fact, I don’t remember anything else that happened afterwards. I don’t even know what I got my friend for her birthday. (My Mom bought the gift.)
When I came home, my parents noticed how strangely I was acting. Mom started asking questions. I confessed the bare minimum. She actually stifled a laugh. She told Dad. He laughed, too. I was humiliated all over again.
Curiously, as the years progressed, I would start laughing as well. I transformed a terribly traumatic event into a humourous anecdote (mainly by exaggerating the vagina flashing & completely downplaying my own emotional devastation). Or so I thought until 20 years later when one woman I recounted the story to over the phone didn’t find it all that amusing. In fact, she felt bad for me. She was saddened by what I went through.
Her reaction jolted me. How could she not find this funny?, I wondered. But she really didn’t. The way she talked about it made me feel like I was a victim.
All of these years later, I finally realized she was right. The blinders are off and my denial has disappeared for good. I didn’t “enthusiastically consent” to the idea of flashing my female classmates at that party. I simply gave in to their relentless demands. I submitted. I compromised. And I felt horrible the entire time.
So, why did I spend the next couple of decades reframing this painful story as something comedic?
Because it made it less painful. Unfortunately, it also made it less honest, as well. Stripped to its vulnerable core, this dark, personal trauma really wasn’t funny at all.
And it wasn’t a harmless experience, either. It had lingering consequences.
In the years that followed, I barely dated. How could I when I lacked true self-confidence. At times, I was the walking definition of awkward and I wasn’t always respectful to girls, either. (As a stupid, insecure teen, I remember grabbing or touching a couple of girls’ asses without their permission. (They weren’t pleased.) I haven’t done that since, thank goodness.) Due to deep physical and mental inadequacies, I always felt less than all the other guys in my classes who were much bigger, even though I had friends, participated in a number of extracurricular activities and was a very good student. It didn’t help matters that many of the girls I crushed on didn’t reciprocate my feelings. Looking back, I can’t exactly blame them. I didn’t have my shit together.
Already fearful of getting someone pregnant and/or catching some incurable STD (I’m allergic to penicillin), I didn’t end up losing my virginity until I was 29. (My ex was the only woman I’ve ever been intimate with, as of this writing.) I’ve always had body issues. (I’m nearly 6 feet tall now but still only weigh about 125 pounds. I should be 150 but with all my numerous food intolerances (and the fact that getting to that ideal weight would involve having Ryback’s appetite), I’m permanently underweight.) Most painfully, because of what happened that cold winter night, for more than 20 years afterwards, I had always felt woefully inadequate down below.
I’ve been reflecting about all of this while following the latest Lena Dunham controversy.
The Girls creator recently put out a much anticipated collection of personal essays called Not Your Kind Of Girl. In a recent National Review article (picked up by a conservative blog), there are passages in the book where Dunham reveals that at age 7 she touched her baby sister’s vagina when she was 1 & when they were a little older she tried to bribe her with candy so she could kiss her.
All of this has led to heated debates online & in the press between her growing detractors and stubborn supporters. I wish those conversations focused on one key point here: the willful, unrepentant violation of another child’s personal boundaries.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened here. Dunham openly calls herself an “unreliable narrator” which isn’t exactly helpful. What bothers me about what she did write is not only her creepy interactions with her younger sister but also the lack of contrition she feels today for being completely inappropriate with her when they were kids. Like all those years I tried to make a painful childhood memory amusing to myself and others, the lighthearted tone she uses to recount these stories feels like a major disconnect from the truth. Dunham portrays all of this as weird but innocently goofy curiosity but that’s not how it comes off to the reader, at least not to me. Whatever her intentions, she had no right to bother her sister in the manner that she did. Children being curious about each other’s bodies & touching them without their permission are not the same thing. Surely, she wasn’t too young to know the difference then and she’s old enough to know better now.
At first, when the revelation of all this caught fire on social media (it was curiously not mentioned in the media prior to the National Review posting), she lashed out rather defensively in what she deemed a “rage spiral”.
Days after calming down, however, she offered this public statement to Time. Did she apologize for violating her baby sister’s boundaries? No. Did she express even a sliver of regret for what she did? No. “…I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances,” she said. Her own misconduct not included.
Instead, she apologized for “the comic use of the term ‘child predator'” which she belatedly acknowledged was “insensitive”. And she said “sorry…[I]f the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read…that was never my intention.”
Unbeknownst to me until recently, Dunham is a divisive figure in the feminist movement. (The “child predator” remark wasn’t the first time she’s been accused of being “insensitive”.) And perhaps, it’s no surprise that a number of prominent, mostly white feminists are defending her recent controversy. (As they are so fond of saying to everybody else, “Check your privilege, ladies.”) A certain Cosmo writer lamely dismissed it on Twitter as the result of “Lena Derangement Syndrome” caused by “the right wing”. Tell that to numerous minority feminists (along with a number of dissenting white ones) who are rightly angry about these revelations, as well.
As much as Dunham’s die hard sisters-in-arms want to downplay, misrepresent or outright ignore what she wrote and did, there’s no escaping two basic truths. When she was a child, she touched her baby sister’s private parts without her permission and when she was older she tried to coerce her into being kissed by offering her candy. Today, it’s comic fodder for a book. How is any of that defensible?
A year or so before I was victimized at my then-best friend’s birthday party, I was in a school bathroom when a classmate, a weird boy in glasses who was always crying about something and constantly getting into trouble, suddenly groped me. He grabbed my genitals over my cords. It was simultaneously painful & peculiar. I remember looking at him with a puzzled look on my face. I can’t recall now if I shoved him off or if he let go voluntarily. But once he did let go of his firm grip, that was it. He left and it never happened again. In fact, he would eventually leave the school we attended altogether. I was 7. He may have been a year older, I’m not sure now.
Again, this isn’t about mere childhood curiosity. It’s about disrespecting someone else’s physical autonomy. The young Lena Dunham didn’t care what her sister thought when she decided to do these creepy things. She just went ahead and did them anyway. And judging by what she wrote & how she’s reacted to the criticism, she still doesn’t care. It’s all just fodder for punchlines in a book. Hilarious.
But what exactly is funny about her stories or mine, for that matter? Absolutely nothing.
In fact, they’re quite distressing. If Dunham had written these stories with the intent of cleansing her conscience or even just to express regret for her actions, no reasonable person would have had a problem with that, including me. Honestly, it would’ve been great if she had done that. But her agenda was getting laughs, not making peace with childhood mistakes.
21 years after my humiliation at my friend’s birthday party, I was in the park with my then-girlfriend. It was our first date. There was a definite, unmistakable attraction. After having many sexually charged conversations with her online and on the phone for months off and on, it was time for us to embrace the heat. After some inevitable awkwardness (I was a little antsy and she wasn’t quite ready for that), we moved from a picnic table to a spot beside a giant tree. In the midst of what turned out to be my very first French kiss (she had to teach me how to do it), she showed me one of her breasts (I think it was the one with the nipple piercing). Hot. I returned the favour by voluntarily unzipping my jeans, then pulling them & my underwear down slightly.
She didn’t scream. She didn’t laugh. Instead, she looked very pleased. (I imagined her thinking, “I can work with this.”) The resuming makeout session got a lot more exciting after that.
For the first time ever, I didn’t feel inadequate or ashamed. I felt attractive and wanted. Eight days later at her place, she deflowered me. It was glorious. (Too bad the relationship didn’t work out. After many more conversations & 3 more dates, we broke up two months later. Despite more online entanglements with several other women, I’ve not had any other real-life physical encounters since.)
I’m not that terrified 9-year-old child any more (although I am, by no means, 100% confident and secure as a man approaching 40) and now I’m far more respectful of people’s personal spaces, especially when it comes to women. Now that she’s an adult like me, here’s hoping Lena Dunham has finally learned to respect the boundaries of others, as well.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, November 6, 2014